Weird and Wonderful Scientific Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age

From a Lecture Series Presented by Professor Eamonn Gearon, M.A.

Here, you’ll be introduced to a few of the more prolific—if not visionary —scientists who worked and thrived during the Islamic Golden Age.

An illustration depicting the statute of a sage holding the tablet of ancient alchemical knowledge. This scene is described in a transcript of Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi's book The Silvery Water.
Illustration from a transcript of Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi’s book Al-mâ’ al-waraqî (The Silvery Water). In which Ibn Umail describes a statue of a sage holding the tablet of ancient alchemical knowledge.

Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan

Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān‬‎, also known by the Latinization Geber, has been described as the father of early chemistry.

Ibn Hayyan was a philosopher, physicist, astronomer, engineer, physician, and pharmacist. The vast body of work variously attributed to Ibn Hayyan amounts to more than 3,000 treatises. And clearly, not all of this was by him. However, he did write much of it, and his name became synonymous with alchemy from his time to our own.„ One of Jabir’s most famous works is an Arabic version of The Emerald Stone. Originally thought to have been a Greek text, more recent scholarship suggests that it is an Arabic original and was written, if not by Jabir, then perhaps by a near predecessor from the 7th or 8th centuries.

It was first translated into Latin in the 12th century, and became one of the foundational texts of esoteric (otherwise known as hidden, or secret) alchemy and other magical pursuits, in mediaeval and pre-modern Europe. Indeed, Jabir Ibn Hayyan’s use of strange—and otherwise deliberately mysterious—language is a strong contender for the origin of the English word gibberish, meaning something nonsensical.

The Artificial Creation of Life

Much of Hayyan’s alchemical studies were dedicated to pursuing the possibility of takwin, an Arabic word that means the artificial creation of life. As bizarre as it sounds, Book of Stones contains recipes purportedly capable of creating scorpions, snakes, and even humans in the right laboratory environment. Having created these animals, they would then, according to Ibn Hayyan, be at the disposition of the alchemist who created them.

Learn more: Alchemistry and Chemistry in Early Baghdad

This book really should be seen as the work of an eighth-century Dr. Frankenstein. Gibberish? You decide. But whether searching for the elixir of life, the key to transforming metals, or for new medicines, Ibn Hayyan recognised the central importance of experimentation.

Following Aristotle’s theory of the elements—which states that everything consists of some combination of earth, air, fire and water—Ibn Hayyan reasoned that by mixing elements one could create new elements. And as Ibn Hayyan himself wrote, “The first essential in chemistry is that one must perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who does not perform practical work, or does not conduct experiments will never attain any degree of mastery.”

A Man of Many Discoveries

This is a transcript from the video series The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age. It’s available for audio and video download here.

His work initially led him to classify the elements around him into metals and non-metals. From there, he sub-divided these into three categories: first, spirits that produced vapour when heated (for example, arsenic, mercury, sulphur, ammonium); secondly, metals such as gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, and iron; and third, non-malleable substances, or stones, which could be turned into a powder.

Ultimately, not only did Ibn Hayyan discover sulphuric and nitric acids, but he was also the first scientist to offer descriptions of citric, acetic, and tartaric acids, as well as detailing such now-basic scientific processes as distillation and crystallisation.

Ibn Hayyan’s pioneering work also included extensive experimentation with—and recording the qualities of—basic chemical components such as arsenic, antimony, sulphur and mercury.

He was said to have invented a paper that wouldn’t burn, and an ink which glowed in the dark, and a mixture that when applied to iron halted rusting.

He’s also credited with the invention of more than 20 standard items of now-basic laboratory equipment that he used in his alchemical experiments. Among these I’ll mention the alembic, which is a still consisting of two vessels connected by a tube; and the retort, a vessel with a downward pointing neck

Max Meyerhoff, the late Jewish ophthalmologist and historian of science who lived in Cairo, once wrote that Ibn Hayyan’s “influence may be traced throughout the whole historic course of European alchemy and chemistry.”

Ibn Hayyan’s “influence may be traced throughout the whole historic course of European alchemy and chemistry.” Click To Tweet

The writer and teacher, Eric Holmyard argues in his history of Alchemy that Ibn Hayyan—for his work in developing the field into an experimental science—is as important as the 17th century Anglo-Irish chemist Robert Boyle, who is famous for Boyle’s Law, which states that if the volume of a gas is decreased, the pressure increases proportionally.

Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi

Image of Al Rhazes
al Razi, celebrated alchemist and Muslim philosopher

Now I’d like to briefly mention some other names associated with alchemy and science in the Islamic Golden Age. Let’s start with Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, or as he’s known in the West, Rhazes.

The physician Al-Razi was born in 864, in the Persian city of Reyy, which is where his family gets its name. Today it’s a suburb of Tehran, Iran’s capital. He moved to Baghdad as a young man, and spent most of his working life there.

So dedicated was al-Razi to his work as a doctor that he is said never to have accepted payment for many a treatment. In addition to his work in medicine, al-Razi also wrote extensively on philosophy and alchemy. His most famous volume, The Book of Secrets, became standard on the shelves of mediaeval, European alchemists after it was translated into Latin.

Al-Razi was an early proponent of experimental medicine, and the ceaseless pursuit of new medicines. His interest in alchemy, too, was always about two distinct searches: one, for the philosopher’s stone, that imaginary element that supposedly made possible the conversion of base metals, like lead, into precious metals, like silver and gold; and two, the development of more effective medicines. Both were serious, scientific pursuits, not magic, to al-Razi.

His practice of forgiving, or forgetting, many payments for his medical practice led some critics to suggest that if he was so generous with his time and knowledge, surely it must be because he’d already discovered how to make gold.

Al-Razi also advanced the work started by Ibn Hayyan in categorising and classifying observable and verifiable facts about chemical substances (including their reaction under experimentation), along with the apparatus used in this process. And he developed a classification of minerals into six groups. For al-Razi, there were:

  • spirits, including mercury, sulphur, and arsenic
  • bodies, such as gold, silver, copper, iron, and lead
  • stones, such as gypsum, asbestos, talcum, and lapis lazuli
  • vitriols
  • borates
  • salts, including rock, sea, common, or table salt, and urine

Al-Razi returned from Baghdad to his birthplace in Reyy later in life, and died there in 925.

A Philosopher’s Stone?

Now, not everyone believed that the search for the philosopher’s stone was a practical, or even possible, pursuit. One important critic was the ninth century mathematician Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Kindi, known as “the philosopher of the Arabs.”

Although al-Kindi also considered himself a keen alchemist, he was skeptical of the pursuit of converting base metals into gold, seeing it as impossible and thus a waste of time.

I can’t help wondering if this wasn’t the result of his already having discovered, or having invented, another, altogether more practical form of magic: alcohol.

Yes, al-Kindi is credited with being the first man of science to distil alcohol. His book The Alchemy of Perfume and Distillation describes how to use his “Alkindus distiller,” and contains recipes for more than 100 perfumes (which were not for drinking, but goes to show that there’s more than one use for alcohol).

Al-Kindi’s experiments saw him deriving spirit alcohol—that’s any drink with an ABV (or alcohol by volume)—of 20 percent or higher, through the distillation of wine, thereby creating an early form of brandy—purely for medicinal purposes, of course.

So anyone who enjoys the water of life, in any of its forms, might one day think about raising a glass to al-Kindi.

Keep reading:
The Dramatic History of Islamic Medicine
The Islamic Golden Age: The Torch Podcast
Islam—A Thousand and One Nights of Cooking
Understanding Arab Culture—Islam and the Five Pillars of Faith

From the lecture series: The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age
Taught by Professor Eamonn Gearon, M.A.
Images courtesy of:
Ibn Umayl, The Silvery Water, by An Islamic artist 608H/1211, probably in Baghdad [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, by Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166, found in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana(uploaded by user Halfdan) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image depicting a library with pupils, by Yahya ibn Vaseti from a manuscript with depiction found in the Maqama of Hariri located at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Portrait of Rhazes (al-Razi) (AD 865-925), See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons