Alchemy in the Arab World
Between the eighth and ninth centuries, Islamic civilization inherited from Greece, Persia, India, and ancient Mesopotamia the body of knowledge known as alchemy: a school of learning dealing with the ancient arts of fire (in particular: working metals, precious metals, manufacturing glass, and glazing and fake precious stones). After a first short period in which the body of their knowledge was acquired and translated, Muslims started putting forth their own works, and Arab-Islamic alchemy (al-kīmiyāʾ) took shape in its contents and literary genres; although documents, philosophical and allegorical texts, technical texts, and recipes sometimes seem muddled and disjointed, as a whole they formed a complex discipline. Many discussions have taken place and are still taking place regarding the real meaning of alchemy and its effective role within Islamic society: on its philosophy and cosmology, on its techniques and materials, on its goal, on preparing the elixir, a single procedure and a single purpose; beyond the veils of the tradition of secrecy, which by definition “hides,” alchemy has still clearly shown a close connection with other natural sciences, from medicine to physics, from botany to zoology. Glorified as a science, reviled as deception or illusion, worshipped and despised by many but still studied, quoted and passed on constantly up to our modern age, alchemy, through the Islamic tradition, acquired the semblance that it would continue to bear for a very long time, throughout the Muslim world at first, and from the twelfth century onwards, up to the Latin Middle Ages.
The word kīmiyāʾ (al-kīmiyāʾ), from the Greek χυμεíα or χημεíα (χέω, to smelt, χύμα, molten matter), during the twelfth century, when alchemy came to the western Latin world, became the Latin alchemia/alchimia.
According to various authors, alchemy first appeared in the Islamic world during the Umayyad era (Damascus, first half of the eighth century): interested in science, and particularly in alchemy, the Umayyad prince Khālid b. Yazīd – grandson of Muʿāwiya, the founder of the dynasty – is said to have summoned Greek philosophers from Egypt and ordered them to translate alchemical texts from Greek and Coptic into Arabic. Although to date there is no evidence to support these stories, they are still quite plausible and likely: during the first centuries of Islam, a fervent desire to obtain knowledge and translations often caused messengers being sent in search of books or foreign scholars being invited into schools to train local pupils.
Regardless of the true nature of the knowledge obtained during the Umayyad era, it was in the second half of the eighth century and throughout the first half of the ninth, during the ʿAbbāsid era in Iraq that alchemy was first studied systematically. The wealth of knowledge that Islam inherited from more ancient traditions and which can be described as alchemy is, essentially, the heritage that one of its first authors, Pseudo-Democritus (Bolus of Mendes? Second century BCE) already considered as a part of his school of learning. In his book Physikà kaì mystikà, he divided matter into four large groups: gold, silver, stones, and purple. Except for the latter, “purple” – if “purple” here really means a dye for textiles – alchemy would therefore be a school of learning involving the most noble parts of the arts of fire: working precious metals and certainly imitating them and making colored glass (imitating precious stones and various kinds of glazing). The secrecy enshrouding all these techniques (the theory that probably lay behind these techniques remains unknown) would seem, on one hand, to be the legacy of very ancient times when techniques were considered sacred; on the other, it would seem to relate to the “operational” need to protect certain production secrets.
Between the eighth and ninth centuries, there was a rapid increase in translations into Arabic: certainly, the whole corpus of work attributed to Balīnās (Apollonius of Tyana), a corpus that seems to be the origin of alchemical cosmology (see below); a large group of works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, an author that, according to a particular interpretation, was translated into Arabic as Hermes of the Hermeses (Harmis al-Harāmisa), “triple” (one name, three persons), or bearer of three sciences, as well as a great number of essays and comments attributed to more or less known real or pseudoepigraphical authors such as Cleopatra, Mary the Copt, Ostanes, Zosimus, Stephanus, Olympiodorus, etc.
After incorporating Greek alchemical traditions, most likely along with traditions from Ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, and India, the Muslim world soon started producing its own works. Among its first authors, there is Jābir b. Ḥayyān (eighth–ninth century), credited by tradition with approximately 3,000 titles – no more than 500 according to recent studies – which obviously were not all his own work but came from his school of learning. Even the above-mentioned Khālid b. Yazīd is credited with certain works, and many other later authors who, as time went by, gave birth to the three fundamental genres within Arab alchemical literature: technical and philosophical alchemical texts, like those of al-Rāzī, Maslama al-Majrīṭī (tenth century, Iran, and Spain), and al-Ṭuġrā’ī (twelfth century, Iran); allegorical texts, like those of Ibn Umayl al-Tamīmī (tenth century, Egypt) – and later (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), those of al-ʿIrāqī and al-Jildakī – at once celebrations of their ancient legacy and at the same time a continuation of the tradition of secrecy; finally the recipes, often included in many alchemical texts. Found as beautiful calligraphy within the works, or as mere scribbles in their margins or on white spaces and flyleaves, recipes complete a picture that becomes to be increasingly defined as a single “object” with infinite facets.
Since the middle of the twelfth century, all these works, which were known and translated in Muslim Spain, were transferred into medieval Latin: with Robert of Chester’s translation of the Morienus in 1144, Arab alchemy entered the Christian world: a different adventure, a different story, that we shall not deal with here.
The Texts and Their Contents
Since its first appearance in the Islamic world, alchemy was a school of learning that converged with various other natural sciences: as a testimony to an almost invisible and ambiguous dividing line, cosmological theories are appropriated from philosophy, embryological theories from philosophy and medicine, and the description and treatment of minerals, animals, and plants from natural sciences and pharmacology. Following a path probably already consolidated since ancient times, the scholarly alchemist was a man of great knowledge, yet not necessarily a philosopher, who absorbed everything, gathered all information adapting it to his science; while the façade of original theories faded away, it breathed new life into its subject and that which likely was not alchemical initially, or was expressed in a different manner, acquired, during the course of this process, the characteristics of Islamic alchemy.
The settlement process resulted in a proteiform and controversial school of learning; amongst its followers, some (al-Majrīṭī) paired it with magic, while others, more daring (Ibn Umayl), paired it with Prophecy; others yet, realists, tried to lead it back to dealing with nature: an operational science for experts dealing with the arts of fire in the footsteps of the ancient masters. Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, philosophers and scholars debated: al-Kindī was against it, while al-Fārābī was favorable to it; Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, philosopher and physician, was also an alchemist, and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), another philosopher and physician, considered transmutation (see below) impossible; al-Bīrūnī accepts only its technical role. Approaching the modern age, Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406), who was well versed in it and wrote of it in detail, tried to destroy it once and for all, but his attempts were in vain.
A cosmology is undoubtedly at the root of the theory of transmutation; this is what needs to be studied if certain aspects of this elusive theory are to be understood. What we briefly describe here is the cosmology found in the first book of the Miftāḥ al-ḥikma (The Key of Wisdom, or Philosophy), the work of a self-styled pupil of Apollonius of Tyana; this cosmology has slightly different characteristics in the works of Jābir b. Ḥayyān and other authors, but the theory of transformation resulting from it is not substantially different.
At the origin of the creation of the universe, God, in his eternal solitude, expressed a desire to create; the result of this desire, which God expressed without further definition, is a substance bearing the characteristics of absolute potentiality; since opposites had yet to be defined, this matter is at once everything and nothing. Then (a “then” that is beyond time), God uttered the word kun (“let there be,” cf. the fiat of the Genesis). This word, which is light, defined its opposite, darkness; and with the creation of these opposites, light and darkness, which carried with them heat and cold and all other “physical” opposites associated with them (movement/stillness, hot/cold, light/heavy, rarefied/dense, etc.), the whole universe was produced through a series of opposites and intermediates. In the beginning, five “natures” (hot/dry, cold/dry, hot/damp, cold/damp, and balanced, or damp, intermediate) were formed as four concentric spheres of decreasing luminosity and mobility, gathered around a still and dark core. This first stratification was defined by three concentric regions: the higher realm (spiritual), the intermediate (planetary), and the sublunar; within the sublunar world, the natures produce the four elements, which then produce the three composite bodies: minerals, vegetables, and animals.
If we were to compare the vast body of the universe with the bodies of the sublunar world, we would immediately notice a characteristic that makes them opposite: while the body of the universe presents itself as a creature of light with a dark inner core (where the darkest point is the Earth at its center), each body contained within it has a dark and passive exterior, which is matter, and a more “luminous” core where operational capacities reside: this is true for creatures at all levels, including the most noble, mankind, which hosts a rational soul within its body’s matter.
Just like in the universe between the higher and sublunar realms lies the intermediate planetary realm, joining the other two, and in the sublunar realm, between animals and minerals, there are plants: in each subject, be it mineral, plant, or animal, there is an intermediate state between two complementary compositions, exterior and interior.
Beyond and below the “actual” configuration that each formed creature manifests, in the innermost core of its being there is a substratum made up by the natures. The different arrangement of these natures, meaning the different relations in their composition, results in different creatures; yet the substratum itself, meaning the natures, is shared by each form.
This type of cosmology, which has been expressed with slight differences by different authors, still leads to very similar conclusions in what concerns the theory of transmutation – directly generating the theory of alchemical transmutation. In alchemy, transforming something (transmutation) means correcting the numerical relations between the natures: an extremely difficult process of immersion in the structure of matter itself, moving gradually from the composite body to the elements and then to the natures, operating then on the natures themselves, where the transformation will occur. If we view the body as composed of three levels: exterior, interior, and intermediate, we see that correcting relations between the natures is especially achievable at the intermediate level, since, due to its position, it involves the other two adjacent levels; in any event, each body can be transformed into another simply by “correcting” its natures, and transformation will occur via the careful and experienced application of fire, since applying or subtracting its warm nature will result in the desired corrections. The highest and most noble of all transformation procedures within the alchemical tradition is the Great Work, which results in the obtainment of the “object of desire,” the iksīr (elixir): its nature, the most balanced, the nature of gold, can “tint with its color” (transform into itself) each inferior nature.
Jābir b. Ḥayyān’s work (corpus giabirianum, Kitāb al-aḥjār) describes the theory of the composition of the bodies and transmutation and also defines what we might call quantitative aspects. The text states that each body, in the form in which it appears to our eyes, has an exterior “actual” composition and an interior “potential” composition; these two compositions, exterior and interior, together, form a total composition (where the relation between natures is 1:3:5:8). Operating a transformation means modifying the exterior “actual” composition by accessing the interior “potential” composition: at the end of this procedure, the total composition will remain unchanged, but the exterior (or “actual”) composition will have changed because actual natures will have transferred, in a certain percentage, to a condition of potentiality, while interior natures will have become exterior.
This Jabirian theory, although interesting because it attempts to mathematize the composition of matter, highlights a weakness of the alchemical theory: the impossibility of determining the two initial and final compositions between which the transformation is realized leads the author to rely on improbable numerological theories (relations between names and compositions in natures). Unable to rely on a strong and solid theory, degenerating into the most pure forms of empeiria, alchemy often ended up attempting to simply repeat the procedures of its predecessors.
Allegorical Texts and Recipes
Since the beginning, alchemical literature of a more or less openly “scientific” nature was accompanied by translations of a great deal of allegorical literature. It is worth mentioning that this genre is not original to the Muslim world; already Greek alchemy had Zosimus, or Hermetical texts, or the vast body of works attributed to various authors of Alexandria during the early centuries: this literature, which originated to protect and expand on very ancient techne, reached Islam along with the other translations and was studied and commented upon by a number of authors. The mystery grew with the inevitable fracture between the polytheistic rebirths and Islamic monotheism and with the spread of quotes out of context; on the contrary, when characters were known and cherished, the various stories were expanded upon and details were added to them. A well-known case, for example, is that of Alexander the Great, who in Arabic became Dhū l-Qarnayn (the two-horned one); the Alexander Romance, attributed to Callisthenes, was the origin for the creation of an alchemical heroic figure, which combined the wisdom of the Greeks, the Persian tradition, and Indian science. Along with Alexander, there are many other revered characters that were adopted and are often mentioned in alchemical allegory: philosophers like Democritus, Aristotle, and Socrates; physicians like Galen; and also prophets, like Mūsā (Moses), ʿIsā (Jesus), and even Adam, father of the humankind, to whom God transferred, along with other knowledge, a few pages of alchemy.
In allegorical texts, the Great Work takes on various different forms. In its different stages, in the retort and alembic, it often became an event: a journey, an ascent, an access to the temple, an exile in a palace or chamber, a siege, the destruction of a city and a pacification amongst its ruins, the hunt and cooking of prey, a gathering of rain and dew, the gestation of an embryo in the uterus, and an infinite number of other events that are vivid images of the procedure. In its condition of completeness, taken as a single entity somewhere between action and result, the event is replaced by an object: like the egg, be it a hen’s egg or the cosmic egg, which contains within itself each element and nature, or like the hermetic tree, firmly planted and motionless, but “readable” even in its becoming, from its roots to its leaves. At the core of all this proliferation, there was a unique reality: as the alchemists themselves wrote, the endless number of alchemical allegories is nothing but the descriptions of a single procedure and a single object.
At the root of this vast body of allegorical work, there is not only a religious or initiatic literature, or that of writers and poets; a large part of Arab alchemy is in fact based on philosophical texts, often Aristotelian: a great deal of imagery and names of minerals, plants, and animals, descriptions of man and other creatures, depictions of the skies, the heavenly bodies, etc., are “alchemized” borrowings from various sciences, from which alchemy borrowed more or less faithfully. And not all of it came from Alexandria and from the Greeks, as mentioned previously, Persia, India, and ancient Mesopotamia also had a strong influence.
Alchemical allegory had a strong impact on its readers, from East to Spain. Alchemical allegory appears sporadically throughout literary texts, poetry, and prose and, as time went by, even in the musings of mystics, with interventions that are often brief yet effective as lightning: in the East, alchemical allegory is quoted by al-Bīrūnī (d. 1048) the scientist who in one of his works even mocked the alchemists, and by al-Ġazālī, (d. 1111), the theologian; between the two worlds, it is mentioned by Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) the mystic; in the West, Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185), the philosopher, in his work Ḥayy b. Yaqẓān mentions the unobtainable red sulfur, one of the names for the elixir.
In closing, a brief note on recipes: unlike the descriptions of equipment occasionally found throughout alchemical texts, sometimes detailed in drawings and which can be reproduced, recipes are often difficult to decipher; although a few are quite clear, such as the recipes for purifying the lāzaward (lapis lazuli → natural ultramarine), or the instructions for coloring different materials (papers, precious woods, etc.), most of the recipes concerning the Great Work use terms and expressions drawn from allegory. The difficulty in interpreting them joins the already hard task set by other scientific texts, nonencrypted recipes, and pharmacopoeias, due to the difficulty in identifying minerals, plants, and various substances. Prudence in interpreting them is required, as hurried interpretations have often been detrimental; the challenge, however, is irresistible.
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