Jabir Ibn Hayyan: Prominent polymath of 8th century

Famous 24 Feb 2021 Contributor
Reading Corner
Jabir Ibn Hayyan

Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, an eighth-century Muslim polymath was an interesting man. There is little doubt that he can be called the father of chemistry. Encyclopedia Britannica does for being the “father of Arab chemistry”, who “systematized a “quantitative” analysis of substances and was the inspiration for Geber, a Latin alchemist who developed an important corpuscular theory of matter”. However, a huge gamut of works has been attributed to Jabir. Those include treaties on alchemy, cosmology, astronomy, astrology, medicine, pharmacology, zoology, botany, metaphysics, and grammar.

However, these works add up to such a huge volume, nearly three thousand, those modern historians have doubted whether all these couldn’t have possibly been authored by a single man. And hence has arisen a theory that many of these books were authored by Shi’ite Muslim scientists over the 9th and the 10th centuries, who were using the same pen-name. In either scenario, the latter being the most probable, the existence of the books itself is an ample indicator of the astonishing heights to which the study of various sciences had reached during the early medieval era.

Who was Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan?

According to Britannica Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan was born in 721 CE in Tus in Iran. He passed away in 815 CE in Al Kufah, Iraq. Samir S Amr and Abdelghani Tabakhi in their piece titled Jabir ibn Hyyan, in the Annals of Saudi Medicine (Jan-Feb 2007) claim that “His father Hayyan Al-Azdi was an “Attar” (druggist or pharmacist) from the Arabian Azd tribe in Yemen, who resided in the city of Kufa in Iraq during the rule of the Umayyads. Hayyan supported the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyads and moved to Iran where Jaber was born.” According to these authors, ibn Hayyan became the court alchemist during the reign of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid.

Jabir it has been generally accepted introduced experimental methodology into alchemy. He has also been credited with the invention of several chemical processes used in modern chemistry, such as crystallization, calcination, sublimation and evaporation, the synthesis of acids (hydrochloric, nitric citric, acetic, and tartaric acids), and distillation. Among his other major achievements are preparation of various metals, development of steel, dyeing of cloth and tanning of leather, varnishing of water-proof cloth, use of manganese dioxide in glass-making, prevention of rusting, and identification of paints and greases. Jabir ibn Hayyan is also said to have developed aqua regia to dissolve gold.

Numerology and Ibn Hayyan

So much for Jabir ibn Hayyan, the person, but what is generally now called the “Jabirian Corpus”, a collection of about 600 books attributed to ibn Hayyan specifically by names, is even more interesting and broad in terms of academic pursuit. “Perhaps the most original aspect of the Jabirian corpus is a type of arithmology (numerology) referred to as the ‘method of the balance’ (mīzān). In essence, this consisted of determining the quantity of the “four natures” (hot, cold, wet, and dry) in a substance by means of its name,” says Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Incidentally, the most famous book on alchemy, Summa perfectionis magisterii (The Sum of Perfection or the Perfect Magistery) during the middle ages also came out of the Jabirian Corpus. Historians believe that the author of this book, who called himself Geber (a Latin transliteration of the Arabic Jabir) was well acquainted and much influence by the Jabirian Corpus collection known as Seventy Books, which was translated into Latin in the 12th century by Gerard of Cremona.

Thus, both Jabir as a person and the Jabir Corpus had a deep influence on the study of chemistry both in the Arab world as well as in Europe of the medieval ages.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)