Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry

As with most Islamic scholarship, the roots of the subject came from ancient Greece. Even the terms Chemisty and Alchemy are derived from ancient greek terms. At this early stage of Chemistry, there is still a huge mixture between what would correspond to real science (Chemistry) and what would correspond to utter nonsense (Alchemy) – similar to Astronomy and Astrology but possibly harder to discern. Despite the subject not yet being fully refined, there was still the beginnings of skepticism and a more structured scientific method. In practical terms there were great developments in equipment and results – particularly in the field of medicine.  To include the huge amount of discoveries, I would basically have to write a list of names and dates.  Therefore for the sake of readability I’m going to focus on just a few of the big names.

Geber and Pseudo-Geber

The source of much of this is Jabir Ibn Hayyan, otherwise known as Geber, a scholar from Persia in the 8th century. His name was so bound up with the subject of chemistry that there is even a so-called “Pseudo-Geber” who put out his own work under the name of the earlier scholar as “translations”. This, and the usual mysteriousness associated with the profession of Alchemy, can make it difficult to pin down the genuine works of Geber. Regardless of this, both Geber and Psuedo-Geber did much for the science.

His ultimate goal may have been far fetched – Geber wanted to create artificial life in the lab – but his methods were down to earth. He stressed the importance of practical work and experimentation if scholars were to truly understand how things work. To this end, he seems to have developed many pieces of laboratory equipment (alembic and retort stand) which are still standard today. He described techniques like distillation or crystallization and substances like citric acid and mercury (he even began to divide these into different categories, like compounds and metals). He applied this knowledge to even more practical ends, among other things he allegedly invented ways of rust-proofing metals and water-proofing fabric.

As with many alchemists of his time, Geber’s work is often written in strange and obtuse codes, designed to be understood only by a select band of followers. However, he was also much more structured and organized than his predecessors. His work on techniques and the fundamentals of experimentation make him a good candidate to be the founder of modern chemistry.

Rhazes

Another major contributor to the subject was Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, or Rhazes. He was a physician, musician and philosopher from around a century after Geber, and is a bit of a mixed bag. I’ll come to the main body of his work on medicine in a later post, but he notably contributed to pharmacology and the production of drugs. He wasn’t alone in this in the Islamic world, and this progress was undoubtedly helped by the ongoing refinement of techniques and the expansion of chemistry knowledge. Rhazes himself would clarify some of these methodologies and remove a lot of the mysticism from the writing.

Unfortunately some of his alchemical ideas were still way off. He believed that one could “transmute” a metal of one type into another – and hence create gold. And though he scrapped a lot of the old mysticism, he allowed that miracles or unexplainable causes could occur. Later scholars like Ibn Sina and al-Biruni would criticize him strongly for these slips. Nevertheless, his reforms to the science were a step forward from Geber and play an important role in the transition to the modern science.

Skepticism and Theories

As well as Ibn Sina’s specific criticisms of Rhazes, there was a more widespread culture of skepticism that helped the science move forwards. Rhazes himself would write a treatise criticising the Roman physician Galen, who had previously been an almost untouchable god where medicine was concerned. Al-Kindi, from Basra in the ninth century, would introduce a difference between Chemistry and Alchemy with an argument against transmutation. Al-Sadiq (the teacher of Geber) would refute Aristotle’s theory of Earth, Water, Air and Fire – it was probably about time that someone did.

The increased amount of experimentation and substances to play with led to some interesting steps on road to theoretical chemistry. Al-Sadiq would come up with his own theory in which every substance was made up of a single type of bipolar atom, with different densities and arrangements leading to different properties. Al-Majriti (or a Pseudo-version) would show that mass was conserved in reactions. There was also a widespread idea that Mercury and Sulphur made up every other metal (hence, the idea of transmuting one into another by changing the ratio of these two components). These weren’t all right, but they were a step towards systematically explaining the properties of different classes of materials based on their fundamental make up.

Legacy

Geber and Rhazes are the big two, but they were followed and surrounded by others and it is clear that their improvements did not occur in isolation. Unlike other topics, where the influence of Arabic science has occasionally be obscured or indirect, these names and works were hugely popular in Western Europe. It is thanks to this early development of a scientific method and classification of substances, and the questioning of the earlier Greek work, that the scientists of the Renaissance had such strong foundations for the own work. Though they did inherit some of the flaws of Geber and Rhazes and it would be a while yet before the last remnants of alchemy and mysticism were removed.

This period of chemistry is often unknown to people – I would have just about heard of Geber and, even then, nothing too specific. But there’s a wealth of information out there, and the sheer list of discoveries and inventions is incredible. You almost wonder that there was anything to discover by the time the Europeans started to have a go!  I’ll hopefully work out a good list of further reading in another post, but since I do like podcasts I’ll start by pointing in the direction of the History of Alchemy podcast.

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