Jabir Ibn Hayyan Biography
Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan often referred to by the Latinized version of his name Geber, was a medieval era polymath. He was an alchemist, chemist, geographer, physician, physicist, astrologer, astronomer, pharmacist, and philosopher all rolled into one. Controversies abound surrounding his real identity as a couple of biographical sources cite that Jabir lived during the 10th century, while most traditional references report that he was an 8th century physician or alchemist. Some sources allude to a ‘pseudo-Geber’ who authored works in metallurgy and alchemy in 13th century Europe under the nom-de-plume of ‘Geber’. Many ‘Middle Ages’ historians as well as chroniclers refute that the Jabirian oeuvre comprising about 3000 works could have possibly been authored by one individual. Nevertheless, majority of the reliable biographic sources regard Jabir as an Islamic intellectual who left behind a massive body of work covering the subjects of astronomy, astrology, medical sciences, geography, alchemy, chemistry, philosophy, and pharmacy. Occasionally called the ‘Father of early modern chemistry’ he is immortalized in his works, the notable ones being ‘Kitab al-Kimya, ‘Book of the Kingdom’, ‘Theory of Balance in Nature’, ‘Kitab-Al-Sab’een, ‘Book of Eastern Mercury’, and ‘The Invention of Verity’. Most historiographers agree that some of his contributions have had a positive impact on alchemy and modern chemistry, difference of opinion amongst the historians about Jabir Hayyan’s identity and the body of work attributable to him notwithstanding.
- Jabir ibn Hayyan, as per E.J. Holmyard’s account, a 20th century academic and researcher, was born in Persia (present day Iran) in Tus town under the Khorasan region either in 721 or 722 AD. Persia was then under the reign of the Umayyad Caliphate.
- There is widespread dispute about his ethnicity as some sources report that he originally hailed from Khorasan and later on moved to Kufa while other accounts maintain that he was a Syrian who shifted to Persia. A few sources confirm that his father Hayyan-al-Azadi, belonging to the al-Azdi tribe, was a pharmacist.
- Hayyan-al-Azadi migrated from Yemen to Kufa (which is now in Iraq) then administered by the Umayyad Caliphs and unwittingly got involved in the political machinations. He staunchly backed the Abbasids opposing the rule of the Caliphates and was dispatched to Khorasan as an emissary to garner support for the mutiny.
- The Umayyad Caliph got al-Azadi arrested and he was ultimately executed for plotting against his government. Al-Azadi’s family escaped to Yemen with Jabir Hayyan who was a child then. Jabir was entrusted under the tutelage of a reputed scholar, Harbi al-Himyari, who taught him mathematics, Quran, and several other subjects.
- Jabir Ibn Hayyan, later on, was tutored by a Shi’ite Imam, Jafar Al-Sadiq who was closely associated with the Abbasids during Harun al-Rashid’s Caliphate. He studied alchemy and medicine under the patronage of the Caliph’s ministers known as Barmecides.
- Following the completion of his studies, Jabir started practicing as a pharmacist with the backing of the Caliphate. Jabir mentioned in one of his treatises that he had once formulated a special concoction for a maidservant employed by a Barmecide, Yahya Ibn Khalid.
- He had also authored, ‘The Book of the Blossom’, an alchemical handbook for Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph. The book contained information and instructions about experimental techniques relating to alchemy. He also made possible the translation of Latin and Greek alchemical transcripts into Arabic.
- Jabir ibn Hayyan had to pay a heavy price for his proximity to the Barmecides as he was sentenced to death in 803 after falling foul of the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid. He escaped to Kufa but was eventually apprehended and kept under detention for the rest of his life.
- If one traditional source is to be believed, Ibn Hayyan had put forward a proposal to the reigning Caliph, Al-Ma’mun to designate a successor of his choosing. The source also revealed Jabir might not have breathed his last until and unless an heir was selected.
- Ibn al-Nadim a 10th century Persian scholar and bibliographer, mentioned in his work, ‘Kitab al-Fihrisht’ that Jabir was an acolyte of the Shia Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq. Another citation by al-Nadim reported that Ibn Hayyan was a member of a philosophical group.
- Nadim also cited the reference from a source that of all the books purported to have been authored by Jabir, only one—‘The Large Book of Mercy’—was authentic while the rest were penned by anonymous authors.
- It is alleged that of all the treatises attributed to Jabir, the most creative piece is on ‘numerology’ called ‘miza’n or the ‘method of balance’. The central idea of this arithmetical treatise revolved around working out the amount or magnitude of ‘hotness’, ‘coldness’, ‘dryness’, and ‘wetness’ in an object based on its name.
- Each and every Arabic alphabetic letter was accorded an arithmetical value, and based upon the letters’ ordering a numeral was assigned to the various “natures”. Jabirian treatises also emphasize that every element in nature had a dual reality, one that was ‘obvious’ (zahir) and the other which was ‘intangible’ (batin).
- The body of work credited to Jabir is replete with information that has enriched chemistry, alchemy, and chemical technology, the unrealistic and bizarre facets notwithstanding. Jabirian works contributed hugely towards the time-honored supposition that mercury and sulphur were integral components of identified metallic elements. This claim was buttressed with metallurgical evidence.
- The treatises offer comprehensive explanation on how to make the most of ‘fractional distillation’ for extracting metals from their ores and refining them. Jabirian works also laid stress on the composition and chemical properties of sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride) owing to the compound’s potential to merge with metals known in medieval ages.
- It is worth noting that Jabirian contributions to chemistry chronicled by Arabic scholars differed greatly from those recorded under his Latinized alter ego-Geber.
- Contributions under his Arabic name comprise the significance of wisdom inculcated through laboratory experiments, field studies, and experience. Awareness of the necessity to explore the anatomical structure of flora and fauna besides minerals was first highlighted by Jabir. He also emphasized on the import of numerology in unraveling the mysteries of the universe.
- Jabir hinted on the importance of balancing in comprehending the inherent attributes of substances that in turn helped in understanding the roles played by them in the formation of other substances. Ibn Hayyan delineated the aspects of heat, cold, moisture, and dryness in ether elements first classified by ancient Greek intellectuals.
- Jabir Ibn Hayyan was a strong adherent of the long-established belief that more often divine intervention was necessary for solving occult or mystical matters which could not be explained scientifically. He also firmly believed that someone with a profound religious or spiritual bent of mind had the power to influence divinity.
- Worthwhile contributions to chemistry ascribed to Jabir’s Latinized NAME ‘Geber’ include the segregation of gold alloyed with other metals using potassium nitrate and lead as catalysts. Laboratory production of nitric acid, sulphuric acid, aqua regia, sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride), alum (potassium sulphate), mercuric oxide, silver nitrate, and arsenous acid were detailed in Geber’s works.
- The chemical properties of minerals, mixtures, substances, and compounds and their respective organizational structures were propounded by Geber. He is said to have classified all salts that were water soluble under the nomenclature ‘alkali’, used crystallization for purifying substances, and substantiated that metals invariably contained mercury and sulphur in varying proportions.
- Majority of Jabir’s works on alchemy were shrouded in esoteric phraseology making it incredibly complicated for contemporary scientific researchers to decipher the texts. The word ‘gibberish’ is alleged to have originated from Geber’s abstruse and rarefied writings. Nevertheless, some of his alchemical works had a few unique traits in comparison to works by previous alchemists.
- His alchemical forays apparently hinged around the hallowed objective of creating life through artificial means known as ‘takwin’. His chief alchemical piece, ‘Book of Stones’ contains minutiae for breathing life into creatures and even human beings in a monitored environment such as a laboratory.
- Jabir Hayyan was a dyed-in-the-wool devout who staunchly believed in complete submission to Allah—the Supreme Being—and he inveterately stressed this philosophy in his works. He was profoundly inspired by ancient Greek and Egyptian alchemists Agathodaimon, Hermes, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Trismegistus which is reflected in his alchemical writings.
- Jabirian work is usually categorized into four broad groups
- 'The 112 Volumes' devoted to Barmecides who were ministers under the Abbasid Caliph, Harun-al-Rashid.
- 'The Seventy Books’—Latin translations of most of these works were available in the Middle Ages. This includes Kitab al-Zuhra (Book of Venus) and the Kitab Al-Ahjar (Book of Stones).
- The ‘Books on Balance’ including the ‘Theory of Balance in Nature’ which was the most sought-after.
- The ‘Ten Books on Rectification’ in which Jabir described about Greek alchemists of yore, namely, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates.
- Jabir ibn Hayyan is believed to have died around 815 AD.
- He was a pioneer in alchemy and his works greatly influenced the medieval European alchemists and chemists.
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