Jabir Ibn Haiyan | The Father of Chemistry

 

Jabir Ibn Haiyan



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Jabir Ibn Haiyan, long been familiar to western readers as the alchemist Geber of the Middle Ages, is generally known as the Father of Chemistry.

His full name was Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan. Sometimes also called al-Harrani and al-Sufi, he was the son of the druggist (Attar).

The precise date of his birth is the subject of some discussion, but most put forward that he was born in 721 CE in Tus (present day Iran) and died around 815in Kufah, Iraq. He is credited with the discovery and description of many substances and processes — such as the hydrochloric and nitric acid, distillation, and crystallization — that have become the foundation of today's chemistry and chemical engineering.

He is reported to have studied under Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (rahimullah) and the Ummayyad prince Khalid Ibn Yazid. In his early days, he practiced medicine and was under the patronage of the Barmaki Vizir during the Abbssid Caliphate of Haroon al-Rashid. He shared some of the effects of the downfall of the Barmakis and was placed under house arrest in Kufa, where he died in 803 C.E.


Jabir's major contribution was in the field of Chemistry. His fame rests on writing over 100 monumental treatises, of which 22 relate to chemistry and alchemy. His contribution of fundamental importance to chemistry includes perfection of scientific techniques such as crystallization, distillation, calcinations, sublimation and evaporation and development of several instruments for the same. The fact of early development of chemistry as a distinct branch of science by the Arabs, instead of the earlier vague ideas, is well-established and the very name chemistry is derived from the Arabic word al-Kimya, which was studied and developed extensively by the Muslim scientists.

Jabir emphasized experimentation and development of methods to achieve reproducibility in his work. He devoted his effort to the development of basic chemical methods and the study of various mechanisms of chemical reactions and thus helped evolve chemistry as a science from the legends of alchemy. Jabir emphasized that definite quantities of various substances are involved in a chemical reaction. Therefore, it can be said that he paved the way for the law of constant proportions.

Perhaps Jabir's major practical achievement was the discovery of mineral and others acids, which he prepared for the first time in his alembic (Anbique). Apart from several contributions of basic nature to alchemy, involving largely the preparation of new compounds and development of chemical methods, he also developed a number of applied chemical processes, thus becoming a pioneer in the field of applied science. His achievements in this field include 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, lettering in gold, identification of paints, greases, etc. During the course of these practical endeavors, he also developed aqua regia to dissolve gold. The alembic is his great invention, which made easy and systematic the process of distillation. Jabir laid great stress on experimentation and accuracy in his work.

Jabir's experimental ideas paved the way for now commonly known classification of substances as metals, nonmetals and volatile substances - the so-called sulphur-mercury theory of metals. He discussed three distinct types of substances based on their properties:

a) spirits, i.e., these that vaporize on heating, like camphor, arsenic and ammonium chloride.

b) metals, e.g., gold, silver, lead, copper, iron.

c) compounds that can be converted into powders.

Hence paving the way for such later classification as metals, non-metals and volatile substances.


Firmly grounded on experimental observation, his books systematised the knowledge about the fundamental chemical processes of the alchemists — such as crystallization, distillation, calcination, sublimation, thus making a great step in the evolution of chemistry from an occultist art to a scientific discipline. In particular, Jabir emphasised that definite quantities of various substances are involved in a chemical reaction, thus anticipating by almost a thousand years the principles of quantitative chemistry and the law of constant proportions.

Jabir is also credited with the invention and development of several chemical instruments that are still used today, such as the alembic, which made distillation easy, safe, and efficient. By distilling various salts together with sulfuric acid, Jabir discovered hydrochloric acid, from salt, and nitric acid, from saltpeter.

Besides its obvious applications to gold extraction and purification, this discovery would fuel the dreams and despair of alchemists for the next thousand years. He is also credited with the discovery of citric acid.

His other experimental ideas included the preparation of various substances (e.g., basic lead carbonate; arsenic and antimony from their sulphides).

To Aristotelian physics, Jabir developed he Aristotelian theory about the composition of matter-earth, water, air, fire - adding the four properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. Each Aristotelian element was characterized by these qualities: fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. In metals two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was cold and dry and gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorised, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result:

hot + dry + substance ---- fire
hot + wet + substance ---- air
cold + wet + substance --- water
cold + dry + substance --- earth


This theory appears to have originated the search for al-iksir, the elusive elixir that would make this transformation possible — which in European alchemy became known as the philosopher's stone.

Jabir also dealt with various applications, e.g., refinement of metals, preparation of steel, dyeing of cloth and leather, varnishes to water-proof cloth and protect iron, use of manganese dioxide in glass making, use of iron pyrites for writing in gold, distillation of vinegar to concentrate acetic acid. He also observed the imponderability of magnetic force.


The practical applications of chemistry were not neglected. Jabir applied his chemical knowledge to the improvement of many manufacturing processes, such as the making and preparation of steel, the refinement of other metals, and corrosion prevention.

Other applied chemical processes he developed include cloth dyeing, varnishing of waterproof cloth, identification of paints and greases, leather tanning, and the chemical analysis of pigments and other substances. He developed the use of manganese dioxide in glassmaking, to counteract the green tinge produced by iron — a process that is still used to this day. In addition, he developed aqua regia to dissolve gold. He also gives a recipe for making an illuminating ink for manuscripts from 'golden' marcasite (iron pyrites), to replace the much more expensive one made from gold itself. He also mentions the use of manganese dioxide in glass-making. He put forward that the distillation of vinegar will concentrate acetic acid, and was also acquainted with citric acid and other organic substances.

He noted that boiling Alcohol released a flammable vapor, thus paving the way to Al-Razi's discovery of ethanol.

His contribution of fundamental importance to chemistry includes perfection of scientific techniques such as crystallization, distillation, calcination, sublimation and evaporation and development of several instruments for conducting these experiments. Jabir's major practical achievement was the discovery of minerals and acids, which he prepared for the first time in his alembic (Anbique). His invention of the alembic made the distillation process easy and systematic. Among his various breakthroughs is the preparation of nitric, hydrochloric, citric and tartaric acids. Jabir's emphasis on systematic experimentation is outstanding. It is on the basis of such works that he is regarded as the father of modern Chemistry. In the words of Max Mayerhaff, the development of chemistry in Europe can be traced directly to Jabir.


Although known as an alchemist, he did not seem to have seriously pursued the preparation of noble metals as an alchemist; instead he devoted his effort to the development of basic chemical methods and study of mechanisms of chemical reactions in themselves and thus helped evolve chemistry as a science from the legends of alchemy. Jabir emphasized that definite quantities of various substances are involved in a chemical reaction. Therefore, it can be said that he paved the way for the law of constant proportions.

Together with chemistry, Jabir was also interested in other sciences such as medicine and astronomy, and had great achievements and contribution in these fields as well.

A large number of books are included in his corpus. In the Middle Ages, Jabir's treatises on chemistry were translated into Latin and various European languages. The translations into European languages led them to becoming very popular in Europe for several centuries, so much so that they became standard texts for European alchemists, influencing the evolution of modern chemistry today.

His books include the Kitab al-Kimya (titled 'Book of the Composition of Alchemy' in Europe), translated by Robert of Chester (1144) and the Kitab al-Sab'een by Gerard of Cremona (before 1187). Berthelot translated some his books known by the titles 'Book of Kingdom', 'Book of the Balances', 'Book of Eastern Mercury', and it is obvious that he did not use correct titles for Jabir's books. It became soon obvious that this so-called translator used all means to belittle Jabir’s achievements and attribute them to others European Scientists. Several technical terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have found their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.

Englishman Richard Russel translated and published (1678) Jabir's another work under the title "Sum of Perfection", describing him as 'Geber, the most famous Arabian prince and philosopher'.


Jabir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy, and other sciences. Unfortunately, only a few of his books have been edited and published, and fewer still are available in translation.

Doubts have been expressed as to whether all the voluminous work included in the corpus is his own contribution or it contains later commentaries/additions by his followers. According to Sarton, the true worth of his work would only be known when all his books have been edited and published. It is only then that we shall be able to measure the full extent of his contributions, but even on the slender basis of our present knowledge, Jabir appears already as a very great personality, one of the greatest in mediaeval science.

Jabir's religious views and philosophical concepts embodied in the corpus have been criticized but, apart from the question of their authenticity, it is to be emphasized that the major contribution of Jabir lies in the field of chemistry and not in religion.

His various breakthroughs e.g., preparation of acids for the first time, notably nitric, hydrochloric, citric and tartaric acids, and emphasis on systematic experimentation are outstanding and it is on the basis of such work that he can justly be regarded as the father of modern chemistry. In the words of Max Mayerhaff, the development of chemistry in Europe can be traced directly to Jabir Ibn Haiyan.


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