After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Islamic World. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented: indeed, most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Arabic translations.
The word alchemy itself was derived from the Arabic word الكيمياء al-kimia. The Islamic world was a melting pot for alchemy.
In the late 8th century, Jābir ibn Hayyān (known as “Geber” in Europe) introduced a new approach to alchemy, based on scientific methodology and controlled experimentation in the laboratory, in contrast to the ancient Greek and Egyptian alchemists whose works were often allegorical and unintelligible, with very little concern for laboratory work. Jabir is thus “considered by many to be the father of chemistry“, albeit others reserve that title for Robert Boyle or Antoine Lavoisier. The historian of science, Paul Kraus, wrote:
“To form an idea of the historical place of Jabir’s alchemy and to tackle the problem of its sources, it is advisable to compare it with what remains to us of the alchemical literature in the Greek language
. One knows in which miserable state this literature reached us. Collected by Byzantine scientists
from the tenth century, the corpus of the Greek alchemists is a cluster of incoherent fragments, going back to all the times since the third century until the end of the Middle Ages.”
“The efforts of Berthelot and Ruelle to put a little order in this mass of literature led only to poor results, and the later researchers, among them in particular Mrs. Hammer-Jensen, Tannery, Lagercrantz, von Lippmann, Reitzenstein, Ruska, Bidez, Festugiere and others, could make clear only few points of detail…
The study of the Greek alchemists is not very encouraging. An even surface examination of the Greek texts shows that a very small part only was organized according to true experiments of laboratory: even the supposedly technical writings, in the state where we find them today, are unintelligible nonsense which refuses any interpretation.
It is different with Jabir’s alchemy. The relatively clear description of the processes and the alchemical apparatuses, the methodical classification of the substances, mark an experimental spirit which is extremely far away from the weird and odd esotericism of the Greek texts. The theory on which Jabir supports his operations is one of clearness and of an impressive unity. More than with the other Arab authors, one notes with him a balance between theoretical teaching and practical teaching, between the `ilm
and the `amal
. In vain one would seek in the Greek texts a work as systematic as that which is presented for example in the Book of Seventy