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Geber is the Latinized form of "Jabir", with the full name of Abu Musa Jābir ibn Hayyān al azdi (Arabic: جابر بن حيان) (born c. 721 in Tusmarker–died c. 815 in Kufamarker), a prominent polymath: a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geologist, philosopher, physicist, and pharmacist and physician. He is considered by many to be the "father of chemistry." His ethnic background is not clear; although some sources state that he was an Arab, other sources introduce him as Persian. Geber or Jabir is held to be the first practical alchemist.

As early as the tenth century, the identity of Geber appears to have been disputed. Some scholars and historians have maintained that Jabir is the pen name of a group of Ismaili writers in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that he died—if indeed he ever lived—a century before the writings attributed to him were composed (see "The Geber Problem", below).

Life and background

An artistic depiction of Geber
According to tradition, Abu Musa (sometimes Abu AbdAllah) Jabir ibn Haiyan al-Azdl (al-Tusl, al-Artusl, al-Harram, al-Sufi, also al-Kufi or al-Tartusi)

was a Natural Philosopher who lived mostly in the 8th century, born in Tus, Khorasan, in Iranmarker (Persiamarker), then ruled by the Umayyad Caliphate. In some sources, he is reported to have been the son of Hayyan al-Azdi, a pharmacist of the Arabian Azd tribe who emigrated from Yemenmarker to Kufamarker (in present-day Iraqmarker) during the Umayyad Caliphate. Hayyan had supported the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyads, and was sent by them to the province of Khorasan (in present Iran) to gather support for their cause. He was eventually caught by the Ummayads and executed. His family fled to Yemen, where Geber grew up and studied the Koran, mathematics and other subjects under a scholar named Harbi al-Himyari. Geber's father's profession may have contributed greatly to his interest in alchemy.

After the Abbasids took power, Geber went back to Kufa. He began his career practicing medicine, under the patronage of a Vizir (from the noble Persian family Barmakids) of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid.

Geber may have been a student of the celebrated Islamic teacher and sixth Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. His connections to the Barmakid cost him dearly in the end. When that family fell from grace in 803, Geber was placed under house arrest in Kufa, where he remained until his death.

Contributions

Chemistry

Jabir is mostly renowned for his contributions to chemistry. He emphasised systematic experimentation, and did much to free alchemy from superstition and turn it into a science. He is credited with the invention of over twenty types of now-basic chemical laboratory equipment, such as the alembic and retort, and with the discovery and description of many now-commonplace chemical substances and processes – such as the hydrochloric and nitric acids, distillation, and crystallisation – that have become the foundation of today's chemistry and chemical engineering.

He also paved the way for most of the later Islamic alchemists, including al-Kindi, al-Razi and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th-13th centuries. His books strongly influenced the medieval European alchemists and justified their search for the philosopher's stone.

He clearly recognized and proclaimed the importance of experimentation. "The first essential in chemistry", he declared, "is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain the least degree of mastery."

Jabir is also credited with the invention and development of a number of chemical substances and instruments that are still used today. He discovered sulfuric acid, and by distilling it together with various salts, Jabir discovered hydrochloric acid (from salt) and nitric acid (from saltpeter). By combining the two, he invented aqua regia, one of the few substances that can dissolve gold. 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 (the sour component of lemons and other unripe fruits), acetic acid (from vinegar), and tartaric acid (from wine-making residues). Jabir also discovered and isolated several chemical elements, such as arsenic, antimony and bismuth. He was also the first to classify sulfur (‘the stone which burns’ that characterized the principle of combustibility) and mercury (which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties) as 'elements'. He was also the first to purify and isolate sulfur and mercury as pure elements.

Jabir applied his chemical knowledge to the improvement of many manufacturing processes, such as making steel and other metals, preventing rust, engraving gold, dyeing and waterproofing cloth, tanning leather, 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 today. He noted that boiling wine released a flammable vapor, thus paving the way for the discovery of ethanol (alcohol) by Al-Kindi and Al-Razi. According to Ismail al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, "In response to Jafar al-Sadik's wishes, [Jabir ibn Hayyan] invented a kind of paper that resisted fire, and an ink that could be read at night. He invented an additive which, when applied to an iron surface, inhibited rust and when applied to a textile, would make it water repellent."

The seeds of the modern classification of elements into metals and non-metals could be seen in his chemical nomenclature. He proposed three categories:



The origins of the idea of chemical equivalents can also be traced back to Jabir, who was the first to recognize that "a certain quantity of acid is necessary in order to neutralize a given amount of base." According to Jabir, the metals differ because of "different proportions of sulfur and mercury in them."

In the Middle Ages, Jabir's treatises on alchemy were translated into Latin and became standard texts for European alchemists. These 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). Marcelin Berthelot translated some of his books under the fanciful titles Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances, and Book of Eastern Mercury. Several technical Arabic terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have found their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.

Alchemy

Geber became an alchemist at the court of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, for whom he wrote the Kitab al-Zuhra ("The Book of Venus", on "the noble art of alchemy").

Geber states in his Book of Stones (4:12) that "The purpose is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for". His works seem to have been deliberately written in highly esoteric code (see steganography), so that only those who had been initiated into his alchemical school could understand them. It is therefore difficult at best for the modern reader to discern which aspects of Geber's work are to be read as symbols (and what those symbols mean), and what is to be taken literally. Because his works rarely made overt sense, the term gibberish is believed to have originally referred to his writings (Hauck, p. 19).

Geber's alchemical investigations ostensibly revolved around the ultimate goal of takwin — the artificial creation of life. The Book of Stones includes several recipes for creating creatures such as scorpions, snakes, and even humans in a laboratory environment, which are subject to the control of their creator. What Geber meant by these recipes is today unknown.

Geber's interest in alchemy was probably inspired by his teacher Ja'far al-Sadiq. Ibn Hayyan was deeply religious, and repeatedly emphasizes in his works that alchemy is possible only by subjugating oneself completely to the will of Allah and becoming a literal instrument of Allah on Earth, since the manipulation of reality is possible only for Allah. The Book of Stones prescribes long and elaborate sequences of specific prayers that must be performed without error alone in the desert before one can even consider alchemical experimentation.

In his writings, Geber pays tribute to Egyptian and Greek alchemists Hermes Trismegistus, Agathodaimon, Pythagoras, and Socrates.Geber professes to draw his inspiration from earlier writers on the subject. A huge pseudo-epigraphic literature of alchemical books was composed in Arabic, among which the names of Persian authors also appear like Jāmāsb, Ostanes, Mani, testifying that alchemy-like operations on metals and other substances were also practiced in Persiamarker. The great number of Persian technical names (zaybaq = mercury, nošāder = sal-ammoniac) also corroborates the idea of an important Iranian roots of medieval alchemy. Ibn al-Nadim reports a dialogue between Aristotle and Ostanes, the Persian alchemist of Achaemenid era, which is in Jabirian corpus under the title of Kitab Musahhaha Aristutalis. Ruska had suggested that the Sasanian medical schools played an important role in the spread of interest in alchemy.He emphasises the long history of alchemy, "whose origin is Arius ... the first man who applied the first experiment on the [philosopher's] stone... and he declares that man possesses the ability to imitate the workings of Nature" (Nasr, Seyyed Hussein, Science and Civilization of Islam).

Geber's alchemical investigations were theoretically grounded in an elaborate numerology related to Pythagorean and Neoplatonic systems. The nature and properties of elements was defined through numeric values assigned the Arabic consonants present in their name, ultimately culminating in the number 17.

To Aristotelian physics, Geber added the four properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness (Burkhardt, p. 29). Each Aristotelian element was characterised by these qualities: Fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. This came from the elementary qualities which are theoretical in nature plus substance. 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, Geber theorised, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, based on their sulfur/mercury content, a different metal would result. (Burckhardt, p. 29) 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.

The elemental system used in medieval alchemy was developed by Geber. His original system consisted of seven elements, which included the five classical elements found in the ancient Greek and Indian traditions (aether, air, earth, fire and water), in addition to two chemical elements representing the metals: sulphur, ‘the stone which burns’, which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury, which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties. Shortly thereafter, this evolved into eight elements, with the Arabic concept of the three metallic principles: sulphur giving flammability or combustion, mercury giving volatility and stability, and salt giving solidity.

Geber also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy/astrology, and other sciences. Only a few of his books have been edited and published, and fewer still are available in translation. The crater Gebermarker on the Moon is named after him.

He also paved the way for most of the later Islamic alchemists, including al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Tughrai and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th-13th centuries. His books strongly influenced the medieval European alchemists and justified their search for the philosopher's stone.

Legacy

Max Meyerhoff states the following on Jabir ibn Hayyan: "His influence may be traced throughout the whole historic course of European alchemy and chemistry."

The historian of chemistry Erick John Holmyard gives credit to Geber for developing alchemy into an experimental science and he writes that Geber's importance to the history of chemistry is equal to that of Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier.

The historian Paul Kraus, who had studied most of Geber's extant works in Arabic and Latin, summarized the importance of Geber to the history of chemistry by comparing his experimental and systematic works in chemistry with that of the allegorical and unintelligible works of the ancient Greek alchemists.

The word gibberish is theorized to be derived from Geber's name, in reference to the incomprehensible technical jargon often used by alchemists, the most famous of whom was Geber. Other sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary suggest the term stems from gibber; however, the first known recorded use of the term "gibberish" was before the first known recorded use of the word "gibber" (see Gibberish).

Quotation

  • "My wealth let sons and brethren part. Some things they cannot share: my work well done, my noble heart — these are mine own to wear."


Writings by Geber

The Jabirian corpus

In total, nearly 3,000 treatises and articles are credited to Jabir ibn Hayyan. Following the pioneering work of Paul Kraus, who demonstrated that a corpus of some several hundred works ascribed to Geber were probably a medley from different hands, mostly dating to the late ninth and early tenth centuries, many scholars believe that many of these works consist of commentaries and additions by his followers, particularly of an Ismaili persuasion.

The Arabic corpus of Jabir Ibn Hayyan can be divided into four categories:
  • The 112 Books dedicated to the Barmakids, viziers of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. This group includes the Arabic version of the Emerald Tablet, an ancient work that proved a recurring foundation of and source for alchemical operations. In the Middle Ages it was translated into Latin (Tabula Smaragdina) and widely diffused among European alchemists.
  • The Seventy Books, most of which were translated into Latin during the Middle Ages. This group includes the Kitab al-Zuhra ("Book of Venus") and the Kitab Al-Ahjar ("Book of Stones").
  • The Ten Books on Rectification, containing descriptions of alchemists such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
  • The Books on Balance; this group includes his most famous 'Theory of the balance in Nature'.


The Geber corpus

The Latin corpus, dating from about 1310.
  • Summa perfectionis magisterii ("The Height of the Perfection of Mastery").
  • Liber fornacum ("Book of Stills"),
  • De investigatione perfectionis ("On the Investigation of Perfection"), and
  • De inventione veritatis ("On the Discovery of Truth").
  • Testamentum gerberi


English translations of Geber/Jabir

  • E. J. Holmyard (ed.) The Arabic Works of Jabir ibn Hayyan, translated by Richard Russel in 1678. New York, E. P. Dutton (1928); Also Paris, P. Geuther.
  • Syed Nomanul Haq, Names, Natures and Things: The Alchemists Jabir ibn Hayyan and his Kitab al-Ahjar (Book of Stones), [Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science p. 158] (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994), ISBN 0792332547.
  • Donald R. Hill, 'The Literature of Arabic Alchemy' in Religion: Learning and Science in the Abbasid Period, ed. by M.J.L. Young, J.D. Latham and R.B. Serjeant (Cambridge University Press, 1990) pp. 328–341, esp. pp 333–5.
  • William Newman, New Light on the Identity of Geber, Sudhoffs Archiv, 1985, Vol.69, pp. 76–90.
  • Geber and William Newman The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber: A Critical Edition, Translation and Study ISBN 9004094664


The Geber Problem

The identity of the author of works attributed to Jabir has long been discussed. According to a famous controversy, pseudo-Geber has been considered as the unknown author of several books in Alchemy. This was first independently suggested, on textual and other grounds, by the nineteenth-century historians Hermann Kopp and Marcellin Berthelot.

Jabir, by reputation the greatest chemist of Islam, has long been familiar to western readers under the name of Geber, which is the medieval rendering of the Arabic Jabir, the Geberu of the Middle Ages.

In 1942, Paul Kraus argued that anonymous members of the so-called Brethren of Purity of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam were the true authors of the works in Arabic that were attributed to Jabir, and that they were writing in the ninth and tenth centuries. Syed Haq offers evidence for possible 8th century origin of one text. Eric Holmyard argues for at least some Arabic origin but not 8th century. Newman showed a distant relationship to the Arabic work of Razi. He argued that the true author of the most famous book by the Latin "Geber," the "Summa Perfectionis," was the little-known Paul of Taranto, writing shortly after the year 1300. The alchemical texts of Jāber (Geber) and Rāzi (Rhazes) which were in Arabic, were translated into Latin in the 12th century.

Geber's identity with Jabir is still in dispute. It is said that Geber, the Latinized form of "Jabir," was adopted presumably because of the great reputation of a supposed 8th-century alchemist by the name of Jabir ibn Hayyan. About this historical figure, however, there is considerable uncertainty. This is sometimes called the "Geber-Jabir problem".

It is important to consider that it is impossible to reach definite conclusions until all the Arabic writings ascribed to Jabir have been properly edited and discussed.

Popular culture



  • There is a villain in the Japanese manga and anime series Bio Booster Armor Guyver by the name of Jearvill bun Hiyern (translated in various ways), who is most likely named after ibn Hayyan.




See also



References

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