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Islam's Contribution to Chemistry

Thursday, 24 July 2008 00:00

Before addressing the subject of Muslim chemistry, however, one crucial matter needs to be raised. It concerns the use of the word Alchemy instead of chemistry. This is another instance of historical corruption fooling so many who have no perception of the depths some scholarship can descend to in order to convey distorted images of aspects of history, such as that of Islamic science. Alchemy, indeed, is a corrupt translation of the Arabic word Chemia (chemistry,) preceded by the article Al (which means: the), and which the Arabs always use (like the French and others for that matter) in front of their subject such as Al-Tib (medicine) al-Riyadiyat (mathematics) etc... If this was applied to other subjects, it would become al-medicine; al-mathematics, al-geography and so on... Only Baron Carra de Vaux had had the presence of mind to pointing to this, however briefly. Somehow al-Chemy should be translated literally The Chemistry and not Alchemy in English; and La Chimie and not l'alchimie in French. The fact that only Westerners translated or dealt with the subject, followed by rather very respectful or shy Muslim scholars means that this corrupt word of al-chemy has remained, and has become the norm.

The reason why alchemy is used instead of chemistry might have another motive behind it. Chemistry means a modern science; alchemy means the amateur, the occult, the second or third rate. Alchemy belongs to the Muslims; chemistry, of course, does not; instead is the realm of the good. This notion conveyed by some Western scholars, that alchemy ended with the Muslims and chemistry began with the Westerners has no historical ground. The reason is simple: all sciences began in some part of the world, most likely China or the Ancient Middle East, or India, at level: 1, the most basic, and then graduated to levels 2, 3, 4, and higher, through the centuries, until they reached us at the level they are, and will evolve in different places in the future. This is the story of every science, and of every sign of our modern world. Thus, it was not that we had alchemy at one point, and then, with the Europeans it became chemistry. This is a crass notion like much else coming from scholars holding such a view. Chemistry began under one form, associated with occult and similar practices, and then evolved, gradually becoming more refined through the centuries until it took our modern forms and rules. Many elements concourse to support this point. Here they follow.

Muslims Revolutionised Chemistry

First and foremost many of the products or discoveries made by the Muslims have become part of our modern chemical world; in fact were revolutions in the advance of the science. Mathe summarises the legacy of Muslim chemists, which include the discovery of alcohol, nitric and sulphuric acids, silver nitrate and potassium, the determination of the weight of many bodies, the mastery of techniques of sublimation, crystallization and distillation. Muslim chemistry also took many industrial uses including: tinctures and their applications in tanning and textiles; distillation of plants, of flowers, the making of perfumes and therapeutic pharmacy. More specifically, some such advances that have revolutionised our world are expertly raised by Multhauf. Thus in the De aluminibus, composed in Muslim Spain, (whose author Multhauf does not recognise) but could be Al-Majriti, are described experiments to obtain the chloride of mercury, corrosive sublimate (Hg Cl2), process and outcome which mark the beginning of synthetic chemistry. Multhauf notes indeed that the chloride of mercury obtained did not just become part of the chemist's repertoire but also inspired the discovery of other synthetic substances. Corrosive sublimate is capable of chlorinating other materials, and this, Multhauf, again, notes, marks the beginning of mineral acids. In the field of industrial chemistry and heavy chemicals, Multhauf notes again that one of the greatest advances of the medieval times was the manufacture of alum from `aluminous' rocks, through artificial weathering of alunite, which he describes. And in the same context the Muslims managed to perform the crystallisation of `ammonia alum' (ammonium aluminium sulphate). Multhauf, however, falls in the same trap as many of his colleagues, asserting in his conclusion that it was European Renaissance which gave chemistry a secure and significant place in science, and that with the Muslims all that was, was `alchemy;' and Multhauf states this in full contradiction of what he had just described, and so expertly, and he had himself classified under modern chemistry.

Fair Historians of Chemistry

A scholar who from the initial point gave Islamic chemistry its due, and hardly failed to call it so, was Holmyard. Holmyard, indeed, has the right qualifications to discuss Islamic che mistry, and more than any other scholar, with the exception of Ruska, and also Levey. Holmyard is indeed both a chemist with great reknown, and also an Arabist in training, rightly qualified to look at the science from the expert angles, unlike others, who are either Arabists and so understand little in chemistry, or are experts in chemistry and understand nothing in Arabic. Holmyard notes that the rise and progress of Islamic chemistry is given very little space, and whatever information exists is erroneous and misleading, a fact due partly to Kopp's unfavourable opinion of Islamic chemistry, and the hasty conclusions drawn by Berthelot from his superficial studies of Islamic material. And neither Kopp, nor Berthelot were Arabists, which, as Holmyard notes, makes their conclusions on Muslim chemistry unable to stand the test of criticism as more information is available. Of course, today's scholars can always ignore evidence that has come out since Kopp and Berthelot, and still stick with their misinformation, errors, or distorted statements, and blame such on either one of them. This tactic is in fact very common amongst scholars writing in any field of history, who shape and reshape events at will and have all the necessary sources and references to justify their writing. Some `scholars' even go as far as blaming the material in the library of their university, stating in their preface or conclusion that any shortcoming in their work was the result of their access to such limited material.

To return to Holmyard, in his Makers of Chemistry, tracing the evolution of the science from the very early times until our century, and even if not having at his disposal the vast amount of information many of today's scholars have, he produced an excellent and encompassing, thorough work. It includes none of the usual gaps of centuries one finds with other historians; nor does it include the discrepancies caused by 'sudden', 'enlightened' `miraculous' breakthroughs out of nothing.

Transmission of Chemistry to Europe

Of course Muslim chemistry, like other sciences was heavily translated into Latin, and also into local languages, which explains its spread to Europe (more on this in the chapter on the transfer of Muslim science to Europe). Many of the manuscripts translated have anonymous authors. Of the known ones, Robert of Chester, a twelfth century scholar, translated Liber de compositione alchemise. At about the same time, Hugh of Santalla made the earliest Latin translation of lawh azzabarjad (the Emerald table). Alfred of Sareshel translated the part of Ibn Sinna's Kitab al-Shiffa (the Book of Healing) that deals with chemistry. It is, however, as per usual, the Italian, Gerard of Cremona, who made the more valuable translations of Al-Razi's study and classification of salts and alums (sulphates) and the related operations the De aluminibus et salibus, whose Arabic original is preserved. The many versions of this work had a decisive influence on subsequent operations in the West, more generally on mineralogy; as did others in the formation of the foundations of such science. In fairly recent times, Holmyard, Kraus, and above all Ruska, have devoted considerable focus to Muslim chemistry, much of which, unfortunately, is not accessible to non German speakers, who thus will be deprived from forming a truest picture of Islamic chemistry.


After such an expose, however brief, should we still consider Muslim chemistry as an occult practice called alchemia? Are not many aspects of such science exactly what we have in our modern chemistry? And if this is not enough, here is what Muslims thought of the occult alchemia. Both Ibn Sina and Ibn Khaldoun attacked the experimentalists who sought to turn ordinary metals into precious ones, gold in particular. Ibn Sina, for instance, in The Book of Minerals, denounces the artisans who dye metals in order to give them the outside resemblance of silver and gold. He asserts that fabrication of silver and gold from other metals is `practically impossible and unsustainable from a scientific and philosophical point of view.' Ibn Khaldoun, for his part, denounces the frauds who apply on top of silver jewelry a thin layer of gold, and make other manipulations of metals. To Ibn Khaldoun, the Divine wisdom wanted gold and silver to be rare metals to guarantee profits and wealth. Their disproportionate growth would make transactions useless and would `run contrary to such wisdom.'

It is, thus, time to give Muslim chemistry its due place in history. For that to happen, the concentrated effort of Arabic speaking, able scholars, with some honesty, ought to get on with the task of writing truest accounts of Islamic chemistry in history, do for this science what Rashed, Djebbar and Yuskevitch did for Islamic mathematics, or what al-Hasan and Hill did for Islamic engineering, and what King, Saliba, Kennedy and Samso seek to do for Islamic astronomy, bringing Islamic chemistry out of the slumber others have dug in for it.

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