Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber)

Listen to our episode no Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber) here:

The first practical alchemist and possibly the most influential alchemist of all time. We also break down Geber vs Pseudo-Geber.

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Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān (al-Barigi / al-Azdi / al-Kufi / al-Tusi / al-Sufi),

But we’ll refer to him simply as Geber, (c.721–c.815) was born in Tus (the Persian region, same as Al-Ghazali)

was another prominent

polymath: a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geographer,philosopher, physicist, and pharmacist and physician.

Born and educated in Tus, he later traveled to Kufa. Jābir is held to have been the first practical alchemist.

This is important.

At least that was his reputation. But.. it’s argued what he actually wrote and didn’t write. As early as the 10th century this was already in dispute.

To add to this, in Christian Europe, his name was latinized as “Geber” and in the 13th Century an anonymous writer wrote alchemical texts under the name “Geber” but is genenerally called Pseudo-Geber.

…and as we mentioned in the beginning, he’s sometimes mentioned as  al-Azdi al-Barigi or al-Kufi or al-Tusi or al-Sufi

Confused enough? No? good, because we told you he’s persian, but he also could be an Arab from Kufa who lived in Khurasan

or a Persian from Khorasan who later went to Kufa or even of Syrian origin and later lived in Persia and Iraq.

Anyway, he grew up in Yemen and studied the koran, mathematics and other stuff… and that’s where he got an interest in Alchemy.

Then he went to practice Medicine in Kufa, where he was eventually put under house arrest after a regime change (if I may put it like that) and that’s where he died.

Since so much of his life is a mystery, we’ll move onto his works.

Works

In total, nearly 3,000 treatises and articles are credited to Jabir ibn Hayyan. But in reality several were almost certainly not by him. Some possibly by his students or later Ishmaili followers.

Again, these texts cover everything from  cosmology, music, medicine, magic, biology, chemical technology, geometry, grammar, metaphysics, logic, artificial generation of living beings, to astrological predictions, and symbolic Imâmî myths.

  • 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’.

Geber did have a somewhat famous/known teacher. Which I don’t care about, but I will mention here, because his name is Jafar. Ja’far al-Sadiq acutally. The Shia consider him the 6th Imam… so a descendent of Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammed. Geber spoke very highly of him and was regarded as a wise man in his own right.

His other influences were (i.e. he mentions them in his writings) Egyptian and Greek alchemists Zosimos, Democritus, Hermes Trismegistus, Agathodaimon, whom we have all covered; also Democritus.

but also Plato, Aristotle, Galen,Pythagoras, and Socrates as well as the commentators Alexander of AphrodisiasSimplicius, Porphyry and others.

Takwin

Takwin is basically the creation of life. As in synthetic life in a laboratory. We don’t know exactly what Jabir meant by this.. but let’s go ahead and assume he meant like a golem or frankenstein.. because that would be awesome.

Again, one reason we don’t know exaclty what he meant, is because that was the intent: From the Book of Stones (4:12) that “The purpose is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for!”

I assume that had he written more clearly, he could have gotten in trouble with Islamic leaders of the time.

Numerology

Jabir’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.

Geber is a great example of a neo-platonist. He would have probably just considered his views to come from Aristotle.. but by then it was morphed into what we call neoplatonism.

…which I wont go into again, we have an episode on it out already, and have covered it a lot in other podcasts.

  • “Spirits” which vaporise on heating, like arsenic (realgar, orpiment), camphor, mercury, sulfur, sal ammoniac, and ammonium chloride.
  • “Metals”, like gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron, and khar-sini
  • Non-malleable substances, that can be converted into powders, such as stones.

..I would love to dive into more of his work, but as of yet, it’s still mostly in arabic. So if we have some enthusiasts out there that speak arabic.. get crackin.

Practical Alchemy

I think most our listener’s favorite alchemists are the practical ones.. the ones that believed they could turn base metals into gold. We’ll then geber’s for you.

Jabir was all about experimentation. He is credited with some 20 basic types of lab equipment.

  • alembic (an alchemica still, with two tubs and tube going between them)
  • retort (a sort of ball with a cone on top pointing downwards)

Is adition, he described such things as

  • crystallisation,
  • distillation
  • citric acid from lemons
  • acetic acid from vinegar
  • tartaric acid from wine making residues
  • arsenic
  • antimony (metalloid element)
  • bismuth (crappy metal)
  • …and our favorites: sulfur and mercury
  • the idea of chemical compounds (e.g. mineral cinnabar being a compound of sulfur and mercury)
  • nitric and sulfuric acids
  • separation of gold from other metals using lead and saltpeter
  • purification of mercury
  • introduction of the word ALKALI for substances such as lye and other bases
  • aqua regia

suposedly invented a paper that was fire resistant and an ink that could be read at night.

a material that made iron rust resistant, and when applied to textile – water repellant.

when describing other’s arguments against alchemy (from the alchemy reader): “this science (they say) hath been so long sought by wise men, that if it were possible in any way, they would a thousand times, before now, have been masters of it”

Influence in Europe

His works were translated into Latin as early as the 12th century and became standard alchemist’s books

Pseudo-Geber even published under his name.

we still say “alkali” today

“gibberish” is thought (maybe) to be derived from his name.. poking fun at alchemists.

Geber problem

…and then we have the usual problem of trying to figure out which books were actually written by Jabir

Until the 19th century, all books by pseudo-geber were thought to simply be latin translations of Jabir’s

Pseudo-Geber lived some 4-500 years later.

There are, however, certain other Latin works, entitled The Sum of Perfection, The Investigation of Perfection, The Invention of Verity, The Book of Furnaces, and The Testament, which pass under his name but of which no Arabic original is known. A problem which historians of chemistry have not yet succeeded in solving is whether these works are genuine or not.

Some of these are thought to have originated in Moorish Spain.. Regardless, these works combined all had a great influence on later alchemists..

The Pseudo-Geber corpus

The Latin corpus consists of books with an author named “Geber” for which researchers have failed to find a text in Arabic. Although these books are heavily influenced by Arabic books written by Jābir, the “real” Geber, and by Al Razi and others, they were never written in Arabic. They are in Latin only, they date from about the year 1310, and their author is called Pseudo-Geber:

  • 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

The 2nd, 3rd and 4th books listed above “are merely extracts from or summaries of the Summa Perfectionis Magisterii with later additions.”

Popular culture

  • Geber is mentioned in Paulo Coelho’s 1993 bestseller, The Alchemist.[56]
  • Jabbir is said to be the creator of a (fictional) mystical chess set in Katherine Neville’s novels The Eight and The Fire.
  • In S.H.I.E.L.D, Jabir appears as the 8th century leader of the organization.
  • Jabir is mentioned in the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, in the episode “The Guitarist Amplification”.
  • Jabir Ibn Hayyan is mentioned in the graphic novel Habibi by Craig Thompson, p. 253-254.
  • In the DC comic book title Demon Knights, the 11th century engineer Al-Jabr appears to be based on Jabir Ibn Hayyan.

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