By Neenah Payne
Jabir Ibn Hayyan was born Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan Al-Azdi in 721 in the city of Tus, present-day Iran during The Golden Age of Islam (750-1258). Europeans Latinized his name as “Geberus” and he is known in English as “Geber”.
The son of a druggist, Geber was a polymath – an alchemist, astronomer, engineer, physician, and physicist who became known as the father of chemistry. He was responsible for scientific experiments and chemical processes like distillation, oxidization, filtration, crystallization, and many more. He also discovered sulphuric acid and citric acid.
Geber is credited with the discovery of 19 chemical elements. He introduced the experimental method to chemistry. Geber is thought to be the author of 22 scrolls describing methods of distillation, crystallization, sublimation, and evaporation. He invented the alembic; a device used to distill and study acids. He also developed an early chemical classification system using the properties of the materials he studied.
Geber was a student of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq who was well educated in Islamic knowledge but also natural sciences, astronomy, chemistry, and mathematics. Geber also took lessons in alchemy from ministers of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and wrote the book about alchemy “The Book of the Blossom” for the Caliph. However, he had a disagreement with the Caliph and was sentenced to death in 803. Geber tried to escape the sentence by fleeing to Kufa in Iraq, but was found by the authorities and placed under house arrest, which he served for the rest of his life. Jabir Ibn Hayyan died around 815.
Other Founders of Chemistry
Either Jabir ibn Hayyan or Antoine Lavoisier are the Father of Chemistry. Lavoisier is also known as the Father of Modern Chemistry.
If you’re ever asked to identify the Father of Chemistry for a homework assignment, the “most correct” answer for a test will be the one found in your textbook. However, that may not be the answer others would give when asked the question.
Here are candidates for the title “Father of Chemistry,” given in chronological order.
- The most common answer is Antoine Lavoisier.
- Jabir ibb Hayyan or Geber is cited as the Father of Chemistry.
- Other chemists sometimes given the title include Robert Boyle, John Dalton, and Jöns Berzelius.
The First Chemist
The first chemist actually was a Mesopotamian woman, Tapputi, who described the process of distillation. She might be called the Mother of Chemistry, but really didn’t engage in science in the modern sense of the word.
Jabir ibn Hayyan as the Father of Chemistry
Many people consider Jabir ibn Hayyan or “Geber”, as he was also called, to be the Father of Chemistry. Jabir applied the scientific method to the study of alchemy circa 800 AD. Jabir made inorganic compounds from organic substances. His works describe the sulfur-mercury theory of metals. He systematically classified chemicals and applied quantitative methods to his investigations.
Antoine Lavoisier as the Father of Chemistry
Usually, the title of Father of Chemistry goes to French scientist Antoine Lavoisier. Perhaps the most significant of Lavoisier’s achievements was discovering the role of oxygen in combustion. He identified water as a compound and not an element. He demonstrated conservation of mass in chemical reactions. Lavoisier listed elements, described properties of matter, helped to revise and standardize chemistry nomenclature, and made a host of other contribution to the field of chemistry.
Lavoisier sometimes is known as the Father of Modern Chemistry, to distinguish his work from contributions made before chemistry was a true science. His wife, Marie Lavoisier, is the Mother of Modern Chemistry. She worked together with Antoine, made sketches and engravings for his work, edited and published papers, and discussed chemistry with other scientists of the day.
Other Candidates for the Title “Father of Chemistry”
Geber and Lavoisier aren’t the only people who have been called the “Father of Chemistry.” Robert Boyle, John Dalton, and Jöns Berzelius are other candidates for the title.
Most students of Chemistry may be unfamiliar with the name Jabir Ibn Hayyan not to talk of knowing him as the father of modern chemistry. However, Ibn Hayyan was not just a chemist, he was also an alchemist; a polymath, an engineer and physicist, an astronomer and astrologer, a geographer, philosopher, physician, and a pharmacist.
Jabir Ibn Hayyan’s greatest legacy was the use of experimentation in chemistry. The scientist is credited with using more than 20 types of now currently common chemical laboratory equipment, including the alembic (an apparatus, mostly made of glass, used for distilling in alchemy) and retort stand, as well as explaining other chemical processes, including crystallisation and distillation..
Jabir Ibn Hayyan also incorporated numerous technical Arabic words into the scientific language, such as alkali. The Persian scientist recognised that experiments were important to science and transformed the spiritual practice of alchemy into what would now be known as modern chemistry.
In this lecture, Dr. Amani Wazwaz presents the life and achievements of the eighth century Muslim scholar Jabir Ibn Hayyan. The lecture introduces the role that the alchemist has played in cultural imagination and the place that Jabir ibn Hayyan has in the history of chemistry.
The Persian scientist transformed the practice of alchemy into today’s modern chemistry
Early Life and Education
Jabir ibn Hayyan was born Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan Al-Azdi around 721 A.D. in the city of Tus, present-day Iran to his father, Hayyan Al-Azdi who was a pharmacist. The senior Hayyan was from the Azd tribe, present-day Yemen, who resided in the city of Kufa, present-day Iraq during the reign of the Umayyads. The city was then in the province of Khorasan in Persia.
Interestingly, Hayyan supported a revolt against the ruling Umayyads and moved to Tus where his son Jabir was born. His name would be later Latinised as Geberus by the Europeans and now known as Geber in the English language. However, the Umayyads caught Al-Azdi and executed him which prompted his family to flee to Yemen where the young Jabir studied under the scholar Harbi Al-Himyari.
When the Abbasid dynasty began to rule Kufa, ibn Hayyan returned to the city where he reportedly became a student of Jafar al-Sadiq and studied astronomy, chemistry (alchemy), medicine, pharmacy, and philosophy. He later wrote that Al-Sadiq taught him everything he learnt in alchemy from calcium and evaporation to distillation and crystallization.
Jabir ibn Hayyan also referenced the work of Egyptian and Greek alchemists like Zosimos of Panopolis, Democritus, Hermes Trismegistus, and Agathodaemon. Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Pythagoras, and Socrates were his role models on philosophy.
The Persian became the court alchemist during the rule of Caliph Harum al-Rashid. He also worked as a physician for the Barmakids, who were the Caliph’s viziers, that is, grand ministers, who counselled the Caliph. Through this connection with these Persian families, Jabi ibn Hayyan was able to practice science at the highest level.
Alchemy and Chemistry in Medieval Islam
The modern English word alchemy comes from the Arabic word al-kimiya and many of the fundamentals for alchemy in Western nations were laid down by the Arabs.
However, chemistry dates back to around the 1600s to the 1700s. In comparison to today’s scientific standards, it would be practically impossible for chemistry to be practised then. This means that chemists of that period did not painstakingly look for a critical description of chemical symptoms. Thus, the study of chemistry before the 17th century was called alchemistry or alchemy.
Nevertheless, some scientists believe chemistry was an evolution of alchemy and that Islamic alchemistry, which Jabir ibn Hayyan was famous for, was a foundation for the modern study of chemistry.
What did Jabir ibn Hayyan discover?
Jabir ibn Hayyan’s contribution to chemistry cannot be overemphasized. He stressed systematic research, liberating alchemy from superstition and transforming it into a science. He is credited with the development of many types of now-basic chemic laboratory equipment and with the discovery and explanation of many now-common chemical compounds and processes – such as hydrochloric and nitric acids, crystallization, and distillation – that have become the basis of today’s chemical engineering and chemistry.
Ibn Hayyan is also credited with the invention and development of many chemical instruments still in use today, such as alembics, which have made distillation simple, safe, and effective. He discovered hydrochloric acid (from salt) and nitric acid (rom saltpetre) by distilling different salts along with sulphuric acid.
The discovery of citric acid (the sour component of lemons and other unripe fruits), acetic acid (from vinegar), and tartaric acid is also credited to him.
Jabir ibn Hayyan applied his scientific expertise to the development of many industrial methods such as the production of steel and other metals, the prevention of corrosion, the engraving of gold, the dyeing and waterproofing of silk, leather tanning, and the scientific study of pigments and other substances.
In glassmaking, the Persian scientist pioneered the use of manganese dioxide to counteract the green tinge created by iron – a process that is still used today. Ibn Hayyan recorded that boiling wine released a flammable vapour which paved the way for the discovery of ethanol.
Many technical words, such as alkali, introduced by Jabir ibn Hayyan, have made their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.
Jabir ibn Hayyan’s Books
Some writers say Jabir ibn Hayyan was a prolific writer who authored about 300 philosophy books, 1,300 books on mechanical devices, and hundreds of alchemy books. This very large body of Arabic writings, many of which are highly enticing passes under his name. However, these books might not have been written by Jabir ibn Hayyan himself but added by his students or disciples.
During the medieval period, many of those books were translated into Latin. For several centuries, these translations have been popular in Europe, and have influenced the development of modern chemistry.
Death and Legacy
Chemistry historian Erick John Holmyard praised Jabir ibn Hayyan for transforming alchemy into an experimental science, and he argued that the importance of the Persian scientist to the history of chemistry is comparable to that of Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier.
Imagine a time and place where people from all around the world worked together to develop new inventions, discover new knowledge and understand more about our universe. A place where the language was science, used to make the world a better place.
The chemical industry has reshaped the modern world — giving us new fuels, drugs and materials. But the methodology and principles of chemistry go back over a thousand years. Between the 9th and 14th centuries, there was a Golden Age of Science when scholars from the Islamic world, like Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Al-Razi, introduced a rigorous experimental approach that laid the foundations for the modern scientific method.
In this episode of Science in a Golden Age, theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili leads us on an exploration of just how these scientists began the process of transforming the superstition of alchemy into the science of chemistry. He begins by unpicking the medieval obsession with alchemy — the effort to turn common, less valuable metals into gold. He looks into the work of Jabir Ibn Hayyan, a polymath who grew up in modern-day Iran and who is credited with applying an experimental-based approach to early chemistry. Through his determined efforts to dissolve and transform metals, Ibn Hayyan learnt much about acids.
Together with Professor Hal Sosabowski from the University of Brighton, Jim looks at the reaction of gold with aqua regia — a powerful combination of acids that Ibn Hayyan discovered. Following on from Ibn Hayyan’s work, chemists like Al-Kindi and Al-Razi furthered the development of scientific practice, basing their work on careful experiments and observations. Their obsession with accuracy was what qualified them as being amongst the first true scientists.
Jim shows us the ‘Mizan Al-Hikma’, an intricate set of scales built by a scholar by the name of Al-Khazani in the 12th century. What set this piece of equipment apart was not just the beauty of the craftsmanship, but the exacting precision it delivered. The chemical processes developed by the Islamic scientists were motivated by numerous factors — one of which was the requirements of Islam itself — for example, the washing of the hands, face, and feet before prayer.
This requirement for cleanliness quickly led to the development of whole industries — like the production of soap. The first solid bars of soap were manufactured in the Islamic world and Jim looks at how alkalis helped develop the soap industries of the Golden Age. From Jabir Ibn Hayyan to Al-Kindi to Al-Razi, this episode covers the works of some of most prolific and influential chemists of the Golden Age and tells the story of how the evolution of modern chemistry began.
For More Information
Father of Robotics: Al-Jazari
Father of Aviation: Abbas Ibn Firnas
The Father of Algebra: Al-Khwarizmix
Al-Razi: A Father of Western Medicine
How Coffee Created The Modern World
How Arabs Revolutionized Western Culture
World’s First True Scientist: Ibn al-Haytham
Discoverer of Blood Circulation: Ibn al-Nafis
How The Concept of Zero Changed The World!
How Islamic Architecture Transformed Europe
Europe’s Dark Ages Were Islam’s Golden Ages!
How Muslims Transformed Western Civilization
Father of Modern Surgery: Al-Zahrawi/Abulcasis
How Muslims Inspired The European Renaissance
Ibn Sina/Avicenna: Founder of Western Medicine.
When Moors Rescued Europe From The Dark Ages
How The Islamic Golden Age Revolutionized The West
Father of Sociology, Historiography, Economics: Ibn Khaldun
Ibn Rushd/Averroes: Grandfather of European Enlightenment
Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post
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