I – Keemyaa, aka Chemistry
In the annals of history, the achievements of Islamic scientists and their contributions to the field of chemistry have been greatly overlooked and disregarded. However, it is with great pride and determination that I rectify this injustice and shed light on the advancements made by my Muslim predecessors in the realm of chemistry (aka alchemy). First, let us take a closer look at the history of this intriguing science, starting with the origin of the word chemistry (aka alchemy) and its meaning(s).
First and foremost, it is important to note that the term “alchemy” is a bastardization of the Arabic word “kimmiyâ,” which translates to “quantity.” This term was later shortened to “al-kîmiya,” which designated the science of chemistry. The use of the article “al” before the word, as is common in Arabic, was lost in translation, leading to the widespread use of the term “alchemy” instead of “chemistry.” This distinction, unfortunately, has gone largely unnoticed by prominent western scholars. The use of “al” before the subject matter is unique to chemistry (aka alchemy), as it is not used in other scientific fields such as medicine or mathematics.
The second reason behind the persistence of the term “alchemy” instead of “chemistry” can be attributed to the prevalent anti-Muslim bias. These biased western scholars aim to obscure the contributions made by Muslims to the field of science and, in particular, to the field of chemistry. These very individuals employ scholarly methods, both overt and covert, to achieve their goals. In the upcoming article (Part II), I shall, God willing, write an afterword on the many thefts and biases of these lowlife scoundrels, so stay tuned.
Chemistry, as a science, is based on experimentation with substances and the transformation of one substance into another through laboratory work. This methodology was developed and perfected by Muslim scientists, with the earliest pioneers such as Al-Razi being considered the fathers of modern chemistry. The Muslims paved the way for this field, laying the foundations for what is now known as chemistry.
Despite this, many western scholars who are unfamiliar with Arabic scientific literature, or who hold prejudices against Islam, continue to use the term “alchemy” to describe the Arabic chemical tradition. This has led to the stigmatization of Muslim science and has relegated it to the realm of chemistry (aka alchemy), often associated with pseudoscience and occult practices.
It is my hope that, in the future, both honest scholars and those who are hostile to Islam will acknowledge the contributions made by Muslim scientists to the field of chemistry and begin to use the proper terminology, “chemistry,” when referring to the extensive corpus of knowledge produced within the scientific tradition of Islam.
For that reason, starting from this article onward, I shall inscribe “chemi/cal/st/stry (aka alchemy/ist/ical)” throughout this article whenever I refer to the terms chemistry (aka alchemy), chemists (aka alchemists), or chemical (alchemical).
Verily, the history of chemistry (aka alchemy) in the land of India is a tale that stretches back to the distant past, beyond even the Vedic period, dating back to before 1000 BCE. The idea of a miraculous elixir, capable of conferring eternal life, is what the ancient Indians thought of as chemistry (aka alchemy). In the ancient scriptures, the term Rasāyana is a term that has been bestowed upon the art of chemistry (aka alchemy), and it speaks of a path that leads to the essence of life itself. This term, derived from the Pali and Sanskrit languages, speaks of techniques that are aimed at lengthening the lifespan and invigorating the body, and it is regarded as one of the eight branches of medicine in ancient Sanskrit literature.
It is written in the ancient texts that in the Vedic period, single herbs were used in the preparation of remedies, and minerals and animal substances were also utilized, but it was not until the advent of chemistry (aka alchemy) that compound preparations came into use. The art of chemistry (aka alchemy) was born with the intention of creating an elixir of life that would confer immortality upon those who consumed it. Later, chemists (aka alchemists) sought to perform the wondrous transmutation of base metals into gold, a pursuit that would come to define the practice of chemistry (aka alchemy) in India.
And it widely believed (according to archaeologists) that during the pre-historic period, when the land of India was known as the Indus valley, the people of this land possessed a knowledge of the chemical arts, a truth that has been revealed through the archaeological excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa. The influence of the Tantric cult, with its mysterious and arcane practices, lent much of its color and flavor to the art of chemistry (aka alchemy) in India.
In the days of the iatrochemical period, the accumulated knowledge of chemistry (aka alchemy) was put to practical use, and the chemists (aka alchemists) of the time created a number of preparations of mercury and other metals that proved to be invaluable as accessories in the field of medicine.
And so, it can be said that the tale of chemistry (aka alchemy) in India is one that speaks of the pursuit of eternal life and the transformation of the world through the power of science and the mysteries of the arcane. This idea then traveled to the far eastern lands of China, where it flourished and developed into a distinct branch of chemistry (aka alchemy).
In the fourth century BCE, a legendary chemist (aka alchemist) by the name of Dzou Yen made his mark on the historical annals of Chinese chemistry (aka alchemy). He was held in high esteem by the royal courts and nobles, who sought his counsel on matters of wealth and governance. Dzou Yen promised to use his chemical (aka alchemical) prowess to enrich his patrons’ coffers and guide them to rule their kingdoms with greater success. Although accounts of Dzou Yen’s life and deeds have been passed down through the ages, they must be viewed with a cautious eye, as they have been colored by the passage of time and the biases of the narrators.
In 175 BCE, an edict was issued across China, threatening chemists (aka alchemists) who made counterfeit gold with death; the pursuit of chemistry (aka alchemy) did not wane, however.
In 133 BCE, a new chemist (aka alchemist) appeared at the royal court, claiming to have uncovered the secret of immortality. This idea of prolonging life became the grail of Chinese chemists (aka alchemists), their equivalent of the western Philosopher’s Stone. At this point, Chinese chemistry (aka alchemy) became intertwined with traditional Chinese medicine, which aimed to bring balance to the body and soul. The chemist (aka alchemist) linked immortality with the spirits and minor gods, which, combined with the disdain for commercial pursuits among Chinese nobles, explains why Chinese chemical (aka alchemical) techniques became fixated on creating an Elixir of Life instead of transforming base metals into gold.
In 60 BCE, Emperor Suan engaged the services of Liu Tsiang, a chemist (aka alchemist), to increase his lifespan through the creation of chemical (aka alchemical) gold. However, Liu Tsiang failed in his mission and was barely spared the death penalty.
The next mention of chemistry (aka alchemy) can be found in the mid-second century CE in the Eastern Han Dynasty, where Wei Boyang, a revered figure in the annals of Chinese history, lived and thrived. Wei was a prolific writer and a practitioner of the Taoist art of chemistry (aka alchemy). His most notable work, The Kinship of the Three (Tsan-Tung-Chi or Cantong Qi), stands as a testament to his erudition and insight; it describes the process of creating a tiny golden pill that would confer immortality. The Chinese believed that gold, being imperishable, would bestow its properties upon those who consumed it, either by drinking from pure golden vessels, eating from golden plates, or ingesting pills made of gold.
Wei Boyang is also remembered as the first chronicler of the composition of the explosive mixture known as gunpowder. Though he is considered a semi-legendary character, his legacy has been deemed a symbol of the collective unity of the Chinese people.
The composition of Cantong Qi spanned several generations, with successive additions and revisions until it reached its final form before the year 450 CE. It is considered a seminal work in the field of Chinese chemistry (aka alchemy) and is revered for its wisdom and timeless insights. The contributions of Wei Boyang to the Chinese literary and chemical (aka alchemical) traditions continue to be studied and admired to this day, serving as a testament to his enduring legacy.
It was then in the era of the great chemist (aka alchemist) Ko-Hung, who lived between the years 254 and 334 CE, that the art of Chinese chemistry (aka alchemy) reached its pinnacle. This prolific scholar and master of the craft wrote extensively about his beliefs and practices, and his treatise remains a cornerstone of chemical (aka alchemical) knowledge to this day.
Ko-Hung viewed chemistry (aka alchemy) as a means of not only curing disease and promoting health, but also achieving immortality. He believed that the use of elixirs made from transmuted metals, in combination with an ascetic lifestyle, was the key to achieving eternal life. To this end, he devoted his life to the study of chemical (aka alchemical) compounds and techniques. He experimented with various substances, including cinnabar, sulfur, arsenic sulfide, salt, chalk, and oyster shells, using them to transform base metals into gold and other precious substances.
The methods used by Ko-Hung and his contemporaries were a mixture of boiling, sublimation, and fusing of compounds, and they likely also employed distillation to purify their preparations. Their techniques were guided by the mystical number five, which held great significance in Chinese chemistry (aka alchemy). This number represented the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, and was associated with five colors, five directions, and five metals – gold, silver, lead, copper, and iron. As a result, every step in the Chinese chemical (aka alchemical) process was performed five times to ensure success.
In ancient Egypt, the term “Khem” was used to denote the fertile lands along the banks of the mighty Nile. The beliefs of the Egyptians regarding the afterlife, and the mummification procedures they developed, led to a rudimentary understanding of chemistry and a quest for immortality.
Then, in the year 332 BCE, the land of Egypt was conquered by the great Alexander. The Greeks, who had long been philosophers of nature, were intrigued by the ways of the Egyptians and merged their own beliefs about the four elements – Fire, Earth, Air, and Water – with the sacred science of the land of the Pharaohs. The result was the word “Khemia,” which in Greek translates to “Egypt.” This version of chemistry’s history, however, neglects the ancient Chinese contributions to this mysterious field of science (a common western habit when narrating the story of things).
In the early Christian centuries, shrouded in superstition and magic, chemistry (aka alchemy) declined in Egypt and elsewhere. In its earlier form, however, the ideas and practices of chemists (aka alchemists) were heavily influenced by Greek science, religion, philosophy, and various strands of folklore. The pursuits of the ancient Egyptians were also closely tied to astrology and other branches of the occult.
(Al)Chemists of Old
I shall now delve deeper into the annals of pre-Islamic times to uncover the tales of the renowned chemists (aka alchemists) of this ancient era (in alphabetical order).
Alas, the list of pre-Islamic chemists (aka alchemy) begins with Agathodaemon. This learned scholar lived in Roman Egypt in the third century CE. Although very little is known about the life of Agathodaemon, his legacy lives on in the pages of medieval chemical (aka alchemical) treatises, most notably in the Anepigraphos. This text was likely compiled in the centuries following Agathodaemon’s passing.
Agathodaemon was celebrated for his extensive knowledge of elements and minerals, and his contributions to the field of chemistry (aka alchemy) have been characterized by his innovative descriptions of various chemical reactions and processes. Most notably, he wrote about a method for producing silver and of a substance that he had created, which he referred to as the “fiery poison.”
The “fiery poison” was a highly toxic compound that, based on Agathodaemon’s account, was likely arsenic trioxide. He described the substance as being formed by fusing a certain mineral (likely realgar or orpiment) with natron (a naturally occurring sodium carbonate) and then dissolving the mixture in water to produce a clear solution. He also noted that when he placed a fragment of copper into the solution, the copper turned a deep green hue, which would only occur if the substance used was copper arsenite.
Agathodaemon’s contributions to the field of chemistry (aka alchemy) were far-reaching, and his discoveries played a crucial role in the later use of poison, as arsenic and related substances were regularly employed as means of murder and assassination in subsequent centuries. While the only records of his existence are references in later works, he may still be considered a historical figure, given that the practice of chemistry (aka alchemy) began to decline around the time he is believed to have lived (due to Christian superstitions).
Despite the possibility that much of Agathodaemon’s work may have been lost over the centuries, his legacy was carried on by the Nestorians, who passed on their knowledge of chemistry (aka alchemy) to the Arabs. This transmission of knowledge was instrumental in the flourishing of chemistry (aka alchemy) in the Arab world after the advent of Islam, and in turn, the foundations of chemistry (aka alchemy) in western nations many centuries later were largely laid by the Arabs.
In the annals of Indian history, there lived a renowned sage by the name of Bogar, also known as Bhogar and Boganathar. He was born in the region of Vaigavur, situated near the Palani Hills, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is said that he was a disciple of the revered sage Kalangi Nathar and received his education from his mother and grandfather. Bogar was a devout follower of the Shaivite tradition and was known to have journeyed to China, spreading the teachings of enlightenment, as recorded in his book Bogar 7000.
Bogar was considered to be an accomplished sage himself, having achieved the state of “nirvikalpa samadhi”, a state of profound meditation, and is said to reside in this state beneath the sanctum of the Palani Murugan hill temple. It is believed that he traveled from South India to China via Sri Lanka, using the ancient Tamraparni sea route. A disciple of the teachings of Agastya, Bogar taught meditation, chemistry (aka alchemy), yantric designs, and Kriya yoga at the Kataragama Murugan shrine, where he also etched a yantric geometric design onto a metallic plate and installed it within the sanctum of the temple complex.
Bogar was among the earliest pilgrims to have visited the Murugan Tiruppadai in Sri Lanka, and according to legends and temple scriptures, he created the idol of Murugan at the Palani hill temple by mixing nine poisonous herbs (Navapashanam), using a unique process. He is also credited with establishing the temple dedicated to Murugan in Poombarai Kuzhanthai Velappar in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. The statue of Lord Murugan in Navapashanam is said to be an extant testament to Bogar’s great works, and it is believed that the milk poured on the statue mixed with the herbs, becoming an effective cure for various ailments of the time.
Bogar was verily a renowned figure in the field of Siddha medicine, credited with discovering an elixir of immortality. His treatise on pharmacognosy is the most well-known of his works, and he is also said to have written on yoga, archery, and medicine. After completing a meditation in the Meru hills, Bogar came to Palani, and it is believed that the priests of the Palani Murugan temple were descendants of his student Pulipani until the sixteenth century. This sage remains a revered figure in the annals of Indian history, and his teachings continue to inspire and guide people to this day.
The renowned Greek chemist (aka alchemist), author, and philosopher, Cleopatra the Chemist (aka alchemist), lived during the 3rd or 4th century CE in the city of Alexandria. She was considered a pioneer in the field of chemistry (aka alchemy), who experimented with practical applications, and was renowned for her works on weights and measures. Cleopatra was recognized as one of the four female chemists (aka alchemists) who were capable of producing the Philosopher’s Stone, and she is sometimes credited with inventing the alembic, a distillation apparatus used in chemistry (aka alchemy).
Cleopatra was held in high esteem by Arabic scholars, and her name was recorded with great respect in the famous Arabic encyclopedia Kitab al-Fihrist written in 988 CE. She was a contemporary of Zosimos of Panopolis and was considered one of the prominent figures of the chemical (aka alchemical) school typified by Mary the Jewess and Comarius.
Three chemical (aka alchemical) texts associated with Cleopatra have survived the test of time. The text A Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers is a highly imaginative and deeply felt document. Her other works include On Weights and Measures, Gold Making of Cleopatra, and A Dialogue of the Philosophers and Cleopatra.
Cleopatra was noted for her unique use of imagery that reflected the concepts of conception, birth, renewal, and transformation. She compared the chemist (aka alchemist) philosopher to a loving mother who constantly thinks about her child and nourishes it. The most famous of Cleopatra’s works is the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, a single-sheet document containing only symbols, drawings, and captions. This document was first discovered in a tenth-to-eleventh-century manuscript in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, and the title “Chrysopoeia” translates to “gold-making”.
In the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, the symbol of the serpent eating its tail, also known as the Ouroboros, was used to represent the unity of the cosmos and eternity. The ring symbolized gold, silver, and mercury, and the drawings of the “dibikos” and the instrument similar to a kerotakis were both chemical (aka alchemical) apparatuses. Another symbol used by Cleopatra was the eight-banded star, believed to depict the transformation of lead into silver. The crescent shapes above the star symbol further emphasized this idea.
I now bring to you the tale of the legendary figure known as Hermes Trismegistus.
Hermes Trismegistus was a syncretic combination of the Greek (idolatrized) god Hermes and the Egyptian (idolatrized) god Thoth. This figure was revered by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and was believed to be the author of the Hermetica, a diverse series of texts that laid the basis of various philosophical systems known as Hermeticism.
In these texts, the figure of Hermes Trismegistus was said to possess knowledge of both the material and spiritual worlds, making his wisdom relevant to those interested in the relationship between the material and the divine. Hermes Trismegistus can also be found in Islamic and Baháʼí writings, where he is allegedly associated with the Prophet Idris, may God be pleased with him.
It is known that throughout history, civilizations have fallen prey to the worship of idols and false deities through the deception of the demonic jinns (shayateen) that do Satan’s (Iblees’) bidding to achieve the ultimate objective of leading Adam’s offspring astray. In the case of Prophet Eesaa (Jesus), may God be pleased with him, he was mistakenly considered a god and a son of a god. So, it is possible that the Prophet Idris, may God be pleased with him, was similarly misunderstood by his contemporaries (and the future generations that revered his miraculous accomplishments based on written and verbal legacies) and revered as a god-like figure in his own time.
The Greeks in the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt recognized the equivalence of Hermes and Thoth, leading to the worship of the two gods as one, in the Temple of Thoth in Khemenu, which was known as Hermopolis in the Hellenistic period. The Greek god of communication, Hermes, was combined with the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth, to create this legendary figure.
Furthermore, the Egyptian priest and polymath Imhotep was deified after his death and assimilated to Thoth in the classical and Hellenistic periods. He, along with the renowned scribe Amenhotep and the wise man Teôs, who were coequal deities of wisdom, science, and medicine, was placed alongside Imhotep in shrines dedicated to Thoth-Hermes during the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
From the Middle Ages onward, the Hermetica gained great prestige and was widely popular among chemists (aka alchemists). The influence of Hermes was also strongly felt in the field of astrology, as exemplified by the influential Islamic astrologer Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi. As a result, the “Hermetic tradition” came to encompass subjects such as chemistry (aka alchemy), magic, astrology, and related fields.
The texts of the Hermetica were usually divided into two categories: philosophical and technical. The former dealt mainly with philosophy, while the latter was concerned with practical magic, potions, and chemistry (aka alchemy). The expression “hermetically sealed” is derived from the chemical (aka alchemical) process for making the Philosopher’s Stone. This required the mixture of materials to be placed in a glass vessel, which was then sealed by fusing the neck closed in a procedure known as the Seal of Hermes. The vessel was then heated for 30 to 40 days.
Antoine Faivre, in his book The Eternal Hermes (1995), has pointed out that even though the name Hermes does not appear in the Qur’an, Hermes Trismegistus has a place in the Islamic tradition. Hagiographers and chroniclers of the early Islamic Hijrah period quickly identified Hermes Trismegistus with the Islamic prophet Idris, who was also identified with the name Enoch. According to the account of the Iranian astrologer Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi, Idris/Hermes was known as “Thrice-Wise” Hermes Trismegistus because he had a threefold origin. The first Hermes, comparable to Thoth, was a “civilizing hero” and an initiator into the mysteries of divine science and wisdom. The second Hermes, in Babylon, was the initiator of Pythagoras. The third Hermes was the first teacher of chemistry (aka alchemy).
Another scholar writes, Hermes Trismegistus was a “faceless prophet,” possessing no concrete or salient characteristics, unlike most of the major figures of the Bible and the Qur’an. The star-worshipping sect known as the Sabians of Harran believed that their doctrine descended from Hermes Trismegistus. There are at least 20 Arabic Hermetica that exist to this day, some of which were translated from Greek or Middle Farsi, while others were originally written in Arabic. The works of Arabic chemists (aka alchemists), such as Jabir ibn Hayyan and Ibn Umayl, contain Hermetic fragments, including a commentary on the Emerald Tablet. It is through the legacy of these great scholars and thinkers that the wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus continues to live on, inspiring future generations to seek knowledge and understanding.
Mary the Jewess
I shall now write of the life and works of Mary the Jewess, also known as Mary the Prophetess or Maria the Copt. Mary, who lived in the city of Alexandria during the first and third centuries CE, was a master of the art of chemistry (aka alchemy), and is considered to be the first true chemist (aka alchemist) of the Christian world.
Mary’s contributions to the field of chemistry (aka alchemy) were so profound that she was mentioned by the great chemical (aka alchemical) author Zosimos of Panopolis. Through his works, we can gain insight into the beliefs of Mary, who incorporated the attributes of life into her descriptions of metal, including the concepts of bodies, souls, and spirits. She believed that metals had two different genders, and by joining these two genders together, a new entity could be formed. This unity of substances was seen as a key aspect of the chemical (aka alchemical) process.
Sadly, only fragments of Mary’s original Greek works survive today, as quoted by Zosimos and other later authors. However, there are several Arabic works attributed to her that are still extant, some of which have been translated into Latin. One such work is the Letter of Maria, Daughter of [the Queen of] Sheba, the Copt, to Aras, which was translated into Latin as the Practica Mariae Prophetissae Sororis Moysi. Another of her works is the Book of Maria and the Wise Men, and yet another is the Epistle of the Crown and the Creation of the Newborn Baby.
Moses of Alexandria
In the annals of history, there was also another chemist (aka alchemist) of exceptional skill and knowledge who flourished in the early era before the advent of Islam. He was known as Moses of Alexandria. This great chemist (aka alchemist) lived during the first or second century and was a renowned author of Greek chemical (aka alchemical) texts.
Moses was a figure of great reverence, often referred to as “Moses the thrice happy”. Though much of his identity remains shrouded in mystery, there is evidence to suggest that he was a Jewish chemist (aka alchemist), with his writings revealing traces of Jewish monotheism and other distinct Jewish beliefs. It is also said that he was conflated with the biblical Moses, the founder of the arts and sciences including philosophy and medicine.
His works are a testament to his profound knowledge of the chemical (aka alchemical) arts. Moses’ texts include prescriptions for the treatment of mercury, copper, and arsenic, the distillation of water, and instructions for the creation of gold through the process of chrysopoeia.
In the annals of history, there stands another figure of great repute and renown, Nāgārjuna. He is revered as one of the most significant philosophers of Buddhism, and in some traditions, he is remembered as a master of chemistry (aka alchemy) and metallurgy. It is said that he was born in the land of Vidarbha, in the vicinity of the powerful Satavahana dynasty.
Nāgārjuna traveled far and wide throughout the southern regions of India, establishing numerous laboratories in his quest for knowledge. He was driven by a desire to unravel the mysteries of immortality and to gain mastery over the art of extracting iron and mercury. Many authors have written works under the name of Nāgārjuna, leading scholars to advise the distinction between the Nāgārjuna the chemist (aka alchemist) , and the second-century Buddhist philosopher of the same name. The works attributed to Nāgārjuna include Jīvasūtra, Rasavaiśeṣikasūtra, Yogaśataka, Kakṣapuṭa, Yogaratnamālā, and many others, with Meulenbeld listing over fifty manuscripts.
According to tradition, Nāgārjuna was a practitioner of ayurvedic chemistry (aka alchemy), known as rasayāna. The biography of Kumārajīva recounts the tale of Nāgārjuna creating an elixir of invisibility, and the accounts of Bus-ton, Taranatha, and Xuanzang tell of his ability to turn rocks into gold. The intricacies of the text-historical issues surrounding the name of Nāgārjuna are discussed in depth in the History of Indian Medical Literature. In conclusion, Nāgārjuna stands as a towering figure in the annals of history, remembered for his contributions to the fields of philosophy, chemistry (aka alchemy), and metallurgy.
Another legendary figure is the ancient Persian magus and chemist (aka alchemist), Ostanes. This name was also employed as a pen name by several pseudonymous authors of Greek and Latin works, who wrote during the Hellenistic period.
Ostanes was one of the groups of Hellenistic Magians, along with Pseudo-Zoroaster and Pseudo-Hystaspes, all of whom wrote under the names of famous Magians. While Pseudo-Zoroaster was credited with the invention of astrology and Pseudo-Hystaspes was (falsely) known as an apocalyptic prophet, Ostanes was considered a master sorcerer. Pliny the Elder recounts that Ostanes was a Persian magus who accompanied Xerxes during his invasion of Greece and introduced the art of magic to the country.
According to Pliny, the introduction of this “monstrous craft” to the Greeks led to an insatiable thirst and madness for it, with many of their philosophers such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato traveling abroad to study and bring it back. Pliny also records Ostanes’ definition of magic, which involved divination through various methods such as water, globes, air, stars, lamps, basins, and axes, as well as communication with ghosts and the underworld.
With time, Ostanes’ legend and literary contributions continued to grow, and by the 4th century, he had become a prominent authority in the field of chemistry (aka alchemy). Many medieval chemical (aka alchemical) works were written under his name and his influence extended to Arabic and Persian chemical (aka alchemical) literature, such as the Arabic treatise, The Book of the Twelve Chapters on the Honourable Stone.
In the annals of the rich history of chemistry (aka alchemy) and Gnosticism, Zosimos of Panopolis stands out as a pioneering figure. Born in the town of Panopolis, located in the southern reaches of Roman Egypt, he lived at the end of the 3rd century and beginning of the 4th century CE. Zosimos was known by the Latin name “Zosimus the (al)Chemist” and was regarded as one of the greatest minds in the field of chemistry (aka alchemy) during his time.
He is also remembered for his written works, which he referred to as Cheirokmeta, meaning “things made by hand.” A portion of these works have survived through Greek and Arabic translations, and they provide a glimpse into his thoughts and ideas about the mystical science of chemistry (aka alchemy).
Zosimos was one of the 40 authors included in a collection of chemical (aka alchemical) writings compiled in Constantinople in the 7th or 8th century CE. These texts, which exist in manuscripts in Venice, demonstrate the extent of his influence and the significance of his work.
In 1995, Arabic translations of Zosimos’s texts were discovered in a copy of the book Keys of Mercy and Secrets of Wisdom by the Iranian chemist (aka alchemist), Ibn Al-Hassan Ibn Ali Al-Tughra’i. Although these translations were incomplete, they provided a glimpse into the rich Arabic tradition of chemistry (aka alchemy) and the importance of Zosimos’s work in this tradition.
The famous index of Arabic books, Kitab al-Fihrist by Ibn Al-Nadim, mentions earlier translations of four books by Zosimos, although the transliteration is inconsistent and the texts are attributed to different names. Historian of Islamic science, Fuat Sezgin, was also able to uncover 15 manuscripts of Zosimos in libraries located in Tehran, Cairo, Istanbul, Gotha, Dublin, and Rampur.
Now, let us delve into the realm of the art of Chemistry (aka alchemy), which was once steeped in myths and legends. In the early days, it was believed that the essence of all matter lay in the combination of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, as first posited by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It was also believed that gold was the purest and noblest of all metals, followed by silver, and that it was possible to transmute one metal into another by adjusting the mixture of elements. And so, this led to a plethora of experiments, ranging from the making of glass and leather to the working of metals and the preparation of drugs.
However, it was the scholars of the Islamic lands who brought a new level of rigor and experimentation to this field. Relying on Greek works to lay the foundation of their understanding, they soon realized the limitations of the abstract speculation that characterized Greek chemistry. And so, they set out to build a new, empirical science of chemistry, discarding the folklore and occult practices that had once been associated with the art of Chemistry (aka alchemy).
In their quest for knowledge, some of the Muslim chemists continued to use the old terminology and pursued ancient aims, such as the elusive stone of wisdom, which was said to have the power to turn base metals into gold, and the elixir of life, which was believed to confer eternal health and youth. But, unlike their predecessors, they approached these goals with a scientific method, seeking to uncover the secrets of nature through experimentation and observation. And thus, a new era of chemical (aka alchemical) inquiry was born, one that would go on to lay the foundation for the modern science of chemistry.
Indeed, it is through the tireless efforts of these Muslim scientists that the science of chemistry was born and thrives today, rid of its superstitious roots and firmly established as a discipline based on empirical observation and experimentation.
The wise and learned sages in the Islamic lands fervently condemned the blending of occult practices with the study of chemistry. The esteemed ibn Khaldun, in his revered Muqaddima, declared the deceptive practice of gilding silver with a thin layer of gold as a manifestation of the corruption of the art of metalworking. For him, the divine plan of the scarcity of gold and silver ensured the value and prosperity of these metals, and any attempt to increase their quantity would go against this divine wisdom.
Similarly, al-Kindi, the philosopher of the Arabs, wrote against the chemical (aka alchemical) transmutation of base stones into precious ones. He distinguished alchemy from the noble science of chemistry, a distinction that was remarkable in its time. Through his book Kitab at-Tanbih ‘al Khata’ al-Kimiyyawiyyin, al-Kindi warned against the fraudulent practices of alchemists.
Unfortunately, the contribution of Muslim chemists to the advancement of the field has not been properly recognized in the historical literature of the modern ages. Despite the efforts of scholars such as Eilhard Wiedemann to shed light on the contributions of Muslim chemists, many still associate Muslim achievements in chemistry with the occult or only acknowledge the work of the renowned Jabir ibn Hayyan.
However, the annals of Islamic history reveal a rich legacy of chemists and alchemists, starting with the Umayyad prince Khalid ibn Yazid and including figures such as Jabir ibn Hayyan, ibn Wahshiyya, al-Dimashqi, al-Razi, ibn Umail al-Tamimi, al-Farabi, al-Majriti, al-Khwarizmi al-Khati, Muayid al-Din al-Tughrai, Abu ‘l Hasan b. Musa b. Arfa Ra’a, Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Iraqi Al-Simawi, al-Djildaki, and Abu’l Ashba b. Tammam. These great minds wrote works that served as the foundation for the growth of the science of chemistry and left a lasting impact on the field. For this article, let us take a look at a few of those notable names.
Jabir ibn Hayyan
Verily, the name of Jabir ibn Hayyan shall forever be remembered in the annals of Islamic scientific history as the first chemist of the Islamic civilization. Born in the year 722 CE and passing away in the year 815, his contributions to the field of chemistry are a testament to the grandeur and ingenuity of the Islamic Golden Age.
His works were not merely limited to the realm of chemistry, but extended to the fields of physics and mathematics as well. His compendium, al-Khawass al-Kabir, chronicled the chemical properties of various substances, while Al-Mawazin dealt with weights and measures, and Al-Mizaj with the study of chemical combinations. In his treatise Al-Asbagh, he delved into the secrets of dyes and their preparation.
From the Great Book of Chemical Properties to Weights and Measures, and from Chemical Combination to Dyes, the treatises attributed to Jabir offer a glimpse into the knowledge and expertise of this pioneering chemist. Ibn Hayyan’s scientific acumen was verily evident in his invention of a precise scale that weighed items with a precision six thousand four hundred and eighty times (6,480) smaller than a kilogram (ratl), foretelling the work of many modern-age figures such as John Dalton (by ten centuries). Ibn Hayyan theorized that chemical combinations were a union of elements in minute particles that were too small to be seen by the naked eye, yet retained their original properties. He was the first to describe the basic chemical operations of sublimation, liquefaction, purification, oxidation, amalgamation, crystallization, distillation, evaporation, and filtration and described them in detail in his works.
Jabir ibn Hayyan was not only a great scholar, but also a gifted inventor, who crafted a type of paper that was immune to fire and an ink that could be read in the dark. His knowledge was not limited to the production of cheap illuminating ink for manuscripts or the use of manganese dioxide in glassmaking, but extended to the discovery of citric acid and other organic substances. He identified alkali acids, salts, paints, and greases, and was able to prepare sulphuric acid, nitro-hydrochloric acid, caustic soda, and various salts such as sulfates and nitrates, as well as potassium and sodium carbonates. His work in metals and salts led to advances in foundry techniques and the glazing of tiles and ceramics.
Indeed, the scope of ibn Hayyan’s achievements was vast, encompassing the preparation of steel and the refinement of metals, the art of dyeing and marking, the creation of waterproof varnishes, and the preparation of hair dyes. It is with a heavy heart that I acknowledge that these accomplishments have been unjustly overlooked in many poorly researched works from the western world, but I assure you, dear reader, that the legacy of Jabir ibn Hayyan shall endure for generations to come.
Verily, in the quest for truth, it is not sufficient to merely ponder and theorize. One must delve deeper, into the very heart of matter itself, to witness its properties and uncover its secrets. This can only be achieved through the sacred act of experimentation, where the scientist engages in a direct dialogue with creation, and through his efforts, he uncovers the hidden truths that Allah has placed within the natural world.
It is with this spirit that the great chemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, embarked on his quest for knowledge. He was the first among the Muslim chemists to emphasize the significance of conducting experiments in the laboratory, and his works stand as a testament to the power of observation, perseverance, and intellect. With each experiment, ibn Hayyan sought to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, and in doing so, he paved the way for generations of chemists to follow in his footsteps.
“The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldst perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery. But thou, O my son, do thou experiment so that thou mayest acquire knowledge… Scientists delight not in the abundance of material; they rejoice only in the excellence of their experimental methods.”– Jabir ibn Hayyan
In the annals of Islamic history, Dhul-Nun al-Misri is a venerated figure, remembered as both a renowned chemist and an early Muslim mystic and ascetic. Born in the year 796 CE in the land of Upper Egypt, Dhul-Nun was blessed with a thirst for knowledge and a yearning for spiritual enlightenment from a young age. It is said that he studied the scholastic disciplines of chemistry, medicine, and Greek philosophy before coming under the tutelage of the revered mystic Saʿdūn of Cairo, who became both his teacher and spiritual director.
Dhul-Nun’s impact on Islamic tradition was immense, as he is considered one of the most prominent saints of early Islamic mysticism, appearing in the earliest accounts of Ṣūfism as the leading figure of his generation. He was the spiritual master of the renowned mystic Sahl al-Tustari, who, it is said, refused to engage in mystical discourse until after Dhul-Nun’s passing, as a testament to his recognition of Dhul-Nun’s elevated rank in wisdom and gnosis.
The legends surrounding Dhul-Nun are many, including that he knew the secret of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and was a legendary chemist (aka alchemist) and thaumaturge. Although no written works by him have survived, his sayings and poems, rich in mystical imagery, continue to live on in oral tradition, and his teachings emphasize the importance of knowledge, or gnosis (ma’rifah), over fear (makhaafah) or love (mahabbah), which are considered the other two major paths of spiritual realization in Sufism.
Dhu’l-Nun was widely renowned for his expertise in the art of chemistry (aka alchemy) and was often cited as an authority on the subject by early Islamic philosophers and scholars. For instance, the historian Qifti stated that Dhu’l-Nun belonged to the same class of chemists (aka alchemists) as Jabir ibn Hayyan, and was well-versed in the science of esoterics. He was known to have frequented the ruined temple in Akhmim, where, according to legend, knowledge of the mysteries within was revealed to him by the way of saintship.
Moreover, the renowned chemist (aka alchemist) Abu Hari Uthman ibn Suwaid al-Akhmimi was said to have been highly influenced by Dhu’l-Nun and wrote a treatise entitled Clearing Dhu’l Nun al-Misri of False Charges, a reference to the accusations of heresy that were occasionally leveled against the mystic. This treatise is a testament to the great esteem in which Dhu’l-Nun was held by the Egyptian chemists of his time.
Another noteworthy mention of Dhu’l-Nun as a chemical (aka alchemical) authority can be found in the Ma’ al-Waraqi, a book of silvery water written by Muhammad ibn Umayl al-Tamimi, known as al-Hakim. This Islamic chemist, who lived in the first half of the tenth century, was known for his interest in ancient temples and their wall paintings. He described two “quasi-archaeological expeditions” to a temple at Busir al-Sidr, intending to find documents of chemical (aka alchemical) wisdom. Al-Hakim favored the allegorical interpretation of chemistry (aka alchemy) and regarded Dhu’l-Nun as a symbolist, rather than an erring experimentalist.
And now, let’s delve into the story of yet another remarkable figure in the annals of Islamic chemistry – Muhammad ibn Umayl al-Tamīmī, known in the Latin lands as Senior Zadith.
This esteemed chemist lived in the 10th century, between the years 900 and 960 CE. Although his origins are shrouded in mystery, a manuscript in the Vatican Library catalog lists him with the nisba al-Andalusī, hinting at a possible connection to al-Andalus. Yet, his writings and reflections suggest that he spent most of his life in the land of Pharaohs, Egypt, and journeyed to other parts of the Muslim world such as North Africa and Iraq.
Ibn Umayl lived a solitary life, one that he himself extolled in his writings. His reflections on the comparison of the Chemical (aka alchemical) oven with the ancient temples of Egypt suggest that he may have resided for some time in the once-great center of Chemistry (aka alchemy), Akhmim. He also quoted and honored the work of other renowned chemists (aka alchemists) of Egypt, such as Zosimos of Panopolis and Dhul-Nun al-Misri.
The legacy of this enigmatic figure was not limited to his own time, for in later European literature, he was known by several names. The Latin translation of his title of Sheikh became ‘Senior’, and the honorific al-sadik was phonetically rendered as ‘Zadith’. An erroneous translation of his name ‘ibn Umayl’ resulted in various versions such as ‘filius Hamuel’, ‘ben Hamuel’, or ‘Hamuelis’.
Ibn Umayl was a mystical and symbolic chemist, one who saw himself as continuing the tradition of the “sages of Islam” by rejecting a literal interpretation of chemistry (aka alchemy). While experimenters and practical chemists (aka alchemists) made great advancements in the sciences of metallurgy and chemistry, ibn Umayl believed that the true and precious goal of chemistry (aka alchemy) was its symbolic meaning, which he felt was often tragically overlooked.
Ibn Umayl frequently combined the wisdom of the ancient Greek chemists (aka alchemists) with his own unique insights to create works of unparalleled significance and impact.
One of his most famous treatises, The Silvery Water, has revealed to us the rich heritage of Greek chemistry (aka alchemy) that forms the foundation of so much of our modern understanding of this art. Through his numerous citations from earlier works, he has illuminated the Arabic origins of Turba Philosophorum, which date back to the ninth century CE.
In this same work, he also delved into the mysterious realm of Hermetic chemistry (aka alchemy), offering a commentary on the fabled Emerald Tablet and other fragments attributed to the sage Hermes Trismegistus. Through his expertise in the interpretation of symbols and arcane knowledge, he set his treatise in the hallowed halls of the Egyptian temple of Sidr wa-Abu Sîr, where the prophet Yusuf (Joseph), may God be pleased with him, is said to have learned the art of interpreting dreams.
But perhaps Ibn Umayl’s most remarkable contribution to the field of chemistry (aka alchemy) was his Book of the Explanation of Symbols, where he emphasized the idea that the sages of old spoke in a language of symbols, a cryptic code that could only be deciphered by those who had the knowledge and wisdom to do so. In this book, he compiled a comprehensive list of names and symbols that referred to the inner mysteries of the art, a religious experience that could not be fully explained through mere words and allegories.
Throughout all his works, Ibn Umayl remained steadfast in his devotion to Islam, often invoking his faith and seeking to impart his knowledge and wisdom to his fellow believers. He quoted verses from the Holy Qur’an and wrote with a sense of purpose and mission, seeking to offer a unified synthesis of all his earlier works in his Hall ar-Rumūz.
Verily, the annals of Islamic chemistry are replete with the works of great minds, and one of the foremost is Al-Kindi, a son of Kufa and a scholar of Baghdad. He was held in high esteem at the courts of Al-Mamun and Al-Mutassim and was even chosen to be a tutor to Al-Mutassim’s son, Ahmad. Al-Kindi’s expertise in the field of chemistry is evident in his treatise, Kitab Kimiya’ al-‘Itr (Book of the Chemistry of Perfume), which was discovered by H. Ritter in an Istanbul manuscript and later edited by Karl Garbers. This masterpiece contains over 100 recipes for fragrant oils, salves, aromatic waters, and substitutes for costly drugs, and is a systematic exploration of the subject, spanning almost 60 pages in the printed Arabic text.
It is reported that a witness was privy to the workings of his laboratory, who relates:
“I beheld with my own eyes Abu Yusuf Ya’qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi as he concocted a fragrance called ghaliya, made of musk, amber, and other precious ingredients, and I was privileged to witness him adding a personal touch to the mixture.”
This account not only details the techniques used by Al-Kindi in his experiments, but also lists the technical terminology of the drugs and apparatus he employed.
In another of his works, now lost to the sands of time, al-Kindi wrote of his knowledge of the artificial production of foodstuffs, entitled A Treatise on the Artificial Production of Foodstuffs without their Elements. Here, al-Kindi delves into experiments of great complexity, though it is uncertain whether he was engaged in the trade of drugs. According to scholars, this work was for theoretical purposes, and the experiments may have been performed for the alleviation of famine.
Yet despite al-Kindi’s marvelous achievements in the field of chemistry, it was al-Razi who truly established the laboratory in its modern form, as he was the first to design, describe, and utilize more than twenty instruments. Al-Razi not only lists the instruments used in the field of chemistry, but also provides instructions for the construction of composite apparatus. This pioneering work, the precursor to the modern laboratory, still influences the art of laboratory work to this day.
And lo, this great Muslim chemist, Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi, made significant contributions to the advancement of chemistry. In his work, Secret of Secrets, al-Razi divided substances into three categories – animals, vegetables, and minerals. The mineral substances included mercury, gold, silver, pyrites, glass, and others. Vegetable substances were primarily used by physicians, while animal substances were divided into hair, blood, milk, eggs, bile, and so forth. Al-Razi also added entries for artificially obtained substances, such as lead oxide, caustic soda, and various alloys.
Furthermore, in this remarkable treatise, al-Razi also recorded his experiments with meticulous detail, describing the materials used, apparatus, methods, and conditions of each experiment. He performed a wide variety of chemical processes, including distillation, calcination, and crystallization, and described them in vivid detail, leaving a legacy that continues to inspire and inform to this day. Such was the rigor and precision of Al-Razi’s work that it truly signified the beginning of modern chemistry.
It is worth mentioning that it was Gerard of Cremona, an Italian translator of the 12th century, who made the most valuable translations of Al-Razi’s studies and classifications of salts and alums in the De Aluminibus et Salibus, which had a decisive influence on mineralogy in the west.
Moreover, Muslim chemical technology played a vital role in the history of the subject, and their works provided detailed descriptions of equipment and unit processes. Distillation was widely utilized and played a significant role in the production of rosewater and perfumes, oils and fats, and petroleum. The writings of Jabir ibn Hayyan, al-Razi, and later Muslim chemists provided information on the preparation of mineral acids, such as nitric acid, aqua regia, and sulfuric and hydrochloric acids. Alkalis were in high demand for making glass, glazes, and soap, with hard soap being first produced in Islamic lands. Verily, these achievements of Muslim chemists will remain etched in the annals of history, a testament to their invaluable contributions to the field.
Now, we shall recount the story of al-Majriti, the Andalusian Muslim court scientist of Madrid, who lived in the 10th century CE and was renowned for his contributions to the field of chemistry. I also wrote more about him in a previous article, which you can read by clicking here.
Al-Majriti is remembered in the annals of history for his work, Rutbat Al-Hakim (The Rank of the Wise), wherein he expounded upon the purification of precious metals, including formulae and instructions for the same. This valuable tome was collected and compiled in the year 1009, two years after his passing. Al-Majriti’s pioneering spirit was such that he was the first to prove the principle of conservation of mass, which would not be credited until centuries later to the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.
It must be acknowledged that the science of chemistry, like many others, flourished during the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization, and was translated and disseminated throughout Europe in the form of Latin and local language versions. Despite the efforts of many anonymous translators, it was scholars like Robert of Chester, who brought forth the Liber de Compositione Alchemise to the western world. Furthermore, Hugh of Santalla made the earliest Latin translation of the Lawh Azzabarjad (The Emerald Table). As I mentioned recently, it was the Italian Gerard of Cremona who made the most impactful translations, including the aforementioned al-Razi’s study of salts and alums, which had a decisive influence on mineralogy in the west.
And let us not forget Alfred of Sareshel, who translated the section on chemistry from ibn Sina’s Kitab al-Shifaa’ (The Book of Healing). It was only in recent times that the achievements of Muslim chemists were given the attention they deserve, starting with the French chemist Berthelot in the late 19th century, followed by Holmyard, Kraus, and Ruska, who offers the most comprehensive account of Muslim chemistry. It is with great regret that much of Ruska’s work remains inaccessible to those who do not speak German.
Al-Majriti truly shines as a beacon of knowledge and wisdom. In his book Rutbat al-Hakim (The Sage’s Step), he documents his daring experiment with mercuric oxide, a testament to the importance of experimentation in Islamic science:
“I took natural quivering mercury, free from impurity, and placed it in a glass vessel shaped like an egg. This I put inside another vessel like a cooking pot and set the whole apparatus over an extremely gentle fire. The outer pot was then in such a degree of heat that I could bear my hand upon it. I heated the apparatus day and night for forty days, after which I opened it. I found that the mercury (the original weight of which was a quarter of a pound) had been completely converted into red powder, soft to touch, the weight remaining as it was originally.”
It is with sadness that we must acknowledge that the contributions of these great Muslim scientists have been unjustly neglected within the halls of mainstream scientific academia. Yet we hope that, in time, this injustice shall be rectified, and the world may come to fully appreciate the richness of Islamic science, particularly within the field of chemistry.
It must also be emphasized that what distinguishes the science of chemistry in Muslim Civilizations from its Greek predecessors is the emphasis on experimentation. The Muslims were the pioneers of experimentation in the sciences, centuries before the likes of Robert Grosseteste, and it is this legacy that has continued to inspire and influence generations of scientists and scholars.
Thus, let us remember and pay homage to all these remarkable figures, who dedicated their lives to uncovering the mysteries of the ancient art of chemistry and passing on its wisdom to future generations.
II – Toxicology
Verily, the study of toxicology has a rich and storied history, with early Islamic scholars holding a most illustrious place within its annals. The very terminology of the field, with words such as “toxin” and “bezoar,” harkens back to the days of Islamic antiquity, a testament to the importance of this knowledge during a time of flourishing civilizations. Ancient scholars such as Galen and Dioscorides were renowned for their extensive knowledge of the subject, and their works have been widely attributed as authoritative sources on the topic – that is, until Muslim toxicologists improved our knowledge to a much greater extent than the ancients did.
In the land of Islam, many illustrious scribes also delved into the realm of poisons and their remedies. Snakes, dog bites, and the venom of scorpions, spiders, and other venomous creatures were of great concern, for they posed a constant threat to the health and well-being of the masses. Moreover, the poisonous properties of minerals and plants were widely known, and criminal poisoning was a scourge that plagued the land, a practice that was prohibited by the holy scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
It was in the age of enlightenment, during the golden era of Arabic medicine, that the subject of poisons gained even more prominence. Notable medical encyclopedias, such as al-Qānūn fīl-Ṭibb by the great physician Avicenna and Kitāb al-Mukhtārāt fīl-Ṭibb by ibn Hubal, contained chapters devoted solely to this subject. The authors of materia medica books also paid close attention to the topic of poisons, and the famous Andalusian botanist, ibn al-Bayṭar, wrote an extensive treatise on simple drugs, including a section on botanical poisons and their treatments.
Renowned scholars such as Ibn Uthal, Jaber-ibn-Hayyan, Ibn Wahshiyya, and Imad al-Din Shirazi, were all masters in the art of toxicology, with their works offering profound insight into the nature of poisons and their antidotes. These learned men delved into many aspects of the subject, including the composition and identification of toxins, methods of detoxification, the pharmacology and pharmacokinetics of poison, and even the ethical considerations surrounding their use. They also possessed a keen understanding of the importance of preventing poisonings, and their writings offer a rich trove of information on the use of pharmacological remedies and antidotes for a wide range of afflictions, from the bite of venomous creatures to scabies and oleander poisoning. By delving into the treatises and manuscripts of these medieval Islamic toxicologists, we may yet discover new methods of prevention and treatment, and forge a path toward a brighter and safer future.
Shānāq (aka Chanakya) was a man of great wisdom and was renowned for his expertise in toxicology; his knowledge was not limited to just poisons, for he also wrote several other works that shed light on various fields of study. He wrote Kitab al-Baytarah (On Veterinary Medicine), providing valuable insight into the care and treatment of animals. He also delved into the study of astrology, authoring Kitab fī ‘Ilm al-Nujūm (On Astrology). Furthermore, he wrote Kitab Muntakhal al-Jawhar (Sifted Jewels), a work dedicated to an Indian king of that age, Ibn Qamāniṣ al-Hindī (his name in Arabic).
However, it was Kitāb as-Sumūm (On Poisons) that truly illuminated the field of toxicology in the early days of Arabic civilization. This work was originally written in Sanskrit and then translated into Farsi by Mankah al-Hindī; it was then transcribed further in Farsi by al-Balkhi before being expounded to Yahya ibn Khalid ibn Barmak. The work was then deemed worthy of being translated into Arabic and was presented to the caliph al-Ma’mūn by his client, al-‘Abbās ibn Sa’īd al-Jawharī. Al-‘Abbās was also responsible for reading the book aloud to al-Ma’mūn, thus ensuring its dissemination among the Muslims back then.
Moreover, this text discussed the detection of poisons through sight, touch, taste, and the symptoms they cause. It also provided descriptions of poisoned drinks, foods, clothes, carpets, beds, skin lotions, eye salves, and narcotics, as well as universal antidotes. This valuable text was so highly prized that kings guarded it jealously, keeping it locked away in their treasure cabinets, hidden from all but their most trusted advisors.
Therefore, it can be said with certainty that Shānāq was a giant in the field of toxicology, as important to the history of Arabic medicine as Dioscorides was to materia medica. His legacy lives on, inspiring generations of physicians and scholars to delve deeper into the mysteries of poisons and their remedies, preserving his teachings for future generations to ponder and admire.
Jabir ibn Hayyan
The study of poisons and their treatments was a topic of great significance among the early Muslims. One of the earliest and most notable contributions in this field came from the esteemed chemist and physician Jābir ibn Hayyān, which we recently talked about in the previous sections. He wrote the monumental work Kitāb as-Sumūm (Book of Poisons), which was dedicated solely to the subject of poisons and their antidotes. In his book, Jābir meticulously categorized poisons according to their types, natural origins, modes of action, dosages, methods of administration, choice of drugs, and the targeted organ that was affected by each poison. The book was held in high esteem by many, including the Nabataean agriculturalist and toxicologist, ibn Wahshiyyah (d. 930 CE) who deemed it a “great work… a wonder”.
However, the most comprehensive and in-depth text on the topic of toxicology was the Kitāb al-Munqith min al-Halakah fī Daf Madhārr al-Sumūm al-Muhlikah (The Savior from Demise and on Withstanding the Harms of Deadly Poisons, written by ibn al-Mubārak (Al-Ḥasanibn Abī Thaʿlab ibn al-Mubārak). In this remarkable work, ibn al-Mubārak warns that poisoning was a common method used to harm or kill kings and noblemen, and thus he set out to provide a comprehensive guide for those who sought to avoid its dangers. The book was written in three essays, each dealing with different aspects of toxicology and its treatments. This work provided a complete and comprehensive understanding of the potential causes of poisoning. Ibn al-Mubarak delved into all aspects of toxic food, including fruits, vegetables, toxic flowers, and mineral poisons, as well as animals with toxic bites, and their possible antidotes.
Although his exact life span remains uncertain, it is estimated that he flourished around the 11th century CE. Details about ibn al-Mubarak’s biography are quite scarce, with his book continuing to be a highly sought-after and widely studied text in the field of toxicology. Copies of the manuscript are available in various libraries across the world, including the Library of Congress and the Chester Beatty Library, although a critical edition of the text remains unpublished to this day.
In the first essay of this book, ibn al-Mubārak discusses the symptoms of poisoning in food and drink, which were often used to harm or kill people. He divides his treatise according to the different kinds of food, such as meat, sweets, cheese, fruits, and aromatic plants, and provides recipes for antidotes to each type of poison. He also outlines the symptoms that indicate which type of poison has been used and provides guidance on how to avoid its damage.
The second essay presents the symptoms that indicate that a person has been poisoned by simple poisons, such as those found in the gallbladder of leopards, the venom of snakes and scorpions, and the blood of certain animals, as well as plants like wolf’s bane, cowbane, all kinds of henbane, and devil’s trumpet, and minerals such as gold, silver, lead, iron, and mercury. Ibn al-Mubārak also provides tests to determine the reality of each poison and describes its treatment and antidotes.
The third essay, which is arguably the most interesting part of the book, provides a comprehensive guide to the different types of toxic snakes, categorized by the months in a year. He also discusses other toxic animals such as scorpions, bees, and ants.
It is also worth mentioning that ibn al-Mubārak states that his main source for this work came from an Indian book, which is believed to be the previously-mentioned book authored by Shānāq (Chanakya). Nevertheless, through his exceptional book, ibn al-Mubārak solidified the Arabic civilization’s position as a leader in the field of toxicology and medicine, and it remains a timeless treasure for all those who seek to deepen their understanding of this important subject.
Imad al-Din Shirazi
Last, but not least, allow me to relate to you the story of ‘Imad al-Din Maẖmud ibn Masʽud Shirazi, a renowned physician from the city of Shiraz in 16th-century Iran. Son of a physician, he honed his medical knowledge under the tutelage of his father before imparting his wisdom to his own pupils.
In his early days of practice, he served the governor of Shirvan, but a misstep incurred the wrath of the governor and resulted in a fateful punishment – spending a bitterly cold night in the elements. On that fateful night, ‘Imad al-Din resorted to the use of opium and, although he recovered from the cold, he suffered from a tremble for the rest of his life. However, this experience solidified his belief in the therapeutic value of opium and led him to pen a treatise in Farsi on the subject. Copies of this work can be found in the National Library of Medicine and the Library of Ibn Sina Academy of Medieval Medicine and Sciences.
In addition to his treatise on opium, ‘Imad al-Din also wrote extensively on other medical subjects. He composed the first Farsi-language monograph on syphilis and advocated for the use of China root in treatment, as well as contributing to the field of anatomy with his own treatise.
The learned physician also left a rich legacy in the realm of toxicology, with works such as Resale al Sammie, Marefat al Samum, and Resale dar Samum. In the latter, he delves into the definition of food, drug, and poison, and offers insight into the signs, symptoms, and treatment of poisoning. It is in this work where he makes a remarkable observation, suggesting the existence of natural drugs that are toxicants and that animals instinctively avoid. A concept that would lay the foundations for the development of insect repellants and the field of zoo pharmacognosy.
Alas, we saw how the study of toxicology in the early Muslim Golden era was greatly influenced by notable Indian sources, as exemplified by Shānāq’s works. Through the efforts of scholars like Jābir ibn Hayyān and ibn Wahshiyyah, the discipline of toxicology was further developed, until it was elevated to a distinct branch of medical science, culminating in the remarkable achievement of ibn al-Mubārak’s Kitāb al-Munqidh min al-Halakah. This book, which serves as a complete reference to toxicology, is a testament to the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that flourished during the Arabic civilization.