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Jabir Ibn Hayyan (ca.721, Tus, Iran – 815, Kufa, Iraq), full name: Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan Al-Azdi (أبو موسى جابر بن حيان الأزدي), was an Muslim chemist and alchemist. Referred to in Western contexts by the Latinized form of his given name (Jabir), Geber, also known as the Father of Chemistry, because he was the first to scientifically systemize chemistry.

Jabir was born in the year 721 EV as the son of a druggist of the famous Arab-Yemeni tribe of Azd. He later became the pupil of the celebrated Islamic teacher Imam Jaffar. He spent most of his life in Kufa, Iraq. In spite of Jabir's leanings toward mysticism and superstition, he more clearly recognized and proclaimed the importance of experimentation.

"The first essential in chemistry," he declared, "is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain the least degree of mastery." He made noteworthy advances in both the theory and practice of chemistry.

His books strongly influenced European alchemists and justified their search for the philosopher's stone. He is credited with the invention of many types of now-basic chemical laboratory equipment, and with the discovery and description of many now-commonplace chemical substances and processes — such as the hydrochloric and nitric acids, distillation, and crystallization — that have become the foundation of modern chemistry and chemical engineering. He was a prominent student of Jafar Sadiq.

Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Geber were also pen names of an anonymous 14th century European alchemist, author of the treatise Summa Perfectione and several other books.

Table of contents

Contributions to chemistry

Jabir wrote more than one hundred treatises on various subjects, of which 22 are about alchemy. Firmly grounded on experimental observation, his books systematized the knowledge about the fundamental chemical processes of the alchemists — such as crystallization, distillation, calcination, sublimation and evaporation — thus making a great step in the evolution of chemistry from an occultist art to a scientific discipline. In particular, Jabir emphasized that definite quantities of various substances are involved in a chemical reaction, thus anticipating by almost a thousand years the principles of quantitative chemistry and the law of definite proportions.

Jabir is also credited with the invention and development of several chemical instruments that are still used today, such as the alembic, which made distillation easy, safe, and efficient. By distilling various salts together with sulfuric acid, Jabir discovered hydrochloric acid (salt) and nitric acid (from saltpeter). By combining the two, he invented aqua regia, one of the few substances that can dissolve gold. Besides its obvious applications to gold extraction and purification, this discovery would fuel the dreams and despair of alchemists for the next thousand years. He is also credited with the discovery of citric acid (the sour principle of lemons and other unripe fruits), acetic acid (from vinegar), and tartaric acid (from wine-making residues).

Jabir applied his chemical knowledge to the improvement of many manufacturing processes, such as the making of steel and other metals, rust prevention, gold lettering, cloth dyeing and waterproofing, leather tanning, and the chemical analysis of pigments and other substances. He developed the use of manganese dioxide in glassmaking, to counteract the green tinge produced by iron — a process that is still used to this day. He noted that boiling wine released a flammable vapor, thus paving the way to Al-Razi's discovery of ethanol.

The seeds of the modern classification of elements into metals and non-metals could be seen in his chemical nomenclature. He proposed three categories: "spirits" which vaporize on heating, like camphor, arsenic and ammonium chloride; "metals", like gold, silver, lead, copper, iron; and "stones" that can be converted into powders.

In the Middle Ages, Jabir's treatises on chemistry were translated into Latin and became standard texts for European alchemists. These include the Kitab al-Kimya (titled "Book of the Composition of Alchemy" in Europe), translated by Robert of Chester (1144); and the Kitab al-Sab'een by Gerard of Cremona (before 1187). Berthelot translated some his books known by the titles "Book of Kingdom", "Book of the Balances," "Book of Eastern Mercury," and it is obvious that he did not use correct titles for Jabir's books. Several technical terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have found their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.

Jabir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy, and other sciences. Unfortunately, only a few of his books have been edited and published, and fewer still are available in translation.

Contributions to alchemy

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

Jabir's alchemical investigations revolved around the ultimate goal of takwin — the artificial creation of life. 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.

To Aristotelian physics, Jabir added the four properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. (Burkhardt, p. 29) Each Aristotelian element was characterized by these qualities: Fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. In metals two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was cold and dry and gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. (Burckhardt, p. 29) This theory appears to have originated the search for al-iksir, the elusive elixir that would make this transformation possible — which in European alchemy became known as the philosopher's stone.

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