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 Alchemy in Islamic Times

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Silver Wind
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Silver Wind

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PostSubject: Alchemy in Islamic Times   Tue Sep 25, 2007 10:09 am


On 8 June, A.D. 632, the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Prayers be upon Him) died, having accomplished the marvelous task of uniting the tribes of Arabia into a homogeneous and powerful nation.
In the interval, Persia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, the whole North Africa, Gibraltar and Spain had been submitted to the Islamic State, and a new civilization had been established.
The Arabs quickly assimilated the culture and knowledge of the peoples they ruled, while the latter in turn-Persians, Syrians, Copts, Berbers, and others-adopted the Arabic language. The nationality of the Muslim thus became submerged, and the term Arab acquired a linguistic sense rather than a strictly ethnological one.
As soon as Islamic State had been established, the Arabs began to encourage learning of all kinds. schools, colleges, libraries, observatories and hospitals were built throughout the whole Islamic State, and were adequately staffed and endowed.
In the same time, scholars were invited to Damascus and Baghdad without distinction of nationality or creed. Greek manuscripts were acquired in large numbers and were studied, translated and provided with scholarly and illuminating commentaries.
The old learning was thus infused with a new vigor, and the intellectual freedom of men of the desert stimulated the search for knowledge and science.
In early days at least, the Muslims were eager seekers for knowledge, and Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world. Historians have justly remarked that the school of Baghdad was characterized by a new scientific spirit.
Proceeding from the known to the unknown; taking precise account of phenomena; accepting nothing as true which was not confirmed by experience, or established by experiment, such were fundamental principles taught and acclaimed by the then masters of the sciences.

Cultural Background

Three of the 'Abbasid Caliphs distinguished themselves greatly in this respect: the second, al-Mansur (754-775), who founded Baghdad, and, even more so, the fifth, Harun-al-Rashid whose fame has been immortalized by many legends and the seventh, Al-Ma'mun (813-833). All of them encouraged the work of the translators who were busily unlocking the treasures of Greek knowledge.
First of all the word 'alchemy', as the article al- indicates, is Arabic (al-klmya'). The origin of the word kimya', pre-Arabic, is arguable. Several more or less plausible or legendary hypotheses have been advanced. For some the word came from the Egyptian kemi (black), whence the Greek kemia which might indicate two things:
Egypt, 'the black land' according to Plutarch - alchemy would be preeminently the science of Egypt; 'the Black', the original matter of transmutation, i.e. the art of treating 'black metal' to produce precious metals.
For others, the word 'chemy' could have come from the Greek khymeia, 'fusion', i.e. the art of melting gold and silver. A Byzantine text states that Diocletian ordered the destruction of Egyptian books relating to khymeia, to the 'fusion' of gold and silver.

Islamic Alchemy In Western Writings

Following the work of French chemist Marcellin Berthelot on alchemy, many researchers on the basis of original texts discovered and published, became interested in the study of alchemy with the Arabs: Lippmann, Wiedemann, Ganzenmuller, Stapleton, Holmyard, Plessner and especially Paul Kraus whose work about Jabir ibn Hayyan is still a classic in this subject. More recently Henry Corbin in his research on Shi'ism has tried to give an esoteric interpretation of the great alchemy texts. His ideas created a school of thought and some contemporary authors, Roger Deladriere and Pierre Lory for instance, did not escape his influence. Arabic alchemy is no longer the 'terra incognita' which, a century ago, challenged the insight of historians of science.
The large quantity of accumulated facts suggested a synthetic presentation to Fuat Sezgin and Manfred Ullmann. The former produced his in the frame of his series Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums; the fourth volume, appearing in 1971, dedicated several pages to alchemy. In his turn, Ullmann, in his book Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften in Islam, appearing in 1972, presented in about a hundred pages the whole of Arabic alchemic literature studying successively the translations and pseudoepigraphs from Greek authors, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, Jewish and Christian sources, then alchemy theories, the research of the elixir, laboratory experiments and the material employed, and the whole is copiously documented.


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