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Jabir ibn Hayyan

Category: Scientist

 

Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān (Arabic: جابر بن حیان‎, Persian: جابرحیان‎, often given the nisbahs al-al-Bariqi, al-Azdi, al-Kufi, al-Tusi or al-Sufi; fl. c. 721 – c. 815), also known as Gaber or Geber, was a prominent Muslim polymath: a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geographer, philosopher, physicist, pharmacist and physician.

Jabir was born in Tus, Khorasan, in Iran (Persia), then ruled by the Umayyad Caliphate.  In some accounts, he is reported to have been the son of Hayyan al-Azdi, a ‘pharmacist’/alchemist of the Arabian Azd tribe who emigrated from Yemen to Kufa (in present-day Iraq) during the Umayyad Caliphate.

As early as the 10th century, the identity and exact corpus of works of Jābir was in dispute in Islamic circles. His name was Latinized as "Geber" in the Christian West and in 13th-century Europe an anonymous writer, usually referred to as Pseudo-Geber, further confused the picture by producing alchemical and metallurgical writings under the pen-name Geber.  The water was further churned up by the fact that Jabir was an alchemist. 

The Umayyad Caliphate

An alchemist –if he is a genuine one – uses sexually based techniques to provoke a kundalini experience.  He is also a follower of the spiritual path.  After the decline of the Mysteries and the strengthening of the three Judaic based religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity, any forms of mystic movement struggled, particularly any that used sexual techniques, and more and more secrecy and coded symbolic language was built into their systems.

Jābir states in his Book of Stones (4:12), for example,  that "The purpose is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for".

His works seem to have been 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 Jābir'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 overt sense, the term gibberish is believed to have originally referred to his writings (Hauck, p. 19).

The answer to Hauck’s inferred question is that it is all symbolic.  Furthermore, the meaning of the symbols was passed from one Adept to another, it was not written in a book where it could be used to decipher the texts.  In 988, for example, Ibn al-Nadim compiled the Kitab al-Fihrist which mentions Jabir as a spiritual follower and companion to Jafar as-Sadiq (the alchemist Aydamur al- Jildaki, also states that there was an alchemist called Jabir ibn Hayyan, who was a follower of the sixth Imam and an initiate of the eighth Imam, al-Rida).

picture by Shirin Neshat

The alchemical coding probably started with Zosimos of Panipolis, but the Mysteries already employed symbolism, meaning that layer was added to layer.  The Theory of correspondences attempts to unravel all these corresponding symbols providing an equivalence table for a concept.  For any one concept there can be several symbols, but there are often letters of the various alphabets and numbers.  Jābir'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.  What is perhaps fascinating is that this purely symbolic and spiritual system was the precursor to the character notation used today in chemistry!

The alchemical symbols are used extensively in Jabir’s books.

“Jābir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. Like Zosimos, Jabir believed this would require a catalyst, an al-iksir, the elusive elixir that would make this transformation possible — which in European alchemy became known as the search for the philosopher's stone.  According to Jabir's mercury-sulfur theory, metals differ from each in so far as they contain different proportions of the sulfur and mercury - quicksilver.

In the Book of Explanation Jabir says

the metals are all, in essence, composed of mercury combined and coagulated with sulphur [that has risen to it in earthy, smoke-like vapors]. They differ from one another only because of the difference of their accidental qualities, and this difference is due to the difference of their sulphur, which again is caused by a variation in the soils and in their positions with respect to the heat of the sun

picture by Shirin Neshat

Given the extreme difficulties in writing a highly convoluted symbolic book about spiritual subjects, [as Lewis Carroll demonstrates], it is highly unlikely that all the nearly 3,000 treatises and articles credited to Jabir ibn Hayyan are his.  An alchemist, once he has become a full Adept will write on subjects which help man to advance – alchemical healing, astrology, and chemical alchemy, for example, because the wisdom he gains from the enlightenment help him to do so. 

But there is every reason to believe that writings on actual spiritual practises will be minimal and the ultimate in ‘gibberish’.  The scope of Jabir's corpus of works appears vast: cosmology, music, medicine, magic, biology, chemical technology, geometry, grammar, metaphysics, logic, along with astrological predictions, and symbolic Imâmî myths.  But everything in this list is very closely related to spiritual pursuits.

The books of most interest to this site are the purely [spiritually]  alchemical ones and these are probably:

  • The Emerald Tablet – 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.
  • Book of Venus – the Kitab al-Zuhra , which is one of The Seventy Books, most of which were translated into Latin during the Middle Ages
  • The Book of Stones - the Kitab Al-Ahjar
  • The Ten Books on Rectification - In his writing, Jābir pays tribute to Egyptian and Greek alchemists Zosimos, Democritus, Hermes Trismegistus, Agathodaemon, but also Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Pythagoras, and Socrates as well as the commentators Alexander of Aphrodisias, Simplicius, Porphyry and others.  All of these people were either mystics or alchemists or both
  • The Books on Balance - this group includes his most famous 'Theory of the balance in Nature'.  This is a key text.  The science of the Balance "aims at encompassing all the fundamental concepts of human knowledge. It applies not only to the three kingdoms of the 'sub-lunary world', but also to the movements of the stars and to the hypostases of the spiritual world. As the 'Book of the Fifty' puts it, there are Balances to measure 'the Intelligence, the Soul of the world. Nature, Forms, the Spheres, the stars, the four natural Qualities, the animal,the vegetable, the mineral, and finally the Balance of letters, which is the most perfect of all".
photo by Shirin Neshat

There was probably a sequence to these books at one time based on the steps of the spiritual path.  From the list above we appear to be missing a few key treatises.

Despite the heavy use of symbolism in his texts, Jabir influenced a very large number of later alchemists, including al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Tughrai and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th–13th centuries. His books also strongly influenced the medieval European alchemists. In the Middle Ages, Jabir's treatises on alchemy 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 (Book of Seventy) by Gerard of Cremona (before 1187). Marcelin Berthelot translated some of his books under the titles Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances, and Book of Eastern Mercury.

 

There is something truly ironic in the fact that the seeds of the modern classification of elements into metals and non-metals was based on a symbol system that describes the chakras and the kundalini experience.  Perhaps there is a sort of genius in devising a symbol system that withstands a certain amount of scrutiny by purely materialistic observers. Jabir for example, proposed three categories of chemicals:

  • "Spirits" which vaporise on ‘heating’ – which in alchemical literature were called arsenic (realgar, orpiment), camphor, mercury, sulfur, and sal ammoniac, all physically named compounds these days.
  • "Metals", like gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron, and khar-sini (Chinese iron)
  • Crystals - Non-malleable substances, that can be converted into powders, with the additional alchemical category of stonesGunpowder had its own special symbolism!

The phrase ‘there appears to be a certain chemistry between them’ is not so phrased by accident.  Jabir is also credited with the use of over twenty types of now-basic chemical laboratory equipment, such as the alembic and retort, all of which by their shapes had a symbolic meaning.  The pelican for example is a pelican

Shirin Neshat

As far as Jabir's private life is concerned, we know very little.  After the Abbasids took power, Jābir went back to Kufa. He began his career practicing medicine, under the patronage of a Vizir from the noble Persian family Barmakids of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. His connections to the Barmakid cost him dearly in the end. When that family fell from grace in 803, Jābir was placed under house arrest in Kufa, where he remained until his death.  But his symbolism served him well, it appears to have been a natural death.

"My wealth let sons and brethren part. Some things they cannot share: my work well done, my noble heart — these are mine own to wear."

 

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