Muslims and the Invention of Chemistry
Written by Dr. Ragheb Elsergany
Chemistry is considered an Islamic science by all means, as the word chemistry had not even been invented in any language or civilization before the Islamic civilization; neither the ancient Egyptian civilization nor the Greek civilization. In European languages, the word ‘chemistry’ is written as ‘Alchemie.’ It is a well-known fact that every Latin word that starts with ‘Al-’ has an Arabic origin. An example of that would be “alcohol,” “algebra”...etc.
The word “chemistry” in Arabic (Alchemie) is derived from the word “chem.” or “chemeia,” which means “amount.” This is because the Muslim scientists who established this science used to say: if we added a certain amount (chemeia) of this substance to another amount of another substance the result will be the following. This name in itself illustrates an important fact, and that is that Muslim scientists were the first to discover the theory of proportions in combining substances. This was five centuries before the chemist Brawest. This theory states that substances do not combine except with certain proportions and weights for each of them; this is the law of constant proportions in the chemical bonding theory.
It is also mentioned in the book Lissan Al-Arab (Tongue of the Arabs), by Ibnul-Manthour, that the word “alchemie” is an Arabic word derived from the word “Chama,” which means “to hide.” Abu-Abdullah Ahmad al-Khawarizmy (387 A.H.) explains this in his book Mafateeh al-Oloum (Keys of Sciences), saying that the name “chemie” is an Arabic name derived from “Chama,” which means to hide something. This confirms what Alrazi wrote when he named his book on chemistry Al-Asrar (The Secrets) and Ser Al-Asrar (The Secret of Secrets).
The terminological definition for chemistry is: the science that deals with the nature of a substance, its composition and the changes occurring within it.
In other words, chemistry is the scientific study of the characteristics, composition, and changes in the structure of a substance and the change in energy accompanying them.
In general, chemistry is divided into three main branches; underneath each branch, there are sub-branches and more specialized details. Some of the smaller branches are: Analytical Chemistry, Biological Chemistry, Organic and non-organic Chemistry and Physical Chemistry. Among the other branches which are of particular interest to specialized chemists are thermal chemistry, kinetic chemistry, quantitative chemistry, statistical mechanics and spectral science.
Chemistry is a very important science due to its involvement in the activities of all living creatures. Using chemistry, it is possible to transform raw (crude) substances into substances useful for humans, that satisfy basic human needs.
A chemist, for instance, can produce some new substances from coal and oil, such as dyes, medicine, plastics and artificial rubber. In the agricultural field, chemistry has contributed to the production of fertilizers and insecticides. Chemistry has made it possible to produce artificial fibers, which has a powerful impact on textile manufacturing. These examples are all in addition to the other fields in which chemistry has contributed in the context of our daily life.
Chemistry Before Islam:
Although we mentioned earlier that chemistry was an Islamic science from the start, this does not negate the fact that there was a type of art called “alkhimiaa”, which some people say was invented by the ancient Egyptians. Others claim that it was made by the Chinese (during the third or fourth century B.C). Some also assert that it also existed in the Greek and Serenades cultures.
Nevertheless, “alkhimiaa” of the ancient Egyptians or the Greeks and the Serenades has been of no value and there is no similarity between it and modern chemistry or even scientific thinking whatsoever. The Greeks and Serenades at that time depended on assumptions and analytical thinking. They used emotional views to justify phenomena and miracles, and to explain them. This method is also closely related to magic, which the Muslims have later named Ilm as-san’a (The Science of Craft), this so-called science which has been trying, for ages, to reach two distant goals:
First: converting cheap metals such as iron, copper, lead and zinc into valuable metals such as gold and silver by discovering the stone of the philosophers.
Second: preparing the Elixir of life (Elixir of al-Hayat) as a remedy for man’s sufferings, a cure for all his pains and illnesses, which will also elongate his and all other living creature’s lives.
The ancient Egyptians discovered the embalmment using chemicals as well as preserving foods and clothes, and they were brilliant in making permanent (fixed) dyes. Similarly the Greeks had a role in cheestry. They came up with a theory about the possibility of converting cheap metals like iron, copper and mercury into valuable metals like gold and silver. This theory stated that all the substances on earth originated from four main elements: fire, dust, air and water. Each element was said to have two features in common with another element.
For example, fire is dry and hot, dust is dry and cold, water is cold and moist, and air is cold and dry. Based on this assumption, it would be possible to convert one element to another. Aristotle saw that when all the elements reacted in the bellows underneath the earth’s surface under a certain amount of pressure and and a specific temperature, metals were produced.
Moreover, in the fifth century B.C, the Greek philosopher Democritus stated that all substances are made of one thing in the form of small unbreakable units, called atoms. Based on this theory the difference between substances is solely due to the difference in the size, shape and position of their atoms.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century B.C., believed that any of the main elements suggested (by Empedocles) can be converted to any of the other elements by adding or removing heat or humidity. He decided that this change, known as the transformation, occurs whenever an element is added to a chemical reaction or a change in a physical status occur (solid, liquid, gas). Aristotle believed that water, for instance, is transformed from liquid to gas through heating.
During the first three hundred years after the birth of Christ, the scientists and craftsmen in Egypt used and developed “alkhimiaa”, based on Aristotle’s theory of transformation. They tried to transform lead and other metals into gold, and then “alkhimiaa” was spread throughout the Arabian peninsula during the seventh century A.C. and consequently to most of western Europe during the twelfth century A.C. “Alkhimiaa” was the main source of chemical knowledge until the seventeenth century A.C.
Despite the failure of those attempts in the “alkhimiaa” field to transform metal into gold, over the many centuries they spent conducting experiments, researchers of this field did broaden their knowledge of chemical substances. Modern chemists are still using many of the laboratory tools and methodologies that those who worked in “al-khimiaa” invented, such as: cones, filters and balances used to weigh the chemical substances, as well as bowels used to melt metals. They’ve also learned to prepare different acids and alcohols and make use of them.
The researchers collectively agreed that the Greek made a limited contribution to thee field of chemistry, as they had viewed the physical sciences from the theoretical and philosophical perspectives; all their efforts were focused on converting cheap metals like lead and zinc into valuable metals like gold and silver using a mysterious stone called the stone of the philosophers. Muslims were the first to start this science on new basis, through experimenting and observing. Holmyard states in his book The History of Chemistry Until Dalton’s Time: “Muslim scientists have fought against the childish mysteries which were introduced to chemistry by the school of Alexandria, and they’ve used new scientific basis in this field.”
Generally speaking, for the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, this profession was dominated by theoretical views and was practiced by priests and magicians whose secrets were only known to themseves. There was a deficiency on the Greek side while the Egyptians excelled in that field; nevertheless, there was only very little evidence found overall.
Muslims and The Basics of Chemistry:
It is not clear when exactly Muslims started to show their interest in chemistry, but it is agreed upon that Khaled Ibn-Yazeed Ibn-Moawiya al-Omawy (85 Hijri / 704 A.C.), was the first Muslim to be seriously interested in this science. He was a candidate for ruling and when he did not win, he redirected his efforts from politics to science. It was narrated that he assigned some of the Copts who spoke Arabic, such as Merinos, Shimon and Stephan the Alexandrian, to collect some of the chemistry researches found in Alexandria and translate them to Arabic.
Hence, “alkhimiaa” with all its misconceptions reached the Muslims, with all its illusions and misconceptions included..Its target at that time was to reach imaginary goals which were not related in any way to modern chemistry, since the latter is based on scientific basis and laws.
In the beginning, Muslim chemists believed, like the Greeks and the Serenades, that all metals were of the same original elements: water, air, fire and dust, and that their properties are changeable, the difference between them due to the difference in the elements making them up. Therefore, whoever wanted to make gold would only have to transform the metal into its original elements and remake it using the right proportions of the elements for gold.
Even so, nobody was able to achieve this goal, including Muslim scientists and their predecessors. Yet Muslims were able to discover—by coincidence—new substances and laws which eventually enabled them to move from “alkhimiaa” to chemistry.
As we have seen, at the very beginning, Muslim scientist concentrated mainly on what their predecessors had written, mainly the writings of the Greeks, of Alexandria, and the books of Dasios and Pelvis who wrote the book, The Secret of Creation. It is clear that the focus on chemistry in the early ages of Islamic history was due to the need to increase wealth by transforming metals into gold as was believed was possible.
As time passed, by the end of the third Hijri year and with the beginning of the fourth, this science had been developed and well featured by new scientists who were brilliant in the chemistry field. In the lead were Jabir Ibn-Hayan (815 A.C.) and ar-Razi (932 A.C.). This was the time of the enrichment of the Abbasid era
These two giants set up the basics of modern chemistry and applied scientific procedures in developing it, leaving behind previous-believed mysteries and illusions. They accomplished many achievements, one of which was the successful transformation of the platonic theories and opinions into practical science with concrete laws and useful goals, and laboratories with certain specifications.
As a result of the tremendous accomplishments of Jabir Ibn-Hayan in the field of chemistry, the world, for a long time, named chemistry after him, as Jabir’s profession or Jabir’s science. After Jabir and ar-Razi, came other giant scientists in the field like Avicenna, al Beyrouni and al-Galdaki.
It is possible to summarize Muslims rules of chemistry as follows:
First: The Aim of Chemistry:
Converting metals into gold was not the only goal for Muslims; in fact, they used chemistry in pharmacy and produced chemical medicines for the first time in history. They also used it in developing their industry at times of war and peace.
Second: The Laboratory:
The scientist Holmyard, who discovered the laboratory of Jabir Ibn Hayan, described it as follows: “It was in an underground basement, to be able to control the temperature; it had very few pieces of furniture to avoid fire problems; it had a big oven and many different equipment in both glass and copper, the most important of which are the flasks, tubes, filters, cones, basins and droppers. In addition to that, there were mortars and metal balls for crushing and cracking, as well as the sensitive balances.” A golden mortar has been found as well, which weighed around two hundred pounds.
Ar-Razi, who came a century after Jabir, is considered to be the first to set the main basis for chemical analysis laboratories. He invented over twenty innovative devices, among which are those made of metal and glass, and he described each of them accurately in his book The Secrets.
Third: The Scientific Experiments:
Historians collectively agree that Muslims’ merit in the scientific field is due to the fact that they adopted the principle of “experiments and observations” before coming up with a conclusion.
Jabir Ibn-Hayan used to advise his students to rely on scientific experiments only, together with accurate observations, and among his advice in the field is: “The first duty is to experiment practically, because those who do not make practical experiments will never reach even the lowest level of accuracy; you should experiment, my son, in order to acquire knowledge.”
Fourth: The Chemist’s Qualifications:
The chemist, Jabir Ibn Hayan advised the following: A) Be patient, persistent, conservative and silent. B) Avoid the impossible and the useless. C) Don’t get deceived by appearances, because doing so will lead to wrong results for you experiment. D) Scientists have never been proud merely of the amount of medicine they know of, but rather with their skill in using it, and so he suggested: “You should be patient, take it slowly, avoid rushing and follow nature in whatever you want to do”. E) Be dedicated to the experiment from the beginning, in order not to miss any slight change from which you can deduce huge results.
Fifth: Chemical Operations and Their Importance:
Muslim scientists have used several chemical operations both in preparing complex medications, as well as in some industries. Through these operations they tested the properties of the elements that were used in these operations and they prepared different kinds of substances. They also developed new substances to fit their needs, either to separate liquids, to prepare some metals from their crude, to remove impurities or to transform substances from one state to another.
They used the balance to accurately measure and control the amount of impurities in metals, which is something that was unknown to the world until after seven centuries of Muslims’ using it.
The following are some of the operations which Muslims conducted to prepare and purify substances:
1- Grilling: this has been and is still used nowadays in order to prepare metals from their crude using hot air, where the substance is put on wide stone after it has been dipped in water and then is placed in a small flask inside another bigger flask, then the latter is heated for a long time, until the humidity is gone, the inner flask, which contains the substance, is then closed.
2- Distillation: this is done by heating the liquid in a certain container, converting it to gas which is then condensed and converted to liquid using a glass distilling device made of glass. The condensed liquid is then collected in a certain flask. This method is used to purify the liquid from any suspended substances and also to separate volatile form non volatile liquids.
3- Purification: In this operation, the impurities are extracted and removed from the required substance. In order to achieve this goal other operations are used to help, such as distillation, washing, dissolving in different solvents and partial crystallization.
4- Sublimation: this is converting a solid substance into gas , then back to the solid state without passing into the liquid phase as in the case of iodine and camphor.
5- Escalation: is heating a liquid substance – especially essences, etc. – with liquid or solid substances with high boiling points. After heating in a water-bath of no more that 100 degrees Celsius the volatile particles escalate, while non-volatile substances remain on the bottom. Al-Kindi was the first to use this method and named it “essences escalation” in his book. He used to perform this operation using vapor escalation.
6- Calcification: it is similar to the process of grilling but actually in calcification the substance is heated directly until it is converted into a powder. Calcification has been used a lot in removing the crystallization water and in converting crystallized substances into un-crystallized powder
7- Waxing: this is enveloping the substance in wax to insulate it and protect it from certain factors as pollution or to simplify some processes. Waxing is made by adding substances that help other substances to melt, like for instance adding sodium carbonate to sand helps melting the sand to make glass.
8- Amalgamation: this is the union of mercury with other metals, Despite the fact that Muslims were not the first to invent that process, they were the first to use it to prepare for calcification and sublimation.
9- Fermentation: this is the reaction between carbohydrates and yeast. This experiment led them to invent a method for preparing good alcohol from fermented carbohydrates and sugary material. It is a well-known fact that Muslims were the first to use bread mould and grass fungi to make medicine that can treat infected wounds
10- Crystallization: In this process some bodies take fixed geometrical forms which vary according to the variety of these bodies. This is done by dissolving the substance in a solvent at a high temperature until the solution becomes saturated. When the solution cools down, the crystals of the solute separate from the solution in the form of pure crystals, and all the impurities remain dissolved in the remaining solution. The solution is then filtered to produce the crystallized substance.
11- Evaporation: this is the conversion of liquids and solid substances into vapor by heating.
12- Filtration: It is used to get the pure or crystallized substances. Flasks similar to those used now were used. Filtration paper was replaced with pieces of cloth made of hair or linen in having fiber arrangements that would allow for the solution to be filtered.
 A.H = after hijrah of the Prophet from Makkah to Madinah in 622 A.D.
 Look up Almawsooa Alarabeya Almoyassara (Arabic encyclopedia) (published 1987 A.C /1407 Hijri) volume 2 pages 1530, 1531
 Look up: Bahjad Gabir: Alkafi Min Tarikh al-Oloum Eind Alarab (The sufficient from the history of Arabs science ) , p. 61
 Lookup: The Arabic international encyclopedia – the edition of the media. http://www.mawsoah.net/