Chemistry is a natural science which studies the structure of matter, chemical changes occurring under certain circumstances and the regularities that can be drawn from that.
Muslim scientists have deepened their knowledge in this domain as well. However, rather than learning about their fundamental contributions from scientific databases, their ideas are only to be found in fictional novels. This is due to many people’s incorrect image of the Arabs’ way of doing chemical research.
Chemistry versus Alchemistry
The term ‘alchemistry’ is generally used when talking about the kind of chemistry that was allegedly not yet practiced like we do today.
The ‘Ordinall of Chemistry’ states that chemistry as a science dates back from around the 17th and 18th centuries. Compared to today’s standards, chemistry would not be practiced in a scientific way before then. This means that the chemists of that time did not particularly look for a critical explanation of chemical symptoms. The pre-17th century science was thus called ‘alchemistry’.
Several scientists countered this worldwide opinion. Some facts show that the Muslim scientists did not only contribute to the so-called alchemy. Eric John Holmyard, a famous historian, chemist and Arabist, ascertained that the preposterous claims of scientists like Berthelot (a French chemist) were incorrect.
In ‘Makers of Chemistry’ he elaborates on the evolution of chemistry from the very beginning until modern times. In this work he states that Islamic chemistry is in fact a base for modern chemistry. He talks about several Muslim scientists, including the most acknowledged chemist: Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Geber).
Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan
Jabir, born around 721 and died around 815 in the village Tus (in today’s Iran), grew up in a family where chemistry was not unknown, as his father was a pharmacist. That would most likely be the cause of his interest in chemistry.
Jabir’s father was later executed due to that time’s political struggles, which forced him to flee to the city of Kufa. This city was then ruled by the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid.
Jabir was able to practice science at the highest level thanks to his connection with the Barmakids (influential Persian families that counselled the first Abbasid caliphs).
Jabir’s focus on experiments
Jabir Ibn Hayyan is without any doubt one of the greatest Muslim scientists. Holmyard legitimately names him ‘The Father of Chemistry’. According to Holmyard, one of the fundamental aspects Jabir brought forward was the development of the practical side of chemistry: performing experiments. Experimenting separates science as practiced by Muslims from the Ancient Greek tradition of speculation. Jabir emphasised the importance of experimenting as follows: ‘The most essential in chemistry 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.’
Material contributions of Jabir
Jabir’s attention to precision led him to create scales that could weigh with an accuracy of 1/6 of a gram. To him, experimenting with matter meant that he could mix, heat, cool, grind, bake and stir various substances. The traditional image of an ‘alchemistic’ workplace looked a lot like what we would call a chemistry laboratory today.
In order to perform his experiments accurately, he designed different kinds of new vessels like the retort. His experiments with various chemical processes allowed him to trigger reactions like reduction (a reaction that involves the gaining of electrons), calcination (oxidation through heating, e.g. the burning of chalk) and perhaps the most important: distillation.
Using his homemade alembic he created a simple way to distill. An alembic is a simple construction of two bottles connected by a tube. One of the bottles is heated and causes the fluid inside to condensate and drip down through the tube. The alembic was later used to refine mineral oil into kerosene that could be used as lamp oil.
Chemical developments by Jabir
Ten centuries before John Dalton (a British physicist and chemist who became known through his atom theory and molecule theory), Jabir created the image of chemical bonds as a link between elements, in fact small particles invisible to the naked eye. All without losing grasp of their original characteristics.
Jabir also identified many new substances. It is often said he discovered strong acids such as sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. These discoveries are proven to be of great significance to modern chemistry, becoming even essential to the chemical industry.
Last but not least: Jabir also laid the groundwork for what is known today as Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements. He tried to create a table to classify the chemical elements, just like Mendeleev. This was based on the Ancient Greek idea of classifying the elements further into groups of metals, non-metals and substances that can be distilled. In that way his table somehow resembled the modern periodic table of elements, in which non-metals and gases can be distinguished.