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15th-century European portrait of "Geber", Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence
Name: Jabir ibn Hayyan
Title: Geber
Birth: 721 AD
Death: c. 815 AD
Ethnicity: Persian
Maddhab: Shī‘ah[1][2]
Main interests: Alchemy and Chemistry, Astronomy, Astrology, Medicine and Pharmacy, Philosophy, Physics
Works: Kitab al-Kimya, Kitab al-Sab'een, Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances , Book of Eastern Mercury, etc.
Influences: Alchemy, Harbi al-Himyari, Ja'far al-Sadiq
Influenced: Alchemy, Chemistry

Geber is the Latinized form of "Jabir", with the full name of Abu Musa Jābir ibn Hayyān al azdi (Arabic: جابر بن حيان) (born c. 721 in Tus–died c. 815 in Kufa),[3] a prominent polymath: a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geologist, philosopher, physicist, and pharmacist and physician. He is considered by many to be the "father of chemistry."[4] His ethnic background is not clear;[5] although some sources state that he was an Arab[6], other sources introduce him as Persian.[7][8] Geber or Jabir is held to be the first practical alchemist.[9]

As early as the tenth century, the identity of Geber appears to have been disputed.[10] Some scholars and historians have maintained that Jabir is the pen name of a group of Ismaili writers in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that he died—if indeed he ever lived—a century before the writings attributed to him were composed (see "The Geber Problem", below).[11][12]


Life and Background

An artistic depiction of Geber

According to tradition, Abu Musa (sometimes Abu AbdAllah) Jabir ibn Haiyan al-Azdl (al-Tusl, al-artusl, al-Harram, al-Sufi)Also al-Kufi or al-Tartusi [13] was a Natural Philosopher who lived mostly in the 8th century, born in Tus, Khorasan, in Iran (Persia)[3], then ruled by the Umayyad Caliphate. In some sources, he is reported to have been the son of Hayyan al-Azdi, a pharmacist of the Arabian Azd tribe who emigrated from Yemen to Kufa (in present-day Iraq) during the Umayyad Caliphate.[14][15] Hayyan had supported the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyads, and was sent by them to the province of Khorasan (in present Iran) to gather support for their cause. He was eventually caught by the Ummayads and executed. His family fled to Yemen,[16] where Geber grew up and studied the Koran, mathematics and other subjects under a scholar named Harbi al-Himyari.[16] Geber's father's profession may have contributed greatly to his interest in alchemy.

After the Abbasids took power, Geber went back to Kufa. He began his career practicing medicine, under the patronage of a Vizir (from the Persian noble family Barmakids) of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid.

Geber may have been a student of the celebrated Islamic teacher and sixth Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq.[2][10] His connections to the Barmakid cost him dearly in the end. When that family fell from grace in 803, Geber was placed under house arrest in Kufa, where he remained until his death.



Jabir is mostly renowned for his contributions to chemistry. He emphasised systematic experimentation,[17] and did much to free alchemy from superstition and turn it into a science.[18] He is credited with the invention of over twenty types of now-basic chemical laboratory equipment,[19] such as the alembic[20] and retort,[21][not in citation given] and with the discovery and description of many now-commonplace chemical substances and processes – such as the hydrochloric and nitric acids, distillation,[15] and crystallisation[4] – that have become the foundation of today's chemistry and chemical engineering.[15][not in citation given] [22]

He also paved the way for most of the later Islamic alchemists, including al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Tughrai and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th-13th centuries. His books strongly influenced the medieval European alchemists[22] and justified their search for the philosopher's stone.[23][24]

He 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."[17]

Jabir is also credited with the invention and development of a number of chemical substances and instruments that are still used today. He discovered sulfuric acid, and by distilling it together with various salts, Jabir discovered hydrochloric acid (from salt) and nitric acid (from saltpeter). By combining the two, he invented aqua regia, one of the few substances that can dissolve gold.[15] 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 component of lemons and other unripe fruits),[4] acetic acid (from vinegar),[4][25] and tartaric acid (from wine-making residues).[4] Jabir also discovered and isolated several chemical elements, such as arsenic, antimony and bismuth.[19][26] He was also the first to classify sulfur (‘the stone which burns’ that characterized the principle of combustibility) and mercury (which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties) as 'elements'.[27] He was also the first to purify and isolate sulfur[27][28] and mercury[27][29] as pure elements.

Jabir applied his chemical knowledge to the improvement of many manufacturing processes, such as making steel and other metals, preventing rust, engraving gold, dyeing and waterproofing cloth, tanning leather, 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 today. He noted that boiling wine released a flammable vapor, thus paving the way for the discovery of ethanol (alcohol) by Al-Kindi and Al-Razi.[30] According to Ismail al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, "In response to Jafar al-Sadik's wishes, [Jabir ibn Hayyan] invented a kind of paper that resisted fire, and an ink that could be read at night. He invented an additive which, when applied to an iron surface, inhibited rust and when applied to a textile, would make it water repellent."[31]

The seeds of the modern classification of elements into metals and non-metals could be seen in his chemical nomenclature. He proposed three categories:[32]

  • "Spirits" which vaporise on heating, like arsenic (realgar, orpiment), camphor, mercury, sulfur, sal ammoniac, and ammonium chloride.
  • "Metals", like gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron, and khar-sini;
  • Non-malleable substances, that can be converted into powders, such as stones.

The origins of the idea of chemical equivalents can also be traced back to Jabir, who was the first to recognize that "a certain quantity of acid is necessary in order to neutralize a given amount of base." According to Jabir, the metals differ because of "different proportions of sulfur and mercury in them."[33]

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 by Gerard of Cremona (before 1187). Marcelin Berthelot translated some of his books under the fanciful titles Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances, and Book of Eastern Mercury. Several technical Arabic terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have found their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.


Geber became an alchemist at the court of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, for whom he wrote the Kitab al-Zuhra ("The Book of Venus", on "the noble art of alchemy").

Geber 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 seem to have been deliberately written in highly esoteric code (see steganography), 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 Geber'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).

Geber's alchemical investigations ostensibly revolved around the ultimate goal of takwin — the artificial creation of life. The Book of Stones includes several recipes for creating creatures such as scorpions, snakes, and even humans in a laboratory environment, which are subject to the control of their creator. What Geber meant by these recipes is today unknown.

Geber's interest in alchemy was probably inspired by his teacher Ja'far al-Sadiq. Ibn Hayyan was deeply religious, and repeatedly emphasizes in his works that alchemy is possible only by subjugating oneself completely to the will of Allah and becoming a literal instrument of Allah on Earth, since the manipulation of reality is possible only for Allah. The Book of Stones prescribes long and elaborate sequences of specific prayers that must be performed without error alone in the desert before one can even consider alchemical experimentation.

In his writings, Geber pays tribute to Egyptian and Greek alchemists Hermes Trismegistus, Agathodaimon, Pythagoras, and Socrates.Geber professes to draw his inspiration from earlier writers on the subject.[34] A huge pseudo-epigraphic literature of alchemical books was composed in Arabic, among which the names of Persian authors also appear like Jāmāsb, Ostanes, Mani, testifying that alchemy-like operations on metals and other substances were also practiced in Persia. The great number of Persian technical names (zaybaq = mercury, nošāder = sal-ammoniac) also corroborates the idea of an important Iranian roots of medieval alchemy.[35] Ibn al-Nadim reports a dialogue between Aristotle and Ostanes, the Persian alchemist of Achaemenid era, which is in Jabirian corpus under the title of Kitab Musahhaha Aristutalis.[36] Ruska had suggested that the Sasanian medical schools played an important role in the spread of interest in alchemy.[37] He emphasises the long history of alchemy, "whose origin is Arius ... the first man who applied the first experiment on the [philosopher's] stone... and he declares that man possesses the ability to imitate the workings of Nature" (Nasr, Seyyed Hussein, Science and Civilization of Islam).

Geber'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, Geber added the four properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness (Burkhardt, p. 29). Each Aristotelian element was characterised by these qualities: Fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. This came from the elementary qualities which are theoretical in nature plus substance. 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, Geber theorised, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, based on their sulfur/mercury content, 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.

The elemental system used in medieval alchemy was developed by Geber. His original system consisted of seven elements, which included the five classical elements found in the ancient Greek and Indian traditions (aether, air, earth, fire and water), in addition to two chemical elements representing the metals: sulphur, ‘the stone which burns’, which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury, which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties. Shortly thereafter, this evolved into eight elements, with the Arabic concept of the three metallic principles: sulphur giving flammability or combustion, mercury giving volatility and stability, and salt giving solidity.[27]

Geber also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy/astrology, and other sciences. Only a few of his books have been edited and published, and fewer still are available in translation. The crater Geber on the Moon is named after him.

He also paved the way for most of the later Islamic alchemists, including al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Tughrai and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th-13th centuries. His books strongly influenced the medieval European alchemists[22] and justified their search for the philosopher's stone.[23][38]


Max Meyerhoff states the following on Jabir ibn Hayyan: "His influence may be traced throughout the whole historic course of European alchemy and chemistry."[22]

The historian of chemistry Erick John Holmyard gives credit to Geber for developing alchemy into an experimental science and he writes that Geber's importance to the history of chemistry is equal to that of Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier.[39]

The historian Paul Kraus, who had studied most of Geber's extant works in Arabic and Latin, summarized the importance of Geber to the history of chemistry by comparing his experimental and systematic works in chemistry with that of the allegorical and unintelligible works of the ancient Greek alchemists. [18]

Writings by Geber

The Jabirian corpus

In total, nearly 3,000 treatises and articles are credited to Jabir ibn Hayyan.[40] Following the pioneering work of Paul Kraus, who demonstrated that a corpus of some several hundred works ascribed to Geber were probably a medley from different hands, mostly dating to the late ninth and early tenth centuries, many scholars believe that many of these works consist of commentaries and additions by his followers, particularly of a Ismaili persuasion.[41]

The Arabic corpus of Jabir Ibn Hayyan can be divided into four categories:

  • The 112 Books dedicated to the Barmakids, viziers of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. This group includes 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.
  • The Seventy Books, most of which were translated into Latin during the Middle Ages. This group includes the Kitab al-Zuhra ("Book of Venus") and the Kitab Al-Ahjar ("Book of Stones").
  • The Ten Books on Rectification, containing descriptions of "alchemists" such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
  • The Books on Balance; this group includes his most famous 'Theory of the balance in Nature'.

The Geber corpus

The Latin corpus, dating from about 1310.

  • Summa perfectionis magisterii ("The Height of the Perfection of Mastery"). [42]
  • Liber fornacum ("Book of Stills"),
  • De investigatione perfectionis ("On the Investigation of Perfection"), and
  • De inventione veritatis ("On the Discovery of Truth").
  • Testamentum gerberi

English Translations of Geber/Jabir

  • E. J. Holmyard (ed.) The Arabic Works of Jabir ibn Hayyan, translated by Richard Russel in 1678. New York, E. P. Dutton (1928); Also Paris, P. Geuther.
  • Syed Nomanul Haq, Names, Natures and Things: The Alchemists Jabir ibn Hayyan and his Kitab al-Ahjar (Book of Stones), [Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science p. 158] (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994), ISBN 0792332547.
  • Donald R. Hill, 'The Literature of Arabic Alchemy' in Religion: Learning and Science in the Abbasid Period, ed. by M.J.L. Young, J.D. Latham and R.B. Serjeant (Cambridge University Press, 1990) pp. 328–341, esp. pp 333–5.
  • William Newman, New Light on the Identity of Geber, Sudhoffs Archiv, 1985, Vol.69, pp. 76–90.
  • Geber and William Newman The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber: A Critical Edition, Translation and Study ISBN 9004094664

The Geber Problem

The identity of the author of works attributed to Jabir has long been discussed.[10] According to a famous controversy[43], pseudo-Geber has been considered as the unknown author of several books in Alchemy.[44] This was first independently suggested, on textual and other grounds, by the nineteenth-century historians Hermann Kopp and Marcellin Berthelot.[45]

Jabir, by reputation the greatest chemist of Islam, has long been familiar to western readers under the name of Geber, which is the medieval rendering of the Arabic Jabir, the Geberu of the Middle Ages[46].

In 1942, Paul Kraus argued that anonymous members of the so-called Brethren of Purity of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam were the true authors of the works in Arabic that were attributed to Jabir, and that they were writing in the ninth and tenth centuries[47]. Syed Haq offers evidence for possible 8th century origin of one text[48]. Eric Holmyard argues for at least some Arabic origin but not 8th century. Newman showed a distant relationship to the Arabic work of Razi.[49] He argued that the true author of the most famous book by the Latin "Geber," the "Summa Perfectionis," was the little-known Paul of Taranto, writing shortly after the year 1300.[50] The alchemical texts of Jāber (Geber) and Rāzi (Rhazes) which were in Arabic, were translated into Latin in the 12th century.[51]

Geber's identity with Jabir is still in dispute.[52] It is said that Geber, the Latinized form of "Jabir," was adopted presumably because of the great reputation of a supposed 8th-century alchemist by the name of Jabir ibn Hayyan. About this historical figure, however, there is considerable uncertainty.[53][54] This is sometimes called the "Geber-Jabir problem".[55]

It is important to consider that it is impossible to reach definite conclusions until all the Arabic writings ascribed to Jabir have been properly edited and discussed.[46]

Popular culture

  • The word gibberish is theorized to be derived from Geber's name,[56] in reference to the incomprehensible technical jargon often used by alchemists, the most famous of whom was Geber.[57] Other sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary suggest the term stems from gibber; however, the first known recorded use of the term "gibberish" was before the first known recorded use of the word "gibber" (see Gibberish).
  • Geber is mentioned in Paulo Coelho's 1993 bestseller, The Alchemist.[58]
  • There is a villain in the Japanese manga and anime series Bio Booster Armor Guyver by the name of Jearvill bun Hiyern (translated in various ways), who is most likely named after ibn Hayyan.
  • Jabbir is said to be the creator of a (fictional) mystical chess set in Katherine Neville's novels The Eight and The Fire


  • "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."[59]


  • Alchemy
  • Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam
  • Chemistry
  • Al-Kindi
  • List of Arab scientists and scholars
  • List of Iranian scientists and scholars
  • List of Shi'a Muslims
  • Muhammad ibn Zakariya ar-Razi
  • Science in medieval Islam


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  6. ^ and student of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq
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    • William Royall Newman, Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution, Harvard University Press, 1994. pg 94: "According to traditional bio-bibliography of Muslims, Jabir ibn Hayyan was a Persian alchemist who lived at some time in the eight century and wrote a wealth of books on virtually every aspect of natural philosophy"
    • William R. Newman, The Occult and Manifest Among the Alchemist", in F. J. Ragep, Sally P Ragep, Steven John Livesey, "Tradition, Transmission, Transformation: Proceedings of Two Conferences on pre-Modern science held at University of Oklahoma", Brill,1996/1997, pg 178:"This language of extracting the hidden nature formed an important lemma for the extensive corpus associated with the Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan"
    • Henry Corbin, "The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy", Translated by Joseph H. Rowe,North Atlantic Books, 1998. pg 45: "The Nisba al-Azdin certainly does not necessarily indicate Arab origin. Geber seems to have been a client of the Azd tribe established in Kufa
    • Tamara M. Green, "The City of the Moon God: Religious Traditions of Harran (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World) ", Brill, 1992. pg 177: "His most famous student was the Persian Jabir ibn Hayyan (b. circa 721 C.E.), under whose name the vast corpus of alchemical writing circulated in the medieval period in both the east and west, although many of the works attributed to Jabir have been demonstrated to be likely product of later Ismaili' tradition."
    • David Gordon White, "The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India", University of Chicago Press, 1996. pg 447
    • William R. Newman, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, University of Chicago Press, 2004. pg 181: "The corpus ascribed to the eight-century Persian sage Jabir ibn Hayyan.."
    • Wilbur Applebaum, The Scientific revolution and the foundation of modern science, Greenwood Press, 1995. pg 44: "The chief source of Arabic alchemy was associated with the name, in its Latinized form, of Geber, an eighth-century Persian."
    • Neil Kamil,Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots New World, 1517-1751 (Early America: History, Context, Culture), JHU Press, 2005. pg 182: "The ninth-century Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hay- yan, also known as Geber, is accurately called pseudo-Geber since most of the works published under this name in the West were forgeries"
    • Aleksandr Sergeevich Povarennykh, Crystal Chemical Classification of Minerals, Plenum Press, 1972, v.1, ISBN 0306303485, page 4: The first to give separate consideration to minerals and other inorganic substances were the following: The Persian alchemist Jabir (721-815)...
    • George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Pub. for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, by the Williams & Wilkins Company, 1931, vol.2 pt.1, page 1044: Was Geber, as the name would imply, the Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Haiyan?
    • Dan Merkur, in The psychoanalytic study of society (eds. Bryce Boyer, et al.), vol. 18, Routledge, ISBN 0881631612, page 352: I would note that the Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan developed the theory that all metals consist of different "balances" ...
    • Anthony Gross, The Dissolution of the Lancastrian Kingship: Sir John Fortescue and the Crisis of Monarchy in Fifteenth-century England, Paul Watkins, 1996, ISBN 1871615909, page 19: Ever since the Seventy Books attributed to the Persian alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan had been translated into Latin ....
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