He is credited with the invention of processes such as distillation and evaporation.
Through Jabir Ibn Hayyan, we can trace chemistry’s long history
The roots of modern chemistry, a branch of science which gave us new fuels, drugs and essential materials, can be traced back to the 8th and 14th Centuries, in other words, the Golden Age of Islam.
According to reputed German historian, Max Mayerhof, the scientific contribution of one scholar of that era, the alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayaan, became one of the main foundations of the development of chemistry in Europe.
Known as Geber in the western world, Hayyan is credited with having invented several processes which include, among others, distillation, crystallisation, calcination, sublimation and evaporation. All are still used today.
Other innovations attributed to him range from the development of steel, the preparation of various metals, the varnishing of water-proof cloth, dyeing of cloth and tanning of leather. His use of manganese dioxide in glass-making, discovering how to prevent rusting, the development of aqua regia to dissolve gold, and identification of paints and greases, became the most popular techniques in the field of chemical engineering.
The modern classification of elements as we know it today, of both metals and nonmetals, has its seeds in Hayyan’s chemical nomenclature. He suggested three categories for natural elements: spirits, which evaporate with heat; metals, such as gold, silver, lead, iron and copper; and stones which can be converted to powder. The method he used for classifying and grouping has been of great significance to modern chemistry.
Since ancient alchemy mainly focussed on the preparation of precious metals, Hayyan displayed his versatility and skill by dedicating his work to the development of basic chemical methods. He did this through experimentation and through the study of chemical reactions and their principles. As a result, he succeeded in transforming chemistry from the realm of myths and legends to a scientific discipline.
Hayyan is known for placing great emphasis on experimentation and accuracy in his work. His drive for it came from his belief that “the most essential in chemistry is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs no practical work nor makes experiments will never attain the least degree of mastery.”
English historian, Eric John Holmyard, called Hayyan the father of chemistry, arguing that his use of experimentation became a fundamental aspect of science.
Hayyan’s treatises on alchemy were translated into Latin and several European languages. They became standard texts for European alchemists. Several technical terms introduced by him, such as alkali, found their way into various European languages and became part of scientific vocabulary.
Although many mention Mendeleev when they speak of the periodic table of elements, Hayyan was indeed the first to try to create a table to classify chemicals. 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.
The most impressive thing about Hayyan is his corpus. Attributed to him alone, are more than 1,300 books and articles – they cover everything from cosmology to alchemy. 300 of the books he penned were about philosophy, another 300 on mechanics, 500 on physics, while 112 of them were about alchemy. 70 books amongst his corpus were about his experimental works in chemistry.
Born in Tus, Persia, in 721, Hayyan lived for ninety four years. He devoted all his time to science. Following the execution of his father, which came as a result of his support for the Abbasid Caliphate, who were at war with the Umayyads, he was sent from Kufa to relatives in Yemen. There, he was educated in the Quran, Maths and other scientific disciplines.
When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyad dynasty, Hayyan went back to Baghdad, the capital city of the Abbasids. Here he served as a celebrated alchemist in the court of the famous Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid.
Hayyan had a strong relationship with Barmakids, an influential Iranian family from Balkh. He was banished together with them as Barmakids were considered a threat against Harun al-Rashid.
Hayyan returned to Kufa along with Barmakids and lived there until his death.