History of Science and Technology in Islam

The Arabic Origin of Jabir's Latin Works*

A New Light on the Geber Question


The works attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan are very large in number. A considerable part of them were, no doubt, written by him; but it seems that some Arabic treatises were written at later dates and attributed to him. These works in their totality are called the Jabirian Corpus and they constitute a major collection of treatises in Islamic science. Jabir's works cover nearly every field of learning especially alchemy. Not all of them came down to us. Among those that are still extant in Arabic are Kitab al-Sab'in (The Book of the Seventy) and Kitab al.Mizan (The Book of the Balance). Some of Jabir's important works exist only in Latin and their Arabic originals in the libraries of the West are lost and cannot be located. This is what had happened to the majority of other early Arabic works that were translated into Latin.


Before the translation of Arabic works into Latin, alchemy was unknown in the Latin West. Robert of Chester finished in the year 1144 the first translation from Arabic of a book on alchemy, The Book of the Composition of Alchemy, which is the text of a dialogue between the monk Morienus and Khalid ibn Yazid (d. 704 AD). In the preface Robert says: "Since what Alchymia is, and what its composition is, your Latin World does not yet know, I will explain in the present book."[1]


Between the first translation of Robert of Chester in 1144, and 1300 the major Arabic alchemical works that were translated into Latin were the Tabula Samaragdina, the Turba Philosophorum, The Secret of Creation of Balinus, De Perfecto Magisterio attributed to Aristotle, De Anima of Ibn Sina, De Aluminibus et Salibus (On Alums and Salts), and the Secret of Secrets, both of al-Razi, an parts of Kitab al-Sab'in (the Book of Seventy) of Jabir. [2].


It was not until the thirteenth century that we see the first interest in alchemy by a Latin scholar. An alchemical treatise which is believed to be of Arabic origin, carried the name of Michael Scot, who died in 1232. Several greatly distorted Arabic names, apparently from al-Andalus, are given, but Jabir's name is not among them.[3] . Another work was that of Vincent de Beauvais, which was written around 1256-59. In the alchemical part, Vincent's only dominant authorities were al-Razi, ibn Sina and Aristotle; and Jabir was not among them.[4]


The great scientists of the thirteenth century in Europe were Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. The only authority for Albertus (1206-1280) in alchemy was Ibn Sina, and like Ibn Sina, he argued against the transmutation of metals. In his argument, he attacked Khalid ibn Yazid,[5] and this is a clear indication that Albertus was not acquainted with any of the works of Jabir.


Roger Bacon (1214-1294), believed in the great importance of alchemy and in transmutation. He did not mention Jabir in his works although he became acquainted with alchemy from the Latin translations of Arabic works. [6]. Roger wrote his Opus tertium around the year 1266. The following excerpt from this book describes the state of knowledge of alchemy among the learned circles in the Latin World in the second half of the thirteenth century:


“But there is another science which is about the generation of things from the elements, and from all inanimate things, for example the elements, simple and compounded humors, common stones, gems, and types of marble, gold and other metals, sulfurs, salts, and inks, azures, minium, and other colours, oils and burning pitches, and countless other things of which we have nothing in the books of Aristotle; nor do natural philosophers know of these things, nor the whole Latin crowd of Latin writers. And since this science is not known to the generality of students, it necessarily follows that they are ignorant of all natural things that follow therefrom, for example the generation of animated things, such as vegetables, animals, and men, for prior things having been ignored, it is necessary that posterior things be ignored Whence, on account of their ignorance of this science, common natural philosophy cannot be known, nor theoretical medicine, nor, consequently, practical medicine, not only because natural philosophy and theoretical medicine are necessary for its practice, but because all simple medicines from inanimate things are received from this science which I have touched upon, as is made clear in the second book on medicine by Avicenna who enumerates the medicinal simples, and as is evidenced by other authors. Of these medicines neither the names nor their meanings can be understood except through this science. And this science is called "theoretical alchemy", which theorizes about all inanimate things and about the generation of things from the elements. There is in addition an operative and practical alchemy, which teaches how to make noble metals, colours, and many other things-better and more plentifully by art than they are produced by nature. And a science of this sort is greater than all the preceding, because it produces greater utility. Not only can it provide the expenditures and countless other needs of the republic, but it teaches to discover such things as can greatly prolong human life, which cannot be arrived at by nature.” [7]


In the Latin West, during this period, the value of Jabir's Kitab al-Sab'in was not fully appreciated compared with the other translated alchemical books, and it did not exert the same influence as the works of al-Razi and Ibn Sina. It was not quoted nor mentioned by any of the eminent writers whom we have just mentioned. In other words, Jabir was not yet well known in the Latin world, and he did not have yet the prestige which can induce a talented Latin alchemical pseudo-writer to attribute to him a whole corpus of exceptional treatises that were supposedly written by that Latin writer, as Berthelot and his school wanted the world of science to believe. The other fact which emerges from Roger Bacon's passages, quoted above, is that no Latin writer was able by the end of the thirteenth century to write such a vast and mature corpus of alchemical knowledge.


The translation movement of Arabic scientific works into Latin which started in the middle of the twelfth century continued into the thirteenth and beyond. One alchemical work, the Liber Claritatis, ascribed to Jabir, appeared in Latin in the last third of the thirteenth century. [8]. Also around the year 1300, another of Jabir's books the Summa Perfectionis magesterii (Sum of Perfection) was translated into Latin. [9]. This book is usually accompanied by four other treatises which were also translations from Arabic: De investigatione perfectionis (The Investigation of Perfection), De inventione veritatis (The Invention of Verity), Liber fornacum (The Book of Furnaces), and the Testamentum (Testament). These treatises were frequently printed together in one volume between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries.


The Summa was so successful that it became, according to Sarton, the main chemical text book of medieval Europe. It was a manual on the general chemical literature, as clear and concise as to make an epoch in chemical literature, and it remained without rival for several centuries. The Summa and the treatises associated with it were of the same caliber as al-Razi's treatises. They were particularly notable for their clarity and freedom from mysticism and allegory. Naturally they appealed to practical chemists and they exerted a great influence on Western chemists until the rise of modern chemistry. The name of Jabir in its Latin form "Geber" became suddenly a most celebrated one. Indeed Jabir was called by Western historians "the father and founder of chemistry".


There were several translations for the Sum of Perfection.[10] The date 1300 A.D. was based on citations in other works. The first printed book appeared in 1481, probably in Rome and it contained two of the five Latin treatises. [11]. A translation based on a MS in the Vatican was published in Italy [12] probably between 1510 and 1520. [13]. A translation of most of these tracts into Latin appeared in Strassburg in 1529 [14], also 1531 .Other editions appeared in Nuremberg 1541; Venice 1542; Bern 1545; Leiden 1668; Danzig 1682 ; etc[15]. It seems that there were more than one translation and several different printed editions. [16].


Towards the end of the nineteenth century Berthelot came out with a hypothesis that the Latin works of Jabir were written by a European alchemist who used the name of Jabir to give importance to his work. [17]. Berthelot was the most celebrated historian of chemistry in France and Europe, and he enjoyed great prestige and authority. As soon as he published his assumptions, they were adopted by most Western historians of chemistry, with the notable exception of Holmyard. After that, workers concentrated their efforts towards finding any evidence which can support Berthelot's claims. But despite the huge amount of published literature that appeared during the whole of the twentieth century in support of Berthelot, these claims could not be established. All claims are based on conjecture. The fact is that most of Jabir's extant works in Arabic were not studied until now by scholars who are quite familiar with the language, and that manuscripts that were thought to be lost continue to appear. It is dangerous in the world of scholarship to build history on mere assumptions. [18].


The following story is given below because of its extreme importance to our present discussion. According to this information, there is probably one Latin edition translated from Arabic by a well known Arabist in Leiden.


Herman Boerhaave (1668 -1738), who gave the information, was a most distinguished scientist. He is considered the first great clinical teacher, and the founder of the modern system of medical instruction. Thomas Thomson considered him " perhaps the most celebrated physician that ever existed, if we except Hippocrates" He spent most of his life in Leiden where he held the chairs of medicine and chemistry. He became also the rector of the university. He raised the fame of the University of Leiden, and students came to it from all parts of Europe. His writings in medicine and chemistry were of great influence on the whole of Europe. The last major work which he had written in 1724 was Elementa Chemiae in two volumes. The Elementa deals with the history, science, and practical experiments of chemistry. Soon it became the most popular treatise on the chemistry of the period. The Latin text passed through ten editions between 1732 and 1759 which were published in several cities in Europe, and it was translated into German, French, and English in several editions. Thomson says that it "was undoubtedly the most learned and most luminous treatise on chemistry that the world had yet seen."[19]


In discussing Jabir, Boerhaave says that "His works were translated into Latin by several hands, and published by Golius"[20] .In the footnotes he gives the following details:


"Golius , professor of the oriental languages in the University of Leiden, made the first present of Geber's pieces, in manuscript, to the public library; and translated it into Latin, and published it in the same city, in folio; and thence afterwards in quarto, under the title of Lapis Philosophorum. It contains abundance of curious and useful things about the nature of metals, their purification, fusion, malleability, etc. with excellent accounts of salts, and aqua fortes. Several of his experiments are verified by present practice, and have passed for modern discoveries; the exactness of his operations is really surprising, except perhaps in what relates to the philosopher's stone" [21]


Jacobus Golius (1596 -1667) was a celebrated seventeenth century Arabist in the Netherlands. He was also a scientist and engineer. He travelled twice to the Arab countries, one time to al-Maghrib and another to the Near East where he stayed four years. In both visits he collected rare Arabic manuscripts. Some of these were given to Leiden University and some remained for his own collection. His private collection was sold at an auction at a later date after his death. He also compiled an important Latin-Arabic dictionary. Therefore, as an Arabist, scientist and a collector of rare Arabic manuscripts, Golius was best qualified to translate Jabir's works [22]


Thomas Thomson, (1773-1852) who was professor of chemistry at Edinburgh, wrote The History of Chemistry in 1830, nearly 60 years before Berthelot. Despite his strong negative feelings towards Islamic scientific achievements, which were expressed freely in his book, he gave a full account about Golius' translation as reported above. He further mentions in his book that:


" Golius was not, however, the first translator of Geber. A translation of the longest and most important of his tracts into Latin appeared in Strassburg in 1529. There was another translation published in Italy, from a manuscript in the Vatican. There probably might be also other translations. I have compared four different copies of Geber's works, and found some differences, though not very material. I have followed Russell's English translation most commonly, as upon the whole the most accurate that I have seen. " [23].


Holmyard discussed Berthelot's arguments and refuted them. [24]. One main argument was that the Arabic originals are not available. But Holmyard pointed out that until recently the Book of Seventy was available only in its Latin version and the Arabic text was discovered only recently. Also a careful research into the history of the Latin editions may lead to specific locations of the Arabic manuscripts. A search for these and other manuscripts may be fruitful. The search should be done by workers well versed in Arabic, to study all the works of Jabir in Arabic and compare them with the disputed Latin versions and with their translations into other European languages.


Let us summarize briefly the points that were raised in the above discussion:


1. Alchemy in the last part of the thirteenth century was still an unknown subject in the Latin world according to Bacon who wrote in 1266. It follows that such mature works like the Summa and the other Latin works of Jabir could not suddenly be written by a Latin writer in this same period.


2. Jabir was not quoted by any of the thirteenth century writers on alchemy, namely: Michael Scot, Vincent de Beauvais, Albertus Magnus or Roger Bacon, and he did not enjoy a high prestige in the Latin West in that century. His fame arose suddenly only after the translation of his works at the end of the century. It follows that there was no reason why a Latin writer should ascribe his writings to an unknown Arabic alchemist.


3. Even if we assume that the pseudo-Latin writer made only compilations from the already translated Arabic alchemical works, the disputed Latin works of Jabir contain much vaster information than was available in the Latin translations until then. And again, the prevailing ignorance of alchemy as described by Bacon, could not enable any Latin writer to have access to such detailed and wide knowledge as given in the Summa corpus.


4. Quotations were given above from reliable literature of the seventeenth century, that the noted Arabist Golius, translated the Jabir’s works in question from Arabic manuscripts, and published the Latin translation in Leiden. This information is of the utmost importance and warrants an extensive investigation.


5. A new effort should be made to look again very carefully into the various Latin manuscripts to find out whether there is only one Latin text or more than one.


One main reason, in our opinion, for Berthelot's hypothesis was that The Sum of Perfection and the four other treatises were so important and influential that he felt that this distinction should not be left untainted. The treatises contain some important recipes for mineral acids, such as nitric. It was appealing also, to give this honour to a Latin Pseudo-Geber. [25]


In this short account we cannot discuss the matter in further detail. Holmyard who was always opposed to Berthelot's hypothesis, when discussing the treatises, concludes by saying: “we may safely say that they are not unwortby of Jabir and that he is worthy of them; and that we know of no other chemist, Muslim or Christian, who could for one moment be imagined to have written them." [26] .


* This article had appeared in the Journal for the History of Arabic Science, Vol. 10, Numbers 1 & 2, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, Aleppo, 1994, pp. 5-11. It is reproduced here with a slight editing. Most of this text appeared also in The Different Aspects of Islamic CultureScience and Technology in Islam, Vol. IV, Part II, ed. A. Y. al-Hassan et al., UNESCO, 2002.

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[1] -Holmyard, Eric John, Makers of Chemistry, Oxford, 1931, p. 86.

[2] Multhauf, Robert P. , The Origins of Chemistry, London, 1966, p. 167

[3] Multhauf , op. cit.  pp. 168 -170

[4] Multhauf,op. cit., p. 168; Newman, William R. , The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo Geber, Leiden,1991, pp. 15 -16.

[5] Newman, op. cit., p. 17

[6] Multhauf, op. cit., on p.175.he says: "The two eminent Latins did not know Geber", see also p. 171.

[7] Stillman, John Maxon, The Story of Alchemy and Early Chemistry, Dover, New York, 1960, pp. 262 -65.

[8] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. II, part II, p. 1045.

[9] Stillman, op. cit., p. 277

[10] This information about the printed editions is collected from well known histories of science. But since the writing of this paper it became possible to compile a more accurate list of printed books on alchemy prior to 1800. The list of Geber’s printed works prior to 1800, taken from the data base, differs to a certain extent from the list given in this paper. See the Alchemy Web Site at http://www.levity.com/alchemy/home.html.

[11] Multhauf,op. cit.,  p. 171, note 81.

[12] Thomson, Thomas, The History of Chemistry, vol. 1, London, 1830, note to p. 116.

[13] Sarton, op. cit. vol. II, p. 1044.

[14] Thomson,op. cit., vol. II, note to p. 116

[15] Sarton, op. cit., vol. II, p. 1044

[16] Thomson, op. cit., vol. II, note to pp. 116 -117.

[17] -Berthelot, Marcellin, La chimie au moyen age, vol. I, Paris, 1893, pp. 336 -50; Stillman, op. cit., pp. 277 -278; Newman, op. cit., pp. 60 -62.

[18] The book of Newman went a further step by assigning a specific Latin author for Jabir's Latin works.

[19] Stillman,op. cit., pp. 431-33

[20] Boerhaave, Herman, A New Method of Chemistry; including the History, Theory, and Practice of the Art: Translated from the original Latin of Dr. Boerhaave's Elementa Chemiae, as published by himself, etc. by Peter Shaw, M. D., second edition, London, 1761. Vol.1, pp. 26-27

[21] Boerhaave, op. cit., p. 26, note k. 3

[22] ISIS Cumulative Bibliography, Vol. I, ed. Magda Whitrow, London, 1971, p. 502. AI-Aqiqi, Najib, AI-Mustashriqun, vol. II, in Arabic, Cairo, 1965, pp. 654 -55.

[23] Thomson, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 116-17, and notes to these two pages; Holmyard, E. J. , The Works of Geber, Englished by Richard Russell, 1678, London, 1928

[24] Holmyard wrote several papers on this subject. His views are summarized in his book Makers of Chemistry, pp. 60 -63

[25] Nitric acid was known and was produced in Arabic alchemy before the thirteenth century. See the article on Potassium Nitrates in Arabic and Latin Sources in this web site.

[26] Holmyard, op. cit, p. 63

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