History of Science and Technology in Islam

Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine in Arabic Sources

From the Eighth Century Onwards [1]


The distillation of wine and the properties of alcohol were known to Islamic chemists from the eighth century. The prohibition of wine in Islam did not mean that wine was not produced or consumed or that Arab alchemists did not subject it to their distillation processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan described a cooling technique which can be applied to the distillation of alcohol.[2] Some historians of chemistry and technology[3] assumed that Arab chemists did not know the distillation of wine because these historians were not aware of the existence of Arabic texts to this effect.  The purpose of this note is to present some Arabic texts about the production of alcohol from wine, starting with the eighth century.

 The first reference to the flammable vapours at the mouths of bottles containing boiling wine and salt occurred in Kitab ikhraj ma fi al-quwwa ila al-fi`l of Jabir ibn ayyanHayyan (born c. 103/721, died c.200/815).  He says:

“And fire which burns on the mouths of bottles due to boiled wine and salt, and similar things with nice characteristics which are thought to be of little use, these are of great significance in these sciences.”[4]

This flammable property of alcohol (from distilled wine) was utilized extensively from Jabir’s time and onwards and we find various descriptions of the alcohol-wine bottles in Arabic books of secrets and military treatises.[5].

Among the early chemists who mentioned the distillation of wine is al-Kindi (d.260/873) in Kitab al-Taraffuq fi al-‘itr (also known as The Book of the chemistry of Perfume and Distillations). He says after describing a distillation process: “…and so wine is distilled in wetness and it comes out like rosewater in colour.” [6]

Al-Farabi (born c.265/878, died c. 339/950) mentioned the addition of sulphur in the distillation of wine.[7]

Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (d.404/1013) mentioned also the distillation of wine when he was describing the distillation of vinegar from white grapes.  He says: “…and similarly wine is distilled by any one who so desires.” [8].

Ibn Badis (d.453/1061) described how silver filings were pulverized with distilled wine to provide a means of writing with silver, which indicates that alcohol was collected as a product and was utilized in various ways. He says: “take silver filings and grind them with distilled wine[9] for three days; then dry them and grind them again with distilled wine until they become like mud, then rinse them with water…” [10]

We find in the military treatises of the fourteenth century that old grape-wine became an important ingredient in the distillation processes for the production of military fires. One manuscript contains five such recipes, with warnings that such distillates can ignite easily and they should be stored in containers buried in sand.[11]

Alcohol was called by Arabic chemists such as Ibn Badis (11th century) خمر     مصعّد (distilled wine).  The current word for distilled wine in Arab Lands is `araq عرق which means sweat. The droplets of ascending wine vapours that condense on the sides of the cucurbit are similar to the drops of sweat. You find this word in Arabic alchemical treatises describing drops of condensing vapours during distillation. Jabir Ibn Hayyan in his Kitab al-jumal al-`ishrin (The Book of Twenty Articles) says in Article Thirteen: The material under discussion should be “dried slightly after grinding so that its wetness is dehydrated and this is done to avoid the (formation) of `araq because if `araq is formed the quantity of the distillate will be smaller than if the `araq is not formed. Know this.” [11 a]

أن يجفف بعد السحق قليلا حتى ينشف ما فيه من نداوته وذلك فإنما يفعل ليومن عليه من العرق فإذا عرق كان المصاعد اقل مما لم يعرق فاعرف ذلك.

From a study of early Arabic poetry on wine we infer that distilled wine was one of several types of wine  خمرand was not denoted by a special name. The poet Abu Nuwas (died 198/813) described wines in beautiful verses. When enjoying a drinking session with a friend he tasted three kinds of wine in succession. Each time he would ask the bartender (khmmar) for a better (stronger) drink and in the third time he asked for a wine that “has the colour of rain-water but is as hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand”.[12]


في لون ماء الغيث إلا إنها                بين الضلوع كواقد الجمر


It seems that the word `araq was either not yet used or was not common at that early date.

 An interesting name for wine was ma’ al-hayat ماء الحياة (water of life) which is the same name as aqua vitae (water of life) that was given to distilled wine in the West when distillation was first transferred from the Arabs in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. An Arabic poet says: “I am wandering how those who had pressed [13] it had passed away, whereas they have handed down to us ma’ al-hayat (the water of life)” [14]

عجبت لعاصريها كيف ماتوا     وقد تركوا لنا ماء الحياة


The etymology of `araq is of great interest in the history of alcohol. We have given evidence above about the existence of wine distillation since the eighth century. But what was the common name for the distilled wine among the public?  This interesting topic was not investigated as yet. We started such an investigation into earlier literary sources. We found that in Hikayat Abu al-Qasim al-Baghdadi (written c. first half 5/11 century) a mention of `araq al-nabidh  عرق النبيذ (the `araq of wine)[15]. Al-Nuwayri (d. 732/1331) mentions in his encyclopaedia that the taxes that were levied on `araq amounted to 10 %.[16] Al-Antaki (d. 1008/1599) mentions the `araq of sugar cane and of grapes. When discussing khamr (wine) he mentions `araqi as a distilled kind that is useful in certain cases. [17]

Syria was particularly known for the production of wines and `araq. They were produced by Christians in the numerous monasteries and convents of Syria, Iraq and Egypt.[18] Wine shops were plentiful in the main cities such as Baghdad and were run by non-Muslims. They catered for all sectors of wine-loving persons including poets who left a rich poetry about wine خمريّات.

In the fourteenth century alcohols were exported from the Arab lands of the Mediterranean to Europe. Pegolotti mentions alcohol and rose water among the list of exported commodities (1310-1340).[19]

By the fourteenth century the distillation of wine was transferred to the East and West and the word `araq in its various forms in the Latin alphabet (arak, araka, araki, ariki, arrack, arack, raki, raque, racque, rac, rak, araka) became widely used outside the Islamic lands of the Near East. The word arak was used for example by the Mongols in the fourteenth century. Mongol araki is first mentioned in a Chinese text in 1330.[20] The word spread to most lands of Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

It is assumed in Western literature that the earliest references in a Latin treatise to the distillation of wine occurred in either in a text from Salerno around 1100 AD or in a cryptogram which was added by Adelard of Bath to the Mappae Clavicula (c. 1130). The solving of the riddle of the words in the Mappae cipher was suggested by Berthelot.[21]  But as with the whole science of chemistry, the recipes for the distillation of wine were part of the Arabic alchemical legacy that was transmitted in its totality to the West. The Arabic influence on the School of Salerno is well known, and Adelard of Bath himself was an Arabist and several of the recipes that he added to the Mappae Clavicula have Arabic words in them.[22]  In this limited space we mention only that most histories of distilled spirits acknowledge that the art of distillation of spirits is credited to the Arabs especially the Arabs of al-Andalus.[23] Jerez (Sharish), Malaga, Seville and other regions in al-Andalus were renowned for their wines. They were exported but the details of trade in wines are not fully documentd.[24] In Cordoba there was a state-operated market for wine in the Christian quarter during the time of al-Hakam I (796-823). [25] Wine was distilled in al-Andalus as we have seen above (see al-Zahrawi). It is thought that distilled spirits were produced in Jerez and that sherry (from Sharish the Arabic name for Jerez) was known since the Arab days.[26]


[1] This note contains some information from Islamic Technology, an illustrated history, Al-Hassan & Hill, UNESCO CUP, 1986, and from The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture, Science and Technology in Islam, Vol. 4, Part II, UNESCO, 2001.

[2] .Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Kitab al-jumal al-`ishrin, Maqala No. 19, MS. Bursa Husain Celebi, Istanbul No. 15, folios 532-534.

[3] Forbes; R. J.  A Short History of the Art of Distillation, Brill, 1970, p. 87;  Multhauf, Robert, The Origins of Chemistry, London, 1966, pp.204-6.

[4] Jabir ibn Hayyan, Kitab ikhraj ma fi al-quwwa ila al-fi`l, part of Mukhtarat rasa’il Jabir ibn Hayyan, ed. by P. Kraus, Cairo, 1935, p.76.

[5] The writer came until now across four such alcohol wine bottles in four treatises, one is Al-hiyal fi al-hurub, which represents the technology prevailing around 1200, another is al-hiyal al-babiliyya, by al-Iskandari, first third of the thirteenth century, another is Al-furusiyya wa al-manasib al-harbiyya,by Hasan al-Rammah , second half of the thirteenth century, and MS Istambul-Beshir Agha No. 441, probably the first half of the fourteenth century. Between Jabir’s description, and the end of the twelfth century this tradition of the wine and salt alcohol bottles continued uninterrupted and there are other accounts which will be revealed gradually.

[6]  Ya’qub ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi, Kitab al-Taraffuq fial-`itr, MS Topkapi Sarai, Istanbul, No. 62-1992, folios 140-141; see also K. Graber, Kitab kimiya’ al-‘itr wa al-tas`idat, Arabic text, and German trans., Abhandlungen fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes, Leipzig, 1948, p.50 of Arabic text and p.95 of German text.

[7]  Liber Alpharabii, BN MS. Lat. 7156, folio. 47v; Berthelot, M., La Chemie Au Moyen Age, Vol. I, Paris, 1976 ( areprint of the 1893 edition). p.143;  Partington, J. R., A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder, Heffer, Cambridge, 1960, p.53, (reprinted by John Hopkins University Press, 1999).

[8]  Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, Kitab al-tasrif li man `ajiza ‘an al-ta’liff, maqala no. 28, Ms. ‘Ali Amiri, Istanbul No. 2854. A photocopy of the original folio was supplied through the courtesy of Prof. Sami K. Hamarneh

[9] خمر مصعّد

[10] Ibn Badis, Kitab `umdat al-kuttab wa `uddat dhawi al-albab, MS of Egyptian Public Library, folio 73b 73a.

[11] MS. Beshir Agha Istanbul, No. 441; See al-Hassan, p.161, (footnote 44).

[11 a]    Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Kitab al Jumal al-`ishrin,  MS Huseyin Chelebi 743, Bursa, Turkey, p. 487. Maqala 13

[12] Nuwayri, Nihayat al-arab fi funun al-adab, Cairo, n.d., Vol. 4, p. 98.

[13] Wine is squeezed or pressed from grapes.

[14] One Thousand and One Night, Vol. 4, Cairo, 1960, p. 390.

[15] Al-Azdi, Hikayat Abi al-Qasim al-Baghdadi, edited by Adam Mez, Heidelberg, 1902, (offset copy by Qasim al-Rajab, Baghdad) , p. 125,

[16] al-Nuwayri,  op. cit., Vol. 8, p. 261

[17] Al-Antaki, Dawud, al-Tadhkira, Cairo, 1282 H, p.  132-134

[18]Al- Shabushti,  Kitab al-Diyarat.(The Book of Monasteries), edited by Gurguis Awwad, Baghdad, 1966.

[19] Lopez, Robert S. and Irving W. Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World, Columbia University Press, 1990, p. 109

[20] Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, CUP, 1980, p. 135. (Mongol araki had  been first mentioned in the Yin Shan Cheng Yao, c. + 1330)

[21] Multhauf, op. cit, p. 205, footnote 11.

[22] Berthelot, M., Archeologie et Histoire des Sciences, Amsterdam, 1968,  p. 177

[23] Bert L. Vallee, Alcohol In the Western World: A History, first appeared in the

 June 1998 issue of Scientific American, and published on line at  link,

[24] Constable, Olivia Remie, Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain, CUP, 1994, p. 185.

[25] Glick, Thomas, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 80.

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