History of Science and Technology in Islam

The Arabic Origin of Summa perfectionis magisterii

And the other Geber Latin Works

Ahmad Y. al-Hassan


Jabir’s Surviving Works

Research into the Arabic origin of Geber’s Latin works is a vast undertaking which may not be in the power of one individual to carry it out alone. Yet in the absence of an organized and sponsored team work individual efforts are crucial and should not stop. The author has been working on this question for several years and he found it now worthwhile to publish his findings gradually as they transpire. This will benefit the academic community because this research project will take more years to reach its definitive end.


The results will be given without a consecutive order. We may present a result from one location and then present another from a different location. We shall move between the four Geber Latin works according to the emergence of results. We shall also choose to discuss as we go along the different assumptions upon which the advocates of a Latin pseudo-Geber had based their conjectures. As the jigsaw puzzle is about to be completed the final picture will, hopefully, be made clear.

 Previous work in this project

We have already published on this web site the following articles and Brief Notes that are part of this research. These are:

- The Arabic Origin of Jabir's Latin Works- A New Light on the Geber Question

- Potassium Nitrate in Arabic and Latin Sources

- The Origin of Liber Fornacum

Sal Nitri and Sal Petrae in Geber’s Latin Works


The following article is also of importance in the general research into Arabic alchemy in the Latin West:

  “The Arabic Origin of Liber de compositione alchimiae”[1]

Geber editions used in this research

In discussing the Summa and the three other Geber Latin works we shall use mainly the English translation of Richard Russell, The Alchemical Works of Geber, Samuel Weiser, York Beach, Maine, 1994. We shall utilize also the German and French translations where necessary, and the Latin texts will be consulted sometimes.

Arabic texts used

Discussion of Geber’s texts will be based on our readings into the various Arabic texts in Alchemy.  In the absence of Arabic texts that corresponds completely with the Summa and the other three Latin texts our method of approach is find the equivalent to what is written in the four Latin works from different Arabic texts. We shall compare theories, materials, laboratory equipment, processes, styles, words and sentences and every detail that is worth of consideration.

Surviving Arabic MSS of Jabir ibn Hayyan

One of the key postulations for a Latin Pseudo-Geber is the absence of the Arabic originals of the Latin Geber works. For this purpose we have undertaken a survey of all the dated extant Arabic manuscripts ascribed to Jabir ibn Hayyan. We based our study on the exhaustive list given by Sezgin in volume IV of Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifftums [2], which included the findings of Paul Kraus, and the Arabic translation of this volume which incorporated some new additions. We took notice of all the copying dates of the dated manuscripts. The results were as follows:


Number  of dated MSS

% of extant MSS































This survey revealed the following facts:

1.     The oldest extant MSS of Jabir (only 2 %) do not go earlier than the 6/12 century. If we consider that Jabir lived in the 2/8 - 3/9 period then the oldest extant MSS are between 3 to 4 centuries later than Jabir.

2.     Most of the extant MSS (63 % of them) were copied in the 10/16 and 11/17 centuries or about 8-9 centuries after the time of Jabir.

We conclude

1-     That all of Jabir’s MSS that preceded the 6/12 century had perished.

2-     Among the perished MSS were naturally unique copies that have not been copied again and were lost for ever.

3-     The extant MSS that were copied in later centuries represent a fraction only of Jabir’s works.

4-     The translations of the Arabic alchemical treatises into Latin took place in the 12th and 13th centuries. And our survey denotes that 97 % of Jabir’s Arabic MSS dating from that period had perished. In other words this entails that the Arabic originals that were used by the translators had perished and there are not other copies of the lost ones.

5-     We conclude that the contention opposed to an Arabic origin of Geber’s Latin works is flawed and is a feeble line of reasoning that should be discounted.

It is pertinent to mention here that not only the Arabic originals of the Latin Geber works are still missing, also the originals of many other Arabic works in Latin are still missing and their translators are unknown. These Arabic works are known to us from their Latin texts only. This includes several works in alchemy, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, physics, medicine, materia medica and other subjects. 

Even with the great loss of Arabic manuscripts many works that were thought to be missing were found in the past decades. It is not inconceivable that some of the Arabic originals of Geber Latin works may appear. But we need not wait until this happens. The content of the Latin works are to be found in the available Arabic alchemical works as will be made clear in the present research,

 What caused the disappearance of Jabir Manuscripts

There were various reasons why Jabir’s Arabic MSS preceding the 12th century had perished. Wars and invasions are cited as main causes. The devastation and sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 resulted in the destruction of many libraries containing innumerable priceless manuscripts.[3]

Following the Christian conquest of Granada in 1492 many valuable Arabic manuscripts, documents and books were burnt, as they were housed in public squares all over Granada, and it is thought that as many as 1,000,000 MSS were destroyed in this way.

We must enquire also into the other factors that caused the vanishing of huge numbers of Arabic MSS. These MSS were written on paper after paper was introduced in Arabic lands in the 8th century. Paper is not durable over centuries. Latin MSS in Europe continued to be written on the more durable vellum or parchment until the 15th century when printing was invented, and even with vellum we find that the surviving scientific MSS dating before the 13th century are rare.

Other factors causing the vanishing of MSS include the aging and uncontrollable decay of paper, and the wear and tear from repeated use and poor handling and carelessness. The main adversary of paper is bad storage conditions with exposure to heat, humidity, sunlight and pollutants in the atmosphere. Storage conditions of Arabic MSS throughout the centuries were mostly unacceptable.

A report about one surviving monastery library in Egypt noted that “conditions fluctuate wildly, with inside temperatures ranging from 5 to 35 degrees Celsius and relative humidity from 30% to 80%. Paper has become brittle and is suffering from discoloration and mechanical damage. Iron and copper based inks used in writing have degraded, and there are many instances of ink suffering from flaking and lifting. Exposure to moisture has resulted in corrosion and caused very serious perforations to paper. Mice and other pests have caused further damage." [4]

An important factor is ignorance of the value of MSS especially during the last centuries of ignorance and decline. This is especially true for private family libraries. With the passage of time a family that inherited a collection of valuable MSS did not appreciate its significance through lack of knowledge on the part of the descendents. They were sold every so often to bookbinders who used their paper extensively in bookbinding without giving attention to the value of the written paper that they were using.

In many cases manuscripts were sold to grocers to be used for packaging and wrapping. They were used also as fuel or for starting fires, and for many other deprived commercial and domestic uses. 

[1] Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. The Arabic Original of Liber de compositione alchimiae, Arabic Science and Philosophy, vol. 14, (2004), Cambridge University Press, pp. 213-231. See also www.history-science-technology.com/ayh.

[2] Sezgin, Vol. IV, pp. 231-269, and the Arabic edition pp. 306-395

[3] The libraries and the invaluable MSS of Baghdad were sacked and devastated again in the 21st century.

 [4] Martin Bailey.  Ancient Manuscripts Found In Egyptian Monastery,    check link


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