History of Science and Technology in Islam

The Arabic Origin of Summa perfectionis magisterii

And the Other Geber Latin Works


The Two Exhalations of Aristotle and the Sulphur-Mercury Theory

Comparing Arabic Text with Geber’s Summa


We have discussed in article VII the sulphur-mercury theory of the formation of metals. We cited Berthelot who claimed that the Arabic works of Jabir do not offer any trace neither of the sulphur-mercury theory “nor of other doctrines.”

We shall discuss here the two exhalations concept (smoke and vapour) of Aristotle

[1] and its relation to the sulphur-mercury theory as it is stated in Arabic literature and also in the Summa.


The relation between the exhalations concept and the sulphur-mercury theory was discussed by several historians of science. They were not all in agreement about the relationship of the two. Joseph Needham summarized the position as follows:


“It has been usual to maintain that this theory (the sulphur-mercury) was derived by the Arabs from the two terrestrial exhalations of Aristotle. One of these vapours (anathumiaseis) given off by the earth under the influence of the sun, was hot and fiery, dry and gaseous (pneumatōdestera ), the other moist, cool and aqueous (at­midōdestera ). The former generated the idea of the sulphur component, the latter that of mercury, so many historians of chemistry have thought, though Aristotle himself did not make any connection with these two elements. Some scholars imply that men such as Ibn Sīnā or the Geberian writer  explicitly did so, but this we have not been able to confirm by any original text, though of course they clearly stated the theory itself: ’All Metallick bodies are compounded of Argentvive and Sulphur'. Other scholars have therefore contested the derivation from the anathumiaseis, proposing rather that the idea was originally a Chinese one.” [2]


According to Needham, among those who believed in the relationship between the exhalation concept and the sulphur-mercury theory were Sherwood Taylor[3] and Darmstädter [4]. Others like von Lippmann[5] and Leicester [6] had other views, while Multhauf avoided the discussion.[7] In this paper this debate will be decided. Sherwood Taylor and Darmstädter were right as our Arabic text will presently show.


In Arabic alchemy the smoke (dukhan) and vapour (bukhar) are considered to be the origin of metals and stones and were equated with sulphur and mercury. According to Al-Jildaki (14th century) this concept started with Jabir. We shall quote Al-Jildaki’s account since he is considered a reliable source for the exposition and elucidation of the Arabic alchemy of his predecessors mainly that of Jabir ibn Hayyan.


Our source is al-Jildaki’s Kitab Nihayat al-Talab fi Sharh al-Muktasab fi Zira’at al- Dhahab (Kitab the End of Search in the Explanation of the Book of Knowledge Acquired Concerning the Cultivation of Gold). Al-Muktasab was written by Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-‘Iraqi who flourished in the 7/13 century.[8] Holmyard published the Arabic text of al-Muktasab with an Engish translation in 1923. Al-Jiladaki’s book, Nihayat al-Talab is still in manuscript form. This is a voluminous work. It is divided into three volumes. The Berlin MS 4184 consists of 541 folios or 1082 pages. Taslimi wrote in 1954 a Ph.D. thesis in English on Nihayat al-Talab which is again a voluminous study[9].


We shall quote here the account given in the Nihayat al-Talab about the formation of metallic bodies from smoke and vapour, and from sulphur and mercury. This will be followed by the account given in the Summa of the same process 


Translation of the Arabic text of al-Jildaki

After speaking about the futility of the efforts of ignorant people in trying to obtain metallic bodies from operating on sulphur and mercury, al-Jildaki says:

“Know that fusible metallic bodies originate from sulphur and mercury before mercury was yet fully coagulated as mercury and before sulphur was fully coagulated as sulphur. Because if they were fully coagulated when they are used as constituents then malleable bodies (that are extensible under the hammer) would not have been formed from them; especially that sulphur is originated in an earth different from that in which mercury is originated. Fusible bodies do not, in fact, originate from these coagulated sulphurs, nor from that quivering mercury. Mineral bodies originate only from the vapour and the smoke, and from un-coagulated mercury and un-coagulated sulphur, or, to tell the truth, metallic, mineral bodies originate from nothing but the water (ma’) and the oil (duhn). In the hollows of the earth the gentle heat causes the water to ascend to the top, carrying the oil (duhn) inside it. There, because of proximity to coldness, it cools down and descends (again), tumbling and breaking on each other till it reaches its bottom place. Here again the natural heat cooks  it; and it constantly moves up and down, part of it tumbling over the other until it gradually becomes more and more sticky (like the gum of a tree), more hard and thick, and it continuous thus until it is completed as a fusible malleable body. Thus it had progressed from the vapour and smoky state to the gummy state and the vapour and smoke continue to contact it and descend upon it acting as if it is a nourishment, with the heat of the mine cooking it.  The slightly coagulated body acts in the beginning as a ferment.  It gradually grows and hardens little by little, from the viscous gummy state to a doughy state then  to the state of a  body molten in fire , then it coagulates into an actual mineral body, which would become gold if the earth from which vapour and smoke emanated has been pure and if there has been a moderate heat. And with pure earth and deficient heat, silver is produced. We have thus given a great proof for all those philosophers who have preceded us “ [10]


The Summa’s text, Russell, pp. 57-58 [11]



Of the Natural Principles of Metals, according to the Opinion of Modern Philosophers, and of the Author.

But others say otherwise, That Argentvive in its Nature was not the Principle, but altered, and converted into its Earth, and Sulphur likewise altered and changed into Earth. Whence they say, that in the Intention of Nature, the Principle was other, than a foetent (fetid) Spirit, and fugitive Spirit. And the Reason, that moved them hereunto, was this, viz. Because, in the Silver Mines, or in the Mines of other Metals, they found not any thing that is Argentvive in its Nature, or any thing that is Sulphur likewise; but they found each of them separated in its proper Mine, in its own Nature. And they also affirm this for another Reason, viz Because there is no transition (as they say) from Contrary to Contrary, unless by a Middle Disposition. Therefore, seeing it so is, they are compelled to confess and believe that there is no Transition (or Passing from the Softness of Argentvive, to the hardness of any Metal, unless by a Disposition, which is between the Hardness and Softness of them. But in the Mines they find not any thing, in which this Middle Disposition may be salved; therefore they are compelled hence to believe, that Argentvive and Sulphur, in their Nature, are not the Principles according to the Intention of Nature: but another Thing, which follows from the Alteration of their Essences. In the Root of Nature, into an Eartby Substance. And this is the Way, by which each of them is turned into an Eartby Nature; and from these two Eartby Natures, a most thin Fume is resolved, by Heat multiplied in the Bowels of the Earth; and this Duplicate Fume is the immediate Matter of Metals.


This Fume, when it shall be Decocted by the temperate Heat of the Mine, is converted into the Nature of a certain Earth; therefore it receives a certain Fixation, which afterward the Water (flowing through the Bowels of the Minera, and Spongiosity of the Earth) dissolves, and is uniformly united to it, with a natural and firm Union. Therefore, so opining, they thus said, That the Water flowing through the Passages of the Earth, finds a Substance dissolvible from the Substance of the Earth in the Bowels thereof, and dissolves the same, and is uniformly with it united, until the Substance also of the Earth in the Mines is dissolved, and the flowing dissolving Water and it become one with Natural Union. And to such a Mixtion come all the Elements, according to a due natural Proportion, and are mixed through their least Parts, until they make an Uniform Mixtion. And this Mixtion, by successive Decoction in the Mine, is thickned, hardned, and made a Metal. And indeed, these Men, although they be nigh the Truth, yet they do not conjecture the very Truth.


Comparing the Latin with the Arabic texts

If we read carefully the Arabic account and the Summa’s, we shall find them to be amazingly similar.

1. Both texts assert that metallic bodies cannot be the generated from sulphur and mercury in their natural form (according to the Summa), or in their coagulated form (according to the Arabic text)..

2. Therefore sulphur and mercury should be used in a non-coagulated form (according to the Arabic text) or in the form of an earthy substance (according to the Summa).

3. Both texts give the argument that natural sulphur and mercury cannot be found together in the same mine but that each of them is found in its own separate mine.

4. Therefore metallic bodies are formed from vapour and smoke (according to the Arabic text) or from a duplicate fume (according to the Summa).

5. Both texts describe the process. Due to the mild heat in the bowels of the earth, the intimate mixture of vapor and smoke (or the double fume) ascends to the top where it encounters a colder temperature and condenses and flows down again to be heated and evaporated. And so the process is repeated continuously. During its contact with the material at the bottom, the descending condensate is heated and cooked and part of it is thickened and hardened. The process is repeated and continues until the metallic body is finally formed.

6. The Arabic description is clearer and more refined than that of the Summa although the sequence of the process is the same, namely: Due to gentle heat vapour and smoke evolve, vapour ascends carrying the smoke in its bowel (the double fume of the Summa) and condenses. The water (or condensate) descends and is cooked by the heat and part of it is thickened. This process continues until finally the metallic body is formed.



1.- Arab alchemists (Jabir) developed Aristotle’s theory of the two exhalations by considering the vapour and smoke as two initial forms of mercury and sulphur.  The Arabic text given above gives a conclusive evidence in support of those historians who believed in the relationship between Aristotle’s exhalations and the Arabic sulphur-mercury theory.


The sulphur-mercury theory as developed by Jabir from the exhalations concept of Aristotle is the main source of the idea of alchemy.


2- The very close resemblance between the Arabic text and that of the Summa leaves no doubt that the Geber text is a translation from Arabic. No Latin writer in the thirteenth century could have formulated such a mature theory. The similarity of the texts cannot be the result of a coincidence.


Images of Arabic text found on folios 29a and 29b of MS Berlin 4184



[1] Aristotle,  Meteorologica; Book III, Chapter 6,  (378c ). For the text of Aristotle’s exhalations concept see also F. Sherwood Taylor, The Alchemists, Heinemann, London, 1951; reproduced by Kessinger, pp. 12-13.

[2] Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part IV, Spagyrical Discovery etc. . CUP, 1980. p. 457

[3] Sherwood Taylor, op. cit., p. 80

[4] Darmstädter, E., Die Alchemie des Geber, Springer, Berlin, 1922, p. 137, reproduced by Fuat Sezgin, Natural Sciences in Islam. 71, Jâbir ibn Hayyân. Texts and Studies, Vol. III.

[5] von Lippmann ,Abhandlungen und Forträge zur Geschichte d. Naturwissenschaften,  Vol 2, Leipzig. 1906, pp. 109, 149,

[6] Leicester, H.M., The Historical Background of Chemistry, Wiley, 1965, p. 70

[7] Multhauf, Robert, The Origin of Chemistry, London, 1966. We agree with Needham in his remark  that this excellent book did not discuss the exhalations of Aristotle and its relation to the sulphur-mercury theory.

[8] Holmyard,E. Kitâb al-'ilm al-muktasab fî zirâ'at adh-dhahab,  by Abu 'l-Qâsim Muh. b. Ahmad al-'Irâqî, Paris (1923). Reproduced by Fuat Sezgin, Natural Sciences in Islam. 61, Chemistry and Alchemy. Texts and Studies, vol. VII,, 2001,

[9] Taslimi, M.,An Examination of the Nihayat al-Talab and the Determination of its Place and Value in the History of Islamic Chemistry, Ph.D Thesis, University of London, 1953.

[10] Jildaki , Nihayat al-Talab, MS. Berlin 4184    folios 29a and 29b.

[11] Russell Richard, The Alchemical Works of Geber, reprinted by Weiser, 1994.


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