History of Science and Technology in Islam

The Arabic Origin of Summa perfectionis magisterii

And the other Geber Latin Works


Arabic Expressions in the Summa and the Investigation


It was observed by Holmyard that the Summa contained some Arabic expressions.[1] Recently Newman alluded slightly to these calling them touches, [2]  and furnished a curious explanation. He says that the Pseudo-Geber (in his case Paul of Taranto) purposely inserted these Islamic expressions to give the Summa an Islamic aspect so that the forgery can look authentic!  We need not discuss here this strange explanation. The results of the present research reports will shred enough light to dissipate such conjectures.[3]  On the other hand, we have adequately shown earlier [4] that Jabir ibn Hayyan was not yet sufficiently known and was not yet a famous person in the 13th century in the Latin West. Even the Book of Seventy that was translated by Gerard of Cremona in the twelfth century under the Latin title Liber de septuaginta was considered by many medieval alchemists such as Petrus Bonus to be a work of Al-Razi (Rhazes) [5]. Therefore it was unimaginable why any Latin writer in the thirteenth century would think of using the name of the hitherto unknown Jabir as the author of a work that was composed by that Latin writer.[6] We shall have the opportunity to revert to this question in more detail in these research reports.


We have surveyed several alchemical treatises written by Latin authors and other treatises translated from Arabic during the twelfth and later centuries. We looked into the word “God” and the other words signifying God and the descriptions attached to them and we found that the qualities attributed to God by Muslim alchemists are not used by the Latin writers. In other words we can distinguish a Latin author from an Islamic one by observing in what manner the word “God” occurs.


Latin translators used to purge the Arabic texts from conspicuous Muslim expressions involving the name of the Prophet and other explicit Islamic religious language. But there are Islamic expressions that can be applied to any religious belief especially those that praise or glorify God.  These expressions escaped the intense Christian editorial censorship and were translated along with the main texts. The Summa retained several of these Islamic expressions that glorify God.

The following Islamic phrases referring to God occur throughout the Summa. (Page numbers refer to Russell’s translation):

p. 24: through God

p. 31: divine will of God

P.40:  the most High and Glorious God

 P.60: through the most High GOD,

p.63: through God

p.135: praised be the glorious and blessed Most High God

p.178: let the High GOD of Nature, blessed and glorious, be praised,

p. 179: most excellent Gift of God

p. 179: this Gift of God is absolutely, by the judgment of Divine Providence hid from you.

p. 196: as is agreeable to the will of the Most High, Blessed, Sublime, and Glorious God.

p 196: by the Grace of his divine Goodness, who gives it to, and withholds it from, whom he will.

197: the Gift of the Most High God


The Arabic equivalents to some of the cited attributes of God are: The Most High  ألعلي  and the Glorious Most High العليّ العظيم، الله عز وجل . Blessed Most High is تبارك وتعالى  . All these are Qur’anic expressions.


 The phrase “who gives it to, and withholds it from, whom he will” is an Islamic expression that has been inspired by the verses of the Qur’an.تؤتي الملك من تشاء وتنزع الملك عمن تشاء وتعز من تشاء وتذل من تشاء[7]


In addition to these Islamic expressions and beside the Arabic chemical texts (or formulaic passages) that will be revealed and reported in this series, there are also well known Arabic sayings and expressions that are authentic only for an Arab author and could not have been written by a Latin one. These will be revealed as we continue our study of the Summa and the other three Geber texts.


In the Investigation (Russell p.4) the author says:  Contraries set near each other, are the more manifest. This is a well known Arabic saying and its Arabic form is: وبضدها تتميز الأشياء .


On page 17 we read: Festination (haste) is from the Devil’s part. This is a also a famous Arabic saying. In Arabic it is: العجلة من الشيطان


The Islamic style of Geber was noticed and was known to Latin alchemists. Thomas Vaughan in his treatise Aula lucis, or, The House of Light written in the year 1651[8] expresses his opinion about the Islamic style of Geber who was known to be a non-Christian. He says: “I have ever admired the royal Geber, whose religion - if you question - I can produce it in these few words: "The sublime, blessed and glorious God of natures." This is the title and the style he always bestows upon God and it is enough to prove him no atheist”.


Like the Summa, some other alchemical treatises translated from Arabic into Latin retain the same Islamic expressions. In the Liber de compositione alchimiae in which we find the dialogue between Khalid ibn Yazid and the hermit Morienus (Maryanus) we find several Islamic expressions retained in the Latin text. These are examples[9]:

p. 3:  “In the name of the Lord, holy and compassionate”: This is the Muslim famous Qur’anic verse which is used at the start of every book or treatise. The Christian translator used the word Lord instead of God. In Arabic it is thus: بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم .

p. 9: God willing ان شاء الله

p. 9: God enrich you أصلحك الله

p,9: May the Creator be praised والله المحمود

p.9: There is no strength save in great God most high لا حول ولا قوة إلا بالله ألعلي العظيم

p.11: Almighty God الله تعالى

p. 33: great God most high ألعلي العظيم

p 35 God be ever praised:

p. 37: great Creator most high

p.37: great God most high

p. 45: praise the great Creator most high


The original translator into Latin, Robert of Chester, made a faithful translation from the Arabic original. [10]  The Arabic versions given above are taken from the original Arabic text. We notice that the attributes of God are the same as those used by Geber.

The Secret Book of Artephius [11] is a well known alchemical treatise in Latin alchemy. It is recognized to be of Arabic origin, but we know nothing about the translator and little about the author. Nevertheless the English translation still retains some Islamic impressions. Here are examples:

-  God Almighty

-  Through the goodness of God Almighty.

-  Praises be given to the most high God.

-  Wherefore praises be given to the most high God

-  my son, put up thy supplications (prayers) to God almighty

-  [Therefore] render praises and thanksgiving to the most great and good God, who gives wisdom and riches to whomsoever He pleases, and takes them away according to the wickedness of a person. To Him, I say, the most wise and almighty God, be glory for ages and ages.

Here again the Islamic expressions are similar to those of Geber.

Having seen the style of the Latin translations of Arabic alchemical works with their residual distinct Islamic expressions let us look now into some alchemical works that were written by Latin authors  to see how these authors referred to God.


Arnoldus de Nova Villa in a Chymicall treatise [12] mentions the word God without adopting the Islamic attributes. Instead, he uses alternative names for God especially the Holy Ghost.  In his short treatise the Holy Ghost is repeated several times, more than the word God.  God is defined by this phrase: I say that the Father Son and Holy Ghost are one, and yet three,


We read also this phrase: “the Word was a Spirit, and that word the Spirit was with God, that is with himselfe, and God was that word, he himself was the Spirit”.  This is based on the text in John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."


In this short treatise of Arnoldus we find a real Christian tone totally different from that of Geber, Khalid-Morienus and Artephius.


In the Book of Quintessence of John de Rupescissa (d. 1365),[13] the author starts his essay “in the name of the Holy Trinity” as opposed the Islamic Qur’anic verse with which the dialogue of Khalid and Morienus was started. God is designated several times as “our Lord God”.  The phrase “Jesus Christ” was used, and the word God was applied by itself without the attributes applied by the Muslim authors.


In the New Pearl of Great Price written by Peter Bonus[14] and edited by Janus Lacinius we find the same Christian style of the Latin authors. In the Discourse between Bonus and Lacinius the word God occurs without the Islamic attributes. In addition to God the words “Christ” and “Jesus Christ the Son of God” are used.


In the New Pearl itself the word God is not numerous in relation to the size of the book. We find here also the typical Christian alternative names of God such as “our Saviour Jesus Christ” and “our Lord Jesus Christ”. We find also phrases like “Trinity in Unity”, and “God’s miraculous dealings in Scriptures”.


We summarize as follows:

1. The style of the Summa and the Investigation is Arabic-Islamic. The Summa contains a multitude of Islamic expressions glorifying God that stem from the Qur’an.

2. The Islamic style of Geber was well known and his descriptions of God were referred to in several medieval and Renaissance alchemical works.

3. Jabir (Geber) was not sufficiently known in the thirteenth century and it was improbable that a Latin Christian Friar would ascribe a work of his own composition to an unknown Muslim author.

4. It is also a strange idea to assume that such a supposed Latin writer would go to the extreme in inserting Islamic expressions in his text to give it an Islamic appearance. Such a person would have to be very familiar with the Arabic language and with Islam.

5. Other Latin alchemical texts of Arabic origin use the same Islamic style in God’s names as Geber.

6. Alchemical works Written by Latin authors bear a distinct Christian style when referring to God.



[1] Holmyard, E. J., “The Present Position of the Geber Problem”, Science Progress, Jan. 1925, XIX, No. 16, p. 418.

[2] Newman, William R. The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber, Brill, 1991, p.88

[3] Newman found complete texts in the Latin translation of the Book of Seventy that resemble comparable texts in the Summa, He gave this similarity in texts the same curious explanation. We shall discuss these texts later in this series of research notes.

[4] See “The Arabic Origin of Jabir’s Latin Works” on this web site.

[5] Newman, p. 107, note 56.

[6] Paul of Taranto, who was chosen by Newman to be the author of the Summa, was an unidentified Franciscan Friar who, according to Newman, lectured in the monastery of the Friars Minor in Assisi in the second half of the thirteenth century. St. Francis died in 1226 and the building of the Franciscan monastery and church in Assisi began after his canonization in 1228 and was completed in 1253. In the records of the Franciscans of their learned men who were teachers and lecturers in this period there is no mention of a person called Paul of Taranto, nor is he mentioned in any of the modern histories of science, alchemy and chemistry for the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As a matter of fact the first writer to mention him was Newman and we are not overstating if we say that Paul of Taranto as an alchemist of any status is the creation of Newman.

[7] Sura 3, Al `Umran, verse 16.

[9] See The Arabic Origin of Liber de compositione alchimiae on this web site. See also: Lee Stavenhagen, A Testamen of Alchemy, The University Press of New England, 1974.   Page numbers refer to the English translation of Stavenhagen.

[10]  The English translation of Stavenhagen from Latin corresponded very well with the original Arabic text.

[13] John de Rupescissa, The Book of Quintessence, Glasgow, 2002

[14] Peter Bonus of Ferrara, The New Pearl of Great Price, Reprint by Kessinger  Publishing Company, n.d.

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