History of Science and Technology in Islam

The Arabic Origin of Summa perfectionis magisterii

And the Other Geber Latin Works


The Sulphur Mercury Theory and the Occult and the Manifest Principle

Comparison of Geber Latin Texts with Jabir’s Arabic


One of the main arguments of Berthelot against Jabir’s authorship of Geber’s Latin works was that the sulphur mercury theory of metals which occurs in the Latin works has no trace in Jabir’s Arabic works. Berthelot says [1]:


«Au contraire, aucune allusion n'est faite dans les textes arabes précédents à la théorie de la génération des métaux par le soufre et le mercure- théorie que l'on attribue en générαl à Géber, lequel aurait ajouté l'arsenic à ces deux éléments; mais les oeuvres arabes de Djaber n'offrent aucune trace ni de l'une ni de l'autre doctrine. »


“On the contrary, no allusion is made in the preceding Arabic texts to the theory of the generation of metals by sulphur and mercury - theory which one allots in general to Geber, which would have added arsenic to these two elements; but the Arabic works of Djaber do not offer any trace neither of this nor of other doctrines.”


This statement of Berthelot is of course not true [2].  He had access only to a limited number of Jabir’s Arabic works, and he based all his conclusions on that limited number which does not exemplify the true picture of the chemistry and alchemy of Jabir.[3]


This article gives Geber’s Latin texts (in English translation) as well as some of Jabir’s Arabic ones.(with English translation also).


Jabir’s Sulphur-Mercury Theory

The sulphur – mercury theory was the basis upon which the alchemy of Geber was based. The whole corpus of the Summa and the other Latin treatises that carry the name of Geber evolve around this theory.

 Jabir believed that, under the influence of the planets, metals were formed in the earth by the union of sulphur (which would provide the hot and dry `natures') and mercury (providing the cold and moist). This theory, which appears to have been un­knοwn to the ancients, represents one of Jabir's principal contributions to alchemical thought. [4]

 The reasons for the existence of different kinds of metal are that the sulphur and mercury are not always pure, and that they do not always unite in the same proportion. If they are perfectly pure, and if also they combine in the most complete natural equilibrium, then the product is the most perfect of metals, namely gold. Defects in purity and, particularly, proportion result in the formation of silver, lead, tin, iron, or copper; but since these inferior metals are essentially composed of the same constituents as gold, the accidents of combination may be recti­fied by suitable treatment. Such treatment, according to Jabir, is to be carried out by means of elixirs.

 This concept that the metals are composed of mercury and sulphur was generally accepted by later generations of alchemists and chemists and remained a part of alchemy and chemistry even into the eighteenth century. The idea of the presence of an inflammable principle -sulphur- in metals and indeed in almost all bodies is the ancestor of the notion of phlogiston.  

 The Occult (Internal) and the Manifest (External)

Though Jābir thought metals to be made from mercury and sulphur, he also supposed them to be composed ultimately of the four elements, earth, water, air, and fire, and to have the qualities of these elements— dryness, cold, moisture, and heat— in varying proportions. A metal vas supposed to have one pair of qualities ex­ternally and another pair internally. Thus we have:

Outer Qualιties (Manifest)          Inner Qualities (Occult)

GOLD               Hot—moist                         Colddry

SILVER             Cold-dry                            Hotmoist

To turn silver to gold it was necessary to turn its nature inside-out.[5]

 The following quotations from Geber’s Latin works and from Jabir’s Arabic ones provide a further proof of the Arabic origin of Geber’s Latin texts.

The Sulphur – Mercury Theory in Geber’s   Investigation , Russell [6],  p. 4

The Thing which perfects in minerals is the substance of Argentvive and Sulphur proportionably commixt, by long and temperate decoction in the Bowels of clean, inspissate, and fixed Earth (with conservation of its Radical Humidity not corrupting) and brought to a solid fusible Substance, with due Ignition and rendered Malleable

 The Occult and Manifest Principle in Geber’s Investigation, Russell, p. 5

 And because these Imperfect Bodies are not reducible to Sanity and Perfection, unless the contrary be operated in them; that is, the manifest be made Occult, and the Occult be made manifest: which operation, or Contrariation, is made by preparation, therefore they must be prepared,

 The Sulphur - Mercury Theory and the Occult and Manifest Priciple in Geber’s Summa, Russell, p. 56

The natural principles of the work of nature, are a stinking spirit, that is Sulphur, and quick water, which we also grant to be named dry water. But we have divided the stinking spirit, for it is white in secret (hidden) and both red and black in the magistery of this work, but in manifest both of them tend to be red.  These We grant, and thus define the Fetent Spirit. It is white in Occulto[7]  , and Red and Black of either side, in the Magistery of this Work; but, in Manifesto[8]  , of either side, tending to Redness.


Newman’s translation of the above[9]

We intimate to you, therefore, that the natural principles in the work of nature, according to the opinion of some who were from a sect of those imitating our art,are a fetid spirit and living water,[10] which we grant to be also called dry water. And we have divided the fetid spirit,, for each is white, red, and black, in <its> hidden <part>, in the mαgistery of this work, but each in <its> manifest <part> tends toward redness.

 The Occult and Manifest Principle in  Geber’s  Summa, Russell, p. 71-72  

The Consideration of those Things, by which We come to the Compleatment of the Work, is the Consideration of the Substance manifest, and of manifest Colours, and of the Weight in every of those Bodies to be changed, and of those Bodies that are not changed from the Radix of their Nature, without that Artifice; and the Consideration of those likewise, in the Radix of their Nature, with the Artifice; and the Consideration of the Principles of Bodies, according to their Profound, Occult, and Manifest; and according to their Nature without Artifice, and likewise with Artifice.

 The Occult and Manifest Principle,in Geber’s Verity, Russell p. 217

According to the Order of the premises, We will (in this our fourth Particle) again practically speak of the Way of Investigation, compounding every Medicine, viz. White and Red, according to the Nature and Property of the Body to be transmuted, or of Mercury it self, with all its pertinencies occult and manifest.

The Sulphur- Mercury Theory in Jabir, Kitab al-Idah, Holmyard, p. 54 [11]

 Translation of the Arabic text

      And we shall say also that all metallic bodies (ajsad) in their essences are mercury that was set (coagulated) by means of the sulphur of the mine that has risen to it with the vapours of the earth. And they (i.e. the bodies) have differed because of the differences in their properties; and their properties differed because of the differences in their sulphurs; The differences in their sulphurs are caused by the differences in their earths and in their positions in relation to the heat that reaches them from the sun as it oscillates in its orbit. And the finest of those sulphurs, the purest and the most temperate was the golden sulphur and for this reason the mercury was coagulated with it firmly and temperately; and because of this temperance it resisted fire and it stood firm and fire was not able to burn it in the same way as it burns other bodies.


The Occult and the Manifest Principle in Jabir’s  The Book of Seventy, (Kitab al-sab’in), article 32, Kraus p. 466 [12]

Translation of the Arabic text:

And these qualities or natures in all beings and things are either manifest and perfect or occult and perfect; .and every being or thing should have two manifest qualities or natures, active and reactive; and two occult qualities or natures, active and reactive.  The meaning of perfect or imperfect is that silver according to them has an imperfect manifest nature and a perfect occult nature whereas gold has the opposite natures; and therefore it was easy for them  to revert metallic bodies to their origin in the shortest time by reversing the natures of metallic bodies and making the occult manifest and the manifest occult.


       Summary and Conclusions

1.  Berthelot’s statement that Jabir’s Arabic works do not mention the sulphur-mercury theory was false.

2.  Berthelot based all his conclusions regarding the authorship of Geber’s Latin works on a very limited number of Arabic manuscripts that were available to him in the B.N. of Paris and in Leiden. Those Arabic MSS do not portray the complete chemistry and alchemy of Jabir.

3. Therefore all Berthelot’s conclusions are not reliable because they were based on a very weak and a defective foundation.

4. Consequently the whole question of the Geber Problem should be reviewed again and all the subsequent assumptions and conjectures that came after Berthelot down to our time cannot be considered reliable any more.



[1] Berthelot; M:; La Chimie Au Moyen Age; Tome I, Paris, 1893,  pp: 340-341

[2] Similarly we can see in this series of articles that all of Berthelot’s other arguments were mistaken also

[3] The limited number of Jabir’s Arabic texts were published by Berthelot in Tome III of his book :; La Chimie Au Moyen Age and were translated into French by Houdas. The Arabic texts were selected from among the Arabic manuscripts at both the B.N. of Paris and at Leهden.  See also Holmyard, E. J., “The Present Position of the Geber Problem”, Science Progress in the Twentieth Century, (London), 19, 1924 -1925,, pp. 415-426, 

[4] Holmyard, E. J. , Alchemy, Dover, New York, 1990, pp 74-75

[5] Sherwood Taylor, E., The Alchemists , Founders of Modern Chemistry, Reprinted by Kessinger, 1997, p. 81

 [6] The Alchemical Works of Geber, Translated by Richard Russell, Introduction by E. J. Holmyard, Reproduced by Samuel Weiser,  1994.

[7]  الباطن

[8]   الظاهر manifest. W. Newman comments  in The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber: A Critical Edition, Translation, and Study , Brill, 1997,, p. 663 note 42 , that the: the  terms "occultum" and "manifestum," "hidden" and "manifest," derive from the batin and zahir of the Arabic alchemists. The works of Jatbir ibn Hayyan  especially helped to popularize the theory that minerals contain an inner nature opposed to their exterior one. Jabir often claims that each metal contains its opposite hidden within (cf. Kraus, op. cit., II, p. 2.). Since these two terms were taken up by the earlier Latin authors upon whose works the Summa has drawn, e.g. the pseudo-Aristotle of the De perfecto magisterio, we cannot be sure of the precise source of this locus.

( our comment on Newman: Geber is Jabir this is the only explanation.)

[9] Newman, W. Ph.D Thesis, Harvard University, 1986, Volume 4. pp. 42-43

[10] Newman’s footnote 33 on p.42 of his Ph.D thesis runs as follows:” i.e. sulfur and mercury. I do not know the precise source of this statement”

[11] Holmyard, E. J., The Arabic Works of Jabir ibn Hayyan, edited with translations into English and critical notes, Volume one, part one, (Arabic texts), Paris, 1928, Reproduced by Fuat Sezgin, Natural Sciences in Islam, Volume 69,  Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Texts and Studies I, Frankfurt, 2001.,

[12] Mukhtar Rasa’il Jabir ibn Hayyan, edied and published by P. Kraus, Cairo, 1935



Sulphur-Mercury Theory in Kitab al-Idah كتاب الايضاح


The Occult and Manifest Principle in Kitab al-Sab’in كتاب السبعين

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