Arabic Antecedents of Alchemy

by Esteban

Another “oriental” influence is that found in the Western alchemical traditions, deeply influenced by Islamic spiritual practices and philosophies. The entire history of alchemy passes through Islamic alchemical traditions, inherited from the Greeks, but is infused with Islamic spiritual ideas regarding the alchemical processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan (fl. c. 760 CE), later known as Gerber (in Latin), a Persian Sufi living in southern Arabia, was believed to be the author of many alchemical texts, showing a clear attribution to “oriental wisdom” in the transmission of alchemy to the Medieval west. The mystical style of the Jabir corpus reflects many Sufi ideas and may have been authored by the Iranian brethren of Purity (c. 1100). However, one text, the Kitab Sirr al-Khaliqa wa San`at al-Tabi`a (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), attributed to Jabir, c. 800, who in fact attributes this text to Apollonius of Tyana, is the basis for the single most popular text in Western Hermeticism, translated into Latin (1140) as the Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet) (43).

This text, transiting from Greek to Syriac, to Arabic, to Latin and finally to modern European languages, is a symbolic testimony to the interweaving of classical, “oriental” and later European alchemical and hermetic thought. The very term alchemy (al-kimia) is, of course, Arabic transmitted from the Greek (chemeia) and carries with it a fusion of Greek and Arabic ideas, as expressed in the famous, influential alchemical text, the Turba Philosophorum (“Conference of Philosophers,” c. 900 CE, translated into Latin by the 13th century) which combines pre-Socratic philosophy with Islamic-Sufi ideas (44). Maslama ibn Ahmad’s The Aim of the Wise was translated into Spanish and Latin, where it became known as Picatrix (1256). Many other Arabic influences (Razi, Avicenna, and so on) can be traced in the history of western alchemy, stemming particularly from the 7th through the 11th centuries (45).

–Lee Irwin, “Western Esotericism, Eastern Spirituality, and the Global Future.”