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Catalogue: Alchemy

Blue arrow pointing to the right A Note on Jābir ibn ayyān (8th to 9th century)

The most well-known name amongst Islamic alchemists was that of Jābir ibn ayyān, whom Europeans knew as Geber, and the earliest Arabic writings on the subject are attributable to him. It is reported that Jābir was a polymath who wrote 300 books on philosophy, 1,300 books on mechanical devices and military machinery, and hundreds of books on alchemy. He is said to have been born in 721 (103 H), to have died about 815 (200 H), and to have been active as an alchemist at the court in Baghdad.

There has been much scholarly discussion as to the attribution to a single person of the numerous extant alchemical writings circulating under his name, and some have even questioned the existent of such a person. Paul Kraus, writing in 1943, argued that Jābir ibn ayyān was a legendary figure and that the corpus of Jābirian alchemical writings were attributed to a group of Isma'ili scholars at the end of the 9th century. Fuat Sezgin, writing in 1971, rejected Kraus's conclusions and argued that all the writings under the name of Jābir are attributable to one historical personage named Jābir ibn ayyān in the 8th century. Other scholars have suggested that some of the writings may be attributable to the historical figure of Jābir ibn ayyān while others of the writings were composed by later writers over a period of a couple of centuries.

The writings preserved today under his name are voluminous, though many of them are in fact quite short tracts. On the basis of internal evidence, they can be grouped into several sets that can be sorted chronologically: The earliest, possibly written in the second-half of the ninth century, appears to be Kitāb al-Rahmah (The Book of Mercy), of which NLM has one copy. The two collections titled The 112 Books and The 70 Books appear to have been composed at the end of the 9th century. The Books of the Balances (Kutub a-Mawazin) date from the beginning of the tenth century, while The 500 Books were composed around 1040 (432 H).

The most comprehensive list of treatises attributed to Jābir, and their surviving manuscripts, was prepared by Paul Kraus in 1942 (see Kraus, Jābir), with extensive additions by Fuat Sezgin (see Sezgin, GAS IV, pp. 132-269).

For other discussions of Jābir and the Jābirian corpus of alchemical writings, see Syed Nomanul Haq, Names, Natures and Things: The Alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan and his Kitab al-Ahjar (Book of Stones) [Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 158] (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994); Ullmann, Natur pp. 198-207; and Donald R. Hill 'The Literature of Arabic Alchemy' in Religon, Learning and Science in the 'Abbasid Period, ed. by M.J.L. Young, J.D. Latham, and R.B. Serjeant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) pp. 328-341, esp. pp. 333-5. See also, William Newman, 'New Light on the Identity of "Geber"', Sudhoffs Archiv, 1985, vol. 69, pp. 76-90.

NLM has in its collections 25 different treatises attributed to Jābir, eight of which are represented by multiple copies.

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