1902 Encyclopedia > Alchemy > Alchemy in Arabia

(Part 4)



How the sacred art passed into Moslem lands it is hard, from dearth of evidence, to say. Modern criticism now does more justice to the part which Arabia took in the accumulation of scientific facts, and in the scientific theories which we find in the books of Rhazes and Geber. It is certain that in their treaties with the European Greeks of Constantinople the Arabs always stipulated for the delivery of a fixed number of manuscripts. Their enthusiasm for Aristotle is equally notorious; but it would be unjust to imagine that, in adopting the Aristotelian method, together with the astrology and alchemy of Persia, and of the Jews of Mesopotamia and Arabia, they were wholly devoid of originality. On the other hand, we must not understand Arabia in the ethnological sense of the word, but as signifying an agglomeration of various races united by a common religion. Thus Djafar (who lived in the middle of the 8th century), better known to us as Geber, was a Sabaean. Avicenna, born in 978, was a native of Shiraz. The remarkable geographer and geologist Kazwyny (geology was then a part of alchemy), derived his name from his birthplace, Casbin, in Persia. Mohammed-ben Zakaria, so celebrated in mediaeval Europe under the name of Rhazes, was also a Persian. In Spain the Jews of the famous school of Saadia and Juda Halevy exercised considerable influence over the academy of Cordova. Lastly, European historians have systematically exaggerated the ignorance of the Arabs before the time of Mahomet and their intolerance after the establishment of Moslemism, either from the zeal which prompted them to carry on a sort of literary crusade in honour of Christianity, or because in the 18th century they directed against Mahomet attacks which were intended for Christianity itself.

Alchemy received from the Arabians many significant titles. It was the science of the key, because it opened all the mysteries of creation, physiology, and medicine; it was the science of the letter M (misam is the Arabic for balance), because by means of the balance the gain or loss of all bodies could be determined, even while undergoing chemical combinations. Later on, as is well known, it was by a rigorous and obstinate use of the balance in the hands of Priestley, Cavendish, and Lavoisier, that positive chemistry was founded. Lastly, Rhazes gave to the science of the philosopher's stone a name which plunges us again into the mythological ages of chemistry. He called it the astrology of the lower world.

The discoveries of Geber as a chemist do not form part of our subject; but we may mention, in passing, the infernal stone, the corrosive sublimate, the exact process of the cupellation of gold and silver, and three sorts of distillation by evaporation, condensation, and simple filtration. In another direction Geber, by reinventing aqua fortis, and by discovering ammoniacal salts for his aqua regalis, laid the foundation both of alchemy and chemistry. The salt of ammonia, so easy to volatilise, was the source of many baselss dreams, as is proved by its various names-anima sensibilis, aqua duorum fratum ex sorore, cancer, lapis angeli conjungentis, &c. Geber believed in the parallelism between metals and planets; he though that metals were all equally composed of mercury, arsenic, and sulphur, and that in the descending scale from gold to lead, mercury, arsenic, and sulphur were each present in a greater or less degree of purity in proportion to the colourand quality of each metal. Later on, the addition of the four elements-heat, cold, dryness, and moisture-complicated still more the reasonings by which the alchemists sought to prove that the transmutation of metals was in the power of any man who imitated nature-i.e., perfected the imperfect metal by correcting its excess of heat or moisture. Geber did not think that an operation of the laboratory could counterfeit the natural work of purification, which demanded a thousand years. But with him moisture played the same part as phlogiston in Stahl's system. In other words, the philosopher to whom all succeeding searchers for the philosopher's stone swore allegiance was contented to formulate his theory without considering the possibility of putting it in practice. He was an alchemist indeed, but no gold-seeker. This forerunner of positive science foresaw the part which the gases would be found to play in the composition of bodies; he called them spirits-a figure which took strong hold on the imagination of Geber, as well as of the masters of the sacred art, and which was formalized by the alchemists of the middle gas. Rhazes, whore-invented sulphuric acid and aqua vitoe, was par excellence a doctor. The same remark applies to Avicenna, whose works are a methodical, but not very profound, systematization of the current ideas and science of his day. Artephius was a cabalist, as his theory of the apparent and latent parts of man's nature shows. The author of The Key of Wisdom and A Secret Book on the Philosopher's Stone was the reputed possessor of an elixir vitoe. We do not now whether this was potable gold or a quintessence of all the active elements of the three kingdoms. However this may be, this mysterious alchemists, who lived about 1130, was the inventor of soap, and, what is of more importance for our subject, the promoter of a new interpretation of Jacob's ladder or Homer's chain. Mineral, he said, come from the primitive elements, plants from minerals, animals from plants, and as each body is resolved into another body of the order immediately below it, animals become vegetables and vegetables minerals. We see that in this view of the interdependence of the three kingdoms there is as much truth as error. With Calid, the author of the Book of the Three Words and of the Book of the Secrets of Alchemy, the parallelism between the metals and planets takes a retrograde step towards astrology. This Calid, a soi-disant king of Egypt, held that before engaging in any operation of alchemy the stars ought to be consulted. This recommendation was literally followed by the thaumaturgists of the middle ages and the Renaissance. The effect was fatal, if, when Calid or one of his school saw the metals obstinately refuse to be purified in his crucible, he did not wait for a happy conjunction of constellations above in order to try his chance again with the operations of inferior astrology.

The East, when it accepted from Aristotle the theory of form and matter, invested it with a signification of its own never dreamed of by the Stagyrite, and invented, as it were, an Arabian Aristotle -that is, the Aristotle of the middle ages. Not only at Alexandria had the students of the sacred art evolved the theory of the transmutation of the four elements (Cicero assigns the doctrine to the Stoics), but in the East the translators of Aristotle added to the theory a corollary more important than the proposition itself, viz, that every body by its form and natural motions indicates its soul, its natural properties, &c.; that the resemblance between the external appearance of things and beings indicates their natural likenesses, &c. the idea of destiny, which all nations who accepted the doctrine of the Logos expressed by some term or other analogous to the Latin fatum (what is spoken), Mahomet translated by his famous phrase nectoub (it was written). We find a Turkish writer, the declared enemy of astrology and elixirs, Nabi Effendi, in his remarkable book, Counsels to my Son, About Khair, saying that heaven is covered with a writing that only God can read, and seeking what letter the eyes, the eyebrows, the mouth, &c., form to find therein the secret of their better use. Like one of the Talmudists, the obscure Kallir for instance, he decomposes the name Mahomet in order the better to offer the prophet, as it were, the quintessence of praise, more worthy of God, who in that sacred name, as in all terrestrial things, has written at least one letter of the Word which will serve as a key to open all their hidden virtues. By pursuing an analogous direction, mediaevalism, and more especially the Renaissance, introduced new subtleties into the astrological branch of alchemy -tetragrams pentacles, and other mysterious characters and figures.

It is nit surprising, then, to find that Nabi Effendi, who lived in the second half of the 17th century, can produce no other reasons for dissuading his son from joining the alchemists than the fact that some were poor, others quacks, and, as the most important ground of all, that God had declared his wrath against those who dare to imitate his works. Indeed, the peculiar symbolism of the various nations of the East had been broken up by revolutions and conquests, and the disjecta membra again reunited, so as to form a wonderful phantasmagoria of ideas and images-a sort of scientific Arabian Nights.

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