Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 722/723–c. 815) One of the most important Islamic alchemists. Jabir ibn Hayyan, known in the West as Geber (also Giaber or Yeber), made significant contributions to Alchemy that were expanded upon by his followers. The term gibberish comes from his Latinized name.
Little is known about the early life of Jabir. His true name was Abu Moussah Djafar al Sofi e, probably was born in 722 or 723 in Haman, Mesopotamia. According to some sources, he was a Persian born in Tus. His father, a druggist of Kufa, was a Shiite who became involved in political intrigue to overthrow the ruling Umayyad Caliphate. The successors, the Abbasids, turned on the Shiites and executed many of them, including Jabir’s father. Jabir was sent from Kufa—a town on the banks of the Euphrates River—to Arabia, where he probably was raised by relatives in the Azd Bedouin tribe.
The next records of Jabir’s life are from his middle age, when he served as a favoured alchemist in the court of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. He also was a personal friend of the sixth Shi’ite Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq and was favoured by the Barmecides, the powerful ministers of the caliph. By 803 the power of the Barmecides had grown so that Harun al-Rashid felt threatened by them, and he banished them. Jabir returned to Kufa, where he set up an alchemical laboratory. He lived in Kufa in seclusion for the rest of his life. The date of his death is uncertain but probably fell in about 815. About 200 years after his death, his Kufa laboratory was rediscovered when houses were demolished. Among the objects found was a gold mortar weighing two-and-a-half pounds.
During his days as an alchemist, Jabir was a prolific writer. However, many of the 500 or so works attributed to him probably were written in the 10th century by the Ismaelites, who were proponents of Jabir’s work. Even if some of the actual treatises were not written by Jabir himself, they probably contain his ideas. The most important collections of treatises are The Hundred and Twelve Books, The Seventy Books, The Ten Books of Rectifications, and The Books of the Balances. In addition, Jabir is credited with writing on magic squares, talismans, astronomical tables, medicine, philosophy, and other topics.
One of Jabir’s most significant alchemical contributions is his theory of balance. The four elements of fire, air, water, and earth each have qualities of hot, cold, dryness, and moisture. Fire is hot and dry; air is hot and moist; water is cold and moist; and earth is cold and dry. Metals have two natures, one internal and one external. For example, gold is hot and moist externally and cold and dry internally, while lead is cold and dry externally and hot and moist internally.
According to Jabir, all metals are formed under the influence of the planets by the union of sulphur and mercury in the earth. The different metals come from the varying degrees of purity of sulphur and mercury. The source of this idea may have been Apollonius of Tyana, but Jabir’s development of it was accepted by alchemists and chemists for generations following him.
Jabir recognized seven metals: gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron, and khar sini. The latter is uncertain. Khar sini means “Chinese iron.” It may have been an alloy of nickel, zinc, and copper.
Furthermore, metals all have 17 powers. The number 17 was highly important to Jabir; he said that everything in the world is governed by it. He also placed great importance on the numbers that add up to 17—1, 3, 5, and 8—and also the number 28. Jabir used numerology and the qualities of the elements to explain the constitution of metals.
- Holmyard, E. J. Alchemy. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.
- Waite, Arthur Edward. Alchemists Through the Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolph Steiner Publications, 1970.