Islamic Chemistry

The historic foundations of chemistry were mainly established by Asian chemists of the first millennium AD.  The centers for this intellectual and scientific development were primarily in the Middle East and in China.  These disparate schools drove the transition of chemistry from superstition to science. 

Gunpowder was discovered by a famous but nameless Chinese chemist.  Around 300 AD, Ge Hong of the Jin Dynasty reported the dramatically exothermic chemical reactions caused when saltpetre, pine resin and charcoal were heated together.  Another early record of gunpowder, a Chinese book from c. 850 AD, indicates that gunpowder was a byproduct of Taoist alchemical efforts to develop an elixir of immortality.  A quote from this book states:

“Some have heated together sulfur, realgar (red sulphide of arsenic) and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.”

Mix fuel and oxidizer and you get a propellant and explosive.  One of the earliest triumphs of chemistry, the invention of gunpowder influenced the course of history more than many a monarch’s life and efforts. 

One of the earliest reports of practical chemical engineering was the invention of matches by yet another unknown Chinese engineer.  The invention was reported by Chinese author Tao Gu in about 950, who wrote:  “An ingenious man devised the system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulphur and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire they burst into flame.”  Unfortunately, the name of this brilliant chemist was not recorded.

Abu Musa Jabir ibn Haiyan al-Azdl, often called Geber, was a chemist and polymath who lived in the 8th century in Iran.  The son of a pharmacist and the student of Ja’far Al-Sadiq’, the sixth infallible Imam, he introduced the goal of systematic experimentation to alchemy, thereby establishing chemistry as a science.  Geber discovered the basic acids of chemistry (hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric), and combined them to make aqua regia, which could dissolve the previously impervious gold.  He developed much of the common chemical laboratory equipment still found in modern chemistry labs.  Geber isolated and identified several previously unknown chemical elements.  He wrote:  “The first essential in chemistry is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will ever attain the least degree of mastery.”, thereby isolating chemistry from the mystical and philosophical study of alchemy.

Born in northeastern Persia, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi, better known as Rhazes, who died around 930 AD in his seventies, was a leading figure in the field of medicine, ranking with Hippocrates and Galen as one of the founders of clinical medicine.  Perhaps his most famous work is the Secret of Secrets, in which he gives systematic attention to basic chemical operations important to the history of pharmacy.  The Secret of Secrets has been called “a straightforward manual of chemical practice.”  In this work Rhazes classified materials; described distillation, sublimation, and calcination processes; and established procedures for purification, separation, and the mixing of substances.  Rhazes also developed apparatus used in modern chemical laboratories such as mortars and pestles, flasks, spatulas, beakers, phials, and glass vessels.  This and other Islamic sources set the stage for the development of Western chemistry during the Renascence. 

Nasir al-Din Tusi was born in Tus in the northeastern part of Iran in 1201.  Among his groundbreaking research was an early version of the law of conservation of matter:  “A body of matter cannot vanish totally.  It only changes its form, composition, color, and other properties and turns into a different complex or elementary matter.”  This represents the beginnings of establishing general natural laws which form the underpinning of science today. 

We commonly think of the modern sciences as a product of Western Civilization.  This viewpoint ignores the giants upon whose shoulders we have based our triumphs.  Those who forget the past are condemned to forget the path to knowledge.