History of Arabic Alchemy

While reading Jim Al-Khalili’s book “Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science” it became apparent that scientific collaboration is essential to achieve meaningful progress. Great advances were made in the medical profession during the Golden Age. The Golden Age occurred during the Abbasid rule which was between the 8th century and the 12th century CE. I would like to focus on two academics, Al-Razi and Al-Zahrawi, who published a great deal of work in this period. My reading of this coincided with the recent decision for Britain to leave the EU and led me to question the potential impact this has on scientific research with regards to both funding and partnerships, which I will continue to discuss.


The Golden Age in Context:

Developments made within medical practises, including alchemy and the ethical progress achieved by scientists in this period are of great significance. Although the status of alchemy as a scientific discipline is disputed by modern researchers, as Al-Khalili states “there is no ambiguity about its meaning today as an irrational, pseudo-scientific belief.” [1] However, the advances made in practical techniques are considered to be a vital aspect in the development of modern day chemistry. Similarly, it is hard to ignore the impact that previous civilisations had on the development of academia throughout the Golden Age. For example, much of the initial alchemical theories were learned from Egyptian traditions which were then further developed. To distinguish Arabic science from its forerunners, I will use the same definition of Arabic science as Al-Khalili. He considers it to be science performed under the Abbasid rule and written in Arabic, the official language of the empire. Throughout the book, Al-Khalili suggests there is a greater need for widespread knowledge and appreciation of the progress made in that era.

During the Abbasid rule Baghdad became the centre of scholarship and scientific research for a range of reasons, including the construction of the House of Wisdom called the “Bayt al-Hikma” in the 8th century. It is often pointed out that during this era Europe was considered to be in the Dark Ages and experienced limited progress in comparison, further emphasising the progressive nature of the region. The Abbasid Empire was formed in 750CE. Due to its size it had contact with neighbouring regions such as India, China and the Byzantine Empire which enabled the adoption of culture and academic information. Jean Cooper in her book “Chinese Alchemy: Taoism, the Power of Gold and the Quest for Immortality” argues that trade routes and other military conquests were vital for the exchange of knowledge between various civilizations to take place. One such example is the technique for making paper taught by Chinese tradesmen that enabled cheaper production of books.


Al-Razi’s Impact on Arabic Science

Al-Razi, a medical alchemist, developed several practical techniques which he placed in two categories. The first included methods of melting metals with apparatus such as a hearth (kur) and crucibles (bawtaqa). The second involved the preparation of other substances and used flasks (quorua) and water baths (qudr) amongst other equipment. The first form of distillation is thought to have been developed by him using an alembic (the etymology of which is thought to go back to the Arabic al-anbīḳ” meaning cup or beaker) although there are disagreements as to what an alembic was: “often made of glass to enable observation, but can also be ceramic or copper, and they have two palchemyarts. The bottom sits over a heat source and contains the substance to be distilled, and at the top is a bulb with a tube sloping down and out”.[2]

Al-Razi also contributed to the progress made regarding medical ethics, as he emphasised the obligation and responsibility doctors and medical professionals held to their patients and society. Several other Arabic scholars were also influential in this area, most notably Ibn Sina, sometimes referred to as the “Prince of Physicians”, who introduced a holistic approach to medicine, considering both physical and psychological aspects when treating patients. This was greatly influenced by the beliefs of Hippocrates, who produced the Hippocratic Oath for physicians to take, written between the 3rd and 5th century BC, and still used to this day.

Al-Razi also made significant progress as he published “The Book of Secrets” (Kitab al-Asrar) within which he categorizes minerals according to experimental properties and observation in a similar system to that of the modern periodic table. This was divided into metals and non-metals, which is remains to be an aspect of our periodic table.


Al-Zahrawi’s Impact on Arabic Science 

Another notable academic and surgeon is Al-Zahrawi who wrote several encyclopaedias such as the “Kitab al-Tasrif”, which describes the use of cauterization in surgeries to reduce tissue damage. This was widely used for amputations. Al-Zahrawi also introduced the use of catgut in surgical stitching; this is of vital importance as catgut can be absorbed by the body which prevents the need for a second surgery to remove the stitches made. Al-Zahrawi also includes observations of the effect that several compounds had on the body, such as alcohol which he observed to cause “disturbances of the liver which causes tumors and obstructions which is a definite cause of ascites and general ill health[3] Al-Zahrawi was also an innovator in terms of patient comfort; he introduced the use of concealed knives to ensure that patients were more at ease when undergoing surgery.  As we have seen, academics had a great awareness regarding the importance for medical practises to be carried out with the patient in mind. In addition to this the profession was becoming more regulated during the Abbasid era, hospitals kept a record of patients and their treatments, and began a system for recognising qualified physicians. To become qualified one would have to be trained and have a pre-clinical period, often including the study of pharmacology or toxicology. This would lead to clinical training and finally they could specialise in a certain field of practise.


Impact of Arabic Science on Western Science:

The House of Wisdom was of huge value to the West, here Jabir ibn Hayyan wrote “The Great Book of Mercy” (Kitâb al-Rahma al-Kabir) which was a convergence of Greek and Indian knowledge along with some other indigenous theories. In addition to this, translators worked to translate treatises into Arabic to remove language barriers and make them more accessible. This resulted in the ability to harness previous research and build on the achievements of the Greeks, such as Zosimos of Panapolic who was writing in the 3rd Century CE. This was something utilised by Western scholars who then translated the Arabic texts into Latin so they could learn and develop them further. The House of Wisdom was built in the 8th century in Baghdad near the River Tigris which enabled relatively cheap access to paper due to trade with China along the river. This was another factor that ensured research and academic progress could flourish. The House of Wisdom and a significant number of books and academic papers were destroyed in the Mongol invasion of 1258 CE as accounts suggest they were thrown into the River Tigris. This has resulted in the Latin translations rather than the original Arabic texts remaining today.

However, there are several theories behind the etymology of a variety of words we use in science in Romance languages, and these include Arabic origins. For example “chemistry”, which is potentially derived from “kimiya”, the Arabic for “alchemy”. At a basic level, this shows some influence on the development of Western science. We can also trace back other chemical terms such as “alkali” which is thought to have come from the Arabic “al-qili” meaning ashes of the saltwort plant. Alkalis were in demand as they were required to make glass and soap, some of the first hard soap recipes being written by Al-Razi.


Possible Implications of Brexit on the Sharing of Scientific Knowledge:

I would like to end by bringing this discourse a little closer to home, both geographically and historically, and discuss the potential impacts of ‘Brexit’, which are still surrounded by uncertainty.

The ability to exchange theories has been crucial to scientific development. As we have seen, in the past the existence of an Empire and trade had huge benefits during the Golden Age and enabled scholars to learn from a variety of traditions. Al-Khalili emphasised the necessity of translators throughout history as they successfully removed language barriers and made information more accessible. Today these collaborations are more direct and explicit due to the improvement in technology, allowing their potential impact to be even greater.

There are several impacts of Brexit to consider. The uncertainties of Brexit itself are causing harm to research as many researchers are reluctant to accept posts in Britain until policies have been officially decided. So far, scientists have been reassured that they will continue to have access to Horizon 2020 until the current framework for EU funding changes. H2020 is a funding scheme from the EU that began in 2014 and will continue until 2020, with the aim of increasing science research within Europe by streamlining the process of accessing funds.  However, there can be no guarantee of the funding structure that will take place once H2020 has ended and a new framework has been established. One suggestion has been for Britain to become an associated country, such as Norway, however this would reduce our influence as to where funding goes because we would no longer be part of the European Council or Parliament. The funding we currently receive from bodies supported by the EU is hard to ignore; for example, in 2014 we received 24% of the European Research Council (ERC) grant, which will be hard to replenish by other means. Some believe leaving the EU will enable Britain to have greater power as to the distribution of funding which will negate the impact of its reduction, in line with the slogan “Vote Leave – Take Control.” The anti-EU supporters suggested that the £350 million a week we contribute to the EU could be directed into the areas of scientific research we require or the NHS , hence increasing our control over what our funding supports. However, as has already become evident the government is unable to guarantee additional funding for the health service among other sectors that would have supposedly benefited from leaving the EU.

There are also questions regarding freedom of movement which will affect the ability for partnerships as it will add an administrative barrier, decreasing the ease for projects such as the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) which aids short-term exchanges. As a member state, we are fortunate to have access to a variety of infrastructure enabling a wide breadth of research to take place, such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) situated in Grenoble, France where funds are provided to cover travel for EU members. These relations and agreements may be time consuming to rewrite and re-establish post-Brexit, limiting Britain’s ability to remain a front-runner in research.

Another aspect to consider is the European Research Association’s (ERA) ambition to maximise research by avoiding duplication of both research projects and infrastructure which will lead to improved effectiveness. This would be made more tedious once we leave the European Parliament and other bodies.

An aspect that is not often discussed is the European Health Insurance Card, another feature currently in place to make travel, and hence partnerships, easier and more efficient.  It remains to be seen what will become of science funding, and collaboration, but I believe isolating ourselves from the valuable knowledge and infrastructure would be unwise. We can see how much Arabic scientists gained from previous research and civilisations and the great effect this then had on medicine and science after the fall of the Abbasid Empire from the introduction of medical records to the numerous treatises that were then translated into Latin. Some of al-Razi’s treatises were being used as late as the 19th century CE.  James Wilsdon from the University of Sheffield told Buzzfeed, “I think there will be a brain drain”[4], but it remains to be seen what the outcome and agreements of leaving will be.



Dow, Travis J. “Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber).” History of Alchemy. July 6, 2013. Accessed April 22, 2017.

“The Abbasid Dynasty”. Saylor Academy. Accessed April 22, 2017.·

Bengoechea, Isabella. “Iraq’s Golden Age: The Rise and Fall of The House of Wisdom”. Culture Trip.

Syed, Ibrahim B. PhD. “Islamic Medicine: 1000 years ahead of its times” Published February 2002. Accessed April 22, 2017.

Samir S. Amr, Arab and Muslim Physicians and Scholars, 2007·

Majeed, Azeem. “How Islam Changed Medicine”. PubMed Central. Published 24 December 2005. Accessed April 22, 2017.

Royal Society of Chemistry. “The Relationship between EU Membership and the Effectiveness of Science, Research and Innovation in the UK”. Published  November 2015.

[1] Al-Khalili, Jim. “Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science”, page 51, Penguin Books, Published 2010

[2]Massey, Laura. “What’s an Alembic: Alchemy, the History of Science and our Logo” Published 2016

[3] Awadain, M. Reda. “A Recent Look and Study of Some Papers of al-Zahrawi’s Book “al-Tasrif”.” IslamSet. N.p.. Web. Published 16 Dec 2012

[4] Vence, Tracey. “Brexit’s Effects on Science” Published 2016.

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