The roots of modern chemistry can be traced back to the 8th century, thanks to solitary figure, Jabir ibn Hayan, considered the father of chemistry.
Of the many Arab philosophers of the medieval age, Jabir Ibn Hayan is the most noteworthy polymath Islam had ever produced. He is considered the father of chemistry. But he was also an alchemist, astronomer, physicist, and physician.
Ibn Hayan was one of the students of Imam Ja’far as Sadiq, sixth Imam, according to Shia doctrine. His scientific contribution eventually became the foundation of the development of chemistry in Europe.
Jabir, or Geber in the west, was most famous for devising and perfecting the chemical process of distillation, crystallization, evaporation, calcination, and sublimation. His experiments also led to the discovery of sulfuric acid hydrochloric acid.
His other contributions include the preparation of various metals, and the development of steel, the varnishing of water-proof cloth, dyeing of cloth and tanning of leather.
He also developed the use of manganese dioxide in glass-making and discovered ways to prevent rusting. Besides, his experiments led to the development of aqua regia to dissolve gold, in addition to the identification of paints and greases.
The modern classification of elements, of both metals and nonmetals, is a mere improvement of Geber’s achievements some 1200 years ago.
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He suggested three categories for natural elements: spirits, metals, and stones. Spirits evaporate with heat, while metals, such as gold, silver, iron, and copper; and stones which can be converted to powder.
English historian, Eric John Holmyard, called Jabir the father of chemistry, arguing that his use of experimentation became a fundamental aspect of science.
His treatises on alchemy were translated into Latin and many European languages. His work became standard texts for European alchemists. Many technical terms introduced by him, such as alkali, found their way into various European languages and became part of scientific vocabulary.
For some unknown reasons, Jabir deliberately wrote in a way that not many could understand his work.
Interestingly, his work led to the search of the philosopher’s stone, a legendary chemical substance that turns base metal into gold.
Born in 721 AD in Tus, or Khurasan, according to another tradition, Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayan lived until 806 when he died in Damascus. At a young age, he became an orphan as his father was executed for siding with the Abbasids. This opposing party eventually took over the ruling Ummayads in the decades that followed.
His mother took care of him and sent her son to Kufa to her roots. In those times, Kufa was the bedrock of science and learning. Jabir became the student of Imam Ja’afar, where besides religious education, he also learned Greek science.
He established a laboratory in Kufa. But he came to prominence when he cured Caliph Haroon Rashid’s prime minister, Yahya Barmakid’s wife. His medicine brought the ailing women in her deathbed, who recovered miraculously after taking medicine prepared by Jabir. The physician remained a life-long friend to Barmakids in their highs and lows.
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