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Alchemy and chemistry in Islam is the study of both traditional alchemy and early practical chemistry by scientists in the medieval Islamic world.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Arab Empire and the Islamic civilization. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy as it was better documented.

The study of alchemy and chemistry often overlapped in the early Islamic world, but later there were disputes between the traditional alchemists and the practical chemists who discredited alchemy. Muslim chemists and alchemists were the first to employ the experimental scientific method (as practised in modern chemistry), while Muslim alchemists also developed theories on the transmutation of metals, the philosopher's stone and the Takwin (artificial creation of life in the laboratory), like in later medieval European alchemy, though these alchemical theories were rejected by practical Muslim chemists from the 9th century onwards.

Contributions to alchemy

See also: Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe

The Islamic world was a melting pot for alchemy. Islamic philosophers made great contributions to alchemical hermeticism. The most influential author in this regard was arguably Persian Jabir Ibn Hayyan (جابر بن حيان, Latin Geberus; usually rendered in English as Geber). He analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness.[1] According to Geber, in each metal two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was externally cold and dry, while gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result.[2] By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to Western alchemy.[3][4] Jabir developed an elaborate numerology whereby the root letters of a substance's name in Arabic, when treated with various transformations, held correspondences to the element's physical properties.

The elemental system used in medieval alchemy was developed by Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber). His original system consisted of seven elements, which included the five classical elements (aether, air, earth, fire and water), in addition to two chemical elements representing the metals: sulphur, ‘the stone which burns’, which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury, which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties. Shortly thereafter, this evolved into eight elements, with the Arabic concept of the three metallic principles: sulphur giving flammability or combustion, mercury giving volatility and stability, and salt giving solidity.[5]

The atomic theory of corpuscularianism, where all physical bodies possess an inner and outer layer of minute particles or corpuscles, also has its origins in the work of Jabir.[6][7] Corpuscularianism stayed a dominant theory for centuries and was blended with alchemy by those as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton in the 17th century.[8][9] It was used by Newton in his development of the corpuscular theory of light, while Boyle used it to develop his mechanical corpuscular philosophy, which laid the foundations for the Chemical Revolution.[10]

Muslim alchemists also developed theories on the transmutation of metals, the philosopher's stone and the Takwin (artificial creation of life in the laboratory), like in later medieval European alchemy, though these alchemical theories were rejected by practical Muslim chemists from the 9th century onwards.

Beginnings of chemistry

See also: Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe
File:Jabir ibn Hayyan.jpg

Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), considered the "father of chemistry", introduced experimentation, invented the alembic still and retort, many chemical processes such as pure distillation and filtration, and many chemical substances such as distilled alcohol. He also established the perfumery industry.

Muhammad ibn Zakariya ar-Razi (Rhazes) isolated many chemical substances, produced many medications, and described many laboratory apparatus.

Early Islamic chemists such as Jabir ibn Hayyan (Latinized as Geber), Al-Kindi (Latinized as Alkindus) and Al-Razi (Latinized as Rasis or Rhazes) contributed key chemical discoveries, including:

  • Distillation apparatus (such as the alembic, still, and retort) which were able to fully purify chemical substances.
  • The words elixir, alembic and alcohol are of Arabic origin.
  • The muriatic (hydrochloric), sulfuric, nitric and acetic acids.
  • Soda and potash.
  • Distilled water and purified distilled alcohol.
  • Perfumery
  • Many more chemical substances and apparatus.
  • From the Arabic names of al-natrun and al-qalīy, Latinized into Natrium and Kalium, come the modern symbols for sodium and potassium.
  • The discovery that aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, could dissolve the noblest metal, gold, was to fuel the imagination of alchemists for the next millennium.

An early experimental scientific method for chemistry began emerging among early Muslim chemists. The first and most influential was the 8th-9th century chemist, Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan), who is "considered by many to be the father of chemistry",[11][12][13][14] for introducing:

  • The experimental method; apparatus such as the alembic, still, and retort; and chemical processes such as liquefaction, purification, oxidisation and evaporation.[14]
  • Crystallisation.[11]
  • The chemical process of filtration.[15]
  • Pure distillation[15] (impure distillation methods were known to the Babylonians, Greeks and Egyptians since ancient times, but Geber was the first to introduce distillation apparatus and techniques which were able to fully purify chemical substances).
  • The distillation and production of numerous chemical substances.
  • Reflux distillation and rectification, anticipating modern developments. [1]

Jabir clearly recognized and proclaimed the importance of experimentation:

"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 never attain the least degree of mastery."[16]

The historian of chemistry Erick John Holmyard gives credit to Jabir for developing alchemy into an experimental science and he writes that Jabir's importance to the history of chemistry is equal to that of Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier.[17] The historian Paul Kraus, who had studied most of Jabir's extant works in Arabic and Latin, summarized the importance of Jabir ibn Hayyan to the history of chemistry by comparing his experimental and systematic works in chemistry with that of the allegorical and unintelligble works of the ancient Greek alchemists:[18]

“To form an idea of the historical place of Jabir’s alchemy and to tackle the problem of its sources, it is advisable to compare it with what remains to us of the alchemical literature in the Greek language. One knows in which miserable state this literature reached us. Collected by Byzantine scientists from the tenth century, the corpus of the Greek alchemists is a cluster of incoherent fragments, going back to all the times since the third century until the end of the Middle Ages.”
“The efforts of Berthelot and Ruelle to put a little order in this mass of literature led only to poor results, and the later researchers, among them in particular Mrs. Hammer-Jensen, Tannery, Lagercrantz , von Lippmann, Reitzenstein, Ruska, Bidez, Festugiere and others, could make clear only few points of detail…
The study of the Greek alchemists is not very encouraging. An even surface examination of the Greek texts shows that a very small part only was organized according to true experiments of laboratory: even the supposedly technical writings, in the state where we find them today, are unintelligible nonsense which refuses any interpretation.
It is different with Jabir’s alchemy. The relatively clear description of the processes and the alchemical apparatuses, the methodical classification of the substances, mark an experimental spirit which is extremely far away from the weird and odd esotericism of the Greek texts. The theory on which Jabir supports his operations is one of clearness and of an impressive unity. More than with the other Arab authors, one notes with him a balance between theoretical teaching and practical teaching, between the `ilm and the `amal. In vain one would seek in the Greek texts a work as systematic as that which is presented for example in the Book of Seventy.”

Jabir's teacher, Ja'far al-Sadiq, refuted Aristotle's theory of the four classical elements and discovered that each one is made up of different chemical elements:

"I wonder how a man like Aristotle could say that in the world there are only four elements - Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. The Earth is not an element. It contains many elements. Each metal, which is in the earth, is an element."[19]

Al-Sadiq also developed a particle theory, which he described as follows:

"The universe was born out of a tiny particle, which had two opposite poles. That particle produced an atom. In this way matter came into being. Then the matter diversified. This diversification was caused by the density or rarity of the atoms."[19]

Al-Sadiq also wrote a theory on the opacity and transparency of materials. He stated that materials which are solid and absorbent are opaque, and materials which are solid and repellent are more or less transparent. He also stated that opaque materials absorb heat.[19]

Al-Kindi, who was a chemist and an opponent of alchemy, was the first to refute the study of traditional alchemy and the theory of the transmutation of metals into more precious metals such as gold or silver.[20] Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī,[21] Avicenna[22] and Ibn Khaldun were also opponents of alchemy who refuted the theory of the transmutation of metals.

Another influential Muslim chemist was al-Razi (Rhazes), who in his Doubts about Galen, was the first to prove both Aristotle's theory of classical elements and Galen's theory of humorism wrong using an experimental method. He carried out an experiment which would upset these theories by inserting a liquid with a different temperature into a body resulting in an increase or decrease of bodily heat, which resembled the temperature of that particular fluid. Al-Razi noted particularly that a warm drink would heat up the body to a degree much higher than its own natural temperature, thus the drink would trigger a response from the body, rather than transferring only its own warmth or coldness to it. Al-Razi's chemical experiments further suggested other qualities of matter, such as "oiliness" and "sulfurousness", or inflammability and salinity, which were not readily explained by the traditional fire, water, earth and air division of elements.[23] Al-Razi was also the first to:

  • Distill petroleum.
  • Invent kerosene and kerosene lamps.
  • Invent soap bars and modern recipes for soap.
  • Produce antiseptics.
  • Develop numerous chemical processes such as sublimation.

From the 12th century, the writings of Jabir, al-Kindi, al-Razi and Avicenna became widely known in Europe during the Arabic-Latin translation movement and later through the Latin writings of a pseudo-Geber, an anonymous alchemist born in 14th century Spain, who translated more of Jabir's books into Latin and wrote some of his own books under the pen name of "Geber".

Conservation of mass

Pseudo-Majriti's Sage's Step/The Rank of the Wise (Rutbat al-hakim, c. 1009), later translated into Latin in 1252 (on the orders of King Alfonso X of Castile), includes alchemical formulae and instructions for purification of precious metals, and was the first to note the principle of conservation of mass, which he did in the course of his pathbreaking experiment on mercuric oxide:

I took natural quivering mercury, free from impurity, and placed it in a glass vessel shaped like an egg. This I put inside another vessel like a cooking pot, and set the whole apparatus over an extremely gentle fire. The outer pot was then in such a degree of heat that I could bear my hand upon it. I heated the apparatus day and night for forty day, after which I opened it. I found that the mercury (the original weight of which was a quarter of a pound) had been completely converted into red powder, soft to touch, the weight remaining as it was originally.

In the 13th century, Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī also stated an early version of the law of conservation of mass, noting that a body of matter is able to change, but is not able to disappear.[24]


Alexander von Humboldt regarded the Muslim chemists as the true founders of chemistry.[25] Will Durant wrote in The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith:

"Chemistry as a science was almost created by the Moslems; for in this field, where the Greeks (so far as we know) were confined to industrial experience and vague hypothesis, the Saracens introduced precise observation, controlled experiment, and careful records. They invented and named the alembic (al-anbiq), chemically analyzed innumerable substances, composed lapidaries, distinguished alkalis and acids, investigated their affinities, studied and manufactured hundreds of drugs. Alchemy, which the Moslems inherited from Egypt, contributed to chemistry by a thousand incidental discoveries, and by its method, which was the most scientific of all medieval operations."[26]

Fielding H. Garrison wrote in the History of Medicine:

"The Saracens themselves were the originators not only of algebra, chemistry, and geology, but of many of the so-called improvements or refinements of civilization, such as street lamps, window-panes, firework, stringed instruments, cultivated fruits, perfumes, spices, etc..."[27]

Robert Briffault wrote in The Making of Humanity:

"Chemistry, the rudiments of which arose in the processes employed by Egyptian metallurgists and jewellers combining metals into various alloys and 'tinting' them to resemble gold processes long preserved as a secret monopoly of the priestly colleges, and clad in the usual mystic formulas, developed in the hands of the Arabs into a widespread, organized passion for research which led them to the invention of pure distillation, sublimation, filtration, to the discovery of alcohol, of nitric and sulfuric acids (the only acid known to the ancients was vinegar), of the alkalis, of the salts of mercury, of antimony and bismuth, and laid the basis of all subsequent chemistry and physical research."[15]

George Sarton, the father of the history of science, wrote in the Introduction to the History of Science:

"We find in his (Jabir, Geber) writings remarkably sound views on methods of chemical research, a theory on the geologic formation of metals (the six metals differ essentially because of different proportions of sulfur and mercury in them); preparation of various substances (e.g., basic lead carbonatic, arsenic and antimony from their sulfides)."[28]

Chemical processes

File:Steam Distillation.JPG

Laboratory setup for steam distillation, invented by Avicenna in the 11th century.

Geber invented the following chemical processes in the 8th century:

  • Pure distillation (al-taqtir) which could fully purify chemical substances with the alembic.
  • Filtration (al-tarshih).[15]
  • Crystallization (al-tabalwur),[11] liquefaction, purification, oxidisation, and evaporation (tabkhir).[14]

Al-Razi invented the following chemical processes in the 9th century:

  • Dry distillation
  • Calcination (al-tashwiya).[29][30]

Other chemical processes introduced by Muslim chemists include:

  • Assation (or roasting), cocotion (or digestion), ceration, lavage, solution, mixture, and fixation.[31]
  • Destructive distillation was invented by Muslim chemists in the 8th century to produce tar from petroleum.[25]
  • Steam distillation was invented by Avicenna in the early 11th century for the purpose of producing essential oils.[32]
  • Water purification[33]

Laboratory apparatus


Distillation by alembic.

Distillation apparatus

The alembic was invented and named by the Muslim chemist Geber. The still was also invented by Geber as part of the alembic.[26]

The chemical retort used for distillation was invented by Geber as part of the alembic, and was widely used by later Muslim scientists. The retort was later introduced to the West by 1570.[34]

In the 11th century, Avicenna invented the refrigerated coil, which condenses aromatic vapours.[35][36] This was a breakthrough in distillation technology and he made use of it in his steam distillation process, which requires refrigerated tubing, to produce essential oils.[32]

Other chemistry equipment

Muslim chemists and engineers invented the cucurbit and aludel, and the equipment needed for melting metals such as furnaces and crucibles.[30]

In his Secretum secretorum (Latinized title), Al-Razi (Rhazes) described the following tools that were invented by him and his Muslim predecessors (Calid, Geber and al-Kindi) for melting substances (li-tadhwib): hearth (kur), bellows (minfakh aw ziqq), crucible (bawtaqa), the but bar but (in Arabic) or botus barbatus (in Latin), tongs (masik aq kalbatan), scissors (miqta), hammer (mukassir), file (mibrad).[29]

Al-Razi also described the following tools that were invented by him and his Muslim predecessors for the preparation of drugs (li-tadbir al-aqaqir): cucurbit and still with evacuation tube (qar aq anbiq dhu-khatm), receiving matras (qabila), blind still (without evacuation tube) (al-anbiq al-ama), aludel (al-uthal), goblets (qadah), flasks (qarura or quwarir), rosewater flasks (ma wariyya), cauldron (marjal aw tanjir), earthenware pots varnished on the inside with their lids (qudur aq tanjir), water bath or sand bath (qadr), oven (al-tannur in Arabic, athanor in Latin), small cylindirical oven for heating aludel (mustawqid), funnels, sieves, filters, etc.[29]

From the list, more than twenty of these chemical apparatus were developed by Geber.[37]

Physics apparatus

See also: Islamic physics

Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī invented the conical measure,[38] in order to find the ratio between the weight of a substance in air and the weight of water displaced, and to accurately measure the specific weights of the gemstones and their corresponding metals, which are very close to modern measurements.[39]

Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī also invented the laboratory flask and pycnometer in the early 11th century, and the hydrostatic balance and steelyard were invented by al-Khazini in the early 12th century. The earliest descriptions for these instruments are found in al-Khazini's The Book of the Balance of Wisdom (1121).[40]

Biruni's contemporary Ibn al-Haytham gave the first clear description[41] and correct analysis[42] of the camera obscura and pinhole camera.

Chemical substances

File:Aqua regia in NMR tubes.jpg

Aqua regia was first isolated by Geber.

File:Hydrochloric acid 05.jpg

Hydrochloric acid, a mineral acid, was first isolated by Geber.

File:Nitric acid lab.jpg

Nitric acid, a mineral acid, was first isolated by Geber.

File:Sulfuric acid burning tissue paper.jpg

Sulfuric acid, a mineral acid, was first isolated by Geber.


Arsenic, a chemical element, was first isolated by Geber in the 8th century.


The only acid known to the ancients was vinegar. Using new equipment such as the alembic and processes such as pure distillation, Muslim chemists were the first to discover and isolate a variety of new acids, such as nitric acid and sulfuric acid.[15]

The important mineral acids—nitric, sulfuric and hydrochloric acids—were all first produced by Geber. These have remained some of the most common products in the chemical industry for over a thousand years.[30]

Acetic acid was also first concentrated from vinegar through distillation by Geber in the 8th century.[11][43] He is also credited with the discovery of citric acid (the sour component of lemons and other unripe fruits) and tartaric acid (from wine-making residues).[11]

Chemical elements

Several chemical elements were first discovered by Geber: arsenic, antimony and bismuth.[15][37][44] Geber was also the first to classify sulfur (‘the stone which burns’ that characterized the principle of combustibility) and mercury (which contained the idealized principle of metallic properties) as 'elements'.[5]

Lead and tin were also first purified and clearly differentiated from one another by Arabic alchemists.[45]

Derivative and artificial substances

In the 10th century Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi wrote that he and his Muslim predecessors (Calid, Geber and al-Kindi) invented the following derivative and artificial chemical substances: lead(II) oxide (PbO), red lead (Pb3O4), tin(II) oxide (Isfidaj), copper acetate (Zaniar), copper(II) oxide (CuO), lead sulfide, zinc oxide, bismuth oxide, antimony oxide, iron rust, iron acetate, Daws (a contituent of steel), cinnabar (HgS), arsenic trioxide (As2O3), alkali (al-Qili), sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), and Qalimiya (anything that separates from metals during their purification).[46]

Distilled alcohol

The isolation of ethanol (alcohol) as a pure compound was first achieved by Muslim chemists who developed the art of distillation during the Abbasid caliphate, the most notable of whom were Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), Al-Kindi (Alkindus) and al-Razi (Rhazes). The writings attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815) mention the flammable vapors of boiled wine. Al-Kindi (801-873) unambiguously described the distillation of wine.[47] This may have been for the purpose of separating alcoholic content from drinks due to the Islamic prohibition of alcohol consumption.

Muslim chemists were the first to produce fully purified distilled alcohol from the 8th century and manufactured them on a large scale from at least the 10th century, for use in medicine and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, though it was rarely used for drinking due to the Islamic prohibition of alcohol consumption.[25][30] Alcohol was still consumed by non-Muslims in the Islamic world however.

Ahmad Y Hassan wrote:

"The distillation of wine and the properties of alcohol were known to Islamic chemists from the eighth century. The prohibition of wine in Islam did not mean that wine was not produced or consumed or that Arab alchemists did not subject it to their distillation processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan described a cooling technique which can be applied to the distillation of alcohol."[47]

Medicinal substances

Muslim chemists and physicians discovered and produced at least 2,000 medicinal substances for use in medicine and the pharmaceutical sciences.[48]

Natural substances

In the 10th century Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi classified the natural chemical substances that were discovered by him and his Muslim predecessors (mainly Calid, Geber, al-Kindi and al-Tamimi) as follows:[46]

  • Four spirits: mercury, sal ammoniac, arsenic, sulfur.
  • Seven fusible metals: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, mercury.
  • Thirteen stones: marqashisha, maghnisiya, daws (a constituent of iron and steel), tutiya, lapis lazuli, malachite green, turquoise, hematite, arsenic oxide, lead sulfide, talq (mica and asbestos), gypsum, glass.
  • Six vitriols: black vitriol, alum, qalqand, qalqadis, qalqatar, suri.
  • Seven borates: borax, bread borax, natron, nitrate, sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, sodium borate.
  • Thirteen salts: lead(II) acetate (sweet), magnesium sulfate (bitter), andarani salt, tabarzad, potassium nitrate, naphthenate, black salt (Indian), salt of egg, alkali (al-qali), salt of urine, calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), salt of oak ashes, natron.

Vegetable and animal substances

Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi writes that the only vegetable substance used by Muslim alchemists are the ashes of the Ushnan plant, from which they produced alkali metals and alkali salts. Razi also lists ten animal substances that were used by him and his contemporary alchemists: hair, skulls, brains, bile, blood, milk, urine, eggs, nacre (mother of pearl) and horn. He writes that hair, brains, bile, eggs, skulls and blood were used to prepare sal ammoniac.[46]

Other substances

Through their experiments with various chemical compounds, Arabic chemists first produced many other chemical substances, including:

  • Arsenic, alkali, alkali salt, rice vinegar, boraxes, potassium nitrate, sulfur and purified sal ammoniac by Geber.[30]
  • Aqua regia, alum, sal ammoniac, stones, sulfur, salts, and spirits of mercury, by Geber.[30]
  • Sal nitrum and vitriol by al-Razi.[30]
  • Ethanol, sulfuric acid, ammonia, mercury, camphor, pomades, and syrups.[33]
  • Lead carbonatic, arsenic, and antimony.[28]
  • Nitric and sulfuric acids, alkali, the salts of mercury, antimony, and bismuth.[15]
  • Mercuric oxide by Pseudo-Majriti

Geber was also the first to classify all seven classical metals: gold, silver, tin, lead, mercury, iron and copper.[30]

Chemical industries

A number of chemical substances and products were developed by Muslim chemists for use in the chemical industries.

Ceramics and pottery

Tin-glazed Hispano-Moresque ware with lusterware decoration, from Spain circa 1475.

Main article: Islamic pottery

From the eighth to eighteenth centuries, the use of glazed ceramics was prevalent in Islamic art, usually assuming the form of elaborate pottery.[49] Tin-opacified glazing was one of the earliest new technologies developed by the Islamic potters. The first Islamic opaque glazes can be found as blue-painted ware in Basra, dating to around the 8th century. Another significant contribution was the development of stonepaste ceramics, originating from 9th century Iraq.[50] The first industrial complex for glass and pottery production was built in Ar-Raqqah, Syria, in the 8th century.[51] Other centers for innovative ceramic pottery in the Islamic world included Fustat (from 975 to 1075), Damascus (from 1100 to around 1600) and Tabriz (from 1470 to 1550).[52]

Lustreware was invented in Iraq by the Arabian chemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber) in the 8th century during the Abbasid caliphate.[53][54] Another innovation was the albarello, a type of maiolica earthenware jar originally designed to hold apothecaries' ointments and dry drugs. The development of this type of pharmacy jar had its roots in the Islamic Middle East. Brought to Italy by Hispano-Moresque traders, the earliest Italian examples were produced in Florence in the 15th century.

The Hispano-Moresque style emerged in Andalusia in the 8th century, under the Fatimids. This was a style of Islamic pottery created in Islamic Spain, after the Moors had introduced two ceramic techniques to Europe: glazing with an opaque white tin-glaze, and painting in metallic lusters. Hispano-Moresque ware was distinguished from the pottery of Christendom by the Islamic character of it decoration.[55]

Cheese glue

In The Book of the Hidden Pearl, Geber described the first recipes for the manufacture of glue from cheese.[56]

Oil and petrolium products

An early petroleum industry was established in the 8th century. From the 8th century the streets of Baghdad were the first to be paved with tar, derived from petroleum through destructive distillation. In the 9th century oil fields were exploited in the area around modern Baku, Azerbaijan, to produce the earliest naphtha. These fields were described by Masudi in the 10th century, and by Marco Polo in the 13th century, who described the output of those oil wells as hundreds of shiploads.[25]

Muslim chemists were the first to produce petrol from crude oil, using the process of distillation.[57][58]

Kerosene was produced from the distillation of petroleum and was first described by al-Razi (Rhazes) in 9th century Baghdad. In his Kitab al-Asrar (Book of Secrets), he described two methods for the production of kerosene. One method involved using clay as an absorbent, while the other method involved using ammonium chloride (sal ammoniac).[58][59] Al-Razi also described the first kerosene lamps (naffatah) used for heating and lighting in his Kitab al-Asrar (Book of Secrets). These were used in the oil lamp industry.[59]

Essential oils were first produced by Avicenna in the early 11th century, using steam distillation, for use in aromatherapy and the drinking and perfumery industries.[32]

Shale oil and oil distillation were first described in the Islamic world. As a decorative material, oil shale was used during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods to decorate mosaics and floors of the palaces, churches and mosques.[60][61] Shale oil was used for medical and military purposes,[62] as well as for lighting. In the 10th century, the Arabian physician Masawaih al-Mardini (Mesue the Younger) described methods of distillation of empyreumatic oils, including a method of extracting oil from "some kind of bituminous shale," the earliest known description of shale oil extraction. It was described in his pharmacopoeia, which was translated into Latin as Antidotarium sive Grabadin medicamentorum in Europe, where it was a popular textbook for centuries.[63] Shale oil is today cited as the next major revolution in worldwide energy production. [2]

Plated mail

Plated mail was invented by Geber in The Book of the Hidden Pearl for use in armours (jawasin), helmets (bid) and shields (daraq).[56]


Rosewater was first produced by Muslim chemists through the distillation of roses, for use in the drinking and perfumery industries.[30]

Drinking industry


An Arab named Khalid was tending his goats in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, when he noticed his animals became livelier after eating a certain berry. He boiled the berries to make the first coffee. Certainly the first record of the drink is of beans exported from Yemen to Ethiopia where Sufis drank it to stay awake all night to pray on special occasions. By the late 15th century, it had arrived in Makkah and Turkey from where it made its way to Venice in 1645. It was brought to England in 1650 by a Greek named Pasqua Rosee who opened the first coffee house in Lombard Street in the City of London. The Arabic qahwa became the Turkish kahve, then the Italian caffè, and then English coffee.[14][64]

Distilled and purified water

Arab chemists were the first to produce distilled water and purified water, used for water supply systems and for long journeys across deserts where the supplies were uncertain.[33] Al-Muwaffaq’s The Foundations of the True Properties of Remedies in the 10th century described the distillation of sea-water for drinking.[65]

Soft drink

Sherbet, the first juiced and carbonated soft drink, made of crushed fruit, herbs, or flowers, has long existed as one of the most popular beverages from and of the Muslim world, winning over Western figures such as Lord Byron. Muslims developed a variety of juices to make their sharab, an Arabic word from which the Italian sorbetto, French sorbet and English sherbet were derived. Today, this juice is known by a multitude of names, is associated with numerous cultural traditions, and is produced by countries ranging from India to the United States of America.[66][67]


The medieval Muslim sources contain many recipes for drink syrups that can be kept outside the refrigerator for weeks or months.[67]

Glass industry

Glass factories

The first industrial complex for glass and pottery production was built in Ar-Raqqah, Syria, in the 8th century. Extensive experimentation was carried out at the complex, which was two kilometres in length, and a variety of innovative high-purity glass were developed there. Two other similar complexes have also been discovered, and nearly three hundred new chemical recipes for glass are known to have been produced at all three sites.[51]

The first glass factories were thus built by Muslim craftsmen in the Islamic world. The first glass factories in Europe were later built in the 11th century by Egyptian craftsmen in Corinth, Greece.[30]

Clear, colourless and high-purity glass

The earliest examples of clear, colourless and high-purity glass were produced by Muslims in the 9th century, such as the quartz glass invented by Abbas Ibn Firnas. The Arab poet al-Buhturi (820-897) describes the clarity of such glass as follows:

"Its colour hides the glass as if it is standing in it without a container."[68]

Coloured stained glass windows in the Nasir al-Mulk mosque in Shiraz, Iran.

Coloured and stained glass

Stained glass was first produced by Muslim architects in Southwest Asia using coloured glass rather than stone. In the 8th century, the Arab chemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber) scientifically described 46 original recipes for producing coloured glass in Kitab al-Durra al-Maknuna (The Book of the Hidden Pearl), in addition to 12 recipes inserted by al-Marrakishi in a later edition of the book.[69]

Gemstones and pearls

In his Kitab al-Durra al-Maknuna (The Book of the Hidden Pearl), Jabir described the first recipes for the manufacture of artificial pearls and for the purification of pearls that were discoloured from the sea or from grease.[56]

In The Book of the Hidden Pearl, Jabir described the first recipes for the dying and artificial colouring of gemstones and pearls.[56] Jabir also first described the production of high quality coloured glass cut into artificial gemstones.[68]


The parabolic mirror, earlier studied by Diocles and others, was described by Ibn Sahl in his On the Burning Instruments in the 10th century. It was later described again in Ibn al-Haytham's On Burning Mirrors and Book of Optics (1021).[70]

Ibn al-Haytham also discussed concave and convex mirrors in both cylindrical and spherical geometries,[71] described spherical and parabolic mirrors,[72] carried out a number of experiments with mirrors, and solved the problem of finding the point on a convex mirror at which a ray coming from one point is reflected to another point.[73]

By the 11th century, clear glass mirrors were being produced in Moorish Spain.[25]

Silica and Quartz glass

Silica glass and Quartz glass, a clear, colourless, high-purity glass, was invented by Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), who was the first to produce glass from sand and stones such as quartz.[74]

Hygiene industries


Early forms of cosmetics had been used since ancient times, but these were usually created primarily for the purpose of beautification and often used harmful substances. This changed with Muslim cosmetologists who emphasized hygiene, due to religious requirements, and invented various healthy and hygienic cosmetics that are still used today.[75]

In the 9th century, Ziryab is known to have invented an early toothpaste, which he popularized throughout Islamic Spain.[76] The exact ingredients of this toothpaste are not currently known,[77] but it was reported to have been both "functional and pleasant to taste."[76] For women, he opened a beauty parlour or “cosmetology school” near Alcázar, where he taught "the use of depilatories for removing body hair", and he introduced new perfumes and cosmetics.[77] He also introduced under-arm deodorants.[78]


See also: Nabulsi soap

True soaps made from vegetable oils (such as olive oil), aromatic oils (such as thyme oil) and Sodium Lye (al-Soda al-Kawia) were first produced by Muslim chemists in the medieval Islamic world.[30] Due to washing and bathing being religious requirements for Muslims, they invented the recipe for true soap, which is still in use today, and they invented the soap bar.[14] The formula for soap used since then hasn't changed and are identical to the current soap sold in modern times.

From the beginning of the 7th century soap was produced in Nablus (Palestine), Kufa (Iraq) and Basra (Iraq). Soaps, as we know them today, are descendants of historical Arabian Soaps. Arabian Soap was perfumed and colored, while some of the soaps were liquid and others were solid. They also had special shaving soap for shaving. It was commercially sold for 3 Dirhams (0.3 Dinars) a piece in 981 AD. A manuscript of Al-Razi (Rhazes) contains various modern recipes for soap. A recently discovered manuscript from the 13th century details more recipes for soap making, e.g. take some sesame oil, a sprinkle of potash, alkali and some lime, mix them all together, and boil. When cooked, they are poured into molds and left to set, leaving hard soap (soap bar).[75]


Islamic cultures contributed significantly to the development of perfumery in both perfecting the extraction of fragrances through steam distillation and by introducing new raw ingredients. Both the raw ingredients and distillation technology significantly influenced western perfumery and scientific developments, particularly chemistry.

As traders, Islamic cultures such as the Arabs and Persians had wider access to different spices, herbals, and other fragrance materials. In addition to trading them, many of these exotic materials were cultivated by the Muslims such that they could be successfully grown outside of their native climates. Two examples of this include jasmine, which is native to South and Southeast Asia, and various citrus fruits, which are native to East Asia. Both of these ingredients are still highly important in modern perfumery.

In Islamic culture, perfume usage has been documented as far back as the 7th century and its usage is considered a religious duty. Muhammad said:

"The taking of a bath on Friday is compulsory for every male Muslim who has attained the age of puberty and (also) the cleaning of his teeth with Siwak, and the using of perfume if it is available."

Such rituals gave incentives to scholars to search and develop a cheaper way to produce incenses and in mass production. Two talented chemists, Jabir ibn Hayyan (born 722, Iraq), and al-Kindi (born 801, Iraq) established the perfume industry. Jabir developed many techniques, including distillation, evaporation and filtration, which enabled the collection of the odour of plants into a vapour that could be collected in the form of water or oil.[79] Al-Kindi, however, was the real founder of the perfume industry, as he carried out extensive research and experiments in combining various plants and other sources to produce a variety of scent products. He elaborated a vast number of ‘recipes’ for a wide range of perfumes, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. His work in the laboratory is reported by a witness who said:

"I received the following description, or recipe, from Abu Yusuf Ya'qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi, and I saw him making it and giving it an addition in my presence.

The writer goes on in the same section to speak of the preparation of a perfume called ghaliya, which contained musk, amber and other ingredients, and reveals a long list of technical names of drugs and apparatus.

Musk and floral perfumes were brought to Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries from Arabia, through trade with the Islamic world and with the returning Crusaders. Those who traded for these were most often also involved in trade for spices and dyestuffs. There are records of the Pepperers Guild of London, going back to 1179, which show them trading with Muslims in spices, perfume ingredients and dyes.[80]


Shampoo was first developed by the Bengali Muslim Sake Dean Mahomet. He introduced it to England when he opened "Mahomed's Indian Vapour Baths" in Brighton seafront in 1759. He was later appointed as a "Shampooing Surgeon" to Kings George IV and William IV.[14]

Military products

See also: Inventions in the Islamic world
File:Ibn Ghanims gun.jpg

A picture of a 15th century Andalusian Arab cannon from the book Al-izz wal rifa'a.


The Ottoman Janissary corps were using matchlock muskets since the 1440s. They are depicted battling the Knights Hospitaller in this 1522 painting.

File:Dardanelles Gun Turkish Bronze 15c.png

The bronze Dardanelles cannon, used by the Ottoman Turks in the siege of Constantinople in 1453, was the first supergun.

Purified saltpetre

Potassium nitrate (saltpetre) was known to the Arabs in an early time as it was known to Khalid ibn Yazid (Calid) (d. 709) and was known under various names, it is used as a flux in metallurgical operations and for producing nitric acid and aqua regia. Recipes for these uses are found in the works of Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber, d. 815), Abu Bakr al-Razi (Rhazes, d. 932) and other alchemists.[81] There are two celebrated works which described the purification process of saltpetre: one is by Ibn Bakhtawayh in his book al-Muqaddimat (1029), and the other is by the Arab chemist and engineer Hassan al-Rammah of Syria in his book al-Furusiyya wa al-Manasib al-Harbiyya (1270). The first complete purification process for potassium nitrate was described by al-Rammah, who first described the use of potassium carbonate (in the form of wood ashes) to remove calcium and magnesium salts from the potassium nitrate.[81][82]

A complete gunpowder recipe, which uses purified saltpetre for the first time, exists in a 10th century Arabic manuscript.[83] In another manuscript from the 10th century there is a full description of gunpowder and its use in cannons.[84]

Damascus steel

Damascus steel was one of the most famous steels produced in the medieval Near East was Damascus steel used for swordmaking, and mostly produced in Damascus, Syria, in the period from 900 to 1750. This was produced using the crucible steel method, based on the earlier Indian wootz steel. This process was further refined in the Middle East using locally produced steels. The process allowed carbides to precipitate out as micro particles arranged in sheets or bands within the body of a blade. The carbides are far harder than the surrounding low carbon steel, allowing the swordsmith to make an edge which would cut hard materials with the precipitated carbides, while the bands of softer steel allowed the sword as a whole to remain tough and flexible. A team of researchers based at the Technical University of Dresden that uses x-rays and electron microscopy to examine Damascus steel discovered the presence of cementite nanowires[85] and carbon nanotubes.[86] Peter Paufler, a member of the Dresden team, says that these nanostructures give Damascus steel its distinctive properties[87] and are a result of the forging process.[87][88]

Explosive gunpowder

The ideal composition for explosive gunpowder used in modern times is 75% potassium nitrate (saltpetre), 10% sulfur, and 15% carbon. Several almost identical compositions were first described by the Arab engineer Hasan al-Rammah as a recipe for the rockets (tayyar) he described in his al-Furusiyya wa al-Manasib al-Harbiyya (The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices) in 1270. Several examples include a tayyar "rocket" (75% saltpetre, 8% sulfur, 15% carbon) and the tayyar buruq "lightning rocket" (74% saltpetre, 10% sulfur, 15% carbon). He states in his book that many of these recipes were known to his father and grandfather, hence dating back to at least the late 12th century. Compositions for an explosive gunpowder effect were not known in China or Europe until the 14th century.[30][82]

Explosive hand cannon

The first hand cannons (midfa) employing explosive gunpowder were used by the Egyptians to repel the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, and again in 1304.[82] The gunpowder compositions used for the cannons at these battles were later described in several manuscripts in the early 14th century.[82] Four different gunpowder compositions were used at the battles, with the most explosive cannon having a gunpowder composition (74% saltpetre, 11% sulfur, 15% carbon) again almost identical to idea compositions for explosive gunpowder used in modern times.[82]

Explosive fireworks and firecrackers

Fireworks and firecrackers, which may have been adopted from China, were first composed of explosive gunpowder compositions (around 75% saltpetre, 10% sulfur, and 15% carbon) in the Islamic world and were first described by Hasan al-Rammah of Syria in 1270.[82]

Fireproof clothing and dissolved talc

Egyptian soldiers at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 were the first to wear fireproof clothing and the first to smear dissolved talc on their hands, as forms of fire protection from gunpowder.[82]


There is a dispute over the origins of gunpowder. The most common view is that it was invented in China, but some scholars argue that it may have possibly been invented by Muslims.[89][90] Potassium nitrate was known to Arab chemists, and was described many times. The earliest description is by Khalid ibn Yazid (635-704)[91], and was later described and used many times, for example by Jabir ibn Hayyan (722-815) to make nitric acid and by al-Razi and others. Saltpeter was called "natrun" but also had other names indicating its ore origins, for example, (Shabb Yamani or "Yemeni alum") and (thalj al-Sīn, or "Chinese snow," as Muslims got the ore from China, among other places[92]). Muslims went beyond the use of the impractical ore material, and began purifying it. George Sarton states in that Muslims were the first to purify saltpeter and he shows that black slaves were purifying saltpeter in Basra, Iraq and that those slaves rebelled in (869)[93]

The earliest Arabic manuscripts with gunpowder recipes are two undated manuscripts, but one of them (the al-Karshuni manuscript) was dated by Berthelot and Duval to be from the ninth to the eleventh century[94], both manuscripts mention saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur as the sole ingredients of gunpowder. We can find the first book dedicated for gunpowder and its uses in the works Hasan al-Rammah's Al-furusiyyah wa al-manasib al-harbiyya (The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices), written in the 1270s, which included the first gunpowder recipes to approach the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder used in modern times (75% saltpetre (KNO3), 10% sulfur, 15% carbon), such as the tayyar "rocket" (75 parts saltpetre, 8 sulfur, and 15 carbon, by weight) and the tayyar buruq "lightning rocket" (74 parts saltpetre, 10 sulfur, 15 carbon). He states in his book that many of these recipes were known to his father and grandfather, hence dating back to at least the late 12th century.[95][30]

The use of saltpeter in military applications by the Arabs goes back to the 10th century. The three ingredients of gunpowder were used, often with the addition of naphtha to make "tubes of incendiaries," which were thrown by catapults[96][97], and some Arabic greekfire receipts contained saltpeter[98], Shawar vizier of the Fatimid Caliph Al-'Āḍid's used 20,000 tubes of incendiaries and 10,000 lighting bombs in the year 1168, by 1916, Bahjat and Gabriel had gathered dozens of nearly intact ceramic grenades of different types, and fragments of hundreds more. and in the 1940s those ceramics caught the attention of yet another French scientist Maurice Mercier where he noticed that those that had the strongest walls and the most aerodynamic designs often had their tops broken off, while the rest of the body was intact. Only a powerful internal explosion, he reasoned, could have caused such clean, sharp fractures. He had a number of the pots carefully examined and discovered that they contained traces of nitrates and sulfur, essential ingredients of gunpowder. Many now on display in the Cairo Museum and the Louvre, the components of the grenades were volatile jelly of kerosene, potassium nitrates and sulfur.[99][100]

Another early use of gunpowder in military applications in al-Andalus (modern Spain) is as early as 1118[101], later in 1248 it was used in the defence of Seville[102] and such devices were called "Thunderers", another early use was in 1250 by the Mamluks against the Franks led by Louis IX in Battle of Al Mansurah[103], and the explosive hand cannons first used by the Mamluks to repel the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. There were four different gunpowder compositions used for the cannons at the battle, with the most explosive cannon having a gunpowder composition (74% saltpetre, 11% sulfur, 15% carbon) again almost identical to the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder.[30][95]


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  102. Partington, p.228, footnote 6 citing C.F. Temler.
  103. Joinville p. 216, see also Mercier, pp 77-78

See also