Besides medicine, astronomy and mathematics, chemistry is the fourth major science in which Muslims have made the greatest contribution. Until as recently as the 17th century, they were considered authorities in this science. Among the long list of great Muslim chemists we find two names, Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Zakariya Razi, reaching distinction.
Writing in his illuminating History of the Arabs, the French historian and Arabist Philip K. Hitti acknowledges the greatness of Arabs in this branch of science when he says, “After materia medica, astronomy and mathematics, the Arabs made their greatest scientific contribution in chemistry. In the study of chemistry and other physical sciences, the Arabs introduced the objective experiment, a decided improvement over the hazy speculation of Greeks.”
Jabir Ibn Hayyan (722 CE – 815 CE), is unanimously considered as the founder of chemistry. He identified many new acids, alkalines and salts. He devised and perfected chemical processes such as sublimation, crystallization, distillation, evaporation, and filtration. He initiated the classification of materials into spirits and metals. Ten centuries before John Dalton, Jabir Ibn Hayyan defined chemical combinations as a union of the elements together, in too small a particle for the naked eye to see, without loss of character.
Al-Kindi (801-873) from Kufah (Iraq) is another scholar who made a lasting impact on the development of chemistry. His book Kitab Kimiya’ al-‘Itr (Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations), signalled by H. Ritter in an Istanbul manuscript and edited in 1948 by Karl Garbers, contains more than 100 recipes for fragrant oils, salves, aromatic waters and substitutes or imitations of costly drugs. We will talk more about his work in the Perfumes post.
Al-Razi (born in 850 CE) established the firm foundations of modern chemistry by setting up, for the first time, the laboratory in the modern sense, designing, describing and using more than twenty instruments, many parts are still in use today. Such as a crucible, decensory, cucurbit or retort for distillation, and the head of a still with a delivery tube (ambiq, Latin alembic), various types of furnace or stove. As an alchemist, Razi is credited with discovering Sulphuric acid, and the basic notions of modern chemistry and chemical engineering. He also discovered ethanol and its refinement and use in medicine. What’s more, he classified substances into mineral, vegetable and animal.