Kufa

Kufa had a key role in the history of science being the home of the encyclopaedic scholar Al-kindi and the great chemist Jabir Ibn Hayan.

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Kufa, Iraq. The house of the Caliphate

In 638 CE, Caliph Omar was visited at Medina by a deputation of Arabs from Al-Meda'in, a town on the Tigris recently conquered by the Muslims.[1] The Caliph was startled by their sallow and unwholesome look, and asked the cause, to which they replied that the air of the town did not suit the Arab temperament, and the Caliph therefore ordered inquiry for some more healthy and congenial spot.[2] A plain on the banks of the western branch of the Euphrates was finally chosen, and the city of Kufa was founded; the new town suited the Arabs well, and they migrated to it in large numbers.[3]

One of the tribes whose members were present at Kufa was al-Azd from South Arabia. From this tribe sprang towards the end of the seventh century a man named Hayyan, a druggist, whose son, Jabir was born in 721 CE, a man who travelled to Arabia where he learnt the Qur'an, studied mathematics and other subjects.[4] The Arabic text of a few of Jabir's writings is edited by Octave Houdas, whilst Ernst Darmstaedter wrote on his chemistry.[5] Jabir's output is also reviewed by Ruska.[6] Also good on Jabir is Suter in his glorious work on Muslim astronomers and mathematicians. [7]

Jabir was to become one of the two greatest minds of Islam who came from that city, the other was Al-Kindi. Their vast contribution to sciences and learning is looked at in turn.

Jabir Ibn Hayan and the foundation of modern chemistry

Jabir may be the author of a book on the astrolabe, but his fame rests on his chemical writings preserved in Arabic: the "Book of the Kingdom," the "Little Book of the Balances," the "Book of Mercy," the "Book of Concentration," the "Book of Eastern Mercury," and others.[8] Much controversy surrounds the figure of Jabir (ibn Hayyan) (722-815 CE). This controversy is well summarised by Dunlop.[9] It mainly evolves around the issue of whether Jabir and the Latin Geber are one and only. Surely, Geber was the Latin for Jabir. Two principal reasons explain this confusion. First and foremost Jabir is one of the very earliest scholars of Islam, and this confuses many biographers contemporary Muslims as well as subsequent Western historians. Second, there is another confusing element which is the presence of another Geber who lived later in Spain: Jabir Ibn Aflah. Jabir Ibn Aflah (d. 1145 CE) was the first to design a portable celestial sphere to measure and explain the movements of celestial objects, and is specially noted for his work on spherical trigonometry.[10] He is also an instrument maker.[11] And the early translators of Muslim sciences surely were confused by the two, for they had no precise of knowledge of Muslim history, and who lived then as we do today. That great encyclopaedia of Muslim scholarship up to the tenth century, al-Fihrist by Ibn al-Nadim had its doubts about the 3000 or so works attributed to Ibn Hayyan.[12] And al-Fihrist's record is absolutely impeccable. Still, whether the author of hundreds, or of tens of treatises, Jabir's achievements were considerable. Al-Faruqi sum up of some of such achievements.[13] Some of Jabir's writings include Al Khawass al-kabir (the Great Book of Chemical properties), al-Mawazin (Weights and measures), Al-Mizaj (Chemical combination, and Al-Asbagh (Dyes). On top of that, he built a precise scale which weighed items 6,480 times smaller than the ratl (approx 1 kg.). Before John Dalton by ten centuries, he defined chemical combinations as a union of the elements together , without loss of character, in particles too small for the naked eye to see. And he invented a kind of paper that resisted fire and an ink that could be read at night. [14]

Jabir had in Kufa a laboratory, which was rediscovered about two centuries after his death during the demolition of some houses in the quarter of the town known as the Damascus gate; among other things brought to light were a mortar and a large piece of gold.[15] Which leads to Jabir's being the author of one of the most notable Muslim contributions to science; the laboratory and experimentation. On the latter this is what he says:

`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 to the least degree of mastery. But you, O my son, do experiment[s] so that you may acquire knowledge. Scientists delight not in abundance of material; they rejoice only in the excellence of their experimental methods.' [16]

Which in passing contradicts fundamentally what is held in Western history books, and as is purported by one of the `greatest' Western authorities of history of science, Crombie, who holds, and re-asserts that experimentation was begun with the English scientist Grosseteste. [17]

In his experiments, Jabir's perfected chemical processes such as sublimation, liquefaction, purification, amalgamation, oxidation, crystallization, distillation, evaporation, and filtration, which are described in detail.[18] Jabir seeks to understand the changes that take place during processes, besides giving opinions to their aims.

Calcination means conversion of a metal into a powder by oxidation or otherwise, and to this operation, he devoted a whole book, which includes the following passage:

`As I have now made clear the aim of calcinations I will next speak of its various forms, for each metal is calcinated in a different way from the others. This because among the metals are found some which are already pure, such as gold,; in this case the object of calcinations is to convert the metal into a fine powder so that it may be enabled to combine and enter into union with the sublimed spirits, and also to dissolve. The same applies to silver, but silver is slightly impure, so that it needs purification as well as conversion into a fine powder.' [19]

Jabir deals also with various applications, e. g., refinement of metals, preparation of steel, dyeing of cloth and leather, the preparation of hair-dyes, varnishes to make cloth waterproof and protect iron, use of manganese dioxide in glass-making, use of iron pyrites for writing in gold, distillation of vinegar to concentrate acetic acid. [20] He observed the imponderability of magnetic force. [21] He also identified many new products, including alkalines, acids, salts, paints and greases.[22] He prepared sulphuric acid, nitro-hydrochloric acid (used to dissolve some metals), caustic soda and a multitude of salts such as sulphates, nitrates and potassium and sodium carbonates. [23] Jabir's works with metals and salts subsequently helped develop foundry techniques and glazing processes for tiles and other ceramics.[24] One of Jabir's great contributions to the theory of chemistry lies in his views upon the constitution of metals. His theory survived with slight alterations and additions until the beginning of modern chemistry in the eighteenth century[25]. Sarton insists that it is impossible to reach definite conclusions on all the achievements of Jabir until all the Arabic writings ascribed to him have been properly edited and discussed. It is only then that we shall be able to measure the full extent of his contributions, but even on the slender basis of our present knowledge, Jabir appears already as a very great personality, one of the greatest in mediaeval science. [26]

However, instead of focusing on his purely scientific contribution to chemistry, many `scholars' dealing with `Alchemy',[27] prefer to dwell on the rather tedious, obscure, and un-scientific aspects of his work (or that of the other Geber) which involves celestial influences, mystical uses of figures and symbols, and other fanciful and folkloric matters of Greek and ancient origins. This attachment by some of chemistry to such unscientific speculative practices by some was attacked by many including Ibn Sina and Ibn Khaldun[28]. Moreover, Sarton tells how treatises (not yet available in translation) show Jabir in an even better light. We find in them remarkably sound views on methods of chemical research; a theory on the geologic formation of metals; the so-called sulphur-mercury theory of metals (the six metals differ essentially because of different proportions of sulphur and mercury in them); preparation of various substances (e. g., basic lead carbonate; arsenic and antimony from their sulphides).[29]

Al-Kindi

Al-Kindi (803-73) was born in Kufa, son of the governor of the city; he studied there and at Baghdad, and won a high reputation at the courts of al-Mamun and al-Mutassim as translator, scientist, and philosopher. Al-Mutassim also chose al-Kindi as tutor to his son Ahmad.[30] Still, in his letters, he acknowledges the transitory phase of this life, shuns the material side of life, and praises knowledge by means of which we protect ourselves against spiritual and bodily disease.[31]

Al-Kindi's achievements are monumental. He wrote an introduction to arithmetic, eight manuscripts on the theory of numbers, and two on measuring proportions and time. He was the first to develop the science of spherical geometry, which he made use of in his astronomical works. [32] He also wrote on spherics, the construction of an azimuth on a sphere, and how to level a sphere. It is in fact estimated that a total of no less than three hundred and sixty one works are attributed to him.[33] More of such works are known to have survived in Latin rather than in their original Arabic form. Al-Kindi, experimental mathematician and physicist, appears as a man of the chemical laboratory in 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. It contains more than 100 recipes for fragrant oils, salves, aromatic waters and substitutes or imitations of costly drugs. It is a systematic treatment of the subject, occupying almost sixty pages of the printed Arabic text (ninety-nine folios in the MS).[34] Al-Kindî, in a treatise translated by Gerard of Cremona under the title Quia primos, asserted that the complexion of a compound medicine could be mathematically derived from the qualities and degrees of its component samples and that there was a geometrical relationship between increasing quantity and degree of effectiveness.[35] Al-Kindi also lent his particular interest to the laws that govern the fall of a body.[36] As to the gravity of a falling body, is it comparable to the attraction of a piece of iron or magnet? The latter was explained by Buridan (following ibn Rushd, but opposing Occam) by means of an alteration gradually transmitted through the medium from the magnet to the object attracted by it.[37] Al-Kindi was the first Muslim to write on music, his work containing a notation for the determination of pitch. He also wrote short treatises dealing mainly with ethics and political philosophy, such as on Morals, On Facilitating the Paths to the Virtues, On the Warding off of Griefs, On the Government of the Common People, and Account of the Intellect.

Sarton mentions a few Muslim writers on physics, including Sanad ibn Ali who made investigations on specific gravity, and Al-Kindi who wrote on geometrical and physiological optics, and music (including a notation for the determination of pitch.)[38] Al-Kindi's work on optics rejects Euclid's theory of emission, amending it to conform to observed data.[39] For instance, he asserts that a visual cone is not formed of discrete rays as Euclid has stated, but appears as a volume of continuous radiations. [40] Rays are three dimensional and form a continuous radiant cone, a critique which prepared the way for Ibn al-Haytham's distinction between light rays and the straight lines along which they are propagated.[41] On the same subject of optics, Al-Kindi also discusses in turn, in twenty-four chapters, how the light rays come in a straight line, the process of sight without a mirror, the process of sight involving mirrors, and the influence of distance and angle on the sight, together with optical illusions.[42] Al-Kindi's two treatises on geometrical and physiological optics were utilised by Roger Bacon and the German physicist Witelo. According to Vogl, 'Roger Bacon not merely counted al-Kindi one of the masters of perspective but in his own Perspectiva and others of his works referred repeatedly to his Optics.[43] The influence of al-Kindi's work extended to Leonardo da Vinci, and the book was still referred to in the seventeenth century.' [44]

One of al-Kindi's works which has survived in Latin while it has apparently been lost in the original Arabic is his treatise on geometrical optics. Gerard of Cremona's Latin translation of the work was published in 1912 by the Danish scholars A. A. Bjornbo and Sebastian Vogl.[45]

Al-Kindi's interests in physics has already been repeatedly mentioned. Little is known about his contribution to the theory of relativity of Einstein.[46] But as far back as the ninth century, in the history of science, the concept of relativity was first put forward, in both ontological and physical senses, by Al-Kindi.[47] Al-Kindi held that the physical world and all the physical phenomena are relative. Relativity is the essence of the law of existence. According to Al-Kindi, time, space, motion and body are all relative and not absolute. All these phenomena were regarded as absolute by all the classic mechanists such as Galileo, Descartes and Newton, until Einstein. Al-Kindi says: "time exists only with motion; body, with motion; motion, with body." He further says: "...if there is motion, there is necessarily body; if there is a body, there is necessarily motion." From these statements of Al-Kindi, it follows that all these physical phenomena are related to each other, they are not independent and hence not absolute. This is precisely what Einstein said explaining his general Relativity Theory. He said:

"Before the general relativity theory, classic physics always accepted that time was absolute, that is to say, time was independent of the motion of a given body. Obviously we have shown the inadequacy of that theory with the real definition of time."

According to Al-Kindi, and also Einstein, body, time, motion and space are not only relative in reference to each other but also in reference to other objects and the observer who observes them. This is explained by Al-Kindi with the example of a man who sees an object smaller or larger according to his vertical movement between earth and sky. If he goes up towards the sky, he sees trees smaller, if he goes towards earth, he sees them larger. According to Al-Kindi, we cannot say that a thing is absolutely small or large, but we can say that it is smaller or larger in relation to another given object. Einstein similarly concluded that there were no absolute laws in the sense of laws being independent of observers. A law must be proved in terms of the measurement of a particular observer. On the other hand, Al-Kindi accepts that, like all physical phenomena, the human being himself is relative and finite. Although all individual beings are unlimited in number and in continuity, they are finite; time, motion, body, space are finite. In his turn, Einstein also expresses the same idea; he says: "This world of existences is finite, though the existences are unlimited." [48]

Al-Kindi's influence was so widely felt that Geronimo Cardano (1501-1576), the Italian physician and mathematician, considered him one of the twelve great minds of history[49].

Bibliography

-T. Arnold, and A. Guillaume Editors: The Legacy of Islam; first edition by Sir; Oxford University Press, 1931.

-G.N. Atiyeh: Al-Kindi; Islamic Research Institute; Rawalpindi; 1966.

-Carra de Vaux: Les Penseurs de l'Islam, Paris, Geuthner; 1921.

-A.C Crombie: `Robert Grosseteste and the origins of experimental sciences,' Oxford, 1953.

-E. Darmstaedter: Die Alchemie des Geber; 212 p., 10 pl., Berlin, 1922.

-Bayard Dodge: The Fihrist of al-Nadim. A tenth century survey of Muslim Culture, Columbia Records of Civilisation: Sources and Studies, No. LXXXIII, 2 vols, New York and London, 1970.

- D.M. Dunlop: Arab Civilisation 800-1500 A.D, Longman Group Ltd, 1971.

-A. Einstein: La Relativite, Pbp. NO. 62, Payot, Paris, 1975, pp 157.

-I.R. al-Faruqi and L. L al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas of Islam; Mc Millan Publishing Company New York, 1986.

-T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; Princeton University press; Princeton; 1979.

-P.K.Hitti: History of the Arabs, MacMillan, London, 1970 ed.

-E.J. Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry, Oxford at the Clarendon Press; 1931.

-J.Jolivet; R.Rashed: Al-Kindi; Dictionary of Scientific Biography; Vol 15; Supplement I; Editor in Chief: Charles Coulston Gillispie; Charles Scribner's Sons; New York; 1973-; pp. 261-6.

-Al-Kindi, Al-Falsafa al-Ula, ed. M A Rida, Cairo, 1950, Vol. 1;

-" " Ibaha ‘an Sujud al-Jism al-Aqsa, ed. M A Rida, Cairo, 1950, Vol. 1;

-D.C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al Kindi to Kepler, Chicago and London, 1976.

-E. A. Myers: Arabic Thought and the Western world. Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York, 1964.

-J. Ruska in ISIS, V, pp. 451-5.

-G. Sarton: Introduction to the History of Science, in 3 vols; The Carnegie Institution; Washington; 1927; vol I.

-F. Sherwood Taylor: A Short History of Science; William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1939.

-D.E. Smith: History of Mathematics; Dover Publications; New York; 1958.

-H. Suter: : Die Mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber (p. 3, 208, 1900); re-edited: H. Suter: Die mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber und ihre Werke; APA, Oriental Press, Amsterdam, 1982.

-W.M. Watt: The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, Edinburgh University Press, 1972.

-G.M. Wickens: The Middle East as a world centre of science and medicine,' in Introduction to Islamic Civilisation, edited by R.M. Savory; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976; pp 111-8.


[1]E.J. Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry, Oxford at the Clarendon Press; 1931; pp. 49-50.

[2] Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry: p. 49-50.

[3] Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry: p. 49-50.

[4] Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry: p. 49-50.

[5] Ernst Darmstaedter: Die Alchemie des Geber; 212 p., 10 pl., Berlin, 1922.

[6] J. Ruska in ISIS, V, pp. 451-5.

[7]H. Suter: : Die Mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber (p. 3, 208, 1900); re-edited: H. Suter: Die mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber und ihre Werke; APA, Oriental Press, Amsterdam, 1982.

[8] G. Sarton: Introduction to the History of Science, in 3 vols; The Carnegie Institution; Washington; 1927; vol I; p. 532.

[9] D.M. Dunlop: Arab Civilisation 800-1500 A.D, Longman Group Ltd, 1971. pp 209-11.

[10] W.M. Watt: The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, Edinburgh University Press, 1972, p. 35.

[11] D.E. Smith: History of Mathematics; Dover Publications; New York; 1958; p. 206.

[12] Bayard Dodge: The Fihrist of al-Nadim. A tenth century survey of Muslim Culture, Columbia Records of Civilisation: Sources and Studies, No. LXXXIII, 2 vols, New York and London, 1970. The Fihrist is an absolute must for anyone seeking to know about Muslim scholarship up to the tenth century. By then, already, Muslim scholars counted in the thousands. And there was still the eleventh, twelfth, subsequent centuries to come.

[13] I.R. al-Faruqi and L. L al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas of Islam; Mc Millan Publishing Company New York, 1986, p 328.

[14] I, and L. Al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas, op cit, p 328.

[15]E.J. Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry; op cit; p. 54.

[16] Holmyard, p. 60.

[17] A.C Crombie: `Robert Grosseteste and the origins of experimental sciences,' Oxford, 1953.

[18] Carra de Vaux: Les Penseurs de l'Islam, Paris, Geuthner; vol 2; 1921.

[19]E. Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry; op cit; p. 59.

[20] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol I; p. 532.

[21]G. Sarton: Introduction; I; p. 532.

[22] G.M. Wickens: The Middle East as a world centre of science and medicine,' in Introduction to Islamic Civilisation, edited by R.M. Savory; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976; pp 111-8. at p. 113.

[23] F. Sherwood Taylor: A Short History of Science; William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1939.p.113.

[24] G.M. Wickens: The Middle East; op cit; p. 113.

[25] E. Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry; op cit; p. 57.

[26] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; I; p. 532.

[27] Worse of the lot: Syed Nasr who has the tendency to reduce Muslim science to folklore.

[28] See article on chemistry at Muslimheriage.com

[29] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol I; p. 532.

[30]J.Jolivet; R.Rashed: Al-Kindi; Dictionary of Scientific Biography; Vol 15; Supplement I; Editor in Chief: Charles Coulston Gillispie; Charles Scribner's Sons; New York; 1973-; pp. 261-6; p.261.

[31] Rasail; i. 280 in G.N. Atiyeh: Al-Kindi; Islamic Research Institute; Rawalpindi; 1966. p. 127.

[32] P.K.Hitti: History of the Arabs, MacMillan, London, 1970 ed. p. 370.

[33] P. K. Hitti: History, op cit, p. 370.

[34] D.M. Dunlop: Arab civilization; op cit; pp 229.

[35] T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; Princeton University press; Princeton; 1979; p. 272.

[36] Carra de Vaux: Astronomy and Mathematics, in The Legacy of Islam; first edition by Sir T. Arnold, and A. Guillaume; Oxford University Press, 1931. p. 391.

[37] G.Sarton: Introduction; op cit; Volume III. p.543

[38] G.Sarton: Introduction; vol 1; op cit; p. 546.

[39] J.Jolivet; R. Rashed: Al-Kindi; op cit; p. 263.

[40] J.Jolivet; R. Rashed: Al-Kindi; op cit; p. 263.

[41] J.Jolivet; R. Rashed: Al-Kindi; op cit; p. 263.

[42] For a summary of optical theories during the period: see D.C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al Kindi to Kepler, Chicago and London, 1976.

[43] D.M. Dunlop: Arab civilization; op cit; p. 228.

[44] D.M. Dunlop: Arab civilization; pp 228.

[45] D.M. Dunlop: Arab civilization; pp 227.

[46] A. Einstein: La Relativite, Pbp. NO. 62, Payot, Paris, 1975, pp 157.

[47] Al-Kindi, Al-Falsafa al-Ula, ed. M A Rida, Cairo, 1950, Vol. 1;

-" " Ibaha ‘an Sujud al-Jism al-Aqsa, ed. M A Rida, Cairo, 1950, Vol. 1;

[48] Al-Kindi, Al-Falsafa al-Ula, ed. M A Rida, Cairo, 1950, Vol. 1;

-" " Ibaha ‘an Sujud al-Jism al-Aqsa, ed. M A Rida, Cairo, 1950, Vol. 1;

[49] Eugene. A. Myers: Arabic Thought and the Western world. Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York, 1964: p. 11.

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