Jabir Ibn Hayyan and His Thoughts

  January 18, 2022   Read time 3 min
Jabir Ibn Hayyan and His Thoughts
Jābir ibn Ḥayyān is one of the most mysterious figures in the intellectual history of Islam, at once so famous and so little known that some scholars have even doubted his historical existence. His full name is Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān alKūfī al-Ṭūsī al-Ṣūfī al-Azdī and he has also been referred to in some texts as Abū ʿAbd Allāh.

His name reveals that he was originally from the Arab tribe of Azd, that he was associated with Ṭūs in Khurāsān as well as with Kūfa in Iraq, and that he was a Sufi. Traditional sources claim that he was a disciple of the sixth Shiʿi Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and lived in the early Abbasid period, that is in the second/ eighth century. However, the European scholars of alchemy, Julius Ruska and Paul Kraus, cast doubt on the link between Jābir and the Imam and even upon the very historical authenticity of the figure of Jābir. Kraus, the most important exponent of Jābirean studies in the modern West, even believed the Jābirean Corpus to have been composed a full century later than tradition supposed.

But many of the arguments offered by Kraus in his monumental study of Jābir concerning the date of the corpus, as well as arguments presented by Ruska concerning the denial of the relationship between Jābir and Imam Jaʿfar as it involved the art of alchemy, have now been refuted. Documents have revealed that texts belonging to the Jābirean Corpus existed before the third/ninth century date set for them by Kraus, and that some of the earliest Shiʿi sources mention that Jābir was a disciple of Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq.

In any case, we believe that there is no reason to doubt the historical reality of Jābir, the father of Islamic alchemy and one of the most influential figures in Latin alchemy as well. He was probably a Khurāsānī of Arab origin and without doubt associated with the earliest phase of Shiʿism and especially the period when the early Ismaili movement was born. There are, however, some statements in his corpus that do not accord with certain Ismaili tenets. Interestingly enough, his name also included the epithet al-Ṣūfī, which indicates his association with very early Sufism. Taking all the historical references as well as the content of his works into consideration, he must be considered a member of the early Shiʿi community immersed particularly in Islamic gnosis (ʿirfān) in which Imam Jaʿfar, who was also the pole of Sufism in his day, was the undisputed master. In the sciences Jābir probably also drew much from the Ḥarrāneans also known as the Ṣābaeans, who, however, should not be confused with the real Ṣābaeans who still survive in southern Persia and Iraq.

Although we have very little information about the life of Jābir, there is an enormous body of works ascribed to him and known as the Jābirean Corpus. Already well known in the fourth/tenth century, this corpus is mentioned by Ibn Nadīm in his al-Fihrist. It was studied by Kraus who counted 2,982 works which he sought to classify. The extraordinarily large number of treatises was itself one of the main reasons Kraus advanced to doubt that they could all have been written by a single person. He believed, on the contrary, that they were written by a group of Ismailis over many years.

Yet all of the texts within the corpus possess a unity of style and a single philosophy. Seyed Nomanul Haq has shown that they in fact number around 500 rather than 2,982 and that even then many of the titles are but one or two pages long. The Jābirean Corpus, therefore, although immense, is not beyond the power of a single individual to compose. It is enough to turn to the literary output of Ibn ʿArabī and Mullā Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī to confirm this fact. Some have even made the far-fetched claim that the ‘authors’ of the Jābirean Corpus were the same Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ or Brethren of Purity who composed the famous Rasāʾil (‘Epistles’ or ‘Treatises’).

Kraus divided the Jābirean Corpus into several collections including the books on practical alchemy following the teachings of ancient alchemists such as Zosimus, Democritus, and Hermes; the books called kutub al-mawāzīn (books of balances) dealing with the philosophical foundations of alchemy and the other occult sciences, and the books that investigate more fully certain questions posed in the Kutub al-mawāzīn. To these collections must be added smaller ones dealing with philosophy, astronomy/astrology, arithmetic, music, medicine, magic, the religious sciences, and even the generation of living beings.