A lot of chemical terms such as alcohol, aldehyde, sugar/azucar, amalgam etc. are of Arabic origin.

Did Arabic chemistry in medieval times achieve any scientific insights still valid today (such as 'alcohol can be transformed into aldehyde by oxidation', although I am aware that oxidation is a more recent term)? Or was it rather the practice of alchemy?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Are you really asking about "Arabia", or rather about the Arabic-speaking Islamic world? $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    May 12, 2015 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ I was asking about Arabic-speaking chemists in medieval times: The question is motivated by the wealth of Arabic terms in chemistry. $\endgroup$
    – Felix
    May 13, 2015 at 8:17

1 Answer 1


Jabir ibn Hayyan was the first to describe processes such as liquefaction, crystallisation, distillation, purification, oxidisation, evaporation and filtration. He also did an early classification of chemical elements around their properties which seems pertinent, and noted that "a certain quantity of acid is necessary in order to neutralize a given amount of base." It is noteworthy that he valued experiments a lot.

Jabir probably set the base for medieval Arabic chemistry and for modern chemistry, and his results are significant, but on the other hand, he was practising alchemy, and worked only towards this goal. I believe that putting a barrier between what is chemistry and what is alchemy is a subjective, if not unanswerable question.

Georges C. Anawati, "Arabic alchemy", in R. Rashed (1996), The Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Science, Vol. 3, p. 853-902, through Wikipedia

  • $\begingroup$ The claims that Jabir "invented" or "first described" things like distillation seems to be repeated through a description by 1001 Inventions (a non-profit that promotes Islamic contributions in the history science), but it's not really true. Distillation was practiced for centuries before the Jabirian corpus was written; Jabir's contributions were pushing forward the state of The Art (alchemy) and publishing prolifically, along with many innovations and new preparations. But don't over-glorify his accomplishments, it dilutes the value of his true work. $\endgroup$ Oct 15, 2021 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention, that putting Jabir (which may have been a pseudonym for a number of authors) above others doesn't do justice to e.g. al-Razi, whose accomplishments were as significant if not more so, including a classification of chemical elements and observed chemical facts. Al-Razi wasn't as famous as Jabir in the field of alchemy, but his work in medicine was very popular in early Europe. $\endgroup$ Oct 15, 2021 at 19:39

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