Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund

Alchemy in the Arab World

  • Paola CarusiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_21-2

Abstract

Between the eighth and ninth centuries, Islamic civilization inherited from Greece, Persia, India, and ancient Mesopotamia the body of knowledge known as alchemy: a school of learning dealing with the ancient arts of fire (in particular: working metals, precious metals, manufacturing glass, and glazing and fake precious stones). After a first short period in which the body of their knowledge was acquired and translated, Muslims started putting forth their own works, and Arab-Islamic alchemy (al-kīmiyāʾ) took shape in its contents and literary genres; although documents, philosophical and allegorical texts, technical texts, and recipes sometimes seem muddled and disjointed, as a whole they formed a complex discipline. Many discussions have taken place and are still taking place regarding the real meaning of alchemy and its effective role within Islamic society: on its philosophy and cosmology, on its techniques and materials, on its goal, on preparing the elixir, a single procedure and a single purpose; beyond the veils of the tradition of secrecy, which by definition “hides,” alchemy has still clearly shown a close connection with other natural sciences, from medicine to physics, from botany to zoology. Glorified as a science, reviled as deception or illusion, worshipped and despised by many but still studied, quoted and passed on constantly up to our modern age, alchemy, through the Islamic tradition, acquired the semblance that it would continue to bear for a very long time, throughout the Muslim world at first, and from the twelfth century onwards, up to the Latin Middle Ages.

The word kīmiyāʾ (al-kīmiyāʾ), from the Greek χυμεíα or χημεíα (χέω, to smelt, χύμα, molten matter), during the twelfth century, when alchemy came to the western Latin world, became the Latin alchemia/alchimia.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento Istituto Italiano di Studi OrientaliSapienza Università di RomaRomeItaly