Jābir ibn Hayyān or Geber – The Einstein of the Eighth Century in the Writing of George Sarton

The Muslim Times’ Editor’s comment

George Sarton in his legendary Introduction to the History of Science, attributes each half century of scientific progress to one scientist, who set the tone by his leadership. He assigns the second half of the eighth century to none other than Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān of Geber.

Each of the scientists chosen by George Sarton deserves the highest accolade like Einstein in our times. Therefore, I have no hesitation in calling Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān as the Einstein of the eighth century.

15th-century European portrait of “Geber”, Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

To read about Nobel Laureate, Dr. Abdus Salam’s comments about George Sarton’s Book, Introduction to the History of Science, click here.

Jābir ibn Hayyān – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Here, I reproduce the 28th chapter of George Sarton’s book, which was first published in 1927.


(Second Half of Eighth Century)

I Survey of Science in Second Half of Eighth Century. II. Religious Background. III. Cultural Background, East and West. IV, Muslim and Latin Mathematics and Astronomy V. Muslim and Latin Alchemy; Japanese technology. VI. Muslim, Chinese, and Japanese Natural History. VII. Latin and Chinese Geography. VIII. Latin, Muslim, Hindu, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Medicine. IX. Latin, Muslim, and Japanese Historiography.  X. Muslim Philology.


1. The intellectual relaxation which characterized the second half of the seventh and the first half of the eighth, at least as far as Europe and the Near East were concerned, was followed by a period of renewed activity. This was entirely due to Muslim initiative, for the Carolingian renaissance did not really begin until the end of the century. It is thus entirely proper to give to this period, which marks the beginning of Muslim science an Arabic name. Yet the time of Jabir is somewhat of a challenge. Let it be so! An elaborate study of  all the Jabir texts, whether Arabic or Latin, is one of the most urgent and promising tasks of scholarship. And even if that study did not substantiate the hopes of some Arabists, Jabir would still remain a very impressive personality because of his own achievements and because of the glamour traditionally attached to him.

2.  Religious Background – The anti-Talmudic movement, the so-called Qaraism, initiated by Anan ben David, is of Importance because it considerably influenced Jewish thought for some four centuries. Qaraism did to some extent for Israel what Protestant Reformation did for Christianity.

The greatest disciple of Abu Hanifa, the Qadi Abu Yusuf, wrote a legal treatise on taxation which is still authoritative among the Hanifites today. The second of the four orthodox schools of Islam, the Malikite, was founded by Malik ibn Anas.  The same Malik compiled the earliest collection of traditions.

A Buddhist renaissance was initiated in Tibet by King Ti-song De-teen with the assistance of the Hindu guru Padma-sambhava. The specific form of Tibetan Buddhism, Lamaism, may be dated back to this time: it was a mixture of Tantrism with various Himalayan superstitions.

Wu K’ung, following the memorable examples of Fa Hsien, Hsuan Tsang, and I-ching, sojourned a long a long time in India in order to collect hooks and relics and to obtain deeper knowledge of Buddhism. The earliest Christian monument of China, a Nestorian stela, was erected at Ch’ang-an in 781. Its existence is of considerable archeological interest, it gives some color of plausibility to the theories according  to which Nestorianism influenced some of the Mahayana doctrines.  However, this matter is still under dispute: this much is certain: If Chinese Buddhism was at all influenced by Christianity, the influence either was very slight or it was soon smothered by more powerful ones.

3. Cultural Background – East and West – Many rulers used their authority to promote the intellectual welfare and progress of the peoples which Fate had intrusted to them. I have already spoken of the efforts made by the Tibetan king Ti-song De-teen. Two of the ‘Abbasid caliphs distinguished themselves greatly in this respect: the second, al-Mansur, who founded Bagdad, and, even more so, the fifth Harun-al-Rashid, whose fame has been immortalized by many legends. Both encouraged the work of the translators who were busily unlocking the treasures of Greek knowledge.

While Harun was ruling Islam, Charlemagne was leading the Christian West.  At the very end of the century, on Christmas 800, he revived the imperial dignity, being crowned by the Pope, in Rome, Emperor of the West (Holy Roman Empire). With the help of an English monk, Alcuin, Charlemagne undertook number of educational reforms. Alcuin took pains to transmit to the Frank, the learning and culture accumulated by Bede. He was by far the noblest figure of that time in the West, but even like Bede in the previous period, he was almost entirely alone.

Japanese civilization was fostered by the energetic solicitude of the empress Shotoku, who ruled twice, from 749 to 758 and from 765 to 770. It was during her first reign that the Daibutau of Nara was completed.

4. Muslim and Latin Mathematics and Astronomy – With the sole exception mentioned at the end of this section, all of the mathematical and astronomical work of this period was done by Muslims. It is interesting to recall that the mathematical work of the previous period had been done almost exclusively by Chinese. In both cases some amount of stimulation had come from India, and even as we witnessed in the previous chapter the eastward transmission of Hindu mathematics, we shall now find evidences of their westward transmission. But in the case of Muslim mathematics, the Hindu stimulation was accompanied and completed by a much more powerful one, which failed to reach the Far East until many centuries later – the Greek one.

Ibrahim al-Fazari is said to have been the first Muslim to construct astrolabes.  Ya’qnb ibn Tariq and Muhammad, son of, Ibrahim al-Fazari are the first to be mentioned in connection with Hindu mathematics: Ya’qnb met at the court of al-Mathur a Hindu astronomer called Kanksh (?), who acquainted him with the Siddhanta, and Muhammad was ordered to translate it. The physician al-Batriq translated Ptolemy’s Quadripartitum. Two astrologers, one of them a Jew named Mashallah, the other a Persian called al-Naubakht, worked together to make the measurements necessary for the building of Bagdad. Al-Naubakht’s son, al-Fadl, wrote astrological treatises and translations from the Persian into Arabic.

The only mathematical writer in Europe was Alcuin, who composed some very elementary texts for teaching purposes. One of them is interesting because it contains the earliest examples of arithmetical problems which remained for many centuries a permanent feature of school-books (problems of pursuit).

5. Muslim and Latin Alchemy, Japanese technology – It is noteworthy that the earliest alchemical texts in Arabic and Latin are contemporaneous, that is, if our dating of them is correct. The most famous alchemist of Islam, Jabir ibn Haiyan seems to have had a good experimental knowledge of number of chemical facts; he was also an able theoretician, but it is impossible to appreciate his scientific merit with any finality until comparative study of all the writings ascribed to him and to Geber has been completed.

The Compositiones ad tingenda date probably from the time of Charlemagne, but they represent in the main a much older-an Hellenistic-tradition. The recipes are technical or practical rather than alchemical or speculative. The Mappae clavicula is another collection of the same kind, representing ‘the same tradition and having the same practical purposes, but probably of a somewhat later period. During her second reign, the empress Shotoku ordered the printing of a great number of charms. Some of these charms are still extant, being the earliest printed documents of any country. In all probability, printing had been practiced in China before and imported thence into Japan, together with a gnat many other elements of Chinese culture. If similar charms had been printed in China, the exportation of the printed leaves, or of the blocks, or of the invention itself would naturally follow the transmission of religious ideas. During the rule of the emperor Kwammu, at the end of the century, the cotton industry was introduced into Japan (?).

6. Muslim, Chinese, and Japanese Natural History – The Arab al-Asma’i composed various books on the horse, on the camel, on wild animals, on the making of man, which offer some scientific interest, though their purpose was rather anecdotic and philological.

Lu Yu wrote the earliest book on tea; it is a very comprehensive treatise. The cultivation of cotton is said to have been introduced into Japan from India at the end of the century.

7. Latin and Chinese Geography – The historian Paulus Diaconus suggested a novel theory of tides; that theory is wrong but curious. The Spanish monk Beatus drew a map of the world which is one of the earliest Christian maps extant. Chia Tan completed in 801 a map of China and of the barbaric countries surrounding it. This was, as far as I am aware, the earliest map of a large part of the world on a large scale (20 miles to an inch). The same Chia Tan compiled a series of itineraries from China to Tongking, Korea, Central Asia, India, and Mesopotamia.

8. Latin, Syriac, Muslim, Hindu, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Medicine – There was no eminent physician in the Latin West, but of course medicine continued to be practiced and ancient traditions were kept alive in the Benedictine monasteries.  Theophilos of Edessa a Maronite father, prepared some translations from Greek into Syriac, including one of Galen. The first member of an illustrious Nestorian family of physicians, the Bakhtya¬shu, appeared at this time. This was George son of Gabriel. He iii said to have been the first to translate medical works into Arabic. Other medic al translations were made by Ibn al-Muqaffa’ and by al-Batriq. Two Sanskrit treatises, one dealing with pathology and the other with therapeutics, date probably from this time. The former is ascribed to Madhavakara, the latter to Vrinda, but it is probable that these two names cover the same personality. The best-known Tibetan treatise on medicine, called the Four Tantras, is said to have been published during the rule of Ti-song De-tsen. That treatise is still the basis of the native medical teaching. Wang Tao published in 752 a very elaborate medical treatise entitled “Important Secrets of the Outer Terrace.” In 761, Wang Ping compiled the earliest commentary on Huang Ti’s “Simple Questions.” The Chinese physician Kanjin came to Japan in 755. Toward the end of the century, the Japanese physician and educator, Wake Hiroyo, compiled a treatise on materia medica, upon the model of the Chinese pen-ts’ao,

9. Latin, Muslim, and Japanese Historiography – Paulus Diaconus wrote a history of the Lombards and another of the diocese of Metz.

Ibn al-Muqaffa’ translated various books from Pahlawi into Arabic, mainly the Persian annals and the tales of Kalila wa-Dimna. The earliest biography of Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq, but we know it only through a later recension. Various other works dealing with Arabian history and antiquities were compiled by Abu ‘Ubaida, al-Asma’i, Hisham ibn Muhammad, and al-Waqidi.

The second of the Six National Histories of Japan, the Zoku Nihongi, was completed in 798.

9 bis. Muslim and Latin Law – I have already dealt with Muslim law, inseparable from theology, in Section II. The only important juridical publications of the West were those ordered by Charlemagne; hut they do not really belong to this period, because they date from the beginning of the ninth century only.

10. Muslim Philology – Arabic grammar finally ‘took shape within this period. Khalil ibn Ahmad, of the school of Basra, was especially active in this field. He systematized Arabic prosody, developed the notion of mensural music, and began the compilation of the first Arabic lexicon. The first Arabic grammar, called “The Book,” was written by his disciple, the Persian Sibawaihi.

11. Final Remarks – In spite of the contributions which were possibly made by the alchemist Jabir and of some Chinese geographical work, this period can hardly be called one of creation. But its cultural importance is very great. The transmission of knowledge and its reassimilation by new peoples went on briskly in many places. Chinese culture continued to pour into Japan and to begin there a new development. However, it is in Lower Mesopotamia, the Arabian ‘Iraq, that the greatest intellectual activity could be observed. A new concentration of culture was being accomplished with youthful energy in the newly founded cities of Bagdad, Basra, and Kufa-comparable in many respects to that which had taken place’ centuries before in Alexandria. Streams of knowledge were converging in the Caliphate from the Byzantine Empire, from Persia, and from India. But this new concentration was not by any means as easy as the old Alexandrian one; that had been mainly a prolongation of the Greek culture, with a few foreign additions of minor importance. On the contrary, the vehicle of the new Muslim civilization was a language which had never been used before for any scientific purpose. Almost every bit of knowledge had to be translated either from Greek, or from Sanskrit, or from Pahlawi before it could be assimilated. And not only that, but these interpretations necessitated the creation of a philosophic and scientific terminology which did not exist. When one takes all this into consideration, instead of being surprised at the relative smallness of the first harvest, one can not help admiring the immensity of the effort. This effort was of such a nature that no people could have endured it for a long time, but only during a period of exaltation and youthful optimism. It must be added that the early Muslim men of science were apparently bewildered by the amount of knowledge pouring in upon them from East and West and do not seem to have realized at once the overwhelming superiority of the western source. Indeed, how could they realize it? For at the beginning, Greek knowledge reached them only in a very impure state, after having filtered through Byzantine and Syrian minds.

The great racial and cultural complexity of Islam, even in those early days, is a very curious spectacle. How strong must the religious bond have been to keep together such disparate elements! To begin with, the ‘Abbassid court was entirely permeated with foreign influences-Persian, Jewish, and Nestorian. The Persian influence was predominant; one might say that the Persians conquered their Arab victors even as the Greeks conquered the Romans. The consequences were curiously similar in both cases. The Persians introduced into the Caliphate a greater love of beauty, urbanity, intellectual curiosity, and much fondness for discussion. These conditions were favorable for the progress of science but un¬fortunately free thought was often followed by libertinage and immorality. No wonder that the genuine Arabs looked down upon the Persian intruders even as the old Romans looked down upon the Greeks. The fact is that every civilization acts as a poison upon those who have not been properly inoculated; it would act that way even were it perfectly pure and did not contain (as it always does) evil elements. The Arabic strength and virtue were gradually undermined by Persian urbanity.

To come back to the Muslim scholars: al-Asma’i, Qadi Abu Yusuf, Malik ibn Anas, Ibn Ishaq, Hisham ibn Muhammad, Khalil ibn Ahmad, were real Arabs, Arabs of the Arabs, but they were, all of them, historians and theologians, not scientists. Those who might more properly be called scientists were either Persians, or Jews, or Christians. Ibrahim al Fazari and his son Muhammad, Ya’qub ibn Tariq, al-Naubakht and his son al-Fadl, Ibn el-Muqaffa’, Sibawaihi, were Persians. Mashallah was an Egyptian Jew and Abu ‘Ubaida a Persian one. Al-Batriq was probably a Christian of some sort. The powerful Bakhtyashu’ family were Nestorians. Jabir ibn Haiyan was either a Sabian or a Mazdean. The linguistic complexity was not less bewildering. To be sure, all of them understood Arabic, but some also spoke or read Persian, Syriac, Sanskrit, Hebrew, or Greek. I repeat it, the confusion was much greater than it had been at Alexandria, where the majority of the elite used its own native language. In ‘Iraq the intellectual elite was obliged to use a foreign language and to adapt it gradually to the expression of new ideas. Under these circumstances it is not at all surprising that the first Arabic grammar was composed by a Persian. The remarks which I made in Chapter IX (p. 179) on Hellenistic philology might be repeated here, mutatis mutandis, with reference to Arabic.

To read further go to PDF file.

Categories: Highlight, Muslim Heritage

3 replies

  1. Mr. Shah,

    I am requesting you not to compare any of the Great Scientists of the yesteryears to Einstein. If you don’t know already, Einstein despite being considered one of the greats in the 20th century was also responsible for giving our Government the atomic bomb and the idea that it should be used against the Nazis. He was also on the team of the Manhattan Project.

    I had a lot of respect for Einstein and Neils Bohr, until I found out that they gave all their research to the US Government during the WWII and for what. Destruction of human race?


  2. Dear Shah Sb
    you picked my words yes we should not coampare early Muslim scientist to this science age reaseachers although
    modern scientist have given an unaccountable benefits to human life but form all of these the basic knowledge of modren sciences have come most of the from Islamic era.Please consult Islamic History or human History etc. The Modern knowledge is based on Islamic ciences alsmost in every brach of knowledge.

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