The heyday of occultism, especially astrology and alchemy,
occurred among the Arab race at the time when the Moors established
their empire in the Spanish peninsula. In the eighth
century an Arabian mystic revived the dreams and speculations
of the alchemists and discovered some important secrets.
Geber, who flourished about 720–750, is reputed to have written
upwards of five hundred works on the Philosophers’ Stone
and the elixir of life. His researches in these occult subjects
proved fruitless, but though the secrets of immortal life and
boundless wealth eluded him, he discovered silver nitrate, corrosive
sublimate, red oxide of mercury, and nitric acid, for he
was a brilliant chemist.
His tenets included a belief that a preparation of gold would
heal all diseases in animals and plants, as well as in human beings;
that the metals were affected with maladies, except the
pure, supreme, and precious gold; and that the Philosophers’
Stone had often been discovered, but its fortunate discoverers
would not reveal the secret to blind, incredulous, and unworthy
Geber’s Summa Perfectionis, a manual for the alchemical student,
has been frequently translated. One English version, of
which there is a copy in the library of the British Museum, London,
was published by an English enthusiast, Richard Russell,
at ‘‘the Star, in New Market, in Wapping, near the Dock,’’ in
1686. Geber’s true name was Abou Moussah Djafar, to which
was added Al Sofi, or ‘‘The Wise,’’ and he was a native of Houran
in Mesopotamia. He was followed by Avicenna, Averroes,
and others equally gifted and fortunate.
According to Geber and his successors, the metals were not
only compound creatures, but they were also all composed of
the same two substances. By the nineteenth century, European
chemists like William Prout and Humphry Davy were propounding
similar ideas. ‘‘The improvements,’’ stated Davy,
‘‘taking place in the methods of examining bodies, are constantly
changing the opinions of chemists with respect to their
nature, and there is no reason to suppose that any real indestructible
principle has yet been discovered. Matter may ultimately
be found to be the same in essence, differing only in the
arrangement of its particles; or two or three simple substances
may produce all the varieties of compound bodies.’’ The ancient
ideas, of Demetrius the Greek physicist and of Geber the
Arabian polypharmist are still hovering about the horizon of
chemistry. In the twentieth century, successful nuclear fission
has validated the transmutation of metals.
The Arabians also taught that the metals are composed of
mercury and sulphur in different proportions. They toiled
away at making many medicines out of the various mixtures
and reactions from the few available chemicals. They believed
in transmutation, but they did not strive to effect it. It belonged
to their creed rather than to their practice. They were hardworking
scientific artisans with their pestles and mortars, their
crucibles and furnaces, their alembics and aludels, their vessels
for infusion, for decoration, for cohobation, sublimation, fixation,
lixiviation, filtration, and coagulation. They believed in
transmutation, in the first matter, and in the correspondence
of the metals with the planets, to say nothing of potable gold.
It is not known where the ancient Arabians derived the sublimer
articles of their scientific faith. Perhaps they were the conjectures
of their ancestors according to the faith. Perhaps they had
them from the Fatimites of Northern Africa, among whose
local predecessors it has been seen that it is just possible the
doctrine of the four elements and their mutual convertibility
may have arisen. Perhaps they drew them from Greece, modifying
and adapting them to their own specific forms of matter,
mercury, sulphur, and arsenic.
Arabian Astrology
Astrology was also employed by the oracles of Spain. AlBattani
was celebrated for his astronomical science, as were
many others; and in geometry, arithmetic, algebraical calculations,
and the theory of music, the list of Asiatic and Spanish
practitioners is long, but only known by their lives and principal
writings. The works of Ptolemy also exercised the ingenuity
of the Arabians. But judicial astrology, or the art of foretelling
future events from the position and influences of the stars, was
a favorite pursuit; and many of their philosophers dedicated all
their labors to this futile but lucrative inquiry. They often spoke
highly of the iatro-mathematical discipline, which could control
the disorders to which man was subject and regulate the
events of life.
The tenets of Islam, which inculcate an unreserved submission
to the overruling destinies of heaven, are evidently adverse
to the lessons of astrology; but this by no means hindered the
practitioners of old Spain and Arabia from attaining a high
standard of perfection in the art, which they perhaps first
learned from the peoples of Chaldea, the past masters of the
ancient world in astronomical science, in divination, and the
secrets of prophecy. But in Arab Spain, where the tenets of
Islam were perhaps more lightly esteemed than in their original
home, magic unquestionably reached a higher if not more
thoughtful standard.
From the Greeks, still in search of science, the Arabs turned
their attention to the books of the sages who are esteemed the
primitive instructors of mankind, among whom Hermes was
deemed the first. They mention the works written by him, or
rather by them, as they suppose, like other authors, that there
were three of the name. To one the imposing appellation of
‘‘Trismegistus’’ has been given, and the Arabians, presumably
from some ancient records, minutely described his character
and person. Illustrating their astrological discipline, they also
published some writings ascribed to the Persian Zoroaster.
Hutin, Serge. A History of Alchemy. New York Walker, 1963.
Reprint, New York Tower Books, n.d.
Jabir ibn Hayyan. The Works of Geber. London Printed for
William Cooper, 1686.
Muhammad ibn Umail al-Tamini. Three Arabic Treatises on
Alchemy. Calcutta Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1933.

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