The History of Chemistry
The earliest record of man's interest in chemistry was approximately
3,000 B.C, in the fertile crescent. At that time, chemistry was more an art than a
science. Tablets record the first known chemists as women who manufactured perfumes from
various substances. Ancient Egyptians produced certain compounds such as those used in
mummification. By 1000 B.C, chemical arts included the smelting of metals and the making
of drugs, dyes, iron, and bronze. Iron making was also introduced and refinement of lead
and mercury was performed. The physical properties of some metals such as copper, zinc,
silver, and gold were understood. Many groups of people contributed to these
developments--among them were ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, Chinese, and Indians.
It was during this time that the roots of alchemy grew. The Greeks of
Egypt are regarded as the forefathers of attempts to change valueless metals into metals
of greater value (e.g. iron into gold). In the fourth century B.C, Zosimos the Greek
described a substance called Xerion, a metal that supposedly turned other metals into
gold. One needed to add a little dab of Xerion to a pile of metal and after two hundred
years, the metal would have become gold.
This was the extent of the world's knowledge on chemistry. In Europe,
it remained so well into the Middle Ages (400-1500 C.E).
The Coming of Islam
Yet at that time, a new empire was forming. Islam was spreading among
the people of Arabia. At 632 C.E when Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam,
died, nearly all of Arabia had become Muslim. Islam had raised these people from ignorance
and darkness into light. The Muslims started to become the most advanced civilization of
Though Greeks are shown as wise people who had spectacular
achievements in science, Muslims are portrayed as alchemists and transmitters of Greek
"wisdom", and Western scientists are shown as the real founders of chemistry,
the truth is actually the opposite. It is true that Muslims translated many books and
writings of the ancients. However, Muslims soon realized that in the field of chemistry
the ancients, mainly being alchemists, dealt primarily with speculation and mystery.
Chemistry was not a science before the Muslims. The Muslims invented the scientific method
and used it in their research tremendously. The historian Briffault's book, Making of
Humanity, has been quoted in Dr. K Ajram's book, The Miracle of Islam Science:
"Investigation, accumulation of positive knowledge, minute methods of science and
prolonged observation were alien to Greek temperament. These were introduced to Europe by
the Arabs. European science owes its existence to the Arabs." Will Durant notes that
Muslims "introduced precise observation, controlled experiment, and careful
Work of Muslims
Muslims were not alchemists, but rather they were the world's first
true chemists. They produced a variety of compounds useful for the development and
advancement of science, culture, industry, and civilization. Muslims invented and/or
perfected the processes of distillation, sublimation, crystallization, oxidation, and
precipitation. They discovered the process of calcination, which is used to reduce
substances to a powdered form.
Muslims also discovered many elements with their specific weights.
Al-Jabr (d. 815?) discovered 19 elements along with their specific weights. They also were
the first to accurately divide the elements. Muslims distinguished between metals and
alloys, noting that alloys were only mixtures and not true elements.
They originated the synthesis of numerous crucial substances that are
essential to the development of chemical sciences. The acid-base principal of chemistry
was entirely their development. The pH scale was their invention. Evidence is found in the
fact that the word alkali originated from the Arabic word al-kili. They invented the
concept of solutions regarding the solubility or insolubility of substances.
As industrial chemists, Muslims used advanced techniques for
extracting minerals and metals. They perfected glass making and introduced the technology
for coloring it with metal oxides. They invented crystal making. They introduced and
perfected steel making. They produced dyes and used them in tiles, woodworking, and
clothing. They produced a variety of plasters, glazes, and other building compounds.
Muslim Spain had roads paved with cement instead of stones and had the world's first
Muslims invented and/or widely used many chemical instruments that are
used until now. They used burners, water baths, bellows, crucibles, distillation
apparatuses, scales and weights, beakers, filters, flasks, phials, test tubes, etc.
Production of Paper
Muslims also perfected the production of paper. This accomplishment is
often attributed to the Chinese. Though it is true that the Chinese produced paper, this
was done through a tedious process requiring silk. It was the Muslims who instituted
chemically-aided paper production. The first paper-manufacturing plant in the Muslim World
was opened in Baghdad in 794 C.E. Millions upon millions of books were published wherever
this invention arrived. In 891 C.E., Baghdad had over a hundred booksellers. Most mosques
had libraries. Many cities also had public libraries. Baghdad at the time of the Mongols'
invasion had thirty-six libraries. Private libraries were innumerable; it was common for
rich people to have huge collections of books. Princes, according to Will Durant, "in
the tenth century might own as many books as could be found in all the libraries of Europe
Slowly but steadily, Europeans became accustomed to the luxury of
imported paper from the Muslim world. Paper was used in Constantinople by 1100, in Sicily
by 1102, in Italy by 1154, in Germany by 1228, and in England by 1309. The production of
the many cheap books by Europeans was only possible after the replacement of parchment and
silk paper with this new paper. The Western world slowly rose from the coffins of
illiteracy in which it had been sinking.
Muslims' Writings and Books
Muslims' writings and books spurred and strongly stimulated the
development of European chemistry. Translated versions of Al-Jabr's works were, according
to Mathe, Lavoisier's "bible." Ar-Razi's (d. 925) booklet, Secret of Secrets, is
said to be the first known example of a chemistry lab manual. Their books were used in
many European schools for many centuries. After the Crusades, especially, as returning
Western soldiers told fantastic tales of the Muslim World and all the knowledge that was
there, Europeans wanted to learn more and their thirst for knowledge grew. Many books were
translated into European languages. Slowly, the Western World acquired the knowledge of
Muslims, and began its Renaissance.
Ajram, K. 1992. The Miracle of Islamic Science. Knowledge House
Durant, Will. 1950. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster.