Jabir b. Hayyan

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Jabir b. Hayyan
Full NameJabir b. Hayyan al-Kufi
Companion ofImam al-Sadiq (a)
Birth103/721-2 or 104/722-3
Place(s) of ResidenceKufa,Baghdad
Burial PlaceTus

Jābir b. Ḥayyān al-Kūfī (Arabic: جابر بن حیّان الکوفی) was a Shi'a scientist of the 2nd/8th century. A great collection of works in alchemy, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and music is attributed to him. In several sources existence of a person with these characteristics were doubted. On the other hand, some historians and biographers including: Ibn Khallikan, Ibn al-Nadim, Ibn Tawus, al-Safadi, al-Amin, Siddiq Hasan Khan, and al-Tustari counted him as one of the students and pupils of Imam al-Sadiq (a).


The existence of Jabir b. Hayyan is one of the issues in history and history of science in the last century. Researchers such as Henry Ernest Stapleton, Julius Ruska, Paul Kraus, Fuat Sezgin and Sayyid Hussein Nasr have provided demonstrations for proving or denying his existence.

His name was mentioned in the glosses of Abu Sulayman al-Mantiqi al-Sajistani (d. 370/980-1 or 390/999-1000) for the first time. Abu Sulayman who was a head of a scientific circle in Baghdad, doubted that Jabir had written the collection which was ascribed to him and said that a person named al-Hasan b. Nakad al-Musili -that he knew personally- has written it.

During the same period, in 377/987-8, Ibn al-Nadim tried to dispel the doubts about Jabir in his book al-Fihrist. Works of Jabir b. Hayyan were cited in alchemical works of Ibn Umayl (d. about 350/961-2) and Ibn Wahshiyya (4th/9th century). Ibn al-Nadim said that his kunya was Abu 'Abd Allah and al-Razi referred to him in his alchemical works as "our teacher, Abu Musa".


In biography sources and other books that introduced Jabir, he was called al-Kufi in some instants and al-Azdi in the others; because according to some reports he was from Azd tribe in Kufa. Also, sometimes he was called al-Sufi as he had tendencies toward Sufism. Ibn Khallikan (d. 681/1282-3) added that was also called al-Tarsusi.

Most of the sources said that he was born in 103/721-2 or 104/722-3. According to some sources, he lived in Baghdad and Kufa; however there is no information about the duration of his residence in these cities.


In a strange report, Ibn al-Nadim mentioned that a reliable person told him the address of Jabir's house in Baghdad and said that his laboratory was discovered in Kufa during the reign of 'Izz al-Dawlah al-Daylami (356-367/966-7 -977-8) and after some further searches a mortar was found, allegedly, containing a 200-rotl gold nugget.

According to Ibn al-Nadim, Jabir chose Kufa for his alchemical laboratory because of its ideal weather. Jabir had connections with Barmakids and probably has written a book about alchemy for Ja'far al-Barmaki (d.187/802-3). In this book, he described some strange experiments about a very advanced way of alchemy.


With the downfall of Barmakids during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid in 188/803-4, Jabir lived a secret life in Kufa. According to a report, he was alive until the caliphate of al-Ma'mun (r.198-218/813-4 to 833), and according to another, he passed away in Tus in 200/815-6, while he had his work on alchemy, Kitab al-Rahma (book of mercy), on his bedside.

As a Student of Imam al-Sadiq (a)

His studentship of Imam al-Sadiq (a) is a controversial topic. In the most important sources of rijal of Shi'a such as Rijal al-Najashi and Rijal al-Tusi (both written in the 5th/11th century) no one by the name of Jabir b. Hayyan is mentioned among the companions of Imam al-Sadiq (a). However, some scholars including Ibn Khallikan, Ibn al-Nadim, Ibn Tawus (d. 664/1266), al-Safadi (d.764/1362-3), al-Amin (d.1371/1952), Siddiq Hasan Khan (d. 1307/1889-90) and al-Tustari (d. 1384/1964-5) stated that Jabir was a student of Imam al-Sadiq (a).

It is explicitly expressed in the treatises which are ascribed to Jabir that he has written all his works under the supervision of Imam al-Sadiq (a). Nevertheless, some scholars doubted this and argued that this is chronologically impossible.


Doubt in Authorship

According to his researches, Paul Kraus, the Austrian orientalist (1904-1944), doubted in the existence of Jabir with such characteristics and works, more than anyone else. According to his opinion, the terminology used in ascribed works to Jabir are the ones that were made in the school of Hunayn b. Ishaq (194-260/809-10 to 873-4), so the attributed works to Jabir must not have been written before the end of the 3rd/8th century. Also, Kraus cited the writing of Abu Sulayman al-Sajistani -that a person by the name of al-Hasan b. Nakad al-Musili has written the ascribed works to Jabir and then attributed them to him- as his main argument for his opinion.

Nonetheless, Sezgin counted this evidence insufficient and said that al-Sajistani's saying indicates al-Musili had written few works and attributed them to Jabir to draw attention to them as Jabir was a very famous person in that time and his works were very well received.

Anyway, believing that he was the author or not, a vast and rather astonishing number of works are attributed to him. Many of bibliographers, biographers, and Islamic scholars mentioned these works in detail or in general.

Number of His Works

Ibn al-Nadim quoted Jabir that he had authored 300 books in philosophy, 1300 books in hiyal (mechanics), 1300 books in crafts and weaponry. According to this, 'Abd Allah Ni'ma, the contemporary researcher, said that he must have authored more than 3900 titles. Ibn al-Nadim has provided a subject index for his works especially the ones about alchemy. Moreover, Ibn al-Nadim added that there are 30 books with no titles and two extensive books about medicine. He said that the collection of his writings in medicine was more than 500 volumes.


In the ancient world, alchemy had been considered as the chief of all disciplines of knowledge, a source from which all other branches of science stemmed and to which they returned. Apparently, the ultimate goal of alchemy was to discover the profound wisdom by which God has created the universe and governs all natural phenomena. In Jabir's word, alchemy is the perfect philosophy (philosophy in its completeness) upon the discovery of which, a wayfarer (a person who seeks wisdom) does not need any other kind of theological or secular knowledge any longer.

Ideas that are found in attributed works to Jabir are of multidimensional nature. In his book al-Tasrif, Jabir draws upon neoplatonic tradition for his theory in cosmology which is based on emanation from one divine source. in this book he explains the primal pattern of motion, mixture, and harmony in the four primary material elements, ie: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. His natural theory is based on the mixture pattern of these elements. He believes the four natures of warmth, coldness, dryness, and moisture, have an independent existence, and are the basis of the aforementioned elements. In this way he could explain the possibility of transubstantiate changes. A real practitioner of alchemy, according to Jabir, is able to increase, decrease, or even completely omit any of these four natures in a given object. A real alchemist can add warmth and moisture to a cold and dry metal, like lead, and thus change it and create a new kind of metal, i.e. gold.

It is certain that Jabir did not believe in changeless essences. In the natural life (including the life of minerals) everything is at change in a very comprehensive motion; a universal evolution from solid concrete objects to light, delicate and more spiritual bodies. The alchemist, however, joins this universal motion in order to make it faster and more perfect.

Shi'i Frame of Thoughts

Jabir had a Shi'i frame in his thoughts. He believed that alchemy is a divine science that God has bestowed the prophets and Imams. Jabir said that the prophet Adam, Moses, Jesus, and Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato were Imams of there times; and during the Islamic era, this "divine bounty" (alchemy) were bestowed to Shi'a infallible Imams. Accordingly, his works are full of quotations from Imam Ali (a) and Imam al-Sadiq (a).

Although the attributed writings to him connote that he was a Twelver, Kraus said that the writer of the works was from Isma'iliyya. However, his opinion is not correct due to two pieces of evidence form Jabir's books. First, he has taken clear and explicit standpoint about the succession of Imam al-Kazim (a) of Imam al-Sadiq (a) in his book al-Khamsin. Second, his or some Shi'a's extremist belief about rating people based on the initials of their names (e.g. Ali was higher than al-Hasan) as he has explained in his book al-Majid.

Way of Acquiring Knowledge

According to his works, the way of acquiring knowledge is unique. A wayfarer (a person who seeks wisdom) must first study mathematics, logic, philosophy, and medicine to be well prepared for learning alchemy. Then he has to try in the laboratory to find the great elixir or "Hajar al-Falasifah" (stone of philosophers). Success in this stage shows that the wayfarer is in the right path of gaining the divine knowledge which is hidden in the nature especially in minerals.

Moreover, while the wayfarer is working, he is going through evolution and changes and becomes a new human. According to Jabir, human is he who know, and if he understands the secrets of the spirit that give life, create and make changes, he will be spiritual as well. Apparently, trying to make a "great human" is the ultimate goal of an alchemist.

Imam al-Mahdi (a) in His Works

The ascribed works to Jabir show the importance of history in the idea of the author. In these works none of Shi'a infallible Imams after Imam al-Kazim (a) were mentioned. The author, apparently, relates the reappearance of Imam al-Mahdi (a) to spreading of some secret knowledge. The writer of al-Bayan says that the time of revealing the secrets is near and Imam al-Mahdi (a) will manifest all the sciences and a complete and new humanity will emerge.

In the book Ikhraj ma fi al-quwwa ila l-fi'l (bringing what is potential to actuality), he made an analogy between the human history and alchemy and said that their goal is attaining perfection. The alchemy was not used symbolically in this context, rather as a material way of evolving the humankind. It is concluded that the Jabir's works do not only contain scientific and theological theories and ideas but also "imaginary" concepts of evolving humanity.