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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Takwin: The Concept of Alchemical Creation of Life

The concept of the alchemical creation of life (takwin) found within medieval Islamic alchemy expresses the metaphysical and material process of the generation of life (animal, vegetable, and mineral).

The textual occurrence of this concept and 'experiment' within the works of a semi-legendary eighth-century alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, is examined through selective translation and analysis. This expression of artificial generation is compared and contrasted with the other concepts which relate to the creation and generation of living things from the broader spectra of medieval Islamic alchemical, magical, mystical, and cosmological works, as well as from Islamic revelatory and prophetic literature (Qur'an and Hadith Qudsi).

This work explores the religious nature of alchemical creation as a theurgic act. From the emic perspective of the alchemist, the act of takwin was an emulation of the divine creative and life-giving powers of Genesis and Resurrection and tapped the physical and spiritual forces in nature. At the same time it was an act through which the alchemist was inwardly transformed and purified, a spiritual regeneration.

Such an act highlights the creative and often uneasy interrelationship of Islamic magic and science with Islamic revelation and tradition. Through the examination of alchemical creation as both a magical and profoundly religious act, this dissertation offers a reflection on the religious nature of magic within Islam and suggests this perspective as a useful theoretical approach to the subject of magic within the history of religions.

Source: The history of religions by Kathleen Malone


Geber; Jaber ibn Hayan, chemist/ Alchemist

Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (Arabic: جابر بن حيان) (c.721–c.815), known also by his Latinised name Geber, was a prominent Islamic alchemist, pharmacist, philosopher, astronomer, and physicist. His ethnic background is Persian. Ibn Hayyan is widely credited with the introduction of the experimental method into alchemy, and with the invention of numerous important processes still used in modern chemistry today, such as the syntheses of hydrochloric and nitric acids, distillation, and crystallisation. His original works are highly esoteric and probably coded, though nobody today knows what the code is. On the surface, his alchemical career revolved around an elaborate chemical numerology based on consonants in the Arabic names of substances and the concept of takwin, the artificial creation of life in the alchemical laboratory.

Jabir ibn HayyanBiography

Jabir was born in Tus, Khorasan, in Iran, then under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate; the date of his birth is disputed, but most sources give 721 or 722. Hayyan had supported the revolting Abbasids against the Umayyads. He was eventually caught by the Ummayads and executed. Jabir grew up and studied the Koran, mathematics and other subjects under a scholar named Harbi al-Himyari. After the Abbasids took power, Jabir went back to Kufa, where he spent most of his career.

15th-century European portrait of Geber, Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, FlorenceJabir's father's profession may have contributed greatly to his interest in alchemy. In Kufa he became a student of the celebrated Islamic teacher and sixth Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. He began his career practising medicine, under the patronage of the Barmakid Vizir of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. It is known that in 776 he was engaged in alchemy in Kufa.

His connections to the Barmakid cost him dearly in the end. When that family fell from grace in 803, Jabir was placed under house arrest in Kufa, where he remained until his death. The date of his death is given as c.815 by the Encyclopædia Britannica, but as 808 by other sources.


The word alchemy comes from the Arabic al-kīmiyaˀ or al-khīmiyaˀ (الكيمياء or الخيمياء), which is probably formed from the article al- and the Greek word chumeia (χυμεία) meaning "cast together", "pour together", "weld", "alloy", etc. (from khumatos, "that which is poured out, an ingot").

Some believe that the Arabic word al-kīmiyaˀ means "the Egyptian [science]", borrowing the Coptic word kēme (or from the mediaeval Bohairic dialect of Coptic, which wrote the word khēme), meaning "Egypt". The Coptic word derives from Demotic kmỉ, itself from ancient Egyptian kmt. The ancient Egyptian word referred to both the country and the colour "black" (Egypt was the "Black land", by contrast with the "Red land", the surrounding desert), so it is thought that such a borrowing in Arabic was appropriate for "Egyptian black arts".

However, a decree of Diocletian, written about 300 CE in Greek, speaks against "the ancient writings of the Egyptians, which treat of the khēmia [transmutation] of gold and silver". The Arabic therefore could derive from a purely Greek word, not Coptic, and have been later connected with ancient Egypt through what linguists term a "folk etymology."