Edited and prepared by Prof. Hamed A. Ead, Cairo University, Giza (During the DAAD fellowship hosted by Heidelberg University, July-October 1998)
Abd al-Rahman Ibn Mohammad Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis in 732 A.H. (1332 C.E.) to an upper class family that had migrated from Seville in Muslim Spain. His ancestors were Yemenite Arabs who settled in Spain in the very beginning of Muslim rule in the eighth century, but after the fall of Seville, had migrated to Tunisia.
He received his early education and where, still in his teens, he entered the service of the Egyptian ruler Sultan Barquq. His thirst for advanced knowledge and a better academic setting soon made him leave this service and migrate to Fez. During his formative years, Ibn Khaldun experienced his family’s active participation in the intellectual life of the city, and to a lesser degree, its political life. This was followed by a long period of unrest marked by contemporary political rivalries affecting his career.
The uncertainty of his career still continued, with Egypt becoming his final abode where he spent his last 24 years. Here he lived a life of fame and respect, marked by his appointment as the Chief Malakite Judge and lecturing at the AL-Azhar University, but envy caused his removal from his high judicial office as many as five times.
Ibn Khaldun led a very active political life before he finally settled down to write his well known masterpiece on history. He worked for rulers in Tunis and Fez (in Morocco), Granada (in Muslim Spain) and Biaja (in North Africa). In 1375, Ibn Khaldun crossed over to Muslim Spain (Granada) as a tired and embittered man solely for the reasons of escaping the turmoil in North Africa. Unfortunately, because of his political past, the ruler of Granada expelled him.
Ibn Khaldun’s chief contribution lies in philosophy of history and sociology. He sought to write a world history preambled by a first volume aimed at an analysis of historical events. This volume, commonly known as Muqaddimah or ‘Prolegomena’, was based on Ibn Khaldun’s unique approach and original contribution and became a masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology. The chief concern of this monumental work was to identify psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of human civilization and the currents of history. In this context, he analyzed the dynamics of group relationships and showed how group feelings, al-‘Asabiyya, give rise to the ascent of a new civilization and political power and how, later on, its diffusion into a more general civilization invites the advent of a still new ‘Asabiyya in its pristine form. He identified an almost rhythmic repetition of rise and fall in human civilization, and analysed factors contributing to it.
His contribution to history is marked by the fact that, unlike most earlier writers interpreting history largely in a political context, he emphasized environmental, sociological, psychological and economic factors governing the apparent events. This revolutionized the science of history and also laid the foundation of Umraniyat (Sociology).
Apart from the Muqaddimah that became an important independent book even during the lifetime of the author, the other volumes of his world history Kitab al-I’bar deal with the history of Arabs, contemporary Muslim rulers, contemporary European rulers, ancient history of Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians, etc., Islamic History, Egyptian history and North-African history, especially that of Berbers and tribes living in the adjoining areas. The last volume deals largely with the events of his own life and is known as Al-Tasrif. This was also written in a scientific manner and initiated a new analytical tradition in the art of writing autobiography A book on mathematics written by him is not extant.
Ibn Khaldun’s influence on the subject of history, philosophy of history, sociology, political science and education has remained paramount ever since his life. His books have been translated into many languages, both in the East and the West, and have inspired subsequent development of these sciences.
Alchemy in Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah
Definition: Ibn Khalddun defines alchemy as “the science that studies the substance through which the generation of gold and silver may be artificially accomplished, and comments on the operation leading to it”. The alchemists acquire knowledge of the tempers and powers of all created things, and they hope that they may come upon the substance that is prepared to produce gold and silver. They even investigate the waste matter of animals, such as bones, feathers, hair, eggs, and excrement, not to mention minerals.
Alchemy in Ibn Khalddun’s opinion, comments on the operations through which such a substance may transformed from potentiality into actuality, as for example, by the dissolution of bodies (substances) into their natural components through sublimation and distillation, by the solidification of meltable substances through calcification, by the pulverization of solid materials with the help of pestles and mullers and similar things, the alchemists assume that all techniques lead to the production of a natural substance which they call “the elixir”, and when some mineral substance, such as lead, tin or copper is heated in fire and some quantity of the elixir is added to it, the substance turns into pure gold. The alchemists used special terms for the purpose of mystification – they give the cover name of ‘spirit’ to the elixir and that of ‘body’ to the substance to which the elixir is added.
The science that comments on this technical terminology and on the form of the technical operation by which proposed substances are turned into the form of gold and silver, is the science of alchemy.
The chief systematic writer on alchemy, according to alchemists, is Jabir ibn Hayyan. Alchemists even consider Jabir’s alchemy a special preserve and call it “the science of Jabir”. He wrote seventy treatises on alchemy, all of them read like puzzles. It is thought that only those who know all that is in Jabir Ibn Hayyan’s treatises can unlock the secrets of alchemy.
Al-Tughrai, a recent Eastern philosopher, wrote systematic works on alchemy and disputations with alchemists and philosophers.
Maslamah al-Majriti, a spanish philosopher, wrote on alchemy in the Rutbat al-Hakim. He wrote the Rutbah as a counterpart to his work on sorcery and talismas entitled Ghayat al-Hakim. He thought that the two arts (alchemy and sorcery) were both the results and fruits of philosophy and science, and that those who were not acquainted with them would miss the fruit of scholarship and philosophy altogether.
Maslamah’s discussion in the Rutbah and the discussions of all (alchemists) in their respective works employ puzzling means of expression which are difficult to understand for those who have not familiarized themselves with the technical terminology of alchemists.
Works on alchemy are attributed to al-Ghazzili, but this attribution is not correct, because al-Ghazzali’s lofty perceptions would not have permitted him to study, or, eventually, to adopt the errors of alchemical theories.
Ibm Khaldun passes on here an epistle on alchemy written by Bakr b. Bishrun to Ibn as-Samh. Both were pupils of Maslamah. The discussion of (Ibn Bishrun) will show Ibn Khaldun’s attitude toward alchemy.
Ibn Bishrun’s Treatise – [Extracts]
Ibn Bishrun said that: “The premises of this noble craft were mentioned by the ancients. All of them were reported by the philosophers. Such premises are knowledge of the generation of minerals, of the creation of rocks and precious stones, and of the different natures of regions and localities.”
Ibn Bishron explains what one needs to know of this craft?
“It has been said: The students of this science must first know three things: (1) whether exists, (2) what brings it into being, and (3) how it comes into being. If the student of alchemy knows these three things well, he achieves his object and knows as much as can be known about this science.”
As to the problem of the existence of alchemy and the proofs for the (forces) that bring alchemy into existence, the elixir that we have sent to you is a satisfying answer. “The question of what brings alchemy into being implies, according to alchemists, search for the stone that makes the (alchemical) operation possible.”
Potentially, the operation may be performed with any (conceivable) thing, because the (potentiality to perform the operation) comes from the four natures (elements). It originated from their composition at the beginning and will revert to them at the end.
However, there are things that might be used for the operation (only) potentially, not actually. This comes about as follows: There are some things that can be decomposed. There are others that cannot be decomposed. Those that can be decomposed can be processed and treated. They are the things that can be transformed from potentiality into actuality.
On the other hand, the things that cannot be decomposed cannot be processed and treated, because they have nothing but potentiality in them. They cannot be decomposed, in order to give some of the elements they contain an advantage over the others and to have the power of the bigger (elements) predominate over the lesser ones.
You – may God give you success – must therefore know the most suitable of the decomposable stones that can be used for the operation. You must know its genus, power, action, and which kind of dissolution or solidification, purification, calcification, absorption, or transformation it may be able to effect. People who do not know these basic principles of alchemy will never be successful or achieve any good results.
You must know whether (the stone) can be aided by something else or is sufficient by itself, and whether it is one (thing by itself) at the beginning or is associated with something else and becomes one (thing by itself) during the treatment, and is therefore called ‘stone’. You must also know how it works; how much its components must weigh and what times need for it; how the spirit is inserted and the soul made to enter into it; whether fire can separate (the soul) from (the stone) after it has been inserted; if not, why (not), and what makes it necessary that it be that way.
It should be realized that all philosophers have praised the soul and thought that it is the soul that governs, sustains, and defends the body and is active in it. For, when the soul leaves the body, the body dies and gets cold. It cannot move or defend itself, because there is no life in it and no light. I have mentioned the body and the soul only because this alchemy almost is similar to the body which is built up by regular foods and which persists and is perfected by the living, luminous soul, which enables the body to do the great and mutual things that only the living power of the soul can do. Man suffers from the differences of his component elements. If these elements were in complete harmony, it will not affected by accidents and contradictions, so the soul would not be able to leave his body, as a result man would then live endless. Praised be He who governs all things, He is exalted.
It should be realized that the natures (elements) producing the (alchemical) operation constitute a quality that pushes forward at the beginning, and must reach end. When they have reached this limit, they cannot be transformed (back) into the (state) that (formed the starting point of) their composition, as we stated at the out-set with regard to man.
The natures of the substance had been separate, but now they adhere to each other and have become one thing, similar to the soul in power and activity, become one and similar to the body in having composition and pulse.
An early alchemists has said that: “Decomposition and division mean life and duration, as far as the alchemical operation is concerned, while composition means death and non being.” This statement has a subtle meaning. The philosopher meant by ‘life and duration’ its transformation from nonexistence into existence. As long as it remains in (the state of) its first composition, it is, no doubt, non being. But when the second composition takes place, non being no longer exists.
Now, the second composition comes about only after decomposition and division. Thus, decomposition and division are peculiar to the (alchemical) operation. If it is applied to the soluble body (substance), it spreads in it, because it has no form, since it has come to take in the body the place of the soul which has no form. This is because it has no weight as far as (the substance) is concerned.
You must know that mixing a fine thing with another fine thing is easier than mixing a coarse thing with another coarse thing. This similarity in form among spirits (on the one hand) and bodies (substances, on the other hand),because things related to their forms.. I mention this to you, so that you may know that the alchemical operations is more easier and simpler if it is undertaken with fine spiritual elements than if it is undertaken with coarse substances. It is logical that stones are stronger in their resistance to fire than spirits. Likewise, gold, iron, and copper are observed to offer more resistance to fire than sulphur, mercury, and other spirits.
Therefore, I say: The substances were spirits at the beginning. When the heat of the natural process affects them, they are transformed by it into coarse, coherent substances and fire is not able to consume them, because they are exceedingly coarse and coherent. When an exceedingly great amount of fire is applied to them, it turns them again into spirits, as they had been when they were first created. If fire (then again) affects the fine spirits, they flee and are not able to endure it. Thus, you must know what brought the substances to their particular condition and (what) brought the spirits to theirs. That is the most important knowledge you can have.
I say: The spirits are burned, because of their combustibility and fineness. They became combustible because of their great share of humidity. When fire notices humidity, it attaches itself to it, because humidity is airy and similar to fire, which does not stop eating it until is consumed. The same applies to the substances when, they approach of fire, they flee, because they have little coherence and are coarse. But they are not combustible, because they are composed of earth and water which offers resistance to fire, in that the fine components of water unite with its coarse components through a long cooking which softens and mixes things.
“We are now going to speak about the stone that makes the alchemical operation possible, as mentioned by the philosophers. They have held different opinions about it. Some have thought that it is found in animals; some have thought, in plants; some have thought, in minerals; and, according to some, in everything. We do not have to examine these claims and enter into a dispute concerning them with the people who make them, because that would be a very long discussion.
I have already stated that the alchemical operation might potentially be performed with anything, because the elements exist in every thing. This is so. “We want to know what produces the (alchemical) operation (both) potentially and actually. Therefore, we turn to the statement of al-Harrini that all dyeing “‘ consists of two types. One may use a substance such as saffron, which is used to dye a white garment. The (saffron) eventually changes in it, vanishing and being decomposed. While the second dyeing is transformation of the substance of one thing into the substance and color of something else. Thus trees, for instance, transform the soil into themselves, and animals the plants, so that eventually the soil becomes plants, and the plants animals. This can come about only with the help of the living spirit and the active nature (kiyan) which has the ability to generate substances and change essences.
Ibn Khaldun continues……..
Here ends the discussion by Ibn Bishrun, one of the great pupils of Maslamah al-Maj’riti, the Spanish authority on alchemy, letter magic, and sorcery, for the third [ninth] century and later (times). One can see how all the expressions used by (alchemists) tend to be secret hints and puzzles,difficult to explained or understood. This is a proof of the fact that alchemy is not a natural craft.
The truth with regard to alchemy, which is to be believed and which is supported by actual fact, is that alchemy is one of the ways in which the spiritual souls exercise an influence and are active in the world of nature. (It may) belong among the (miraculous) acts of divine grace, if the souls are good. Or it may be a kind of sorcery, if the souls are bad and wicked.
It is obvious that (alchemy may materialize) as a (miraculous) act of divine grace. It may be sorcery, because the sorcerer, as has been established in the proper place, may change the identity of matter by means of his magic power. People think that a (sorcerer) must use some substance (in order) for his magical activity to take place. Thus, certain animals may be created from the substance of earth, of hair, or of plants, or, in general, from substances other than their own. That, for example, happened to the sorcerers of Pharaoh with their ropes and sticks. It also is reported, for instance, of the Negro and Indian sorcerers in the far south and of the Turks in the far north, that by sorcery they force the air to produce rain, and other things.
Now, since alchemy is the creation of gold in a substance other than that of (gold), it is a kind of sorcery. The famous sages who discussed the subject, men such as Jabir, Maslamah, and other non Muslim predecessors, followed this line.Therefore, they used puzzling expressions. They wanted to protect alchemy from the disapproval that religious laws express for the various kinds of sorcery. It was not because they were reluctant to communicate it (to others), as was thought by people who did not investigate the matter thoroughly. One may compare the fact that Maslamah called his book on alchemy Rutbat al-hakim, while he called his book on sorcery and talismans Ghayat al-hakim. He wanted to intimate that the subject of the Ghayah is a general one, whereas the subject of the Rutbah is a restricted one, for final goal is a higher (stage in research) than rutbah degree, rank. The problems of the Rutbah are in a way part of the problems of the Ghayah, or deal with the same subjects. (Maslamah’s) discussion of the two disciplines clarifies what we have said. Later on, we shall explain that those who assume that the achievements of alchemy are the result of a natural craft are wrong.
(Based on the English translation of the “Muqaddimah” by F. Rosenthal)