Part 14

The impossibility of alchemy and the harm it causes

January 8, 2022

Many unemployed peopleare led by greed to cultivate alchemy. They think that:

  • it is a proper way of making a living
  • the alchemists find it easier and simpler to acquire property

In fact, however, they have to pay for (their efforts) in the form of trouble, hardship, and difficulties, and in the form of persecution by the authorities and loss of property through expenditures. In addition, he 1073 loses standing and, eventually, when his secret 1074 is discovered, faces ruin.

They think that (in practicing alchemy) they know some gainful craft.

However, they have been stimulated (to practice alchemy) solely by the thought that some minerals may be changed and transformed artificially into others, because of the matter common (to all minerals). Thus, they try to treat silver and transform it into gold; copper and tin (they try to transform) into silver. They think that it is possible in the realm of nature to do this.

They follow different procedures followed depending on “the Noble Stone” which is their invented substance. This may be excrements, or blood, or hair, or eggs, or anything else. 1076

They pulverize it with a pestle on a smooth stone while mixing it with water and drugs. During the pulverization it is macerated in water, after drugs have been added, suitable for the purpose (the substance) is to achieve and able to effect its transformation into the desired mineral. After having been macerated, (the substance) is dried in the sun, or cooked in a fire, or sublimated, or calcified, in order to eliminate the water or earth it contains. If this process and treatment are completed to the satisfaction of the (alchemist) and in accordance with the requirements of the basic principles of alchemy, the result is an earthen or fluid (substance) which is called “the elixir.”

They think that if the elixir is added to silver which has been heated in a fire, the silver turns into gold. If added to copper which has been heated in a fire, the copper turns into silver, just as (the alchemists), by means of the (alchemical) operation, intend it to be. Competent (alchemists) think that the elixir is a substance composed of the four elements. 1077

The special (alchemical) processing and treatment give the substance a certain temper and 1078 certain natural powers. These powers assimilate to themselves everything with which they come into contact, and transform it into their own form and temper. They transmit their own qualities and powers to it, just as yeast in bread assimilates the dough to its own essence and produces in the bread its own looseness and fluffiness, so that the bread will be easily digestible in the stomach and quickly transformed into nourishment. 1079

In the same way, the elixir of gold and silver assimilates the minerals with which it comes into contact to (goldand silver) and transforms them into the forms of (gold and silver). This, in general, is the sum total of the theory (of alchemists). We find that the (alchemists) constantly experiment with the (alchemical) process and hope to find their sustenance and livelihood in it. They transmit to each other the rules and basic principles (of the treatment as derived) from the books of the .leading earlier alchemists. They pass these books around among themselves and discuss the meaning and interpretation of the puzzling expressions and secrets in them.

For the most part, they are like riddles. Such books are the Seventy Treatises of Jabir b. Hayyan, the Rutbat al-hakim of Maslamah al-Majriti, (the works) of at- Tughra’i, and the very well-composed poem of al-Mughayribi, 1080 and similar works. However, after all (these efforts), the (alchemists) do not get anywhere. I once discussed something of the sort with our teacher, the leading Spanish scholar, Abul-Barakat al-Ballafigi. 1081 I called his attention to a certain work on (alchemy). Reexamined it for a long time, then returned it to me and said=

“I guarantee it to (the author) that he will come home a failure.”

Certain (alchemists) restricted themselves to mere forgery. It may be of an obvious type, such as covering silver with gold, or copper with silver, or mixing the (two metals) in the ratio of one to two, or one to three. Or it may be a concealed type of forgery, such as treating a mineral to make it look like another similar one.

Copper may be blanched and softened with sublimate of mercury. Thus, it turns into a mineral that looks like silver to anyone but an expert assayer. 1082

Such forgers use their product to coin money with the official imprint, which they circulate among the people. Thus, they cheat the great mass with impunity. Theirs is the most contemptible and pernicious profession (there could be). The forgers conspire to steal the property of the people, for they give copper for silver, and silver for gold, so as to get exclusive possession of (other people’s property). They are thieves, or worse than thieves.

Most of that sort of people here in the Maghrib are Berber “students” 1083 who choose for their territory remote regions and the homes of stupid people. They visit the mosques of the Bedouins and convince rich 1084 (Bedouins) that they know how to make gold and silver.

People are very much in love with (gold and silver). They are eager to spend all (their money) to search for them. This (attitude) enables the (Berber students) to make a living. They must go about their activity fearfully and under the watchful eye (of the authorities). Eventually, (their) inability (to produce gold and silver) becomes evident and they are disgraced. Then, they flee to another place and start the whole business anew. 1085 They cause wealthy people to succumb to the desire of obtaining what they have to offer. In this way, they constantly work hard trying to make a living.

There is no point talking with that sort of people, because they have reached the limit in ignorance and viciousness and make a business out of thievery. The only way to cure them is for the government to take energetic measures against them, to seize them wherever they are, and to cut off their hands (as thieves) whenever their activities are discovered, for those activities mean deterioration of the currency, a matter of general concern. The currency (in circulation) is the very backbone of everyone’s wealth. The ruler has the obligation to keep it intact, to watch over it, and to take energetic measures against those who corrupt it.

However, it is possible for us to talk with alchemists who do not like such forgeries, but avoid them and refrain from corrupting the currency and coinage of the Muslims. They merely seek to transform silver into gold, or lead and copper andtin into silver, with the help of a particular alchemical process and the elixir which results from it. We can discuss with them and investigate their achievements in this respect. yet, we know of not one in the world who has attained the goal (of alchemy) or got any desirable result out of it. Alchemists spend their lives on the (alchemical) treatment, (using the) pestle and muller, subliming and calcifying, and running risks in collecting drugs and searching for them.

They tell stories about other (alchemists) who attained the goal (of alchemy) or were successful. They are satisfied with listening to these stories and discussing them. They have no suspicions as to whether (or not) they can be considered true. They are like people who are infatuated with something and taken in by fanciful stories about the subject of their infatuation. When they are asked whether the (story) has been verified by actual observation, they do not know. They say, “We have heard (about it), but have not seen it.” This has been the case with (alchemists) in every age and of every race (generation).

Alchemy is very ancient and has been discussed by both ancient and modern scholars.

It is based on the seven malleable minerals=

  • gold
  • silver
  • lead
  • tin
  • copper
  • iron
  • kharsini

The question is whether these (seven metals) are different in their (specific) differences, 1088 each constituting a distinct species, or whether they differ in certain properties and constitute different kinds of one and the same species.

Abu Nasr al-Farabi and his Spanish followers believed that all (the metals) are of one and the same species and that their difference is caused by qualities, such as humidity and dryness, softness and hardness, and colors, such as yellow, white, and black. All of them are different kinds of one and the same species.

On the other hand, Avicenna and his eastern followers believed that the (metals) differ in (specific) - difference and constitute different species of their own, each of which exists in its own right and has its own (specific) difference and genus, like all other species.

transformed into another, because he believed that all the metals were of one and the same species. Thus, it is possible to transform accidents and treat them artificially.

Avicenna, on the other hand, believed that those metals were different and so alchemy was impossible because specific natural differences cannot be influenced by artificial means.

Their real character is utterly unknown and cannot be perceived (tasawwur). How, then, could one attempt to transform them by artificial means?

At-Tughra’i, one of the great alchemists, thought that Avicenna was wrong. According to him:

Alchemical processing does not mean a new creation of a (specific) difference, but merely the conditioning of a substance for the acceptance of a particular (specific difference). After (a given substance) is conditioned, it gets (its new specific) difference from its Creator and Originator. This might be compared to the way light pours upon bodies as the result ofpolishing and giving (them) luster. We do not have to perceive (tasawwur) or know (how) this (comes about). Certain animals spontaneously generate even though we are ignorant of their specific differences. For instance, scorpions are created from earth and straw. Snakes are created from hair. Agricultural scholars 1092 mention that bees, when they no longer exist, are created (again) from calves, and that reeds come out of the horns of cloven-hoofed animals and are transformed into sugar cane, when the horns are filled with honey while the soil is being prepared for them (to be planted). Why, then, should it be impossible for us to make similar observations in the case of 1093 minerals? All that comes about by artificial means applied to a given substance. Treatment and processing conditions the substance for the acceptance of (specific) differences, no more." We attempt something similar with regard to gold and silver. We take a certain matter possessing primary preparedness for the acceptance of the ,form of gold and silver. We treat it and then we attempt to process it until it possesses fully the preparedness to accept the (specific) difference of (gold and silver)."

I would argue that both At-Tughra’i and Avicenna are wrong.

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