[ 32 ] A denial of the effectiveness of alchemy. The
impossibility of its existence. The harm that
arises from practicing it.


Many people who are unable to earn their living 1072 are led by greed to cultivate alchemy. They are of the opinion that it is a (proper) means and method of making a living and that the practitioners of (alchemy) find it easier and simpler (than other people) 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.

There are different procedures followed by (the alche­mists). These depend on the different opinions held concerning the character and form of the (alchemical) treatment and concerning the substance invented 1075 for the treatment and which they call "the Noble Stone." This may be excrements, or blood, or hair, or eggs, or anything else.1076

After the substance has been specified, it is treated by them along the following lines. The (substance) is pulverized with a pestle, on a solid and smooth stone. 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." (Alchemists) 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 (gold and 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, for instance, 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 and tin 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).

It should be known that the practice of this art is some­thing very ancient in the world. Ancient and modern (scholars) have discussed it. We shall report their opinions in this connection and then state what seems to us the actual truth of the matter. God gives success to that which is correct.

We say: The philosophers base their discussion of al­chemy on the condition of the seven malleable 1086 minerals: gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron, and kharsini.1087 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 the Spanish philosophers who followed him held the opinion 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 the eastern philosophers who followed him were of the opinion 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.

On the strength of his opinion that all (the metals) are of one and the same species, Abu Nasr al-Farabi assumed that it is possible for one metal to be transformed into another, because it is possible to transform accidents and treat them artificially. From this point of view, he considered alchemy possible and easy.1089

Avicenna, on the other hand, on the strength of his opinion that (all the metals) belong to different species, assumed that the existence of alchemy must be denied and is impossible.1090 His assumption is based on the fact that (specific) differences cannot be influenced by artificial means. They are created by the Creator and Determiner of things, God Almighty. 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, considered Avicenna's statement erroneous. He objected that (alchemical) treatment and 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 of polishing and giving (them) luster. We do not have to perceive (tasawwur) or know (how) this (comes about).

At-Tughra'i continued: "In fact, we know about the (spontaneous) generation of certain animals, even though we are ignorant of their (specific) differences. For instance,1091 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."

(At-Tughra'i) continued: "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)."

This is the gist of at-Tughra'i's discussion. He is right in his refutation of Avicenna.

We, however, have another starting point for refuting the alchemists. It shows that the existence of alchemy is impossible and that the assumptions of all (who defend alchemy), not only those of at. Tughra'i and Avicenna, 1094 are - wrong (Our argument) is as follows:

The (alchemical) process follows these lines: The (al­chemists) take a substance possessing primary preparedness. They use it as the basis. In treating and processing it, they imitate the way nature processes substances in mines and, eventually, transforms them into gold or silver. They (try) hard to increase the active and passive powers (in the process), so that it will be completed in a shorter time (than required by nature). It has been explained in the proper place that an increase in the power of the agent shortens the time needed for his activity. (Now,) it is clear that the generation of gold in the mine is completed only after 1,080 years, which is the period of the great revolution of the sun.1095 If the powers and qualities used in the process are greatly increased, the time needed for the generation of (gold) will necessarily be shorter than (1,080 years), as we have stated.

Or, through processing, the (alchemists) choose to give the (basic) substance a form of composition to make it like yeast, and thus capable of producing the desired transformation in the processed matter. That is "the elixir," mentioned before.

(Now,) it should be known that every generated elemental thing must contain a combination of the four ele­ments in different proportions. If they were all alike in pro­portion, no mixture would take place. Therefore, there must always be a part that is superior to all the (others). Likewise, everything generated through mixture must contain some natural heat which is active in creating it and preserves its form. Furthermore, everything that is created in time must go through different stages and pass from one stage to another during the time of its creation, until it reaches its goal. For instance, man goes through the successive stages of semen, blood clot, and lump of flesh.1096 Next, he receives his form, becomes an embryo, a (newborn) child, a suckling, and so on, until he reaches the end of his (development). The proportion of the parts varies in quantity and quality at every stage. Were that not the case, the first stage would be identical with the last. The natural heat, too, is different at each stage.

One may now consider through how many stages and conditions gold (must have) passed in the mine over (a period of) 1,080 years. The alchemist has to follow the ac­tion of nature in the mine and imitate it in his treatment and processing, until.it is completed. (Now,) it is a condition of (every) craft that (its practitioner) perceive (and know, tasawwur) the goals he intends to reach with the help of that particular craft. A current saying of the sages to this effect runs: "The beginning of action is the end of thinking, and the end of thinking is the beginning of action." 1097 Thus, (the alchemist) must perceive (and know) the different conditions of gold in the numerous stages of its (development), the different proportions (of its component elements) belonging to the different stages, the resulting differences in natural heat, how much time is spent at each stage, and how much of an increase in power (is needed) to substitute for and supplant (the natural development). All this should finally enable him to imitate the action of nature in the mine or to prepare for a certain substance a form of composition that would be what the form of yeast is for bread, active in the particular substance in proportion to its powers and quantity.

All this is known only to the all-comprehensive knowledge (of God). Human science is unable to achieve it. Those who claim to have made gold with the help of alchemy are like those who might claim the artificial creation of man from semen. If we (could) grant to someone an all - comprehensive knowledge of the parts of man, his proportions, the stages of his (development), the way he is created in the womb, if he could know all this in all its details, so that nothing escapes his knowledge, then we (would) grant him the (ability to) create a human being. But where does anyone possess such (knowledge) ?

Let us present here a short restatement of the argu­ment, so that it can be easily understood. We say: The general lines followed in alchemy and the sum total of the claims (alchemists) make for the (alchemical) treatment are that it follows and imitates mineral nature by artificial action, until a particular mineral substance is generated, or until a substance is created that has certain powers, a (capacity to) act, and a form of composition acting upon a given substance as nature does, thus changing and transforming it into its own form. The technical action must be preceded by detailed, consecutive perceptions (tasawwur) of the various stages of the mineral nature one intends to follow and imitate, or in which one intends the powerful substance to be active. Now, there is an unlimited number of such stages. Human knowledge is not able to comprehend even a lesser number. It is comparable to wanting to create human beings or animals or plants.

This is the sum total of the argument. It is the most reliable argument I know of. It proves the impossibility (of alchemy), but neither from the point of view of the (specific) differences (of the metals), as above,1098 nor from that of nature. It proves it from the point of view of the impossibility of complete comprehension and the inability of human beings to have (an all-comprehensive knowledge). Avicenna's remarks say nothing of the sort.

There is another aspect to alchemy proving its impossibility. It concerns the result of alchemy. This is as follows. It was God's wise plan that gold and silver, being rare, should be the standard of value by which the profits and capital accumulation of human beings are measured. (Now,) if it were possible to obtain (gold and silver) artificially, God's wise plan in this respect would be foiled. Gold and silver would exist in such large quantities that it would be no use to acquire them.1099

There is still another aspect (to alchemy) proving its impossibility. Nature always takes the shortest way in what it does. It does not take the longest and most complicated one. (Now) if, as (the alchemists) suppose, the artificial method were sound, shorter, and took less time than that which nature follows in the mine, nature would not have abandoned it in favor of the method it has chosen for the generation and creation of gold and silver.

At-Tughra'i's comparison of the (alchemical) process with individual similar instances noticed in nature, such as the (spontaneous) generation of scorpions, bees, and snakes, is sound, in as much as those things, as he assumes, have been (actually) observed (and thus proven). But nowhere in the world is there a report stating that anybody ever observed (the soundness of) alchemy and its method. The practitioners of (alchemy) have constantly been groping in the dark. They have found nothing but lying stories. Had any (alchemist) found a correct method, his children, his pupils, or his colleagues would have preserved it. It would have been handed down among friends. Its correctness would have been guaranteed by its later successful application. (Knowledge of) it would eventually have spread. Ourselves or others would have learned about it.

The (alchemists also) state that the elixir is similar to yeast 1100 and that it is a compound for transmuting and trans­forming everything with which it comes in contact into its own essence. However, it should be realized that yeast transforms the dough and conditions it for digestion. This is (a process of) corruption, and material destruction is an easy process which may be produced by the slightest of actions and of elemental (influences). However, the purpose of the elixir is to transform one mineral into a nobler and higher one. That is something creative and constructive. Creation is more difficult than destruction. 1101 Thus, the elixir cannot be compared with yeast.

The truth of the matter is that if it is correct that alchemy exists, as the philosophers who discuss alchemy, such as Jabir b. Hayyan, Maslamah b. Ahmad al-Majriti, and others, think, it does'not (at any rate) fall under the category of natural crafts, and it does not come about by any technical process. The discussion of alchemy by (alchemists) is not like that of physics (by physicists). It is like the discussion of magical and other extraordinary matters or the wonders performed by al-Hallaj 1102 and others. Maslamah mentioned something of the sort in the Kitab al-Ghayah. His discussion of alchemy in the Kitab Rutbat al-hakim points in the same direction. Jabir's discussion in his treatises is also of the same type. This tendency of (alchemical) discussion is well known. We do not have to comment on it.

In general, (alchemy) as they understand it, has to do with universal creations 1103 which are outside the (sphere of) effectiveness of the crafts. Wood and animals cannot be developed from their (respective matters) in a day or a month, if such is not the (ordinary) course of their creation. In the same way, gold cannot be developed from its matter in a day or a month. Its customary course (of development) can be changed only with the help of something beyond the world of nature and the activity of the crafts. Thus, those who try to practice alchemy as a craft lose their money and labor. The alchemical treatment is, therefore, called a "sterile treatment." In so far as it is sound, it is the result of (powers) beyond those of nature and the crafts. It is comparable to walking upon water, riding in the air, passing through solid substances,1104 and similar acts of divine grace that are performed by saints and break through the customary course of nature. Or, it may be compared to the creation of birds and similar miracles of the prophets. God says: "And when you created something like the form of a bird from clay with my permission, and you blew into it, and the form thus became a bird with the permission of God." 1105

The way in which (miracles of an alchemical nature) are performed depends on the condition of the person to whom (such miracles) are granted. They may be granted to a pious person who passes them on to someone else. They are in this case loaned to the other person, (but he, at any rate, is able to perform them). Or, they may be granted to a worthless person who cannot pass them on. In this case, they cannot be performed by someone else. It is in this sense that the performance (of alchemical miracles) is magical.

Thus, it is clear that (alchemical miracles) are the result of psychic influences and extraordinary wonders, either as miracles or acts of divine grace, or as sorcery. Therefore, all the sages who have discussed (alchemy) use puzzling expres­sions whose real meaning is known only to those who have delved deeply into sorcery and are acquainted with the (magic) activities of the soul in the world of nature. (But) matters breaking through the ordinary course (of nature) are unlimited, and no one could get to know them (all). God "comprehends all you do." 1106

The most common cause of the desire to practice alchemy is, as we have stated; a person's inability to make his living in a natural way and the wish to make a living in some way that, unlike agriculture, commerce, and (handi)craft, is not natural.1107 A person without ability finds it difficult to make his living in such (legitimate occupations). He wants to get rich all at once through some (occupation) that is not natural, such as alchemy and other things. Alchemy is cultivated mostly by the poor among civilized people. (The fact that economic status is decisive for the recognition or non­recognition of alchemy) applies even to the philosophers who discuss the possibility 1108 or impossibility of (alchemy). Avicenna, who states that alchemy is impossible, was a great wazir and a very wealthy person, while al-Faribi, who states that it is possible, was one of those poor persons who have not the slightest success in making a living by any means. This is an obvious suspicion as to the attitude of people who are eager to try (alchemy) out and practice it.1109

God "gives sustenance. He is strong and solid." 1110