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Tag: Chemistry



I have already mentioned in passing a number of Arab inventions from the Golden Age. They include a wide range of medical, chemical and astronomical devices. But there are whole other areas in which the Arabs inventors excelled.

         Arab engineers learned from the Romans, Greeks and from their own scientists, and came up with creations that demonstrated their astonishing ingenuity. Some of these creations improved living conditions, while others were more whimsical.

         Engineers were hugely important. When the tenth century Persian engineer and polymath, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), reached Cairo, the Caliph himself went to the gates to greet him. He had been invited to regulate the flooding on the Nile. It soon dawned on him that he couldn’t solve the problem. The only way to save his neck was to feign madness and live for years under house arrest… biding his time until the Caliph’s own death.



Chemistry II

 Some of the breakthroughs in chemistry under the Abbasids:

1.                   Distillation equipment (such as alembic apparatus, stills and retorts) allowed for alcohol (ethanol) to be distilled for the first time (which was used for perfume and sterilization, rather than drinking). Rosewater was also made through distillation.

2.                   Kerosene was was distilled from petroleum by al-Razi in ninth century Baghdad. He described the process in Kitab al-Asrar, The Book of Secrets. Kerosene was used in lamps. Other petrol products were known and used. The streets of Baghdad were paved with tar in the eighth century. And Arab scientists first distilled crude oil to create what we know as petrol.

3.                   Other processes developed and refined, included crystallization, filtration, and steam distillation.

4.                   Strong acids were created for the first time, including nitric, hydrochloric, and sulphuric acid (the ancients had only had vinegar).

5.                   Other elements were discovered, such as arsenic and antimony, and chemical elements were clearly divided into categories and studied.

6.                   Soap was manufactured for the first time; and even glue was made from cheese… a secret recipe described in ibn Hayyan’s (Gerber) The Book of the Hidden Pearl.

7.                   Cosmetics were also developed, including those by the fabulous-sounding ‘Ziryab’ ‘The Blackbird’, a former Persian slave, who is credited with inventing toothpaste. The idea caught on like wildfire. He went on to open a beauty parlour in Andaucian Spain and supposedly pioneered underarm deodorants and the chemical removal of unwanted body hair for women.

8.                   Other inventions were far less whimsical and were snapped up by the military… including potassium nitrate (saltpetre) which enabled a complete recipe for gunpowder (tenth century). Gunpowder had been made and discussed for a long time, but the first book dedicated to it was written in the thirteenth century by Hasan al-Rammah, entitled The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices.





Modern chemistry may owe more to Islamic science than just about any other area. Its very name of course is derived from al-kemia, the word for alchemy.

Although alchemy was very important, and had come to the Arabs from both India and the Roman Empire, we now understand increasingly how many Arab scientists refuted the belief in transmuting base metals into gold.

Arab breakthroughs in chemistry are plentiful, and were aided by new scientific practice, as we have seen. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the various that were championed under the Abbasids.


The Arab Contribution

In the sciences, the Arabs took Classical work and breakthroughs and refined them, as well as developing their own fields of study from scratch. Their contribution was profound, and is often sidelined or completely forgotten in the Occident. And very often it was centuries ahead of its time. For example: The Arabs under the Abbasids and others constructed the first hospitals and lending libraries, gave the first academic degrees, and treated mental patients with music (more than a millennia before our idea of music therapy); they invented the fountain pen (because a tenth century Sultan wanted a pen that would write when he was ready), the camera obscura, water clocks, hydraulics, decryption of codes, and soap. 

They wrote about the concept of evolution, environmentalism, classification (mineral, animal, vegetable), scientific method and peer review… and refined all sorts of other things that are so key to our world, like paper as we have seen, the ‘Indian numbers’, and the massive mathematical breakthrough of ZERO.

They made contributions in almost all the sciences: mathematics, botany, chemistry, psychology, philosophy, engineering, physics, agriculture, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine and zoology.


April 24, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

All Change

The kind of miracles often performed by Indian Godmen rely on a knowledge of chemicals, physics, and the environment, a kind of layer of information which many of us take for granted. Just as I am fascinated by the illusions conjured by these Godmen, I am also deeply interested in the science that makes them possible. Or, rather, I’m preoccupied by the history of that science, and how it came about.

Over the next few days, I’m going to write some notes — nothing too heavy — on how the science we all rely on every day (the very same that the Godmen rely on too) came to us all through Arab society, predominantly from the Abbasid era. I have touched on this before in my blog, by have long wanted to devote a little more time to it, so excuse me while I indulge myself…

April 22, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Set Sawdust Alight with Spit

You will need: very dry sawdust, powdered sodium peroxide

So many common Godmen miracles are based on fire, and this is a good example, as it’s cheap and easy to do. The Godman just needs to find a supply of sodium peroxide which, in India, is relatively easy, as chemicals are readily sold without any questions being asked.

the method involves the powdered sodium peroxide being mixed in with the sawdust before the performance. Before going on show, the Godman takes a big sip of water and, when he’s sitting in front of his audience, he spits the water out nearby on the sawdust. The chemical reaction of the sodium peroxide and the water causes fire, which combusts the sawdust.

NB: Godmen’s miracles such as this should not be attempted by children, or by anyone else except trainee Godmen.

April 21, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Set Drying Clothes Alight

You will need: Yellow or white phosphorous in a solution of carbon disulphide (ration 1:6)

Pour a little of the solution on the clothes just before the audience assemble, and a few minutes later the clothes will spontaneously catch fire as the solution dries and ignites.

NB Godmen’s miracles such as this should never be attempted by children or anyone else, except for trainee godmen.

April 20, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Stop the Pulse

You will need: one lime

The best godman miracles require simple props, the kind that are available anywhere… an excellent example is stopping the pulse, an old favourite. The audience gathers around, the godman sitting in the lotus position before them. He closes his eyes and slows his breathing. A member of the crowd is called forward to take his pulse. As his fingers press on the wrist of the holy man, the pulse gradually reduces and then fades away completely. The trick is as simple as the prop. The lime has been secreted in the armpit. As the godman presses down on the lime, it itself presses on the artery that runs down the arm, stopping the pulse.

NB Godmen’s miracles such as this should never be attempted by children, or anyone except for trainee godmen.


April 19, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Cut the Skin With a Knife

You will need: Ferric chloride, sodium sulphocyanide, a knife

Rub the solution of Ferric chloride on the arm or the hand, where you will be cutting, and then dig the knife in the solution of sodium sulphocyanide, and motion as if you are carving with the knife. Crimson-coloured streaks will become visible where the knife blade has come in contact with the skin. Once you have finished the routine, wipe the affected skin clean and wash with soap.

NB Godmen’s miracles such as this should never be attempted by children, or by anyone else except trainee godmen.

April 18, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Eat Red Hot Chillis

You will need:  Olive Oil, some red hot chillis

This is an easy one and popular with godmen. Chillis burn the mouth when they come into contact with saliva. If this is prevented, then they don’t burn and can be swallowed. To stop the chillis from touching the saliva, you must rinse your mouth very well with olive oil before performing the feat. The olive oil coats the mouth for just long enough to chew and swallow the chillis, but beware, the whole act has to be done quite quick. The chillis can later be expelled from the stomach through vomiting (or ingesting an emetic).

NB Godmen’s miracles such as this should never be attempted by children, or by anyone except trainee godmen.