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Towards a Context for Ibn Umayl, Known to Chaucer as the Alchemist ‘Senior’

Towards a Context for Ibn Umayl, Known to Chaucer as the Alchemist ‘Senior’

By Peter Starr

Çankaya Üniversitesi Fen-Edebiyat Fakültesi, Journal of Arts and Sciences, No. 11 (2009)

Abstract: This article will present what we know of the life and times of an important alchemist, Ibn Umayl. It is entitled ‘Towards a Context’ because I have not yet consulted a number of his treatises, which are mostly only available as manuscripts. Ibn Umayl’s position in alchemy accords with Hermetic doctrines, and may have developed as a traditionalist reaction to developments in alchemy around the time of Jabir ibn Hayyan. The paper offers an overview of the influence Ibn Umayl on western literature, beginning with a quotation from The Canterbury Tales which shows knowledge of Ibn Umayl. The overview then goes on to look at the reception of his works in Arabic-Islamic alchemy. The last part of the paper, which makes use of published research and unpublished manuscripts, puts together what we know of his life, and places his ideas in the context of a school of thought. The writer is inclined to agree with researchers who say that Ibn Umayl was Egyptian, although the evidence is conflicting. Quoting The Pure Pearl and The Silvery Water in particular, the article emphasizes the alchemist’s faithfulness to Hermetic doctrines, although in a particular, Islamic, dispensation.

Excerpt: For all his devotion to Greek alchemy, it is important for Ibn Umayl that he writes as a Muslim, and he frequently mentions his religion. He gives an account of his doctrine ‘for you [Abu al-Husayn] and for all our brothers who are pious Muslims’. Our author occasionally quotes verses in the Qur’an of interest to alchemists. He sees himself as following ‘predecessors among the sages of Islam’. While reflecting many later Muslim alchemists, he says he has ‘recognized the merits’ of Dhu an-Nun al-Masri and Khalid ibn Yazid, who, he claims, conform with the teaching of the ancients. He repeatedly calls on God to help his co-religionists.

The Islamic character of this revelation of alchemy is paramount, and a passage in The Pure Pearl is revealing. In a section also notable for the fact that it predicts Ibn Umayl’s death and the succession of Abu al-Hasan as-Siqili, who is to ‘become part of’ his teacher, Abu al-Hasan asks about an intermediary principle between the male and female which they call ‘Shaytanil’. He says:

‘Then, by God, tell me about it in Arabic, so that the wisdom be complete in me.’ So Sheikh Muhammad ibn Umayl said… ‘I ask God’s pardon for having revealed this secret. Receive it, then, in Arabic, and hide it in silence…’ (middle of chapter one)

Click here to read this article from Cankaya University

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