Al-Razi’s Book of Secrets: The Practical Laboratory in the Medieval Islamic World
UPDATE: April 12, 2015: This English translation is now available as a book on Amazon. Look for: The Alchemy of Al-Razi: A Translation of the “Book of Secrets,” by Gail Marlow Taylor, or use this link:
Abstract: Over a thousand years ago, the Persian physician and chemist Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Raziwrote a laboratory manual in Arabic called the Kitab al-Asrar or Book of Secrets. His systematic book describes procedures in terms of required chemicals, equipment, and processes, without the theoretical or allegorical digressions that characterize many alchemical manuals. In the early twentieth century, science historians Julius Ruska and Henry Stapleton were greatly impressed by al-Razi’s scientific approach. More recent histories, however, usually treat serious laboratory texts as a development of early modern Europe.
I have translated al-Razi’s book into English from Ruska’s 1937 German translation of the Arabic text. I argue that it embodies the methodological organization of a modern laboratory procedure manual. In this thesis, I first analyze the historical significance of the Kitab al-Asrar and its relationship to medieval European alchemical texts. Next, I examine its contents and show how its strategies forreproducibility share a common pattern with modern laboratory manuals. Laboratories today analyze virtually everything we touch from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. Yet the basis of laboratory testing, the procedure manual defining equipment, materials, and procedures, is demonstrated in a tenth-century alchemic handbook.