Arabo-Islamic alchemy enjoyed considerable popularity until well into the 19th and 20th centuries. It can be considered both as a predecessor of modern chemistry and as a natural philosophy whose purpose is to explain the world. Yet one of the unresolved questions concerning alchemy is how one was supposed to learn it, since it was an art that was meant to be kept secret and only revealed to a few select individuals. While the practicalities of the learning experience remain obscure, it is noteworthy that Arabic alchemical literature often makes use of the literary form of the dialogue, a genre strongly associated with teaching and learning. This paper focuses on three Arabic dialogues on alchemy; namely, Masāʼil Khālid li-Maryānus al-rāhib (“Khālid’s questions to the monk Maryānus”), Kitāb Mihrārīs al-ḥakīm (“The book of the wise Mihrārīs”) and Risālat al-ḥakīm Qaydarūs (“The epistle of the wise Qaydarūs”), and discusses how the transfer of secret knowledge is represented. I will focus on the literary frames of these texts, their mise-enscéne, the master-disciple relation as represented within them, and the question of interaction between unequal partners.
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