Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl: its influence on European Thought and Literature (4706 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Beatrice Durand (Freie Universität Berlin)
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“With the possible exception of the Thousand and One Nights, no work from the literary heritage of classical Islam has been published or translated as frequently as Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan” (Conrad 1996, 267). Indeed, few works in world literature have been rewritten, imitated and plagiarised as many times as this philosophical novel, written in Arabic by an Andulusian philosopher around 1180. Ben Zaken (2011), Aravamundan (2014) and Ferlier and Gallien (2019) have described the circulation of the book between different languages and religious spheres as well as its reappropriation in theological and philosophical debates in Europe.

The novel is an important step in the history of isolated children narratives. The ‘isolated child’ thought-experiment had already been ‘performed’ before Ibn Tufayl’s work, and was to be performed many times after him, with each iteration producing different and sometimes contradictory results (Durand 2017). Rewritings of the Hayy plot in the Enlightenment (and later) allowed authors to hypothesise about the origin of language, or discuss the theory of knowledge, theology and pedagogy. Hayy can therefore be regarded a seminal work for the whole of Western literature and philosophy.

Born at the beginning of the 12th century in Wadi ‘Ashi, now known as Guadix, Spain, Ibn Tufayl (c.1105-c.1185 AD) practiced medicine in Granada (then known as Garnatah), and served as a secretary to the governor of the province. He served in Ceuta (in the Maghrab al-Aqsa, North Africa), and finally in Tingis (now called Tangier, Morocco). He eventually became the vizier and first physician to Abou Ya’koub, the Almohad sultan and caliph in Marrakech. He also wrote medicine and astronomy treatises, which have since been lost. His philosophical tale Hayy ibn Yaqzan (written around 1180) is the only work to have survived into posterity.

The Text

Hayy is a risâlah, a philosophical treatise in epistolary form, common in medieval Islamic philosophy. In this genre, the author of the risâlah answers the request of a fictive correspondent wishing to learn more about “the secrets of oriental wisdom that the Master and Imam, Sheikh Abu ‘Ali ibn Sina [Avicenna] spoke of”. In order to explain the limits of rational knowledge without godly illumination according to Avicenna, the author suggests an analogy: “imagine a man who is naturally intelligent with sound intuition, a good memory and a sharp mind but who has been blind from birth” (Ibn Tufayl 1999, 5). The analogy leads to a first thought-experiment – imagining what the blind man would be able to know of the world. This is an early formulation of what will become known in England in the late 17th century as the “Molyneux problem”, following a letter written on 7 July 1688 by the Irish naturalist William Molyneux (1656-1698) to John Locke as the author of the Essay on Human Understanding. Molyneux asked Locke if a blind man were to recover his sight, would he be able to distinguish a cube from a sphere without touching them. According to the author of the risâlah, the blind man, using his other senses, will be able to gain knowledge about the world surrounding him, but this knowledge is limited compared to what he would experience if he could see.

The blind man is a metaphor describing the limits of rational knowledge in the absence of transcendence: “The condition of the philosopher who has not attained the state of holiness is like the initial condition of the blind man. […] But the condition of the philosopher who has attained that state and to whom God has granted that thing we call metaphorically power, is like the blind man who has gained the power of sight” (ibid.). This metaphorical power is the “natural light” believed innate by Muslims. Ibn Tufayl, however, unlike Avicenna, grants the human mind the capacity to reach by itself a union with God without the help of any revealed religion. This power of the human mind and its “path” from physics to metaphysics to God will be illustrated by the allegorical story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan:

Now, to give a brief glimpse to encourage you to set out upon the path, I will tell the story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Absal and Salaman, as Sheikh Abu ‘Ali [Avicenna] named them. Their story contains a lesson for those who can understand and a sign for the man who has a heart, has eyes to hear and eyes with which to see. (1999, 10)

Staging three figures already appearing in previous works by Avicenna, Ibn Tufayl’s tells the story of a boy isolated from birth on a desert island and reaching the highest spiritual perfection. The novel posits two alternative ways Hayy could have found himself isolated. According to the first, Hayy was abandoned at sea in a chest by an adulterous mother; according to the second, he was born by spontaneous generation out of a bubble of the earth. The stories then merge when the baby is nurtured by a gazelle who had lost her child. Hayy’s life is structured in seven periods over seven years. During the first septennial, he learns to reproduce the language of gazelles and birds. At the beginning of the second, his adoptive mother, the gazelle, dies. He feels deep sadness and wonders where the essence of life has gone. He dissects the gazelle, along with many other animals, in attempt to find it, but concludes that an immaterial soul must have left the body. He then invents clothes, lodgings, tools and weapons and discovers fire, cooking, falcon hunting and horse training. He has the vague intuition that there must be other, similar beings without coming into contact with any. During the fourth septennial, he systematically observes the natural world. Reflecting on his observation, he understands the differences between the animal, vegetal and mineral kingdoms. From his gradual empirical discovery of the laws of nature, he deduces the idea of a “necessary being” which has created the world. During the next septennials he gradually withdraws from the physical world. Thanks to an ascetic discipline, he is able to devote himself to achieving union with the “Unique”. After seven septennials, Hayy has developed extraordinary intellectual and spiritual capacities.

While Hayy discovers God through the sole power of his natural reason on the desert island, “a true faith based upon the teachings of one of the ancient prophets (may God bless them) had come [on a] neighbouring island” (1999, 57) ruled by the good King Salaman. Absal, a pious man, retreats from his native island in order to live in prayer on the desert one. When he sees Hayy for the first time, he thinks he is an anchorite like himself. Hayy, for his part, has never seen other human beings. Absal tries in vain to communicate with Hayy, who doesn’t speak at all. His intelligence has developed in the absence of any spoken language (which he could only have learned from other people). Nevertheless, Absal acknowledges at once that the solitary man has reached a superior level of spirituality. After Absal has taught him to speak, Hayy is able to tell his own story.

A ship passing by brings them to Absal’s native island. Hayy wonders about the religion in Salaman’s kingdom: the people need God’s will to be mediated in the form of rituals and allegories. Hayy tries to teach them that it is possible to reach God by the autonomous use of one’s own reason. But he fails, for “he had made the mistake of assuming that people are thoughtful, perceptive and resolute. He had no idea of their stupidity, inadequacy, lack of judgement and weak character, of how they are like cattle, but more lost” (1999, 62). Hayy acknowledges his failure, apologises to Salaman and his people, and returns with Absal to the deserted island in order to further live in contemplation.


For a long time, it was assumed that Ibn Tufayl took his inspiration from a treatise by Avicenna also entitled Hayy ibn Yaqzan. The characters of Hayy, Absal and Salaman already appear in this book as well as in another treatise by Avicenna, the Risâlah fî’l qadar [Epistle on Destiny], in which Hayy takes a stance in a discussion about free will. Nevertheless, the inspiration only extends to Ibn Tufayl’s use of character names (Gauthier 1909, 71 sq., Behler 1965, 351). Another source might be Ibn Bâjja’s treatise The Management of the Solitary (Tadbīr al-mutawaḥḥid, ca 1130), which advocates solitude as a way to holiness. However, Ibn Bâjja’s solitary lives within society and tries to be an example to his fellow men. He is not radically cut off from social life.

Ibn Tufayl’s most direct source is probably not philosophical but folkloric, an episode of the Arabic Alexander legend, a manuscript version of which was discovered by the Spanish scholar García Gomez (1926) in the Library of the Escorial. In the legend, the astrologers at the court of Dū'l-qarnayn (Arabic name of Alexander) predict that Omr, the king’s only daughter, will have a child that will dethrone him. To avoid the prophecy, the king locks her in a fortress with her maid. But the princess sees Cham, the son of the vizier, passing by her window and they fall in love. After the maid lets Cham in, Omr eventually gives birth to a child that she has to get rid of secretly. She puts her son in a chest and abandons him at sea. After landing on a desert island, the baby is breastfed by a gazelle. Meanwhile, Cham succeeds his father as a vizier of the king. Fearing treason, the king has him arrested and put naked in a boat. The current leads the boat to the desert island where Cham’s own son is growing up. They recognise each other and Cham teaches his son to speak, enabling him to tell his story. A passing ship brings them back to Omr and to the old king. Cham and Omr are forgiven. The grandchild succeeds the old king on the throne (García Gomez 1926).

A last probable source might be the so called “Psammeticus’ experiment” as narrated by Herodotus in his Historiae (II, 2). The Egyptian pharaoh Psammeticus (663-609 BC) wanted to prove experimentally which people was the oldest on earth. For this purpose he had several newborn babies raised with no contact with human language. The babies were breastfed by goats. Unfortunately for the pharaoh, bek, the first “word” uttered by the children, was found to belong to the Phrygian language. This proved that Phrygian was the oldest and “natural” language of humanity and that the Phrygian people must be the oldest on earth. From Antiquity to modern times, Psammeticus’ experiment has been regularly discussed and criticised. It is mentioned in the Suidas, the Byzantine encyclopaedia (10th century AD); it was challenged by Jewish theologians arguing that the oldest language of mankind was Hebrew; it is again alluded to in Ibn Tufayl’s risâlah (Idel 1989, 146). Ibn Tufayl may have been aware of these discussions when he imagined the development of his solitary hero.

Scholarly Readings

Modern scholars have provided different interpretations of Ibn Tufayl’s aims in writing the allegorical story of Hayy. According to Gauthier (1909, 93) or to Labica, the allegory purports to conciliate faith with reason, theology with philosophy, and “Coranic Revelation with Greek philosophical tradition, a truth that cannot be questioned with a search entirely based on critical freedom” (Labica 1969, 20). This project was also to become central to Christian medieval theology. Hayy, Absal and Salaman represent three ways to God: the Active Intellect (Hayy), the Enlightened Faith (Absal) and the Mechanical Belief (Salaman). Hayy’s “path” is superior to the other two, though it is not suitable for everyone. But it does not contradict or exclude the other two: Hayy and Absal both agree that the others’ religious practices are compatible with their own. The novel doesn’t condemn the prescriptions of revealed religion and religious law. It only sketches another possibility. Hourani (1956, 40-46) stresses “the unaided ascent of the soul to God”. Hayy’s life story allegorically shows what the natural light is able to achieve. The reasonable mind builds knowledge from empirical experience, submitting everything to critical doubt. It then moves on to metaphysical questions. Isolation fosters the development of the natural reason, because the mind is not contaminated by tradition or prejudices preventing it from judging rationally.

Hayy’s autonomous progression in the absence of any tradition or education will be the key idea focused on by later readers, especially in the Enlightenment. Conrad (1996, 238-266) stresses the complexity of a message addressing different social groups: Ibn Tufayl is not advocating rebellion against common religious law; he explicitly condemns pseudo-philosophers who try to foster sedition among the people. He was aware of a possible misuse of his allegory when he warned the reader at the end of the risâlah: Hayy can only be a model or an ideal for the happy few, for those who are able to follow his spiritual “path” as well as to decipher the full meaning of the allegory. For common people, the “veil of the allegory” should not be lifted (Ibn Tufayl 1999, 65).

The Book’s Reception: Rewritings and Translations

Ibn Tufayl’s first known imitator was the Syrian physician and philosopher – and later Professor of Medicine in Cairo – Al-Nafīs (1210-1288). His novel, Al-Risālah al Kâmiliyyah fil-Sirah al Nabawiyyah [Treatise on Kāmil on the Life of the Prophet], written between 1270 and 1280, reproduces the main stages of the hero’s solitary development on the desert island. But his project is a completely different one. Ibn Tufayl purported to show the concordance or at least the compatibility of a spirituality grown out of rational autonomy with revealed and institutionalised religion. In addition, although the new religion founded by “one of the ancient prophets” bore many resemblances with Islam, it was never explicitly identified as such. In stark contrast, Al-Nafīs rewrites the isolated child narrative in order to demonstrate the validity of the Islamic Revelation: Kamil Kāmil literally reinvents “the historical incidents in the life of the Prophet and […] the history and the actual situation of the Muhammadan community” (Meyerhof and Schacht 1968, 32). Al-Nafis’ novel would come to be known in Europe as the Theologus autodidactus, in opposition to the title chosen for the Latin translation of Hayy (1671), the Philosophus autodidactus.

If Ibn Tufayl had almost certainly heard of Herodotus’s “Psammeticus experiment” when he wrote Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Frederick II (1192-1250), Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, certainly knew Hayy when he tried in the actual world to perform an isolation experiment. He wanted to find out which language the isolated children would speak. The real experiment didn’t have the glorious “results” of the thought-experiment, for the children died. The Scottish King James IV also isolated a group of children on one of the Hebridean islands (1493) and claimed the children would speak Hebrew. Akbar the Great Mogul conducted a similar experiment (1578-1582) and had to acknowledge that children remained dumb. These three real experiments refer more or less explicitly to Hayy as well as to Herodotus’s account of the Psammeticus experiment. It is as if the thought-experiment were a legitimation for the real one and vice versa, regardless of their very different ontological status and “results”.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, a Hebrew translation of Hayy circulated among Jewish communities in Spain and other Mediterranean countries. Moses Narboni wrote a commentary (1349) associating Ibn Bâjja’s treatise, the Management of the solitary, and Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy. He presented Hayy as a model of auto-didacticism. The Italian humanist Pico della Mirandolla translated the Hebrew version of the novel into Latin at the end of the 15th century. This (unpublished) Latin translation inspired De lo istinto naturale (1525), a didactic poem by the Italian author Antonio Fileremo Fregoso, stressing the superiority and holiness of the solitary man.

During the middle ages and the 16th century, discussions about the origin of language by theologians and philosophers, whether they were Jewish (Aaron Berakhya, Aboulafia… see Idel 1989) or Christian (Boethius, Oresm…), implicitly refer to Ibn Tufayl’s novel, mixing fiction with the vague memory of the real attempts to conduct the experiment. They tend to consider the child growing up in isolation as a true realistic possibility, which in turn nurtured speculation about the possible effects of development in isolation.

The first part of the Criticón (1651), a long allegorical novel by the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracían (1601-1658) also tells the story of an isolated child. In the book, Critile, the man of judgement, is about to drown when he is saved by a strange young man who does not speak. Critile teaches him to speak and baptises him Andrenio, the “human being”. Andrenio has not reached the same intellectual and spiritual perfection as Hayy. However, Critile’s teaching is laid on good foundations, as Andrenio is unimpaired by a bad education. Later, Andrenio goes back to society under Critile’s guidance. It is not clear if Gracían knew Hayy. García Gomez (1926) thinks that he didn’t, but that the two of them had the same source – the alexandrine tale of Omr and Cham. According to Coster (1913), on the other hand, Gracían could well have known the Hebrew translation of Hayy and its commentary by Moses Narboni through a Spanish Jew.

The 1671 Latin translation, commonly attributed to “Edward Pococke”, is in fact a common project of Pococke the Elder and his son Pococke the Younger: The father, professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford, “was the driving force behind the project. Still, the translation was the work of the son” (Ferlier and Gallien 2019, 94). Pococke the Elder introduced many intellectually important people to the book, such as his colleague and founder of the Royal Society of London, Robert Boyle, and his former student, John Locke. The novel generally appealed to rationalists and empiricists. Ockley, Arabic professor in Cambridge, who translated the novel directly from Arabic into English (1708) gave it the title The Improvement of Human Reason, placing it in the tradition of the Baconian augmentatio scientiarum. Two German translations, Der von sich selbst gelehrter Weiser [The Self-Taught Wise] by Pritsius (1726) and Der Naturmensch [The Natural Man] by Eichhorn (1783), stress the idea of self-learning or a preserved state of nature. Leibniz had also read the book. Spinoza probably commissioned its Dutch translation (1672). French orientalists such as d’Herbelot, Pétis de la Croix or Thévenot also knew Pococke’s translation.

Hayy also appealed to religious dissenters, especially to Quakers (Ekhtiar 1992; Russel 1994; Ben Zaken 2010; Aravamudan 2014; Ferlier and Gallien 2019). Many translations from Pococke’s Latin into English were made by Quakers but also by Anglicans: An Account of the oriental philosophy schewing the profound wisdom of some renowned men of the East. And particularly the profound wisdom of Hai Ebn Yokdan in both natural and divine things, which he attained without all converse with men by Keith (1674) and The Self Taught-Philosopher by Ashwell (1686). To Quakers, the figure of Hayy was a model of ascetic spirituality and intuitive mysticism, free from any revelation or dogma.

There were also many theories about the cognitive progression of the French sensualists’ imaginary “statue” (a statue which successively recovers the use of its senses one by one) which were based on Hayy’s own cognitive progression. Some examples include: Condillac’s Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746) and Treatise on the Sensations (1754); Buffon’s Natural History (1749) and the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet’s Analytical Essay on the Faculties of the Soul (1760). Many philosophers speculating about the origin of language and society – such as Rousseau in the Discourse on inequality (1755) or Herder in the Treatise upon the Origin of Language (1772) – also speculate on how isolated imaginary humans may invent language without external help. Many of the challengers in the competition organised by the Berlin Academy on the topic of language origin (1770) did the same. Most of the important authors and thinkers of the time developed thought-experiments involving fictional isolated children. They are always presented as tabula rasa. This continued in the 19th century with the French idéologues Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), Louis-François Jauffret (1770-1840) and Joseph Marie Degérando (1772-1842) and later with linguists such as Joseph Ernst Renan (1823-1892) in France and Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Heyman Steinthal (1823-1899) in Germany.

Speculations on the fate of fictionally (thought experimentally) isolated children do not only appear in philosophical texts. They often take the form of a realistic novel. Narratives of children isolated on a desert island or in any kind of secluded place (cave, cage, house…) multiplied in the 18th century all over Europe: Ramsay’s Voyage de Cyrus (1727), Kirkby’s History of Autonous (1736) and Automathès (1745), two Pensées by Montesquieu (Nr. 158 and 207, s. d.), Marivaux’s play The Dispute (1744), Morelly’s Basiliade (1753), Pfeil’s Der Wilde (1757), Guillard de Beaurieu’s Élève de la nature (1763), Wieland’s Koxkox and Kikequetzal (a novel part of the Beyträge zur geheimen Geschichte des menschlichen Verstandes. Aus der Natur gezogen [Contribution to a Secret History of the Human Understanding. Deduced from Nature] [1770]), Ducray-Duminil’s Lolotte et Fanfan (1788), Delisle de Sale L’Élève de la nature (1789) and Jean Paul’s Unsichtbare Loge [The Invisible Lodge] [1793] are just some of the most prominent. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is regularly mentioned as a rewriting of Hayy, although Robinson has been previously socialised and is in no way a tabula rasa, which radically changes the philosophical message of the novel. In isolated children narratives, the characters are presented as natural beings: humans in the state of nature. The rewriting of the isolation narrative most often includes: the solitary survival of the hero thanks to an animal-mother (gazelle, roe…); a description of his (rarely her) practical and intellectual natural resources; his meeting with someone from the outer world; his painful discovery of society and its prejudices and, sometimes, his return to solitude or the foundation of a new, better society (in Kirkby, Guillard de Beaurieu, Ducray-Duminil, Delisle de Sale). Often the isolated characters achieve in a single life-time the whole cultural development of mankind. The products of (fictional, speculative) isolation outperform normally socialised humans, because isolation preserves the hero from the cognitive bias and prejudices of culture. In the 20th century, Burrough’s Tarzan (1912) and the Batgirl Cassandra Cain will also be optimised by insular solitude in their childhood.

Whereas the philosophical speculations rather tend to construct models of human cognition, language and cultural development, the literary fictions challenge culture and its discontents: the formerly isolated children become critical aliens when they meet society. These narratives also offer a speculative regeneration of the individual and sometimes of the collective through the “return to (the state of) nature”. Of course, not all authors of children-isolation stories in the 18th and following centuries had read Hayy. But its narrative had become a common place. As such, it pervades European literature and philosophy. Hayy is the subtext of the whole nature-culture debate.

Modern Editions of the text and translations (short selection)

Hayy ben Yadhân: roman philosophique d’Ibn Thofaïl, critical edition of the Arab text by Léon Gauthier with a French translation, 2d revised edition. Beirut, Imprimerie catholique, 1936.
This edition of the text with the French translation has been reprinted with a an introduction by Georges Labica: Algiers, Société Nationale d’Édition et de Diffusion, 1969.
Ibn Tufayl. The Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, English translation and notes by Jim Colleville. Two Andalusian Philosophers. London, The Kegan Paul Arabia Library, vol. VI, 1999, pp.1-65.
Ibn Tufayl. Hayy Ibn Yaqẓān: A Philosophical Tale, English translation by Lenn. E. Goodman. New York, Twayne, 1972. Reprints: UP of Berkeley, 1983; Chicago UP, 2009.
Ibn Thofaïl (Abentofaïl), El Filósofo autodidacto, Spanish translation by Angel González Palencia. Madrid, Publicaciones de las Escuelas de Estudios Árabes de Madrid y Granada, 1934.

Works cited

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Gauthier, Léon. Ibn Thofaïl, sa vie, ses œuvres. Publications de l’École des Lettres d’Alger, 1909.
Hourani, George. “The principal Subject of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 15 (1956), 40-46.
Idel, Moshe. Language, Torah and Hermeneutics in Abraham Aboulafia, Albany, SUNY Press, 1989.
Israël, Jonathan. “Ibn Tufayl and the Hidden Wisdom of the East”, Enlightenment Contested. Philosophy, Modernity and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752. Oxford UP, 2006, pp.628-631.
Labica, Georges. “Le Philosophe sans maître”, preface to reprint of Gauthier’s translation. Algiers, SNED, 1969, pp.5-41.
Russel, G.A. “The Impact of the Philosophus autodidactus: Pococke, John Locke and the Society of Friends”. The Arabic Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, G.A. Russel (ed.). Leyden / New York / Cologne, Brill Studies in Intellectual History, 1994, 224-265.

Citation: Durand, Beatrice. "Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl: its influence on European Thought and Literature". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 06 November 2019 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19574, accessed 18 May 2022.]

19574 Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl: its influence on European Thought and Literature 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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