From Hayy ibn Yaqzan to Robinson Crusoe

An Opinion article from The New York Times website, about the Scholars from the Muslim Civilisation that Inspired Spinoza, Locke and Defoe, written by Mustafa Akyol

“Religion was a path to truth, but it was not the only path. The man was blessed with divine revelation, and with reason and conscience from within. People could be wise and virtuous without religion or a different religion.” Ibn Tufayl

Figure 1. The Journey of the Soul: Story of Hai bin Yaqzan Hardcover, 10 Jun. 1982 – Source; / Figure 2. Frontispiece translation of the philosophical story Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd 1708 AD Source: Arabick Roots Exhibition Catalogue 2012, page 61

In this age of anxiety, anger and contestations between the West and the Islamic world, many epoch-shaping stories of intellectual exchanges between our cultures are often forgotten.

A powerful example comes from literature. Millions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim readers across the world have read that famed tale of the man stranded alone on an island: “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, the 18th-century British pamphleteer, political activist and novelist.

Few know that in 1708, 11 years before Defoe wrote his celebrated novel, Simon Ockley, an Orientalist scholar at Cambridge University, translated and published a 12th-century Arabic novel, “Hayy ibn Yaqzan,” or “Alive, the Son of Awake,” by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl, an Andalusian-Arab polymath. Writing about the influence of Ibn Tufayl’s novel on Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” Martin Wainwright, a former Guardian editor, remarked, “Tufayl’s footprints mark the great classic.”

Ibn Tufayl’s novel tells the tale of Hayy, a boy growing up alone on a deserted island, with animals. As he grows up, Hayy uses his senses and reason to understand the workings of the natural world. He explores the laws of nature, devises a rational theology and entertains theories about the origin of the universe. He develops a sense of ethics: Out of mercy for animals, he turns vegetarian, and out of care for plants, he preserves their seeds.

Hayy then leaves his island and visits a religious society. He finds that the teachings of reason and religion are compatible and complementary. Yet he notices that some religious people may be crude, even hypocritical. He returns to his island, where he had found God and developed his concepts of truth, morality and ethics by relying on observation and reasoning.

Figure 3. 1001 Inventions: The Mystery of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan- Source
Figure 4. Statute of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in CordobaSource.

The translations of “Hayy ibn Yaqzan” in early modern Europe — by Edward Pococke Jr. into Latin in 1671, by George Keith into English in 1674, by Simon Ockley into English in 1708 — sold widely. Among the admirers of Ibn Tufayl’s work were the Enlightenment philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and John Locke, who were trying to advance a sense of human dignity in a Christendom long tormented by religious wars and sectarian persecutions.

Fans of the novel also included a new Protestant sect: Quakers. Mr Keith, a leading Quaker minister, who translated the novel into English, helped publicize it in European intellectual circles. He admired the novel, for it echoed the Quaker doctrine that every human being had an “inward light” — regardless of faith, gender or race. That humanist theology would have profound political consequences, making Quakers, in a few centuries, leaders in world-changing campaigns: abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women and other worthy causes.

The insights in Ibn Tufayl’s work that inspired the Quakers also shined in the works of Abul-Walid Muhammad Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes. Ibn Tufayl, who served as a minister in the court of an Almohad caliph of Islamic Spain, commissioned Ibn Rushd to write commentaries on ancient Greek philosophy, which became the main source for the European rediscovery of the Greeks, earning him great reverence in Western intellectual history…

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This story is an extract from The New York Times: “The Muslims Who Inspired Spinoza, Locke and Defoeby Mustafa Akyol.

Figure 5. Manuscript Review: Treatise on ‘The Alive Son of the Awake’, by Ibn Tufayl Source

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