Stranded on the Island of Reason

July 11, 2016   •   By Eric Ormsby

Ibn Tufayl: Living the Life of Reason

Taneli Kukkonen

IN THE CLASSICAL DEFINITION, formulated by Aristotle, the human being is in essence “the rational animal.” The faculty of reason is what distinguishes us from other animals. Since laughter appeared to be inseparable from humanity, some ancient philosophers also defined man as “the laughing animal,” but it took only a few guffaws from the hyena or the mad trills of the kookaburra to put paid to that definition. Then, language, in the sense of articulate speech, was the indispensable corollary of reason. Birds and beasts may sing or squawk or bray, but they do not command grammar or syntax; they are, perhaps fortunately for them, incapable of formulating definitions.

This double-barreled definition of the human being is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in an unusual and charming philosophical “romance” by the 12th-century Andalusian Muslim scholar known as Ibn Tufayl (1105–1185). This “altogether extraordinary narrative,” as Taneli Kukkonen rightly terms it in his excellent new study, is Hayy ibn Yaqzan, so titled for its protagonist, whose Arabic name translates as “Alive, Son of Awake.” A polymath, well-versed in medicine, astronomy, and belles-lettres, as well as Aristotelean philosophy, Ibn Tufayl served as court physician and boon companion to the Almohad Sultan Abu Ya`qub Yusuf (reigned 1163–1184). The Almohad (from the Spanish rendition of the Arabic al-Muwahhidun, “those who profess God’s oneness”) were a fierce Berber dynasty, which had overthrown the earlier Almoravids in the name of a purer version of monotheism, and had established its rule in Marrakesh by 1147. Surprisingly enough, the Almohad rulers, though they rejected formal Muslim theology as noxious pettifoggery, dangerous to true belief, cultivated an intense interest in philosophy. This was in part an effort to imitate and rival court practices in Baghdad, seat of the hostile Abbasid caliphate, where formal yet rambunctious intellectual disputations had for centuries provided diversion for the ruling elite.

This may have also been an effort to reconcile disparate factions at the court. For, as Kukkonen describes it, at the Almohad court in Marrakesh,

[T]he Caliph would open court sessions by positing a learned question, then he would let two groups of scholars respond: first the seekers (talaba) from among Ibn Tumart’s original followers [Ibn Tumart was the charismatic founder of the dynasty], then a second group of more urbane experts employed by the ruler. The ritualized process at once established a clear hierarchy — Berber loyalists from the Almohad movement’s early days still sat at the ruler’s right hand and were consulted first on any matter of importance — while at the same time offering emerging scholars of all stripes a chance to shine.

No “emerging scholar” rose higher than Ibn Tufayl at the caliphal court. Though especially valued for his medical expertise, he was often closeted with the ruler for hours in philosophical discussion. He managed to introduce the young Ibn Rushd (Averroes) to the court where he too flourished for a time (and embarked on his great commentaries on Aristotle). When Ibn Tufayl died in 1185, the caliph presided over his funeral — an unprecedented honor.

Taneli Kukkonen’s study is not only a superb introduction to Ibn Tufayl and his work, but it also provides a succinct overview of Islamic philosophical thought at large. The late Patricia Crone, founding editor of the series “Makers of the Muslim World,” of which Kukkonen’s book is part, once told me that the object of her series was to make important figures in Islamic history and thought accessible even to “an intelligent astrophysicist.” Each volume is written in clear, unadorned style, without footnotes (though references are included parenthetically) or academic jargon. Kukkonen has observed these strictures admirably. There is a helpful outline summary of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, episode by episode, and a very full bibliography of primary sources in Arabic and of scholarly literature in English. Even unintelligent astrophysicists, assuming there are any, will find his exposition admirably lucid and, indeed, entertaining. 

Hayy ibn Yaqzan tells the story of an infant of mysterious origin who washes up on the shore of an island; in one version he arrives in a basket, like Moses in the bulrushes, in another he appears by “spontaneous generation” out of what Kukkonen calls “the confluence of cosmic forces.” He is sheltered by a tribe of gazelles, one of whom becomes his adoptive mother. From the outset, he is quick to observe the differences between himself and the gazelles. In a rather clinical scene, which betrays the author’s medical expertise, Hayy reacts to his mother’s death by dissecting her; he is eager to learn what vital force animated her. From then on, Hayy advances in insight and know-how: he discovers fire, makes weapons for himself, and tames other animals. His reason develops accordingly: he hits upon the distinction between genus and species, he muses on the heavens and even comes eventually to recognize the prime mover of the cosmos. He whirls about in imitation of the motions of the heavenly spheres.

As his reason matures, Hayy becomes something of a metaphysician and a contemplative; he takes up ascetic practices in order to purify himself. Here the work takes on a Sufi tinge. He has visions. As Kukkonen summarizes this phase:

Hayy’s sights are drawn to an ecstatic vision of divine light descending and refracting. A procession of immaterial beings is described that culminates in a vision of a being bearing seventy thousand faces, each of which has seventy thousand mouths, every one of them singing God’s praises.

This is the culmination of Hayy’s experience. As is obvious, his steady ascent in rationality does not simply follow the Aristotelean curriculum, but transcends it. Reason itself turns suprarational. But the story continues when Hayy encounters two other figures, two friends, Asal and Salaman, on a neighboring island. It is only at this point that Hayy learns to use human language, that indispensable concomitant of reason; all his knowledge has come to him by mute inference. After some ill-fated attempts to reform religion as he finds it in the world, Hayy withdraws, returning to his ascetic contemplative life, accompanied by Asal.

This bare summary cannot do justice to the genial appeal of the text. As Kukkonen points out, “there is a peculiar pleasure to reading Hayy simply as a rollicking adventure story, an imaginative thought experiment, and a parable of man’s triumph over his surroundings.” It is, he goes on to say, “equal parts Jungle Book and Robinson Crusoe,” and he notes further that “it is not only in the ponderous and the profound that a writer’s character stands revealed. It is equally as much in the telling asides and inessential flourishes that we may catch a glimpse of the way he viewed the world.”

This is very well put and it reveals something essential to Hayy ibn Yaqzan: despite the underlying logic of the text and its cunningly symmetrical structure — all of which Kukkonen analyzes astutely — the style has a kind of graceful nonchalance, a geniality and affability that draw the reader in. Ibn Tufayl took his conception of Hayy ibn Yaqzan from Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the great Persian philosopher who had died over a century before, but nothing could be more dissimilar than the magical prose of Ibn Tufayl and the relentless coiling clauses of the rigorous Avicenna in his systematic works. (For readers who want to read the text, one of the few genuinely charming works in the long tradition of Islamic philosophy, the best English translation is that by Lenn Evan Goodman).

Finally, many have seen in Hayy ibn Yaqzan a precursor to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Kukkonen dismisses these apparent affiliations as “breezy references.” I think that he is right. Hayy was translated into English by Simon Ockley in 1708. Defoe published his novel in 1719. There is a certain superficial similarity: both deal with individuals stranded on islands and compelled to make their way unaided. But there the similarities end. Moreover, Defoe considered Muslims to be “the worst of all the nations of the world […] among whom Nature appears stripp’d of all the additional glories, which it derives from Religion.” Kukkonen does suggest, however, that Defoe’s Serious Reflections, published in 1720 as though penned by Robinson Crusoe himself, reveals some unexpected parallels with Hayy.

The question of influence remains open. Even so, there may still be surprises awaiting us on those fabled shores where the rational animal broods in his solitude.


Eric Ormsby’s most recent book is a translation from the Persian of the 11th-century poet and philosopher Nasir-i Khusraw under the title Between Reason and Revelation: Twin Wisdoms Reconciled (London, 2012).