Ibn Tufayl: Philosopher as Autodidact

An Arab Robinson Crusoe

For the first time, the Felix Meiner Verlag has published the text of a classical Arab philosopher in its venerable and much-consulted "Philosophical Library" series – the philosophical novel "Hayy ibn Yaqzan" by Ibn Tufayl, a 12th-century Andalusian author. Dag Nikolaus Hasse introduces the work.

For the first time, the Felix Meiner Verlag has published the text of a classical Arab philosopher in its venerable and much-consulted "Philosophical Library" series – the philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl, a 12th-century Andalusian author. Dag Nikolaus Hasse introduces the work.


Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the protagonist of Ibn Tufayl's novel, grows up alone on an island. In the end, he realizes that he can prove the existence of God but cannot understand his nature.

​​During the 1980s, the Meiner Verlag attempted – although unsuccessfully – to incorporate Arabic texts in its catalog, with two works of the Arab theologian al-Ghazali. The translations were not reliable, and the introductions and editors' notes were idiosyncratic.

The new beginning is thus all the more impressive. Ibn Tufayl's editor, Patric O. Schaerer, has produced a reliable and conceptually sound translation in fluent, stylistically consistent German, prefaced with a competent introduction.

The reader is provided with precisely the information on the history of Arabic philosophy that he needs to understand and position the text historically.

The fact that text editions of Arabic philosophy of this standard are possible testifies not only to the skill of the editor and the quality of Zürich's Oriental Seminar but also to the great progress which has been made in the study of Arabic philosophy and of Hayy ibn Yaqzan in particular during recent decades.

Self-reflection

The book is ideally suited as an introduction to the philosophy of the Islamic cultural area. Few works from the history of ancient philosophy are written as accessibly as Ibn Tufayl's philosophical novel.

Ibn Tufayl tells the story of a man named Hayy ibn Yaqzan, who grows up alone on a South Sea island on the equator and, aided only by his powers of observation and his intellect, gradually investigates the nature of things – from the anatomy of animals to the attributes of God.

Medieval explanations of the world from both the Orient and the Occident often assume a knowledge of philosophical traditions – the four elements, bodily fluids, the planets, or the difference between matter and form, substance and accident.

Ibn Tufayl, on the other hand, allows his hero Hayy ibn Yaqzan to acquire all of this knowledge by himself. He demonstrates why fire, water, earth, and air must be the most fundamental elements; through dissection he discovers the etheric vehicle of the vital force, the spirit; from observations he deduces the arrangement of the celestial spheres; and he establishes the existence of the soul and the celestial intelligences.

From the very beginning, the work was conceived as an introductory philosophical text. As Schaerer suggests, it was probably addressed to readers who were familiar with Islamic mysticism but had only a rudimentary knowledge of philosophy.

Through the medium of a philosophical novel, Ibn Tufayl aimed to give his religious readers an understanding of the philosophical sciences. He wanted to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between the unveiled truth of philosophy and the symbolic truth of religion. Ibn Tufayl was thus responding to theological attacks on philosophy.

Mystical elements

There were other Arab philosophers who attempted something similar, such as Averroës, Ibn Tufayl's successor as court physician in Marrakech. Ibn Tufayl occupies a special position in the history of Arabic philosophy, however, because he integrates Islamic mysticism, Sufism, into his philosophical world view.

After 35 years of solitary life on the island, Hayy ibn Yaqzan realizes that he can only prove the existence of God but cannot understand his nature. As a result, he radically alters his way of life and becomes an ascetic who turns his attention completely away from the physical world and devotes himself to the spiritual world, and finally understands God through mystical contemplation.

The major strength of Schaerer's edition is that Ibn Tufayl's special position is made very clear to the reader. The introduction and notes specifically illuminate the network of concepts which Ibn Tufayl draws from the Graeco-Arabic sciences and the Islamic religious world, in order to develop his own combination of rational, almost rationalist, philosophy and Islamic mysticism.

The story of the "autodidact philosopher" was understood one-sidedly within the context of rationalism and religious criticism during the Enlightenment, when it became generally known for the first time in Europe through translations.

This volume is a valuable addition to the Meiner Verlag's "Philosophical Library." It is regrettable, however, that the comparatively brief text was not published in two languages. Bilingual editions are not only a service to researchers and students, they also make the scholarly discussion of Arabic philosophy accessible to European Muslims, thus promoting integration.

Dag Nikolaus Hasse

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Phyllis Anderson

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