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Volume 65, Number 3May/June 2014

In This Issue

Hayy Was Here, Robinson Crusoe - Written by Tom Verde

The story is so familiar it has become a genre: One man, marooned on a desert isle, learns to survive by his wits and his mastery of the island’s resources. After years of isolation, he encounters a native from a neighboring island who becomes his companion and pupil, and together they form their own literally insular society.

Many of the hundreds of illustrations produced since the 1719 publication of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, including this one published in a 1740 edition, emphasized adventure, but like the life of his predecessor Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Crusoe’s solitary life ultimately stimulated philosophical thought.
de agostini picture library / bridgeman art library
Many of the hundreds of illustrations produced since the 1719 publication of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, including this one published in a 1740 edition, emphasized adventure, but like the life of his predecessor Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Crusoe’s solitary life ultimately stimulated philosophical thought.

Such was the tale titled Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, written in the 12th century by a philosopher from al-Andalus, or southern Spain, named Ibn Tufayl. He was known to the medieval West as Abubacer, on account of his full name: Abu Bakr Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Malik bin Tufayl al-Qaisi. 

Some six centuries later, scholars believe that English author Daniel Defoe looked to Ibn Tufayl’s book along with accounts of real-life castaways for inspiration when writing his classic Robinson Crusoe.

Defoe’s attraction to Hayy was more than plot-deep. Ibn Tufayl’s novel is an allegory in which his character, named Hayy ibn Yaqzan (“Living, son of the Wakeful One”), grows from infancy without human contact or instruction, and yet comes to comprehend both the physical world and the Divine. This he does through self-taught knowledge, or “auto-didacticism,” as later scholars put it.  

It was a rational, empirical approach to understanding the universe, one that resonated not only with Defoe, but also with many of his fellow European Enlightenment-era thinkers, poets and writers. Bacon, Milton, Locke and others all dipped their quills, so to speak, into the inkwell of “Arabick” learning, literature and philosophy as they formulated their views on science, religion and the human condition. By the time Defoe sat down to write what would become his most famous novel, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan had been a best-seller for centuries, captivating Elizabethan “natural philosophers” (scientists), Renaissance humanists and medieval Jewish theologians, all of whom looked to the plot and philosophy of the book as a road map for what scholar Majid Fakhry, in his study A History of Islamic Philosophy, described as the “natural progression of the mind towards truth.” After Defoe, the book also inspired the likes of Spinoza, Voltaire and Rousseau. Early Quakers recognized in Hayy’s story seeds of their emerging doctrine. 

How Ibn Tufayl’s 60-page volume—his only surviving book—became part of the dna of the European Enlightenment and a source for one of the most enduring genres in fiction is itself the story of a journey: a journey that begins with the travels of Ibn Tufayl himself and stretches from the medieval think-tanks of al-Andalus and Morocco to the palaces of Renaissance Italy, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the coffeehouses of Defoe’s London, all across a span of some 500 years.

My own journey along it began with a phone call to Avner Ben-Zaken, author of Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: A Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism and an authority on the history of science. He regards Ibn Tufayl’s book as a groundbreaking contribution to epistemology, or the study of knowledge. 

“For the first time, in this fabulous philosophical novel, we have a coherent claim for how first-hand experience can be the basis from which we extract evidence, facts and then, finally, philosophical principles. This was completely different from previous views [of epistemology] that ascribed the acquisition of knowledge to an authority,” said Ben-Zaken. The novel’s theme of autodidacticism, he maintained, is “the most important principle of modernity.”

Admittedly, quite a weight on the shoulders of a solitary chap trying to get by on a tropical island. Yet Ibn Tufayl’s protagonist proves up to the task.

illustration by lili robins

The seminal empiricism Ibn Tufayl expressed in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan was rooted in both classical and Muslim sources. It helped inspire not only Narboni, della Mirandola, the Pocockes and Defoe, but also authors, philosophers and scientists who all drew on his and related ideas to debate and define modernity, up to the present.

As Ibn Tufayl relates it, Hayy’s story begins on “a certain equatorial island, lying off the coast of India,” where just the right atmospheric blend of sunlight, heat and moisture “cause[s] human beings [to] come into being without father or mother.” While Sri Lanka is a logical candidate, in some translations Ibn Tufayl names this fabulous setting as the legendary island of Waqwaq, which scholars have sometimes identified with Sri Lanka. First mentioned in an eighth-century Chinese text, Waqwaq figures in several medieval Arab geographies and Persian adventure narratives, all of which include descriptions of the “waqwaq tree,” a plant that bears human beings as fruit: At the moment they ripen, so to speak, and fall to the ground, they cry, “Waq-waq!” 

While Ibn Tufayl was aiming more for allegory than geography, either a mythical or an actual location would have suited his purposes. In such a setting, he could track “the development of a child’s mind from a tabula rasa to that of an adult, in complete isolation,” according to Mahmoud Baroud of the Islamic University of Gaza and author in 2012 of The Shipwrecked Sailor in Arabic and Western Literature: Ibn Tufayl and His Influence on European Writers. Under such circumstances, Baroud explained, Hayy “was free to learn through sensory experience, reasoning, and contemplation.”

Ibn Tufayl did have one problem, however. Spontaneous generation conflicted with the orthodox premise of God as sole creator. Thus, Ibn Tufayl gave Hayy his own alternate backstory: On a nearby island, the sister of a king marries without her brother’s permission and gives birth to a child, whom she places in a “tightly sealed ark” (like the infant Moses). A strong current and a gentle tide deposit the seaborne crib on an island. A mother gazelle hears the baby’s cries, frees him from the ark and begins to suckle him. The gazelle becomes Hayy’s foster mother and “constant nurse, caring for him, raising him, and protecting him from harm.”

As he grows, Hayy learns the vocal sounds of the creatures on the island “with amazing accuracy”—much as did Kipling’s 1894 Mowgli and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 Tarzan, two more literary descendants of Hayy, according to Baroud and others. Hayy covers himself with feathers and, recognizing that most animals have appendages useful for defense—horns, beaks, claws—fashions spears and cutting tools from sticks and stones. 

When Hayy is seven, the gazelle dies. At first grief-stricken, Hayy ultimately dissects her, in hope of finding the source of her pain. Failing to bring her back to life, he nonetheless learns the basics of anatomy: the mechanics of the lungs, the circulatory system, the chambers of the heart and more. When he discovers one heart chamber filled with clotted blood and the other empty, he determines that what he was searching for “was [there] but left.” Catching and similarly dissecting other animals, he deduces that the heart must contain each creature’s individual spirit—in short, its soul.

Ibn Tufayl divides the story of Hayy’s autodidacticism into seven seven-year segments, up through age 49. Ibn Tufayl relates how, after learning the life sciences, his hero moves on to the study of physics, investigating such questions as why smoke rises, what causes objects to fall and how water turns to steam. Observing that fire’s light rises towards the brightness of the stars, Hayy concludes that its origins must be heavenly, and he further speculates that it follows the same path as the soul departing the body, just as heat rises and dissipates from dead organisms. This directs his attention to the stars, moon and planets. He mimics their movements by traversing the circumference of his island on foot, and he accurately calculates their orbits, thus learning mathematics and astronomy. He concludes that the universe is “in reality one great being.” This leads him to the eternal question: “whether all this had come to be from nothing, or … always existed.”

tom verde
With the Sierra Nevada as a backdrop, the hills of Ibn Tufayl’s native Guadix region have been dotted with cave-dwellings since at least the eighth century.

He then retires to a cave to fast and meditate, where he determines that “the world must have a non-corporeal cause,” that is, a causal being who exists beyond the physical world, outside of time and beyond human imagination. Hayy realizes that such a power must be “the Cause of all things,” an instigating entity that Aristotle 14 centuries earlier, and Thomas Aquinas a generation or so hence, identified as the “prime mover.” His contemplative journey, in other words, leads him to the realization of God.

When Absal, a resident of a nearby island, arrives and discovers Hayy, he teaches Hayy human speech and later brings him back to his own island. There, Hayy is exposed to society. He closely observes the customs, with particular attention to the manners of worship. However, he finds the religious authorities close-minded, petty and “engulfed in ignorance.” Turning his back on what he regards as corrupt, Hayy returns to his island, accompanied by Absal, where the two remain until death.

Educated readers read Ibn Tufayl’s novel not as a mere adventure tale, but as an allegorical examination of the tension between empirical philosophy and religious orthodoxy. Ibn Tufayl himself made this clear in his introduction. After acknowledging the influence of Aristotle’s logic on Islamic thought, he critiques previous Muslim philosophers Al-Farabi and Ibn Bajjah (a fellow Andalusian) who sought to resolve the search for truth with the certainty of faith. He further acknowledges his indebtedness to physician Ibn Sina, dubbing him “prince of philosophers.” Yet foremost in his inventory is the man he simply calls “our teacher,” al-Ghazali. 

Hayy’s enlightenment while meditating in a cave recalled not only God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an and Plato, but also Ibn Tufayl’s own childhood.One of Islam’s most influential philosophers, al-Ghazali lived in the late 11th century, a time when Sunni Islam was being challenged by various factions from within. There were those such as Ibn Sina who advocated falsafa, a clinical rationalism that drew heavily (a bit too heavily, charged critics) on Aristotelian logic and esoteric metaphysics to explain creation, existence and revelation that left little room for miracles. At the other end of the spectrum were Sufi mystics who sought unmediated, transcendental understanding of God, beyond reason and the earthbound customs of daily Islamic life.

Al-Ghazali proposed a middle ground. While finding value in falsafa’s systematic approach, he refuted several of its conclusions. Regarding mystics, he concurred that knowledge can come through contemplation, yet he stressed the centrality of the Prophet Muhammad and God’s revelations in the Qur’an. 

Ibn Tufayl largely followed al-Ghazali’s line of thought, explained Stefan Sperl, senior lecturer in Arabic at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “He disapproved of superstitious practices and the naiveté of the kind of person who is totally uninformed and lacking in the intellectual tradition,” said Sperl. In Ibn Tufayl’s own words, those who remain “ignorant in the Sciences” make false claims to “experiencing the ultimate truth.”

This doctrine later appealed to generations of progressive, intellectual movers and shakers across Europe—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—who would look to Hayy ibn Yaqzan for inspiration. Chief among them are 14th-century Catalonian philosopher/ physician Moses Narboni, a rabbinical scholar and commentator on both Ibn Rushd and Maimonides; Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a fair-haired poster boy of the Renaissance whose Humanist manifesto, On the Dignity of Man, set the Roman Catholic Church on its ear; and Oxford don Edward Pococke, an early advocate of the study of “Arabick” and in 1636 Oxford’s first chair in the subject.

Mt first blush, Daniel Defoe and his “children’s adventure classic” may seem out of place in this intellectual company. Yet this is because popular editions of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe often have been whittled down to their bare, adventure-story bones, stripped of the philosophical passages in which Defoe’s hero ponders the natural world, asks what it means to be a Christian and examines his own relationship to God. Few readers today also realize that The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures was but the first in a trilogy of Crusoe novels that included The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe. In these, Defoe detailed Crusoe’s fortunes after being rescued, as well as his hero’s spiritual development. By the last chapter of Serious Reflections, Crusoe is no longer concerned with building rafts and scratching the sandy soil of the island for food: He is ruminating on the ascent of the human mind “to the highest and most distant regions of light.” Much like Hayy ibn Yaqzan. 

As scholar Samar Attar observed in 2007 in The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought, both men are adrift on desert islands where they learn to survive without human help or intervention. Both rely on reason and the scientific method of observation and experiment, trial and error, to gain knowledge of their natural surroundings. From there, they “progress to supernatural and divine matters.” Both question religious extremism, and both eventually befriend transplants from nearby islands—Crusoe’s Friday and Hayy’s Absal—who become protégés.

Attar was hardly the first to draw such comparisons. Bibliographies of works published over the last half-century on the topic, and more specifically on Ibn Tufayl’s influence on European thought, run to multiple, single-spaced pages. Most of these modern studies trace their pedigrees back to Antonio Pastor’s The Idea of Robinson Crusoe, published in 1930. Head of the Spanish department at King’s College London, Pastor stated in his summary opinion of Hayy ibn Yaqzan that “without exception, no Oriental work of fiction has left more remarkable traces in modern European literatures.”

Even in Defoe’s own day, literary cognoscenti were identifying Crusoe with Hayy. Alexander Pope, writing to his friend Lord Bathurst in September 1719—five months after Defoe published Robinson Crusoe—jokingly compared Bathurst’s isolation at his estate in Gloucestershire to that of “Alexander Selkirk, or the Self-taught Philosopher.” Selkirk was a real sailor, marooned on an island off the coast of Chile from 1704 to 1709, whose story is commonly cited as a contemporary inspiration for Crusoe, while “the Self-taught philosopher” was the title of a 1708 English translation of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a translation Pope is known to have had in his library. 

“The book may have been written in Arabic, but it was not an alien product within the Mediterranean and European culture,” said Sperl.

In short, it was clear that Ibn Tufayl’s story had what journalists refer to as “legs.” I set out to discover why. 

“If you are going on such a journey, you must begin in Guadix, in the eastern part of Andalusia, where Ibn Tufayl was born,” Ben-Zaken advised me. “I think there, you will find a very important piece of the puzzle.”

Mmong Europe’s highest peaks, the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains embrace the city of Guadix, an hour’s drive northeast of Granada, like a mother polar bear sheltering her cub. I rode there with Guadix native Ana Carreño, former editor of El Legado Andalusi, a magazine about Muslim heritage in Spain and the Mediterranean.

“Do you see the chimneys?” she asked, pointing to the whitewashed, bullet-shaped protrusions that studded the landscape like a legion of cartoon ghosts. These, she explained, belong to cave houses, all carved from the soft, ochre-stained soil. Several hundred of Guadix’s 25,000 residents live like this, where they enjoy cool comfort during the summer and insulated warmth through the winter. While Guadix is one of Spain’s oldest settlements, its caves date only to the eighth century, she explained, when it was an Arab trading city known as Wadi ‘Ash, from which is derived its modern Spanish name, pronounced “wah-deeks.” 

Over a rustic snack of olives and roasted peppers drenched in golden Spanish olive oil, Carreño introduced me to Manuel Aranda, owner of vacation rental caves in a nearby village and mayor (“I’m Spain’s only mayor who lives in a cave,” he delighted in pointing out) of El Valle del Zalabi, a municipality that includes Exfiliana, which according to best accounts is the actual birthplace of Ibn Tufayl, whose name has been Hispanized locally to “Abentofail.”

“Certainly, the name of Abentofail is well known here,” said Aranda, as are those of many writers, poets and painters throughout history who drew inspiration from this landscape.

“We are 1000 meters above sea level, in this unique and dramatic natural setting, surrounded by mountains, fertile plains and desert. Even the light seems different here,” he observed.

Such a setting, added Carreño, naturally invites contemplation.

“Just as Plato’s philosopher ascends from the darkness of the cave and emerges into the light, so too Hayy ascends through various stages of understanding, through experimentation and contemplation, to arrive at an understanding of God.”  —Antonio Enrique
tom verde
“Just as Plato’s philosopher ascends from the darkness of the cave and emerges into the light, so too Hayy ascends through various stages of understanding, through experimentation and contemplation, to arrive at an understanding of God.” 

—Antonio Enrique

“Growing up here, you always wondered what was on the other side of the mountains,” she mused. “It is a place that is so inviting to meditation that it’s hardly surprising it influenced so many poets and philosophers.”

Later, we looked up modern poet Antonio Enrique, founder of Guadix’s monthly Abentofail Poetry Workshop. He believes it is no coincidence that Hayy ibn Yaqzan finds his enlightenment in a cave. The setting recalls not only Ibn Tufayl’s childhood hometown, but also both the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation in the cave at Mt. Hira, near Makkah, and Plato’s allegorical cave, in which the idealized philosopher comes to understand the true nature of reality.

“The predominant Andalusian thought at that time was Platonism,” said Enrique. Existence was regarded as emanating from a single source, the “One,” with whom the soul, through the intellect, may be reunited. 

“Just as Plato’s philosopher ascends from the darkness of the cave and emerges into the light, so too Hayy ascends through various stages of understanding, through experimentation and contemplation, to arrive at an understanding of God,” said Enrique.

How Ibn Tufayl came to know and write about such lofty concepts had to do not only with Guadix, but also with his family background, education, the times into which he was born, and a bit of historical luck. A descendant of the prominent Qais tribe that harked back to the Arabian Peninsula, Ibn Tufayl was born around 1116. While details of his education are scant, much of what is known about him comes from the pen of the 13th-century Moroccan historian Abdelwahid al-Marrakushi, who wrote that Ibn Tufayl “studied under a number of those most accomplished” and was among al-Andalus’s “most versatile scholars.” He also had interest “in reconciling [the fields of] philosophical knowledge and [religious] law.” 

Ibn Tufayl’s first big break came in 1147—he would have recently turned 30—when he traveled to Marrakesh with Ibn Milhan, former ruler of Guadix. Both an able administrator and a skilled engineer, Ibn Milhan had been summoned by the Almohad caliph ‘Abd al-Mu’min to supervise construction of the irrigation system for the royal gardens. Why Ibn Tufayl tagged along is unclear, but while at court, he impressed the caliph, who appointed him personal secretary to his son Abu Sa’id. After al-Mu’min’s death in 1163, Ibn Tufayl returned to the court as a personal physician for the succeeding caliph, Abu Ya’qub Yusuf, a post he held until the caliph’s death in 1184. During this time he gained a reputation in science, mathematics and medicine. 

In the last years of his life, wrote al-Marrakushi, his “preoccupation … was with spiritual knowledge at the expense of all else, and he was anxious to reconcile philosophy and religion.” He began writing Hayy, and it was at the right time and in the right place, but only just.

Under the Almohads, philosophy was, in general, frowned upon. Fortunately for Ibn Tufayl, Abu Ya’qub Yusuf was altogether unlike his two predecessors. “He continually gathered books from all corners of Spain and North Africa and sought out knowledgeable men, especially thinkers, until he gathered more than any previous king in the west,” wrote al-Marrakushi. So taken was the caliph with Ibn Tufayl “that he stayed with him in the palace, night and day, not coming out for days at a time.”

“Dixit Abubacher” (“Abubacer [Ibn Tufayl] said”) begins a passage of this copy, now in the library at the University of Genoa, of the first Latin translation of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, produced in 1493 by either Pico della Mirandola or his teacher, Yohanan Alemanno.
tom verde / university of genoa library
“Dixit Abubacher” (“Abubacer [Ibn Tufayl] said”) begins a passage of this copy, now in the library at the University of Genoa, of the first Latin translation of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, produced in 1493 by either Pico della Mirandola or his teacher, Yohanan Alemanno.

Abu Ya’qub Yusuf relocated his Andalusian capital from Córdoba to Seville and there, today, Rafael Valencia is a professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Seville, where the broad and timeless themes of Hayy ibn Yaqzan make it required reading.

“What you find in Hayy ibn Yaqzan is not only Muslim knowledge or Arab knowledge, but universal, human knowledge,” Valencia said.

Beyond the allegorical text of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, another major symbol of Hayy’s journey—and thus of Ibn Tufayl’s philosophy—can be understood by looking up inside one of Spain’s most treasured bits of historic real estate, located east, in Granada: the Alhambra.

Walking in the company of art historian José Miguel Puerta Vilchez, a founding member and vice president of the Almeria-based Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes (Ibn Tufayl Foundation for Arabic Studies), I had my eyes opened to the symbolism crafted into the building’s textured walls and ceilings. As we entered the Hall of the Comares (known also as The Throne Room), Vilchez drew my attention to the ceiling.

“There is an astral dimension to this ceiling, which evokes the order of the cosmos,” said Vilchez, pointing to the lace-like, geometric pattern of 8,017 polygonal pieces of red, green and white painted wood panels that are arranged in seven concentric corbels, culminating in an octagon with a center of the purest white, outshining the rest.

“Ibn Tufayl relates the story of Hayy in a series of seven seven-year periods, so the number seven is very present and important in his work,” said Vilchez. “Here in the Comares ceiling, we can find not only the seven heavens, but also the Neo-Platonic theory of emanation that was so central to Hayy ibn Yaqzan.” 

Ibn Tufayl’s predominant idea was that human wisdom can come to apprehend its own divine source.Though constructed two centuries after the publication of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the deeply symbolic architectural poetry of the Alhambra, said Vilchez, nonetheless represents an earthly expression of the book’s predominant idea: that human wisdom, through a process of determined self-awareness and self-examination, may come to know the divine source of that wisdom. 

In 1492, the Alhambra and Granada fell to the armies of Ferdinand ii of Aragon and Isabella i of Castile. Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, was no more.  Yet even as these Christian armies marched south, the ideas behind Ibn Tufayl’s little novel were migrating north, seeding the intellectual garden of late medieval Western thought.

Barcelona’s historic “call,” or Jewish quarter, is a concentric warren of medieval stone, as tightly packed and self-contained as a set of Russian dolls. A stroll through its narrow streets, wedged between towering, gray, blank-faced facades, is a soothing change of pace from the frenzy of the city’s famed pedestrian walkway, La Rambla, just a few blocks west. But during the mid-14th century, these streets—even in the best of times—were anything but quiet or peaceful.

“There was lots of activity here. The call had many butcher shops, bakeries, fishmongers, weavers, merchants—all serving the needs of Barcelona’s Jewish community, which was the largest in all of Aragon,” said Eulalia Vernet, an educator with the Call Interpretive Center. 

“But the centers of ritualistic life, and the settings for intellectual debates, were the synagogues,” Vernet said, as we paused beside the site of the call’s smallest, the aptly named Sinagoga Poca (“Small Synagogue”), now a Christian chapel. 

Among the more contentious debates that rocked this and other synagogues during the 14th century was the so-called Controversia de Maimonides, or Maimonidean controversy. Named for the 12th-century Córdoban Jewish philosopher and rationalist Moses Maimonides, the controversy posed questions that bore striking similarities to those raised by Ibn Tufayl: To what extent is rationalism an acceptable path to understanding God, and at what point does it spill over into heresy? On one side were advocates of Maimonides, many centered to the north in Perpignan, in what is now southern France, who sought to harmonize Judaism with Aristotelian rationalism. On the other were orthodox supporters of Barcelona’s chief rabbi, who shared the concern that such thinking led Jews astray from faith. 

Joining this controversy was a Jewish philosopher and doctor from Perpignan, Moses Narboni. He arrived in Barcelona in 1348, entering the call through its eastern gate, a hundred meters (yards) or so from where Vernet and I stood. Fluent in Latin, Castilian and Provençal French, reading both Hebrew and Arabic, Narboni began studying Maimonides at age 13, pursued medicine and wrote Biblical and philosophical commentaries. He refuted Maimonides’s Neo-Platonism in favor of Aristotle’s scientific doctrines. His arguments followed lines familiar to both Ibn Tufayl’s predecessor, Ibn Bajjah, and successor, Ibn Rushd. In a later commentary on Ibn Rushd, Narboni declared his intention to write a commentary on Hayy ibn Yaqzan in order to examine “the regime of solitude” as a means to “communion with God.” 

Some scholars have attributed the first Hebrew translation of Hayy to Narboni, although others question the proficiency of his Arabic. In either case, he worked from a Hebrew translation that might well have been readily available in the city that, during the mid-14th century, was one of several havens for Andalusian Jewish scholars fleeing the persecution that, under the Almohads, stood in stark contrast to the tolerance they had experienced under the previous Almoravid regime.

“To Catalonia and Provence, to Barcelona, Girona and Narbonne, came many Jewish intellectuals from Andalusia who translated the works of the Arab physicians, philosophers and astronomers into Hebrew,” said Silvia Planas, co-author of A History of Jewish Catalonia. It was not surprising, Planas told me, that Narboni would choose Barcelona as the place to write his commentary, which he called Yehiel Ben-Uriel (Long Live God, Son of the Vigilant God). 

In it, Narboni beseeched God to metaphorically “conduct him to the isle of felicity”—meaning Hayy’s island. In his estimation, Hayy ibn Yaqzan provided an “explanation of the nature of the apprehension achieved when man’s [earthly] intellect is conjoined with the active [eternal, Divine] intellect.” He concluded that Ibn Tufayl proved that such “conjunction” was possible if the person seeking it can, by reason and methodical effort, drown out the clamor of society. 

Yehiel Ben-Uriel became something of a best-seller in Narboni’s own lifetime and thereafter, considering that more copies of it survive than any of his other works. Among them is a heavily marked-up edition that belonged to an Italian Jewish humanist from Constantinople named Yohanan Alemanno, who found himself in Florence in the late 15th century. Like many teacher-scholars of his generation, he was in search of employment, scrounging for crumbs at the tables of the fabulously wealthy Florentine banking families. Among Alemanno’s pupils was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a handsome young aristocrat and a favorite of the city’s ruler and patron of the arts, Lorenzo de Medici. One of the earliest of the Renaissance humanists and philosophers, Pico shared many interests with his teacher, including a fondness for a book to which Alemanno introduced him: Hayy ibn Yaqzan.

Learned in Greek, Roman, Jewish and Islamic sources, Florentine humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola saw in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan a compact allegory for the essential roles of self-discipline and observation in the search for truth.
wikimedia commons
Learned in Greek, Roman, Jewish and Islamic sources, Florentine humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola saw in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan a compact allegory for the essential roles of self-discipline and observation in the search for truth.

Rain pelted the streets of Florence as I orbited Il Duomo, the city’s landmark cathedral, a symphony of jade and ivory marble rising to the terra-cotta crescendo of Brunelleschi’s famous dome. Crossing the neighboring Piazza della Signoria, I gave the replica of Michelangelo’s David a nod (the original was moved indoors in 1873) on my way to another of Florence’s attractions, the Ufizzi Palace and Gallery. 

I was searching for the Ufizzi’s portrait of Pico. Hanging nearly out of sight at ceiling level, across the hall from one of the museum’s star attractions, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Pico doesn’t attract many admirers these days. But at one time, this youth with chestnut locks tumbling from his cherry-red, felt cap commanded the attention of popes and princes, some of whom considered him a genius; others, a heretic.

The son of a northern Italian feudal lord, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was born in 1463. A child prodigy, he began studying canon law at age 10 in Bologna, followed by a classical, Scholastic education—Latin, Greek, Plato and Aristotle—at the best schools and universities of Padua, Rome and Paris. Eager to expand his horizons, he added Ibn Rushd, as well as Arabic and Hebrew. 

In the opening sentence of his most famous work, De Hominis Dignitate (Oration on the Dignity of Man), he blended his humanistic devotion to the classical Greek maxim that “man is the measure of all things” with his respect for Islamic learning: “I have read in the records of the Arabians, reverend Fathers, that Abdala the Saracen, when questioned as to what stage of the world, as it were, could be seen most worthy of wonder, replied ‘There is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man.’”

Although it was Pico’s reputation as a humanist that endeared him to his patron, Lorenzo, in 1486 the Oration raised eyebrows at the Vatican for its sympathetic recognition of a wide range of religious beliefs, from Islam to the occult. Only Lorenzo’s influence kept Pico out of prison, and it wasn’t until 1493, a year after Lorenzo’s death, that Pico was officially pardoned. This same year, he produced—or perhaps he had Alemanno produce—the first translation of Hayy ibn Yaqzan into Latin.

A contemporaneous copy of this original, written in a spidery hand, its ink faded brown with age, now resides at the University of Genoa, which I visited the next day. Carefully turning the creaking, parchment leaves, I noted the Latin phrase, “Dixit Abubacher (“Abubacer [Ibn Tufayl] said”), prefacing numerous paragraphs. 

The first Latin translation of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan in England was published in 1671 in this volume of facing Latin-Arabic pages by Edward Pococke, Jr., using an Arabic volume acquired in the 1630’s in Aleppo by his father, Edward Pococke, Sr. It would appear in English in 1703, just 16 years before Defoe’s Crusoe.
bodleian library / tom verde 
The first Latin translation of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan in England was published in 1671 in this volume of facing Latin-Arabic pages by Edward Pococke, Jr., using an Arabic volume acquired in the 1630’s in Aleppo by his father, Edward Pococke, Sr. It would appear in English in 1703, just 16 years before Defoe’s Crusoe.

Later, I dropped by the office of Stefano Pittaluga, professor of medieval and humanistic Latin literature. He told me that Pico’s desire to read and own a book like Hayy ibn Yaqzan, with its heady blend of Neo-Platonic, scientific and mystical themes, made perfect sense during an age when human knowledge, creativity and intuition occupied center stage.

“In the second half of the 15th century, there was a strong interest in sapientistic texts,” said Pittaluga. “Of all the humanists, Pico was one who was most interested in trying to find connections between kabbalah, or mysticism, and Christianity.”

This is where Alemanno stepped in. An authority on kabbalah, he also wrote a “supercommentary” (a commentary on a commentary) on Narboni’s edition of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, from which Pico’s Latin text was translated. So inspired was Alemanno by Hayy that he mimicked its theme and title in his own magnum opus, Hai ha-Olamin (The Immortal), which explored the attainment of perfection, or union with God, through a study of Arab and Jewish science and philosophy. (In the autobiographical section of the text, he paid further homage to Hayy by dividing the story of his own life into seven-year cycles.) 

Alemanno’s influence—and thereby Ibn Tufayl’s—can also be read in Pico’s Heptaplus, a commentary on the Biblical book of Genesis. Here, he concluded that humans—after living lives of rigorous scientific and spiritual reflection—are destined to rise above this world and enjoy reunion with the Divine.

“This is our whole reward,” he declared, employing the same Neo-Platonic terminology as Ibn Tufayl, “that from every imperfection … we are brought back to unity by an indissoluble bond with him who is himself the One.”

While’s Pico’s own path to divine reunification in 1494 may have been less than blissful (rumors persist that he was poisoned by jealous rivals), his impact, and thereby Ibn Tufayl’s, soon extended beyond Florence and the Italian peninsula.

In England, philosopher and statesman Thomas More looked to Pico’s fascination with Hayy as he developed his own theories on mankind’s relationship to God, nature and society. Some have identified analogous, autodidactic themes in More’s 1516 classic Utopia, a political and philosophical tale of an ideal civilization, which he just so happened to set on an island, cut off from corrupting influences from the outside world. Meanwhile, England’s Francis Bacon, regarded as the father of empiricism, also conceived of a mythical island in his own utopian novel, New Atlantis. With an eye to both Heptaplus and Hayy, Bacon envisioned an insular society in which the religiously devout inhabitants are also devoted to the pursuit of pure, scientific knowledge. Located at the “very eye of this kingdom” is “Salomon’s House,” an institution that anticipated the modern research university, and in 1660 inspired the establishment of England’s Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The Society, among whose early presidents was Isaac Newton, chose as its motto a shorthand version of one of Pico’s favored, autodidactic advisos of the Roman poet Horace, “Nullius in verba.” Rough translation: “Don’t take anyone’s word for it.”

In France, the father of rationalism, René Descartes, born in 1596, was distilling Ibn Tufayl when he famously declared that existence existed because he did: “I think, therefore I am.” A generation later, Voltaire chose an Edenic paradise as the birthplace of his naïve optimist Candide. The eponymous hero of his novel Zadig, a pioneer of the scientific method, also bears resemblance to Hayy, while the plot is derived from a Persian tale set in none other than Serendib, another early name for Sri Lanka, the suggested model for Hayy’s island.

In Spain, the protagonist of Jesuit philosopher Balthasar Gracian’s allegorical novel Criticon (The Critic), published in the mid-1650’s, is nursed by a “beast” and spends the first half of his life isolated in an island cave, ignorant of human civilization. He later finds society vapid, and he relies instead on nature to reveal God’s truths. While modern critics have debated to what degree Gracian actually drew upon Hayy’s story, English historian Paul Rycaut, who in 1681 translated the Criticon into English, conjectured that “the Author of this book might originally have deduced his fancy from the History of Hai Ebn Yakdhan wrote in Arabick by Ebn Tophail.” (Nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would later credit Criticon as a major influence; that in turn would trickle down into the writings of his own intellectual descendants: Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus.)

“No matter how much these thinkers differ,” observed Attar, “it is clear that they ... inherited some basic formulations” from Ibn Tufayl, in laying the foundations for what Europe would later call its Age of Enlightenment. It was an age, as Immanuel Kant wrote, when mankind, like Hayy, gained “the courage and determination to rely on one’s own understanding.” It was also the age of Daniel Defoe.

There is no firm evidence that the commercially and socially ambitious Daniel Defoe actually owned a copy of Ibn Tufayl’s tale. Yet it stands to reason that at the very least, he would have been conversant with the book that was an Enlightenment-era equivalent of an Oprah selection.
universal history archive / bridgeman art library
There is no firm evidence that the commercially and socially ambitious Daniel Defoe actually owned a copy of Ibn Tufayl’s tale. Yet it stands to reason that at the very least, he would have been conversant with the book that was an Enlightenment-era equivalent of an Oprah selection.

Defoe was not a gentleman, but he longed to be one. Born the son of a London butcher around 1660, Daniel Foe later added the “De” to his family name, claiming some vaguely aristocratic ancestry. The Foes were “Dissenters,” also known as Puritans or “nonconformists,” Protestants who rejected the Church of England’s hierarchy along with some doctrines, and this affiliation further rendered Defoe an outsider. After a dismal career as a merchant (his books were rarely balanced), a rockier one as a journalist (his radical writing landed him in jail) and a spy for whichever side (liberal or conservative) was in power, he turned in his late 50’s to writing fiction. Pandering to his social-climbing ambitions, and with a large family to support, he bought a manor house on the outskirts of London in Stoke Newington, a sanctuary for wealthy nonconformists whose religious beliefs barred them from owning property inside the city. There, he sat down to write his first and most famous novel. His plot: A castaway on a tropical island whose isolation and intuition lead him to religious truth.

The house is now gone, as I discovered. It has been replaced by a 19th-century series of brick flats and storefronts on the corner of the High Street and what has been named “Defoe Road.” His only other connection with the location is an English Heritage blue plaque on the building—not counting the eponymous pub across the street and the tire store around the corner.

Though he lived in what was then countryside as he wrote Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, Defoe still kept his ear tuned to the buzz from London, which was not hard to hear. Much of it concerned the ongoing religious strife between Dissenters and conservative Anglicans, and the contentious Acts of Union of 1707, joining the hitherto separate governments of England and Scotland (a story that Defoe covered as a journalist). Another hot topic was the wariness of the English monarchy and mercantile class toward the encroaching political and economic power of the Ottoman Empire in southern and eastern Europe, even as they sought diplomatic and trade relations with Istanbul. A popular venue for these discussions was a recent commercial enterprise with roots in that rival empire: the coffeehouse.

“Just like today, you went there to drink coffee, but primarily to talk to other people and read newspapers,” said Markman Ellis, author of The Coffee House: A Cultural History and professor of Eighteenth Century Studies in the English Department at Queen Mary University of London. “They were also absolutely essential to the commercial function of the city. Lloyd’s of London, for example, began as a coffeehouse, where proprietor Edward Lloyd posted news of the arrivals of ships for his customers interested in shipping and marine insurance. News of the Ottoman Empire would also have been central because of the siege of Vienna in 1683. So the question of the empire’s continued expansion would have been on people’s minds.”

Of equal importance, Ellis told me, was the desire to know how the empire became so rich and powerful.

“There was a geopolitical aspect to their interest,” he observed. “They wanted to know more about the Ottomans, and this included curiosity about Islam and Islamic knowledge.”

Among the scraps of such knowledge was a book published in Oxford in 1671. Printed in Latin and Arabic on facing pages, its cumbersome title read (in part), Philosophus autodidacticus, sive, Epistola Abi Jaafar ebn Tophail de Hai ebn Yokdhan (The self-taught philosopher, or Epistle of Abu Ja’afar Ibn Tufayl concerning Hayy Ibn Yaqzan). The subtitle spelled out the nuts and bolts: “In which it is demonstrated by what means human reason can ascend from contemplation of the inferior to knowledge of the superior.”

Almost as good a publicist as he was a scholar, the senior Edward Pococke sent his son’s translation to all and sundry among Europe’s educated elite, creating a best-seller.
bodleian library
Almost as good a publicist as he was a scholar, the senior Edward Pococke sent his son’s translation to all and sundry among Europe’s educated elite, creating a best-seller.

The book was translated by Edward Pococke, under the supervision of his father, esteemed Oxford Arabist Edward Pococke. The senior Pococke had encountered the text 40 years earlier, when he purchased a 14th-century Arabic copy of Hayy in Aleppo, while serving as chaplain there for the Levant Company, an English trading outfit chartered by Queen Elizabeth i. Pococke lived in the company’s regional headquarters, a funduq in Arabic, that had a “sizeable library … [where] the chaplains had ample time to devote to research, to exploration and to collecting manuscripts and other antiquities,” according to scholar Alastair Hamilton in his essay “The English Interest in the Arabic-Speaking Christians.” Indeed, as Hamilton observed, “Some of the first English collections of Arabic and Syriac manuscripts were made by men who had worked at Aleppo.”

In addition to gratifying his own appetite for Arabic literature, Pococke snapped up Hayy and other books at the behest of his friend and benefactor William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also the man who later appointed him to the Arabic chair at Oxford. In a letter to Pococke in 1631, Laud asked his friend to buy “such manuscripts, either in Greek or the Oriental languages as in [your] judgement may best befit an university library.”

The university library Laud had in mind was Oxford’s Bodleian, where Pococke’s donations are today among the institution’s rich assortment of Middle Eastern and Islamic manuscripts. Its curator, Alasdair Watson, was kind enough to exhume the medieval copy of Hayy together with Pococke Jr.’s first edition, and he let me thumb through both. In that 14th-century original, the hand is meticulous, marred only here and there by a later reader’s accidental smudge and the elder Pococke’s notations. 

“It is in a very fine, beautiful script, not careless in any way,” Watson remarked. Equally well preserved was the Philosophus autodidacticus, with its verso Latin and recto Arabic pages lying opposite one another, quite like the cultural regions of the medieval world the languages themselves represented. 

To men like the Pocockes, exposure to Arabic texts helped create necessary bridges between East and West.To men like the Pocockes, exposure to Arabic texts helped create necessary bridges between East and West. Demand for texts, and for knowledge of Arabic, as Laud’s request indicated, was already building. As scholar G. A. Russell observed in The ‘Arabick’ Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, the primacy of the Bible “as the source of doctrine” among Protestants “led to the importance of textual accuracy for theological interpretation,” which meant being able to read Hebrew as well as Arabic, its close grammatical and lexical cousin. For secular scholars, access to ancient Greek medical, scientific and technical texts translated into Arabic during the Middle Ages was also essential. Lastly, as any Levant Company merchant stationed in Aleppo, Istanbul, Cairo or elsewhere in the Middle East would attest, proficiency in Arabic was simply good for business. A generation later, Simon Ockley, fifth chair of Arabic at Cambridge and a student of the elder Pococke, scolded: “Shame on us, a nation famous throughout the world for our pursuit of learning, that we should have so few scholars dedicating themselves earnestly to these studies.” 

The publication in England of Hayy ibn Yaqzan was about to change all of that. Almost as good a publicist as he was a scholar, Pococke wasted no time in circulating his son’s book among his fellow Orientalists on the Continent. He also sent it to members of the Royal Society and scientists abroad.

Defoe attributed authorship of the book, published in 1719, to Crusoe himself. Subsequently, Defoe added two more volumes for a trilogy, below, left. 
de agostini picture library / bridgeman art library
Defoe attributed authorship of the book, published in 1719, to Crusoe himself. Subsequently, Defoe added two more volumes for a trilogy, below, left. 

The book was a hit. In a letter to Pococke, the secretary to the British Embassy in Paris regretted he did not have more copies to distribute. Scholars visiting Oxford begged Pococke for copies on behalf of colleagues and luminaries abroad who heard of it. A Swiss scholar studying under Pococke asked for a copy for a French bishop who upon “hearing of the book … impatiently expected it,” according to Pococke’s biographer, Leonard Twells.  

Not surprisingly, more translations and editions followed, beginning with a Dutch translation published in Amsterdam in 1672, followed by a second Dutch edition in 1701. Many have speculated that the rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza was the translator. Two years later, Scotsman George Keith used Pococke’s Arabic-Latin edition to produce the first English translation—which had its faults. In one significant blunder, Keith mistranslated the Arabic zabya (doe) as “she-goat,” an error further amplified by illustrations depicting young Hayy suckled by a goat. Attar and Baroud suggest that Defoe may have consulted one of these editions because Crusoe is sustained by, among other creatures, a herd of goats. 

Nonetheless, Keith, a prominent Quaker, found in Hayy’s tale many “profitable things agreeable to Christian principles,” as he wrote in his introduction. Not least of these was the way Ibn Tufayl “showeth excellently how far the knowledge of man whose eyes are spiritually opened, differeth from that knowledge that men acquire simply by hear-say, or reading.” This line of thinking—a line that extended directly back through Pico to Narboni, Ibn Tufayl and his own intellectual predecessors—aligned with the Quaker belief in the doctrine of Inner (or Inward) Light, that is, “saving Light and grace,” which shines within every human being, as Keith’s colleague, Robert Barclay, put it. In his Apology For The True Christian Divinity, an early Quaker manifesto, Barclay singled out and praised the story “translated out of the Arabick … of one Hai Ebn Yokdan who, without converse of man, living in an Island alone, attained to such a profound knowledge of God, as to have immediate converse with him, and to affirm, that the best and most certain knowledge of God is not that, which is attained by premises premised, and conclusions deduced, but that, which is enjoyed by conjunction of the mind of man, with the supreme Intellect.”

Beyond the many plot similarities, Crusoe’s reflections deeply echo Hayy’s.Though not himself a professed Quaker, Defoe was educated in a Quaker school at Newington Green, just down the road from the house in Stoke Newington, and he counted Quakers among his friends and neighbors. If he did not read Keith’s translation of Hayy, he might well have been familiar with a later English translation by Catholic vicar George Ashwell, or Ockley’s, published in 1708, 11 years prior to the publication of Robinson Crusoe. Liberally lifting from the younger Pococke’s original, substantial subtitle, Ockley’s own read: “The improvement of human reason … in which is demonstrated by what methods one may, by the mere light of nature, attain the knowledge of things natural and supernatural; more particularly the knowledge of God.”

This was not only a Quaker credo, but also a fundamental principle of the Enlightenment that spoke to the key issues of the day: the rational inquiry into the nature of existence and the role of religion in society. Numerous scholars have pointed out that it is no coincidence that John Locke, who was tutor to the junior Pococke and one of era’s most influential philosophers, began working on his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” the same year Philosophus autodidacticus was published. A seminal document in the history of modern empiricism, Locke’s “Essay” views the human mind—like Hayy himself—as a blank slate at birth, which develops gradually through the accumulation of experience. Later Enlightenment thinkers, such as David Hume and George Berkeley, drew upon the essay when forming their own philosophies. 

As for Defoe’s own exposure to these ideas via the Philosophus autodidacticus, there is in fact no hard evidence that he owned a personal copy. Still, as Nawal Muhammad Hassan, author of Hayy Bin Yaqzan and Robinson Crusoe: A Study of an Early Arabic Impact on English Literature, pointed out, both Rycaut’s Criticon and another Ockley title, A History of the Saracens, were on Defoe’s library shelf. Considering the desire of the butcher’s son to be accepted in society and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with literati, it stands to reason that he would have been conversant with Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a book that by all accounts was the Enlightenment-era equivalent of an Oprah selection. 

william reese company / abebooks.com
Defoe added two more volumes for a trilogy.

To be sure, Defoe was also inspired by popular, contemporaneous, first-hand survival narratives. In addition to Selkirk’s tale, there was Robert Knox, a trader taken captive in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1660, and Henry Pitman, a 17th-century English doctor stranded on a Caribbean island, both of whom have been proposed as models for Crusoe. These made for juicy reading, and Defoe the pragmatist would have been keenly aware of their commercial appeal. 

But for Robinson Crusoe to endure as it has—to have earned the respect of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who regarded Crusoe as “representative of humanity in general,” and Rousseau, whose self-taught Emile is weaned exclusively on the novel as a child, and Virginia Woolf, who declared that Crusoe “persuades us to see remote islands and the solitudes of the human soul”—there must have been something deeper going on in Defoe’s mind. The steady stream of subsequent scholarship on the question of Defoe’s major sources, while not conclusive, points unrelentingly in the direction of Ibn Tufayl.

Beyond the many mechanical plot similarities between Hayy and Robinson Crusoe—the cave-shelter, the animal-skin clothing, the Absal/Friday secondary character—Crusoe’s philosophical reflections deeply echo those of Hayy. Sitting on his isolated beach, gazing at the sea, Crusoe asked the same questions Hayy and all philosophers before and after have posed:

What is this earth and sea, of which I have seen so much? Whence is it produced? And what am I, and all the other creatures, wild and tame, human and brutal? Whence are we?

Sure we are all made by some secret power, who formed the earth and sea, the air and sky—And who is that? Then it followed most naturally,—It is God that has made it all.  

Tom Verde Tom Verde is a regular contributor to Saudi Aramco World. His January/February 2013 history of pasta won a best-in-category award from Folio: magazine. For this article, he extends special thanks to the Italian Government Tourist Board, the Tourist Office of Spain, the Seville Tourism Board, the University of Genoa and the Bodleian Library.

This article appeared on page 2 of the print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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