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In the 1630’s, a young English chaplain named Edward Pococke found himself in the city of Aleppo during his travels through the Levant, where he chanced upon an Arabic treatise titled Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, literally, “Alive Son of Awake.” The treatise, a “novel” composed by the 12th century Islamic philosopher Ibn Ṭufayl, concerns a man named Ḥayy who grows up on an island somewhere near the equator in complete seclusion from human society. Despite lacking any instruction in revealed religion, Ḥayy nevertheless comes to deduce the existence of God through contemplating his physical surroundings and making use of his of own reasoning. Sometime after 1671, having assumed a professorship in Arabic at Oxford University, Pococke published a Latin translation of the treatise entitled Philosophus Autodidactus, that is, The Autodidactic Philosopher; an English translation from the Latin followed in 1708 at the hand of Simon Ockley. It has been argued that these translations significantly impacted English Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, although it can hardly be said that the original author, Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn ‹Abd al-Malik ibn Muḥammad ibn Ṭufayl al-Qaysī (or simply “Ibn Ṭufayl”) had such an audience in mind while composing it.
Ibn Ṭufayl was born in the city of Wādī Ash (modern-day Cadiz) in the southern Spanish province of Granada, which at that time (the first decade of the 12th Century) was subject to Islamic rule. We lack details of his education, although he would emerge a polymath adept at several disciplines, medicine and astronomy among them. Through his erudition, Ibn Ṭufayl became associated with numerous courts in Andalusia, which evinced an eclectic taste for philosophy in its myriad forms. Ibn Ṭufayl is recorded jesting that, “If they [the court] are in market for musical theory, I can supply it!” But it was primarily thanks to his medical knowledge that he secured a post at the Granadan court, namely as a physician, although he subsequently added a secretarial post to his portfolio. Later, at the court of the Almohads (Ar. al-Muwaḥḥidūn, r. 1121-1269), Ibn Ṭufayl continued these two tracks with the addition of a judgeship.
One highly-disputed report maintains that he even rose to vizier under the second Almohad ruler Abū Ya‹qūb Yūsuf (r. 1163-1184). But regardless of the accuracy of this claim, all sources agree that he enjoyed Abū Ya‹qūb’s respect and companionship. Ibn Ṭufayl was responsible for introducing another prominent philosopher, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), to the Almohad court (as per the latter himself), nominating his younger colleague to replace him as court physician upon his retirement therefrom. Ibn Ṭufayl was furthermore the one who arranged Averroes’ commission to pen commentaries on Aristotle’s works, commentaries that would subsequently win him great fame, particularly in the Latin West, where Thomas Aquinas and others would later hail him as The Commentator. Ibn Ṭufayl had first been approached for this task, but refused since he was committed to the project of reconciling scriptural religion and philosophy – hence Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān.
In addition to this novel, Ibn Ṭufayl produced two treatises on medicine and a number on astronomy. Unfortunately, none of his astronomical writings have come down to us, although we know from references to him by his colleagues and students that he exercised a great influence upon the astronomical discourse of that era. We can reconstruct that he was critical of Ptolemaic conceptions of the cosmos, in particular the theories of the epicycles and eccentric circles, criticisms that would encourage later thinkers to further deconstruct the traditional Greek models of an Earth-centered universe.
Ibn Ṭufayl died in 1185 in Marrakesh, Morocco, with the Almohad ruler in attendance at his funeral.
Written by Sadegh Ansari, Ph.D. candidate, Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS), Columbia University
Carra de Vaux, B. “Ibn Ṭufayl.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, April 24, 2012
Corbin, Henry. History of Islamic Philosophy. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1993
Goodman, Lenn E. “Ibn Ṭufayl” in Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Oliver Leaman, eds. History of Islamic Philosophy. Routledge History of World Philosophies, v. 1. London ; New York: Routledge, 1996
Russel, G.A. “The Impact of the Philosophus Autodidactus: Pocockes, John Locke, and the Society of Friends” in Russell, G. A., ed. The “Arabick” Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England. Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History, v. 47. Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill, 1994
Toomer, G. J. Eastern Wisedome and Learning : The Study of Arabic in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996