Title: Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan
Subtitle : A philosophical tale
Author : Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185)
Translator and Commentator : Lenn Evan Goodman
Language : English
ISBN: 978-0-226-30310-9

Coming from an age when perhaps, reading works of fiction would have been frowned upon as an idle pastime and diversion of the mind away from God into frivolous pursuits, comes the first Arabic novel. It is the story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, written by the philosopher Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl. The story takes many of the issues discussed among Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages and presents them in a hypothetical situation: a story about a boy – raised without human contact – on an isolated equatorial island. 

In contrast to what might be expected of a wild child, this boy does not grow into a savage creature, his mental development is not incomplete and his progress is not impaired by the absence of society. Rather, in these pristine conditions, the boy follows his own fitra and the demands of his body, develops ways to provide for his daily needs and develops a personal set of ethics to interact with his environment. He philosophizes deeply upon aspects of the world and arrives at an understanding of many things, culminating in an awareness of God. Eventually he spends nearly all his time in deep meditation upon God and reaches a sublime spiritual state. 

In the next part of the story, a pious man from a nearby civilization who is seeking solitude visits the island where Hayy lives and the story tells of how the two interact, become friends, and learn to communicate. The pious man, who appreciates the station of Hayy, convinces him to return to his civilization to be of benefit to society. However, Hayy is not appreciated by the society which cannot see beyond their inherited beliefs, rules and established ways. He eventually returns to the island where he can contemplate God with minimal distraction. This part of the story is particularly interesting in its reflection upon society and the collective mindset.  

On the one hand this story provides a profound contemplation on how a human being might develop without the influences of culture and upbringing. On the other hand it uses this tabula rasa case to show where the concepts of philosophy play a role in moving one from ignorance to deep wisdom. Since the details of Hayy’s thought processes may not be easily understood by the modern reader who is unfamiliar with medieval philosophy, a commentary may be helpful. The story can be a fun way to delve into philosophy via a story, and may help one develop an appreciation for the esoteric aspect of Islamic philosophy. Overall, the premise of the story inspires reflection on the purpose of life, the meaning behind religious teachings, the aim of religious laws, and how religion and society may hamper or aid one’s progress – depending on ones receptiveness to the truth. 

This story was originally written in the 12th Century. It was translated into Latin in 1671. The book is noteworthy because the themes it discusses and the perspectives it shares are clearly born in a context of Islamic thought with a heavy religious underpinning. Yet the book became a best-seller in Western Europe, and probably influenced classics of Western literature such as Robinson Crusoe and The Jungle Book. It is a tale that can be appreciated by thinkers everywhere. 

There have been multiple translations into English over the years. The translation featured here is a recent one by Lenn Evan Goodman, published by the University Of Chicago Press and is available in the MARC Library. The translation of the story itself is only 72 pages with the remainder of the book (total 260 pages) dedicated to everything else including prefaces, four introductory essays, and extensive endnotes.