Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy ibn Yaqzan” had an enormous impact on the Age of Reason

Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl (d. ca.1186), a philosopher, astronomer, court official, and physician to the Almohad ruler, was the author of the philosophical tale Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Living, Son of Awake). This tale, translated into Latin in 1671, is thought to be the model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

The story Hayy ibn Yaqzan is set in twelfth-century Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) – a jewel of civilisation where people of many cultures, religions, and traditions worked together to advance knowledge. The diversity of their histories and perspectives transformed their society into a mosaic of creative expression, discussion, and debate.

Image: University of Chicago Press

The story begins in a remote uninhabited island which neighbours a larger island inhabited by people ruled by a king. The king’s sister secretly married someone she loved named Yaqzan (‘wide awake’) as the king would not permit the marriage. She gave birth to a son named Hayy (‘alive’); hence Hayy ibn Yaqzan (‘alive, son of awake’).’ Afraid that the king would discover the child, she sets him afloat on the sea on a raft that eventually arrives at the neighbouring island. The baby is discovered by a doe that provides milk for the infant and raises him. Living among the deer, the child learns to walk at the age of two years, mimicking their calls. He covers himself with feathers and noticing that the animals have protuberances for defence – beaks, claws, or horns – makes spears from sticks and with stones.

Yaqzan, the awakened
Yaqzan, the awakened. Image: Ismaili Council for Canada

When Hayy is seven years old, the doe dies. Hayy begins to express feelings, which are immediately followed by the development of intellect that will, in turn, help him determine the cause of the doe’s death. He cuts her up to find out what happened to her and discovers one heart chamber filled with clotted blood and the other empty, concluding that whatever was there had left. Similarly dissecting other animals, he deduces that the heart must contain each creature’s individual spirit – or soul.

As he grows older, he becomes reflective, unlike the animals that he lives with, and begins to question his existence. Jackson notes that “it is this process of reasoned enquiry, in total isolation from other human beings that leads Hayy into a journey for ultimate truth.”

By the age of forty-two, Hayy has a direct experience of God, and by the age of forty-nine, he has a firm grasp of the knowledge available to human beings. He first acquired the practical or the technical knowledge in order to advance to the higher theoretical knowledge.

At the age of fifty, a pious man named Absal arrives from the neighbouring island to seek isolation from others. Absal becomes eager to teach Hayy to speak, hoping to impart knowledge and religion to him. But he finds out that Hayy is already knowledgeable and that his religion is full of symbols and representations of the real Truth. Hayy recognises the truth of Absal’s religion and accepts its formal conditions.

Absal convinces Hayy to return to his civilisation to help society. When Hayy arrives at the inhabited island, he sees that civilised humans are occupied by the thoughts of riches and possessions in such a way that they are neglecting their connection with God. The people listen to Hayy at first, marvelling at his teachings, but when he rises above the literal and begins to portray things against their pre-conceived notions, they are horrified and become angry. They do not want to listen to him.

Hearing their angry comments, Hayy understands that his goal, although important, is impossible. He recognises that mystical and philosophical truths are not meant for all persons and that literalist religion is sufficient for the majority. Hayy and Absal return to the island where Hayy had learned Truth, spending the remainder of their lives there.

Ibn Tufayl divides Hayy’s self-learning into seven-year segments until age forty-nine. After learning life sciences, Hayy studies physics investigating why smoke rises, how does water turn into steam, observing the fire’s light rising towards the stars. Hayy concludes that their origin must be heavenly, further speculating that it follows the same path as the soul departing the body, similar to smoke rising. When looking at the Moon, stars, and planets, he traces their movements by walking the circumference of the island, accurately calculating their orbits. He contemplates whether all that had come from nothing or whether it always existed. His contemplation eventually leads him to the realisation of God.

Gunther notes “one major objective of Ibn Tufayl’s narrative is the depiction of an intellect-oriented pathway to knowledge…. For Ibn Tufayl, as for many classical Muslim thinkers, the human mind is God-given, as the Quran explicitly states. Moreover, the human being is not only equipped for, and capable of, but in the Quranic sense virtually obligated to make active use of such learning aids and methods as deduction, rational reasoning, analysis, inquiry, and experimentation to achieve perfection. … Ibn Tufayl advocates this rational approach in the pursuit of both secular and religious learning. In doing so, he lends credence to the fact that, in Islam, an intelligent person has not only the ability, but also the religious duty to make comprehensive and purposeful use of his or her intellectual potential to strive toward a deeper understanding of God and, at the same time, to attain human perfection — and thus happiness… Ibn Tufayl’s idea of human life and existence centres on the individual’s abilities, and desire to grow and prosper, as much as it does on the individual’s relationship with the Creator.”

Translations of Hayy ibn Yaqzan
In 1671, Edward Pococke the Younger translated Hayy ibn Yaqzan into Latin, calling it Philosophus Autodidactus (‘The Self-Taught Philosopher’). Three years later, the first English translation was done by George Keith, and another in 1686 by George Ashwell, both based on the Latin version. Simon Oakley rendered the English translation directly from the Arabic, The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan, published in 1708, followed by two more English translations; Johannes Bouwmeester translated it into Dutch.

Simon Oakley’s translation of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, dated 1708. Image: University of Michigan/Internet Archives

The story of Hayy is similar to that of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book as is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 Tarzan.

Impact of Hayy ibn Yaqzan
Scholars tell us that Hayy ibn Yaqzan had an enormous impact on the Scientific Revolution (1550-1700) and on the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (1685-1730) — a time that celebrated human reason.

Verde notes that “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…. 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” (Aramco).

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, dated 1719. Image: International League of Antiquarian Booksellers

Ibn Tufayl’s novel is also considered a precursor to the bildungsroman genre. From the German, bildungsroman, meaning ‘novel of education,’ refers to novels that deal with self-development, maturation process, namely how and why the lead character develops physically and morally.


In Islamic belief, knowledge is two-fold. There is that revealed through the Holy Prophet [Salla-llahu ‘alayhi wa- sallam] and that which man discovers by virtue of his own intellect. Nor do these two involve any contradiction, provided man remembers that his own mind is itself the creation of God. Without this humility, no balance is possible. With it, there are no barriers.”
His Highness the Aga Khan
Karachi, Pakistan, 16 March 1983

Mihajlo Božović, The Process of Civilization in Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul, Turkey
Mustafa Akyol, Opinion, “The Muslims Who Inspired Spinoza, Locke and Defoe,” The New York Times
Roy Jackson, Hayy ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Novel by Ibn Tufayl
Samar Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought, Lexington Books, 2007
Sebastian Gunther, Ibn Tufayl’s Philosophical Novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan and the Quest for Enlightenment in Classical Islam, University of Gottingen
Syed Nomanul Haq, The chimes of Hayy ibn Yaqzan: from the Divine Comedy to Robinson Crusoe and onward, Dawn
Tom Verde, “Hayy Was Here, Robinson Crusoe,” Aramco, May/June 2014

Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer at Ismailimail, although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com.

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