Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl (ca. 1110-1185) was a Spanish Moslem philosopher and physician, author of the celebrated allegorical tale "Hayy Ibn Yaqzan."

Known to medieval Christian scholastics as Abubacer (from Abu Bakr), Ibn Tufayl was born in the town known in modern times as Guadix near Granada. He was trained as a physician but also followed the career of a government functionary, serving as secretary to the governors of Granada, and later of Ceuta and Tangier in North Africa (1154). Ultimately, he became court physician to the Almohad sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who ruled in Marrakesh from 1163 to 1184.

Ibn Tufayl used his considerable influence at court to forward the career of the young Averroës; the Sultan seems to have taken a lively interest in philosophy, and Averroës wrote his commentary on Aristotle at the Almohad court, encouraged by Ibn Tufayl. After the latter's retirement as court physician, Averroës took his place. Ibn Tufayl died in Marrakesh.


"Alive, Son of Awake"

Little of Ibn Tufayl's work has survived except for Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, whose title means "Alive, Son of Awake," although medieval Arabic bibliographies credit him with an additional two books on medicine and some writings on astronomy. The title is borrowed from Avicenna, but the ideas put forward in Ibn Tufayl's work are quite contrary to Avicenna's.

The setting of the narrative is an island in the Indian Ocean, inhabited solely by a youth named Hayy, who grew up there quite alone, suckled as a child only by a gazelle, and completely cut off from humanity. Despite this cultural deprivation, Hayy stays alive and even thinks through and evolves a system of philosophy and metaphysics of the most refined order. Through fasting and meditation, moreover, he seeks and attains mystical experiences.

Ibn Tufayl then introduces into the narrative a devout man named Asal, from a neighboring island, who is seeking an uninhabited retreat from the world. He meets Hayy, teaches him to speak, and is astonished to find that the natural youth has evolved—all untaught—a system comparable but superior to Asal's own philosophy.

Hayy and Asal return to civilization, determined that Hayy's aperçus will be shared with mankind. The attempt fails, however, and the two philosophers return to the desert island and leave the common people to the undisturbing practice of their ancestral religion.

Translated into Latin in 1671, Ibn Tufayl's work has evoked interesting speculations. Translations into English and European languages soon followed, and it has been suggested that Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which was published in 1719, may have been inspired by the English translation of 1708. The interpretations of scholars of the meaning of the allegory have varied greatly, although all agree, at least, that it is a tour de force intended to show the almost limitless capabilities of the human intellect.


Further Reading on Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl

The 1708 English translation, revised by A. S. Fulton, The History of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, by Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl (1929), presents Ibn Tufayl's philosophical romance on the "awakening of the soul." Z. A. Siddiqi, Philosophy of Ibn Tufayl (1965), is a study of Ibn Tufayl's work.