Ibn Tufail (Abubacer)

Ibn Tufail (Latinized to Abubacer) - Most famous for Hayy ibn Yaqdhan

Ibn Tufail (Latinized to Abubacer) – “Most famous for Hayy ibn Yaqdhan”

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad ibn Tufail al-Qaisi al-Andalusi; Latinized form: Abubacer Aben Tofail; Anglicized form: Abubekar or Abu Jaafar Ebn Tophail) was an Andalusian-Arab Muslim polymath: an Arabic writer, novelist, Islamic philosopher, Islamic theologian, physician, vizier, and court official.


As a philosopher and novelist, he is most famous for writing the first philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, also known as Philosophus Autodidactus in the Western world. As a physician, he was an early supporter of dissection and autopsy, which was expressed in his novel.


Born in Guadix near Granada, he was educated by Ibn Bajjah (Avempace). He served as a secretary for the ruler of Granada, and later as vizier and physician for Abu Yaqub Yusuf, the Almohad ruler of Al-Andalus, to whom he recommended Ibn Rushd (Averroës) as his own future successor in 1169. Ibn Rushd later reports this event and describes how Ibn Tufayl then inspired him to write his famous Aristotelian commentaries.

Hayy ibn Yaqdhan:

Ibn Tufail was the author of ?ayy ibn Yaq?an, also known as “Philosophus Autodidactus” in the West, a philosophical romance and allegorical novel inspired by Avicennism and Sufism, and which tells the story of an autodidactic feral child, raised by a gazelle and living alone on a desert island, who, without contact with other human beings, discovers ultimate truth through a systematic process of reasoned inquiry. Hayy ultimately comes into contact with civilization and religion when he meets a castaway named Absal. He determines that certain trappings of religion, namely imagery and dependence on material goods, are necessary for the multitude in order that they might have decent lives. However, imagery and material goods are distractions from the truth and ought to be abandoned by those whose reason recognizes that they are distractions.

Ibn Tufail drew the name of the tale and most of its characters from an earlier work by Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Ibn Tufail’s book was neither a commentary on nor a mere retelling of Ibn Sina’s work, however, but a new and innovative work in its own right. It reflects one of the main concerns of Muslim philosophers (later also of Christian thinkers), that of reconciling philosophy with revelation. At the same time, the narrative anticipates in some ways both Robinson Crusoe and Rousseau’s Émile. It tells of a child who is nurtured by a gazelle and grows up in total isolation from humans. In seven phases of seven years each, solely by the exercise of his faculties, Hayy goes through all the gradations of knowledge. The story of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is similar to the later story of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in that a baby is abandoned on a deserted tropical island where he is taken care of and fed by a mother wolf.

Ibn Tufail’s Philosophus Autodidactus was written as a response to al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers. In the 13th century, Ibn al-Nafis later wrote the Al-Risalah al-Kamiliyyah fil Siera al-Nabawiyyah (known as Theologus Autodidactus in the West) as a response to Ibn Tufail’s Philosophus Autodidactus.

Hayy ibn Yaqdhan had a significant influence on both Arabic literature and European literature, and it went on to become an influential best-seller throughout Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The work also had a “profound influence” on both classical Islamic philosophy and modern Western philosophy. It became “one of the most important books that heralded the Scientific Revolution” and European Enlightenment, and the thoughts expressed in the novel can be found “in different variations and to different degrees in the books of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Immanuel Kant.”

A Latin translation of the work, entitled Philosophus Autodidactus, first appeared in 1671, prepared by Edward Pococke the Younger. The first English translation (by Simon Ockley) was published in 1708. These translations later inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, which also featured a desert island narrative and was the first novel in English. The novel also inspired the concept of “tabula rasa” developed in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) by John Locke, who was a student of Pococke. His Essay went on to become one of the principal sources of empiricism in modern Western philosophy, and influenced many enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume and George Berkeley. Hayy’s ideas on materialism in the novel also have some similarities to Karl Marx’s historical materialism. It also foreshadowed Molyneux’s Problem, proposed by William Molyneux to Locke, who included it in the second book of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Other European writers influenced by Philosophus Autodidactus included Gottfried Leibniz, Melchisédech Thévenot, John Wallis, Christiaan Huygens, George Keith, Robert Barclay, the Quakers, Samuel Hartlib, and Voltaire.


English translations of Hayy bin Yaqzan (in chronological order)

The improvement of human reason, exhibited in the life of Hai ebn Yokdhan, written in Arabick above 500 years ago, by Abu Jaafar ebn Tophail, newly translated from the original Arabick, by Simon Ockley. With an appendix, in which the possibility of man’s attaining the true knowledg of God, and things necessary to salvation, without instruction, is briefly consider’d. London: Printed and sold by E. Powell, 1708.

Abu Bakr Ibn Tufail, The history of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, translated from the Arabic by Simon Ockley, revised, with an introdroduction by A.S. Fulton. London: Chapman and Hall, 1929.

Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan: a philosophical tale, translated with introduction and notes by Lenn Evan Goodman. New York: Twayne, 1972.

The journey of the soul: the story of Hai bin Yaqzan, as told by Abu Bakr Muhammad bin Tufail, a new translation by Riad Kocache. London: Octagon, 1982.

Two Andalusian philosophers, translated from the Arabic with an introduction and notes by Jim Colville. London: Kegan Paul, 1999.

Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings, ed. Muhammad Ali Khalidi. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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