Alive, Son of Awake

Qantara reports that Ibn Tufayl’s 12th Century philosophical masterpiece, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (the “Arab Robinson Crusoe”) is now out in German translation. About the novel:

Ibn Tufayl tells the story of a man named Hayy ibn Yaqzan, who grows up alone on a South Sea island on the equator and, aided only by his powers of observation and his intellect, gradually investigates the nature of things – from the anatomy of animals to the attributes of God.

Medieval explanations of the world from both the Orient and the Occident often assume a knowledge of philosophical traditions – the four elements, bodily fluids, the planets, or the difference between matter and form, substance and accident.

Ibn Tufayl, on the other hand, allows his hero Hayy ibn Yaqzan to acquire all of this knowledge by himself. He demonstrates why fire, water, earth, and air must be the most fundamental elements; through dissection he discovers the etheric vehicle of the vital force, the spirit; from observations he deduces the arrangement of the celestial spheres; and he establishes the existence of the soul and the celestial intelligences.

I’m going down to the PCL tomorrow to look for it. I tried to find it once in grad school, but gave up so I can focus on thesis research. I think the only thing I wound up focusing on was not missing happy hour.

3 thoughts on “Alive, Son of Awake

  1. I came across a few articles about it when I was writing a paper on Robinson Crusoe.

    It was already available in English when Defoe wrote Crusoe, and there was some speculation that Crusoe draws partially from Ibn Tufayl’s book.

  2. Hi, Randa. These two entries (Ibn Tufayl and reading Dante’s Inferno) remind me of the similarities (Harvard might define it as plagarism) found in Dante’s work and a Muslim legend that predates it by centuries. The following comes from W.M. Watt:

    “Dante, the immortal philosopher-poet of the Renaissance, was long considered by scholars to have been an Aristotelian and a Thomist. Then, in Madrid in 1919, a certain Spanish Arabist and Christian theologian published La Escatología Musulmana en la Divina Commedia. He questioned the originality of Dante’s thesis and proceeded to demonstrate a striking parallelism between the “Divine Commedia” and Muslim legend, an agreement both in essentials of plan and in numerous particulars. Action, allegorical purpose, the concept of astronomical architecture of heaven and the spheres, the didactic moral, and many literary devices were revealed to be almost identical in Dante and in the Muslim legend.

    “The story was twice recounted in Arabic: first by the illustrious blind skeptic of the ninth and tenth centuries, Abul-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri, often described as the ‘philosopher of poets and the poet of philosophers.’ Then, nearly two centuries afterward, the story was retold at much greater length by ibn ‘Arabi, the illuministic mystic (sufi), or psuedo-Empedoclean and Neo-Platonist pupil of the Cordoban school of ibn Masarrah. This he accomplished in two books, the one unpublished and the other published: ‘The Book of the Nocturnal Journey Toward the Majesty of the Most Magnanimous’ (‘Kitab al-Isra ila Maqam al-Asra’), still in manuscript; and ‘The Book of the Meccan Conquests’ (‘Kitab al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah’), which is in print.

    “Throughout the two texts (those of ibn ‘Arabi and Dante), both Muhammad and the Italian philosopher-poet are made to narrate their eschatological experiences in the world beyond. Both begin the journey at night. In the Muslim version, a lion and a wolf bar the road to hell; and in Dante’s poem, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf impede his progress. Khaytur, the patriarch of the genii addressing the Prophet, is replaced by Virgil, the patriarch of the classicists, who accompanied Dante. The warning of the approach to hell is the same in both writers–confused noises and bursts of flames. The architecture of the Inferno is the same in the two accounts–an inverted cone or funnel consisting of a series of levels for the various classes of sinners.

    “After passing the Mount of Purgatory, we find the Muslim and Christian heavens identical. Beatrice leaves Dante, and Gabriel leaves Muhammad, as they approach the Divine Presence. The Muslim gigantic angel in the form of a cock suggests Dante’s heavenly eagle. Dante beholds Saturn with a golden ladder to the last sphere, and Muhammad ascends a ladder rising from Jerusalem to the highest heaven. The apotheosis in both ascensions is the same. Both describe the Beatific Vision as a focus of intense light surrounded by nine concentric circles of myriads of angelic spirits shedding wondrous radiance, with the cherubim in the center. The reactions of the two pilgrims to the great vision are alike. Both, dazzled by an indescribable brilliance, believe that they have gone blind. Gradually they gather strength and are able to gaze steadfastly upon the miraculous spectacle, and then they fall into ecstasy.”

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