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Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqdan in New England: A Spanish-Islamic Tale in Cotton Mather's Christian Philosopher?
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Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqdan in New England:
A Spanish-Islamic Tale in Cotton Mather's Christian Philosopher?

An enigmatic figure from a twelfth-century Spanish Arabic Islamic philosophical romance, Hayy ibn Yaqdan, makes an even more enigmatic appearance, circa 1700, in the introduction to Cotton Mather's The Christian Philosopher: A Collection of the Best Discoveries in Nature with Religious Improvements. While we hardly expect the notorious prosecutor of witches to write favorably—in even the remotest corner of Mather's "egocentric universe" (Parrington 107)—of a literary symbol from what he viewed as an infidel culture, at least a few special readers from the New England Company and the Royal Society would have been familiar with Ibn Tufayl's (1110–1185) masterpiece, The Tale of Hayy Ibn Yaqdan and as surprised as we are to find Mather alluding to it admiringly as a model for his ideal Christian philosopher.1 Appropriating a literary gem written by an Islamic philosopher from Medieval Andalusia for a late seventeenth-century transatlantic readership, Mather prepares that unique reader for an unusual line of development by giving the Islamic masterpiece primary rhetorical position at the very head of his Christian Philosopher, a work he hoped would stand as his opus magnum and as the final word on New World natural science.2 That a unique Medieval Islamic literary figure is made to serve as a threshold to the seventeenth-century New England Puritan's New World "summa" of natural science is strong evidence not only of the epistemological complexity of Mather's New England at the turn [End Page 1] of the century but even stronger evidence of the upheaval of thought caused in New World old religion by Old World new science. Mather's appeal to Yaqdan is perhaps his most ingenious and certainly his most uncanny.

If studying the book of nature, as a supplement to scripture, can make a Muslim a better Muslim (which Mather asserts is demonstrated in The Tale of Hayy Ibn Yaqdan), then surely studying the book of nature can make a Christian a better Christian, as he states:

. . . we Christians, in our valuable Citations from those that are Strangers to Christianity, should seize upon the Sentences as containing our Truths, detained in the hands of Unjust Possessors . . . . However, this I may say, God has thus far taught a Mahometan! And this I will say, Christian, beware lest a Mahometan be called for thy Condemnation.


What alarms the professional theologian is the possibility that certain "Truths" have been discovered by heretics, "detained in the hands of Unjust Possessors," about which his Puritan Saints may know nothing. Although his reference to a tale written by a non-Christian heretic, a "Mahometan," is obviously meant to embarrass his Puritans readers with their own ignorance of natural science, Mather's use of the tale far exceeds mere rhetorical trickery.

Referencing "a Mahometan writer"—whom Mather names "Abubekar," but who is better known as Ibn Tufayl—the exordium to this most ambitious work of this most ambitious Puritan employs an introduction preparatory to forestall any misconception among his orthodox audience that the empirical study of nature is detrimental to the religious faith of the true believer.3 "The Essays now before us," announces Mather, "will demonstrate, that Philosophy is no Enemy, but a mighty and wondrous Incentive to Religion; and they will exhibit that Philosophical Religion, which will carry with it a most sensible Character, and victorious Evidence of a reasonable Service."4 Described as the literal biography of an historical man, the figure of Yaqdan is then brought forward by Mather for his Puritan Christian philosopher both as a positive example of the monotheistic scientist and as a potential chastiser of narrow (unscientifically curious) Puritan minds: [End Page 2]

If the self-taught philosopher will not, yet Abubeker a Mahometan Writer, by whom such an one was exhibited more than five hundred Years ago, will rise up in the Judgment with this Generation, and condemn it. Reader, even a Mahometan will shew thee one, without any Teacher, but Reason in a serious View of Nature, led on to the Acknowledgement of a Glorious...