- Ibn Tufayl: Living the Life of Reason by Taneli Kukkonen
Abū Bakr Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185) was one of three great Islamic Peripatetics of Andalusia, sandwiched between Ibn Bājja (Avempace, d. 1138) for whom he had both highest encomia and biting censure, and his own illustrious protégé, Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198). Yet only one philosophic work survives by Ibn Ṭufayl, the wondrous novella, Ḥayy Ibn Yaq ẓān, about an autodidact on a deserted island, who comes to learn almost all things through the use of reason alone. The present book by Taneli Kukkonen offers a welcome introduction to Ḥayy Ibn Yaq ẓān and the thought of Ibn Ṭufayl. It appears in Patricia Crone’s Makers of the Muslim World series, which strives to “combine first-rate scholarship with a strong emphasis on readability,” and to “serve as a perfect introduction for academic and lay readers alike” (back cover). Kukkonen does all this and more. In his preface, he describes Ḥayy as an “altogether extraordinary narrative,” “one of the most delightful literary creations of classical Islamic civilization,” and “about the best introduction to Arabic philosophy” (ix–x). This glowing appreciation of Ḥayy colors his presentation of the tale. His Ibn Tufayl is at once an alluring introduction to Ḥayy, whose ultimate goal is to arouse the reader to read it, and a fresh, stimulating, and insightful discussion of its main themes.
Chapter 1 situates Ibn Ṭufayl in the Almohad court where he served as personal physician and confidant to the prince, providing background for understanding the politics and theology of the times; and it offers a brief reconstruction of his biography and intellectual concerns. Kukkonen’s emphasis on “Ibn Tufayl’s longstanding involvement in Sufism” (13) and “project of fusing Sufi spirituality with philosophical naturalism” (16; see 4, 20, 26, 30–31, 55, 67, 97–101, 111, 115, 118, 125–27, 136) may, however, be overstated, although Ibn Ṭufayl certainly was familiar with Sufism and consciously employed Sufi vocabulary.
Chapter 2 presents a précis of Ḥayy, an analysis of its rather symmetrical structure, and a reasonable consideration of what Ibn Ṭufayl hoped to achieve by writing the book. Chapters 3–7—with headings such as Nature, Soul, God—recount chronologically the exploits and intellectual development of Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān (“Living, Son of Wakeful” [ ix, 77]), over the first forty-nine years of his life as the sole human being on a paradise-like island. Chapter 8 treats the final section of Ḥayy after his first encounter with a human being and human language. The final chapter deals with the influence of Ibn Ṭufayl’s book, including that on early novelists such as Daniel Defoe.
Why would a philosopher choose to present philosophy in an entertaining narrative? One might suspect, in order to teach philosophy to a wider audience, that is, to popularize philosophy. Yet the lesson of the tale’s denouement is that “the vast majority of people simply do not desire to know the truth,” nor are they capable of grasping it (121; cf. 21). The book is rather written for—and in response to a question of—his “noble brother” and for those like him. The goal, as Ibn Ṭufayl concludes, is to “excite desire” to guide the curious and intellectually capable readers to true wisdom. Yet, I am inclined to agree with Kukkonen that Ibn Ṭufayl “genuinely seeks to instruct a wide readership in what the universe looks like . . . and how to look at [it]” (28), and that the book can be read “simply as a rollicking adventure story . . . and a parable of man’s triumph over his surroundings” (33–34). From this perspective, the external sense (ẓhir) of Ḥayy, like that of Scripture (114), will be of interest and of value to all, while its true and inner sense (bāṭin) will be understood only by the few. The deluge of Western translations of Ḥayy, immediately after the first Latin translation of 1671, may be attributed primarily to its teaching that one can attain knowledge of God through the...