A novel written by a 12th-century Arab writer about a boy alone on an island influenced the Daniel Defoe classic ‘Robinson Crusoe.’
In this age of anxiety, anger and contestations between the West and the Islamic world, many epoch-shaping stories of intellectual exchanges between our cultures are often forgotten.
A powerful example comes from literature. Millions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim readers across the world have read that famed tale of the man stranded alone on an island: “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, the 18th-century British pamphleteer, political activist and novelist.
Few know that in 1708, 11 years before Defoe wrote his celebrated novel, Simon Ockley, an Orientalist scholar at Cambridge University, translated and published a 12th-century Arabic novel, “Hayy ibn Yaqzan,” or “Alive, the Son of Awake,” by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl, an Andalusian-Arab polymath. Writing about the influence of Ibn Tufayl’s novel on Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” Martin Wainwright, a former Guardian editor, remarked, “Tufayl’s footprints mark the great classic.”
Ibn Tufayl’s novel tells the tale of Hayy, a boy growing up alone on a deserted island, with animals. As he grows up, Hayy uses his senses and reason to understand the workings of the natural world. He explores the laws of nature, devises a rational theology and entertains theories about the origin of the universe. He develops a sense of ethics: Out of mercy for animals, he turns vegetarian, and out of care for plants, he preserves their seeds.