Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 580 AH/1185 CE)

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(d. 580 AH/1185 CE)

Abū Bakr Muammad ibn ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ufayl, the Islamic philosopher, was known to medieval Scholastics as Abubacer. Few details are known about the life of Ibn ufayl, who was born at Guadix in the province of Granada and died in Morocco. Like all his colleagues, he was a scholar whose knowledge was encyclopedic; he was a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet. He served as vizier for and was a friend of the Almohad sovereign Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf, and it was he who recommended that his friend Averroes be assigned the task of analyzing the works of Aristotle. Ibn ufayl became known to medieval Scholastics (Abū Bakr having become Abubacer) through Averroes's translation of De Anima, which contained a brief criticism of Ibn ufayl's doctrine identifying the possible (or passive) intellect with the imagination.

It was, however, because of his "philosophical novel," ayy ibn Yaqān, a work that remained unknown to the Scholastics, that Ibn ufayl later gained fame. It is worth noting that in the same era in the East Shihāb al-Dīn Yahyā Suhrawardī composed his own tales of symbolic initiations, in which he introduced, by extending the cycle of Avicennian tales, the "oriental philosophy" that Avicenna had already opposed to Peripatetic philosophy, but with only partial success. Ibn ufayl referred to the Avicennian tales in the prologue to his philosophical novel, because he knew that the secret of Avicenna's "oriental philosophy" was partially contained therein.

Ibn ufayl's work, however, is completely original and not in the least a mere amplification of an Avicennian tale. All it owes to Avicenna are the names of the dramatis personae : ayy ibn Yaqān (Vivens filius Vigilantis ), and Salamān and Absāl (a spelling certainly preferable to the mutilated form "Asāl," which figures in certain manuscripts).

In the works of Avicenna the name ayy ibn Yaqān typified the Active Intellect, the central figure of Islamic Neoplatonism, simultaneously angel of knowledge and angel of revelation (the Holy Ghost and the angel Gabriel). For Ibn ufayl this name is also that of the absolute hermit, mysteriously abandoned or spontaneously born on a desert island; in the absence of any human master and of all social falsification, the hermit becomes the perfect Sage. The superior pedagogy of the Active Intellect alone develops in him its natural faculties through a slow, rhythmic process evolving over the years. On a neighboring, inhabited island live two friends, Salamān, who typifies the practical and social spirit, and Absāl, contemplative and mystical, who lives like one in exile in his own country and finally decides to immigrate to the hermit's island, where he meets ayy ibn Yaqān. In the course of their long conversations Absāl discovers that all that had been taught to him in matters of religion ayy ibn Yaqān, the solitary, philosophical wise man, already knows, but in a purer form. Absāl discovers that religion is the symbol of a truth otherwise inaccessible to the common run of men. Together they attempt to deliver their spiritual message to the men on the island opposite them. Alas! in the face of the growing hostility that they encounter, they must accept an inescapable truth: The ordinary man is not able to understand.

Ibn ufayl's novel is not an anticipation of Robinson Crusoe; each external episode must be understood on a spiritual level. On the other hand, in spite of its pessimistic ending it should not be concluded that the conflict Ibn ufayl set forth (that between religion and philosophy) attained desperate proportions in the Muslim faith. In fact, another position and solution to the problem are sought in the "prophetic philosophy" of Shiʿism.

See also Aristotle; Averroes; Avicenna; Imagination; Islamic Philosophy; Logic, History of: Logic in the Islamic World; Peripatetics; Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yayā.


Ibn ufayl's ayy ibn Yaqān has been translated by S. Ockley as The Improvement of Reason (London, 1708) and revised by A. S. Fulton (London, 1929).

For literature on Ibn ufayl, see Henry Corbin, Histoire de la philosophie islamique, Vol. I (paperback, Paris: Gallimard, 1964), pp. 327337 and the bibliography on p. 362.

See also Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, translated from the French by Willard R. Trask (New York: Pantheon, 1960).

Henry Corbin (1967)

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Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 580 AH/1185 CE)

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Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 580 AH/1185 CE)