Who was Ibn Tufayl?


Ibn Tufayl

(b.1101 - d.1185)

ANCIENT GREEK, Persian and Indian science and philosophy first entered the Muslim world during the eighth century and found their finest expres­sion in the works of al-Kindi (see chapter 28) and al-Razi (see chapter 49) in the ninth century and in that of al-Farabi (see chapter 44) and ikhwan al-safa (The Brethren of Purity) in the tenth, culminating in the works of the great Neoplatonist Ibn Sina in the eleventh century. As the philosophical sciences gained popularity across the Muslim world and began to challenge the traditional Islamic worldview, the formidable figure of al-Ghazali (see chapter 17) emerged during the latter part of the eleventh century to launch a blistering attack on the Neoplatonic school of Ibn Sina and al-Farabi. Al- Ghazali’s intellectual assault on the Neoplatonic edifice, as developed in his acclaimed Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Refutation of the Philosophers), struck a major blow against philosophical thought in general, and Neoplatonism in particular.

As expected, his successful repudiation of philosophy elated the Ash’arites and the Hanbalites who vehemently opposed Neoplatonic thought, but it seriously undermined the progress of philosophical thinking in the Islamic world. When philosophy was in full retreat in the Islamic East, it found a warm welcome in al-andalus in the Islamic West. As a result, Islamic philoso­phy flourished in Muslim Spain during the twelfth century, thanks largely to the efforts of great European Muslim philosophers like Ibn Bajjah (b. 1095- d. 1139), known in the Latin West as Avempace, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). But it was in the works of Ibn Tufayl that Islamic philosophy found a refresh­ing, innovative and powerful expression, which subsequently exerted consid­erable influence on European thought and culture.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad ibn Tufayl, known as Abubacer in the Western world, was born at Guadix (in present-day Wadi Ash) in Islamic Granada. About a decade before his birth, Granada was annexed by the al-Moravids (al-murabitun), a North African dynasty which gained con­trol of Spain in 1086, following more than half a century of political volatility and social unrest in that country. Founded by the charismatic North African Islamic leader Yusuf ibn Tashfin (b. 1009-d. 1106), the al-Moravids were, at the time, urged by the Muslim world’s most prominent scholars (such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali) to move into Islamic Spain and restore peace and security there. By the time Ibn Tufayl was born, the al-Moravids had reunited the entire country under their leadership and established much-needed peace and prosperity there.

During this period of stability, young Ibn Tufayl completed his early edu­cation in Arabic, the Qur’an and traditional Islamic sciences, before pursu­ing mathematics, medicine, literature and philosophy. He received advanced training in these subjects at Cordova, Seville and most probably at Toledo, which at the time was one of the most renowned centres of learning and scholarship in Islamic Spain. As a student prodigy, Ibn Tufayl excelled in both the scientific and philosophical sciences and received instant recognition for his mastery of mathematics, medicine and philosophy.

During this period, he also became highly versed in the philosophical dis­course of Ibn Bajjah, who is widely considered to be the founding father of Andalusian philosophy. A fiercely rationalistic thinker, Ibn Bajjah attempted to revive and popularise the philosophical thought of great Muslim thinkers like al-Farabi in the Islamic West.

And although Ibn Tufayl disagreed with many aspects of Ibn Bajjah’s philosophy, he was nonetheless heavily influenced by the latter’s ideas and thoughts. To a great extent, he is considered to be a natural successor of Ibn Bajjah, in the same way that Ibn Rushd is regarded, in turn, as his successor in the intellectual history of Islamic Spain. The philosophical sciences aside, Ibn Tufayl also excelled in medicine and surgery; indeed, he was such a popular medical practitioner that he established his own clinic, despite the deteriorat­ing political situation in Granada.

Following the death of the al-Moravid ruler Ali ibn Yusuf in 1143, politi­cal chaos and social anarchy again returned to Islamic Spain, prompting the neighbouring Christian principalities to reorganise their forces and launch fresh incursions into the Islamic territories. Amidst the ensuing chaos there suddenly emerged another powerful Islamic dynasty in North Africa. Founded originally by Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Tumart (b. 1077- d. 1130), a charismatic North African Islamic reformer, the al-Mohads (al-muwahhidun) carved out a vast empire under the able leadership of Abd al-Mu’min (b. 1094-d. 1163), who moved swiftly to establish his rule across all the territories which were once ruled by the al-Moravids. At the time, Ibn Tufayl was in his late forties and busy practising medicine in Granada. But, after Abu Yaqub Yusuf al-Mansur (b. 1135-d. 1184) ascended the al-Mohad throne, he came to hear about Ibn Tufayl’s skills as a medical practitioner and arranged for him to be brought to the al-Moravid court.

Educated in Arabic literature and poetry at Seville, Abu Yaqub was a wise and learned ruler who encouraged intellectual and literary pursuits at his luxuri­ous court in Marrakesh. Indeed, he even recruited some of the best Anda­lusian writers, poets and philosophers to his court, and Ibn Tufayl was one such intellectual who served him as a physician, secretary and advisor. The two men became such good friends that they frequently engaged in lengthly discussions on the finer points of philosophy, theology and literature.

Like Abu Yaqub, Ibn Tufayl was also in the habit of recruiting some of the finest scholars and thinkers of the time to the court in Marrakesh. One of Ibn Tufayl’s star recruits was Ibn Rushd. Born in 1126 into a distinguished fam­ily of Islamic scholars and jurists in Cordova, Ibn Rushd was an outstanding Islamic scholar blessed with a prodigious intellect. Although he was much younger than Ibn Tufayl, he became very popular throughout Cordova for his philosophical abilities. This prompted Ibn Tufayl to go out of his way to bring this rising star to the court in Marrakesh. On his arrival at the court, the al-Mohad ruler Abu Yaqub questioned the young philosopher concerning the nature of creation asking him whether he believed in the eternity of the universe.

As Ibn Rushd hesitated to respond, the experienced Ibn Tufayl inter­vened and answered the monarch’s question in a philosophically neutral way. Whether the universe was eternal or a finite creation of God was a contentious philosophical point which was hotly debated by the Muslim philosophers and theologians alike. Considering that the al-Mohads vehemently rejected the notion of the eternity of creation – and instead, championed the Ghazalian view that the universe was a creation of God – young Ibn Rushd hesitated to answer Abu Yaqub’s question, but Ibn Tufayl’s timely interjection saved the day for him. Later, the al-Mohad ruler conducted extensive philosophi­cal discussions with Ibn Rushd and expressed his satisfaction with the young philosopher, whom he considered to be both gifted and erudite. He then rewarded him with a high-ranking Government post, working under Ibn Tufayl’s supervision.

During this period, Ibn Tufayl not only became Ibn Rushd’s mentor and guide but, also helped him to polish his understanding of the finer points of Islamic philosophy and theology. In addition to this, he encouraged Ibn Rushd to write his famous commentaries on the works of Aristotle, which later earned him the coveted title of ‘The Commentator’ throughout the Western world. Unlike Ibn Bajjah, Ibn Tufayl was not a pure rationalist, nor did he subscribe to the philosophical theology of al-Ghazali, even though he was well-acquainted with both points of view. As a philosopher, Ibn Bajjah emphasised the importance of rationalism in understanding the nature of creation as well as the attainment of individual ‘spiritual’ fulfilment, which he claimed was attainable intellectually without the need for sensual experience. But influential Sufis like al-Ghazali disa­greed with this view; they argued that spiritual fulfilment achieved through ‘mystical experience’ was far superior to the spirituality acquired through rational means.

Ibn Tufayl was intimately acquainted with this philosophical/ theological dichotomy and thus adopted a philosophical position which sought to harmonise these two conflicting views. The philosophical synthesis he formulated between the peripatetic thought of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina on the one hand, and al-Ghazali’s mystical philosophy on the other, found it’s most profound and enduring expression in his world famous novel Risalah Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (The Tale of Living Son of Vigilant).

Perhaps inspired by Ibn Sina’s book of the same title, in this pioneering fictional account Ibn Tufayl explained how a child born on a desert island (located in the Indian Ocean) slowly acquired new skills, improved his knowledge and gained the experience to adapt to his new environment. As he grew older and matured, his understanding of life, its meaning and pur­pose, increased until he was able to think and reason philosophically before going onto experience mystical union, which is the highest spiritual position attainable in conventional Sufism. Later, he came into contact with a group of people who lived on a neighbouring island and discovered that they lived by a revealed religious code, and his interaction with them enabled him to understand and appreciate the true nature and purpose of Divine revelation (wahy). But when he attempted to explain to the locals the full meaning and significance of Divine revelation, they showed little interest in acquiring such knowledge.

Their lack of interest in such matters eventually convinced him that eve­ryone was not necessarily the same, for the majority of people were only too happy to lead ordinary lives, while others, like himself, were very keen on pur­suing philosophical matters in order to develop a better understanding of life and creation. Before leaving the island, he recommended that the people who wished to lead their lives in accordance with the laws and precepts of their religion should be allowed to do so, without being forced to engage in any form of philosophical debates or discussion. He returned to his own island, convinced that respect, tolerance and understanding were the key to survival and co-existence in this hugely diverse world.

Through the life of this fictional character, Ibn Tufayl tried to explain that the exoteric (zahiri) way of the ordinary believer was as valid as the esoteric (batini) path of the Sufis. In other words, all the believers, irrespective of whether they worshipped in the mosques, lodges or sanctuaries, were, in his opinion, seeking the One and the same Truth (al-Haqq). Even al-Ghazali acknowledged this fact when he said that the philosophers were also seekers of truth, albeit only unintentionally. In short, Ibn Tufayl believed that in reality there was no conflict between reason (aql ) and revelation (wahy); thus, in his Risalah, he attempted to reconcile some of the most complex and intractable philosophical, mystical and theological controversies which had been raging in the Muslim world for many centuries.

Although written in the twelfth century, this pioneering philosophical novel later inspired generations of famous Western thinkers and writers (such as Miguel de Cervantes [1547-d. 1616], Baltasar Gracian [b. 1601-d. 1658], Geoffrey Chaucer [b. 1343-d. 1400], Simon Ockley [b. 1678-d. 1720] and Got­tfried Wilhelm Leibniz [b. 1646-d. 1716]) who imitated his unique literary style and did so without acknowledging their main source of inspiration.

This was most certainly the case with the great French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. 1712-d. 1778), who was inspired to pen his Emile, ou De l’education (Emile, or Education, 1762) by Ibn Tufayl’s Risalah. The same was true of John Locke (b. 1632-d. 1704) whose An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) were heavily influenced by Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical ideas and thoughts. But how? His teacher and mentor at the University of Oxford was none other than Edward Pococke (1604-1691) who had translated and published a Latin version of the Risalah under the title of Philosophus Autodidactus (or ‘the self-taught philoso­pher’) along with the original Arabic text in 1671.

The Risalah was also translated into Hebrew (with an explanatory com­mentary) in 1349by Moses ben Joshua of Narbonne (b. 1300-d. 1362), thus influencing scores of Jewish and Christian theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages. This book was then translated into English, Dutch, Russian, Spanish, German and other Western languages. Soon it became so popular in Europe that, during the European Enlightenment (French: siècle des Lumieres; German: Aufklarung), it inspired Daniel Defoe (b. 1660-d. 1731) to pen his famous novel Robinson Crusoe in 1719. In addition to the Risalah, Ibn Tufayl composed scores of other treatises on philosophical, astronomical and medi­cal topics.

Indeed, as an eminent astronomer, he helped his student and associate Nur al-Din ibn Ishaq al-Bitruji (d. cir. 1204), better known as Alpetragius in the Latin West, to review aspects of Greek astronomy, including the writings of Ptolemy. After serving as a royal physician to Abu Yaqub Yusuf for nearly two decades, Ibn Tufayl finally retired from government services in 1182. Ibn Rushd, his student and colleague, replaced him as physician to the al-Mohad ruler. Three years later, this great European Muslim philosopher and writer died at the age of eighty-four and was buried in Marrakesh (in present-day Morocco).

Ibn Tufayl (Profile 80) is an excerpt from The Muslim 100 - The Lives, Thoughts and Achievements of the Most Influential Muslims in History - Muhammad Mojlum Khan