Ibn Tufayl: L’Éveillé

May 3, 2017

In some ways this is an astonishing little book: an Arab writer in the twelfth century prefigures Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It’s a little more complicated than that, however.

We are told the story of a child who grows up from birth entirely alone on an island; either he was spontaneously generated, or else washed up onshore having been set adrift by his mother after his birth (echoes of Moses in the bullrushes here), and is initially fed by a gazelle (!). He grows up and learns about his environment, how to feed himself, how to hunt and shelter himself. Alone, he has all the time in the world to think, to reflect, to contemplate and to figure things out. And he works out the differences between animal, vegetable and mineral, experiments to find out where life resides in living creatures, and eventually comes to reflecting on cause and effect, which leads him to the prime mover and the idea of God.

Having attained enlightenment, towards the end of the story he meets another human being, a man who moves to his island to become a hermit. The two of them return to the main island to offer their message of enlightenment to everyone and are rejected, and so decide to return to their peaceful isolation and contemplation.

It’s obviously fiction, and with a didactic purpose: man as a rational creature should be able to deduce the idea of a creator and offer due veneration. It’s a tale of a man alone on an island, and apparently Defoe had read an English translation which appeared towards the end of the seventeenth century, so about thirty years before Robinson Crusoe was published. It doesn’t really read like a novel, though: obviously it comes from a completely different literary tradition which does not need to be judged against or compared with western standards, and anyway was written some six centuries before the novel developed in the west. If anything it reminded me of tales like Rasselas or Candide, which aren’t really novels either; they are fiction as in made-up, but the message the author wishes to communicate to the reader is far more foregrounded than any other aspect such as plot or character. We are on the way to the novel, but not there yet, by any means.

I found it an interesting read, though over-philosophical in places, and it was another reminder of the wealth of learning, knowledge and speculation that developed in the Arab world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

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