I’m cur­rently writing a book on the pol­itics, ethics, and global reception history of Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, so I’m grateful for the oppor­tunity to be in con­ver­sation with you. What I will offer are a few ideas—theses, provo­ca­tions, open questions—that rep­resent how I cur­rently envision this project and my own approach to Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān.

The ending of the allegory is where we con­front its most directly political the­o­retic dis­cus­sions. The con­clusion of the story is very obvi­ously about an epis­temic hier­archy: the very best—a select few—are able to attain true knowledge thanks to their natural dis­po­si­tions whereas the best of the rest—the most decent people among everyone else—have reli­gious dis­course, or a version of the truth mediated and obscured by sym­bolism. And the best thing that the select few like Ḥayy and Absāl can do is leave ordinary people alone; their natural dis­po­si­tions are dif­ferent, and the ordinary are hopeless. This is important because the rulers are not the wisest and because the wisest are not those who ought to rule.

This is the first way in which the text exem­plifies an answer to that hoary question, what is “political” about Islamic political phi­losophy: in state­ments about the rela­tionship of epis­temic hier­archy to com­munity and governance.

But under­lying or par­allel to the text’s insis­tence on hier­archy and on the sep­a­ration of phi­losophy and gov­er­nance is whether the best of the rest can be agents in their own right. These islanders, I argued in a 2011 article, act out of ethical prin­ciples.[1] These prin­ciples, as recorded in the text itself, are the com­mit­ments to hos­pi­tality, friendship, and com­munity. The problem for them, I argued, is that these prin­ciples end up under­cutting themselves.

This is, in short, the text’s cri­tique of political life and a second way in which it speaks to the “political” in Islamic political phi­losophy: the rela­tionship of prin­ciples to action, ethics to pol­itics, the self-subversion limits of ideals, and who gets to act and speak.

Readers have tended to ven­erate the main char­acter, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. Part of the task, however, is to inter­rogate why and diagnose the com­pul­sions behind this iden­ti­fi­cation. In the text’s voice, he is endowed with super­human cog­nitive and spir­itual fac­ulties. I would suggest that perhaps most of us have more in common with the islanders, in terms of ethical prin­ciples that undermine them­selves, our sociality, and our fun­da­mental and banal ordinariness.

This is the third way to approach that same question, namely the text’s affective hold over readers in the uneven pri­ority it gives subjects.

Readers have tended to accept the text’s depiction of the islanders as inferior and of Ḥayy as superior. While Ḥayy is remarkable for his journey and super­human char­ac­ter­istics, we should con­sider the source: a philosopher thinks philoso­phers are the best. We might be inspired by Fedwa Malti-Douglas’s bril­liant and provocative reading of gender in the allegory, to look more directly at Ibn Ṭufayl’s silences, eli­sions, and obses­sions against the grain. [2] Let us reframe the story: Ḥayy was spon­ta­neously gen­erated or aban­doned by his mother in an ark (in either case, an allusion to prophet-like figures). He was raised by a doe. When this sur­rogate mother figure dies in front of him, he dis­sects her (again—he clin­i­cally dis­sects his mother figure’s corpse). Perhaps his “dis­covery” that her soul has departed and she lives on some­where else is better under­stood as trauma and denial. As a youth, he ter­rorizes animals. As an adult, he turns around and around, to mimic celestial motion, but perhaps he con­fuses dizziness with divine inspi­ration. He had not met another human being until he was an adult. He inces­santly harasses an island of strangers into embracing what he believes is the truth. He decides that anyone who happens to not agree with him is an irra­tional beast doomed to hellfire.

This is a fourth way in which the text exem­plifies an answer to the same question, what is “political” about Islamic political phi­losophy: its rep­re­sen­ta­tions of ordinary life and power.

If the text’s authorship in the early twelfth century is its most important date, the second-most important for its hold over “Islamic phi­losophy” may very well be 1671, when it was edited and trans­lated into Latin by Edward Pococke as Philosophus auto­di­dactus, or the “self-taught philosopher.” It is this edition and trans­lation (and the slew of trans­la­tions that fol­lowed) that gave the text its canonical status worldwide, including in Arabic. By this I mean two things: first, to put it somewhat provoca­tively, the text became a “classic,” imbued with great sig­nif­i­cance for a philo­sophical “tra­dition” in which it had been, for all intents and pur­poses, rather mar­ginal;[3] and second, that can­onized as a classic, it was no longer part of an engaged or lived dis­cursive tra­dition but rather a piece of a reified and rar­ified tra­dition that was simul­ta­ne­ously being invented as “Islamic” always in relation to the Western-modern, and onto which modern readers would project their hopes, dreams, anx­i­eties, prej­u­dices, desires, and frustrations.

This is a fifth and indirect response to what is “political” about Islamic political phi­losophy: the his­toricity of the cat­egory that ele­vates the text to its con­tem­porary level and social functions.

In this way, it is only a slight exag­ger­ation to call Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān a Rorschach blot. Modern readers have tended to see the same sets of res­o­nances, often pre­sented as pre­fig­u­ra­tions or direct influ­ences of modern European texts, even though the evi­dence is often cir­cum­stantial at best. Apparent sim­i­lar­ities become an occasion—or an alibi—for locating the text’s impor­tance in relation to Europe, for Europe, thereby making the intel­lectual tra­di­tions of the col­o­nized the origin of their own col­o­nizers. As I discuss in a 2016 article, modern editors and scholars in the Middle East read the text through the lens of their geopo­litical, cul­tural, and sci­en­tific infe­ri­ority vis-à-vis Europe. Ibn Ṭufayl became their cul­tural avatar, superior to Robinson Crusoe and John Locke and/or their fore­father and first influence. For some, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓan even caused the Enlight­enment if not modernity as a whole; for others, the text pre­figures the kind of subject pro­duced and cham­pioned by the Enlight­enment.[4] And in some more recent ver­sions, the ending was entirely trans­formed, to become more palatable to egal­i­tarian sen­si­bil­ities; I’m cur­rently writing about this for pieces on Ibn Ṭufayl and ped­agogy and on Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān’s global reception and trans­la­tions. Just as important, of course, are the things that scholars don’t read into it. For example, com­men­tators do not read Ḥayy’s preaching in relation to the failures or limits of tol­er­ation dis­course and thereby as res­onating with a dif­ferent set of examples (like, as Teresa Bejan argues in another context, that of Roger Williams). And when Ibn Ṭufayl is pre­sented as a proto-Lockean, this is usually for the ideas of man as a blank slate and the devel­opment of ratio­nality through indi­vidual expe­rience, and not, for example, Locke as apol­ogist for settler colonial expro­pri­ation; they do not point out that Ḥayy does not try to take the native islanders’ land away on account of his sup­posed supe­ri­ority. I attempt to raise similar points else­where when com­paring Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān to the “state of nature” the­o­rists Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

A sixth way, then, to under­stand what is political in Islamic political phi­losophy: the res­o­nances and frames by which texts have been received and read, and the his­torical and cul­tural nar­ra­tives into which they are implicitly and some­times explicitly placed.

Finally, this makes reading Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān a his­tor­i­cally, cul­turally, and polit­i­cally laden act. The text’s status, reception history, and frames of inter­pre­tation are not easily sep­a­rated from the colonial terms through which it has been read. And inter­pre­ta­tions today con­tinue to be a part of this long genealogy of reading into the text, onto text, and inventing Islamic phi­losophy. My ten­tative argument is that the way to nav­igate our way with this text—given what I have indi­cated about its content, its status, and its reception history—is to read it against the grain of each, toward a more eman­ci­patory and egal­i­tarian pol­itics, through and against the lin­eages into which it would be placed.

Taking all these layers together enables a vision of the political in Islamic political phi­losophy as the pos­si­bility of a project that is anti-canonical in ori­en­tation toward text, author, and “tra­dition,” attuned to power in the res­o­nances and frames it invites or dispels, and genealogical in the pasts and futures it nar­rates and reinvents.


  1. I make this point again in more abbre­viated form in the course of a recent co-authored piece in Aeon.[]
  2. She points out that mother is either nonex­istent or fails him, he dis­sects the sur­rogate mother figure, he skips puberty, and the allegory ends as a homo­erotic male utopia with no women. See Fedwa Malti-Douglas, “Ibn Ṭufayl’s Male Utopia,” in The World of Ibn Ṭufayl: Inter­dis­ci­plinary Per­spec­tives on “Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān,” ed. Lawrence I. Conrad (1996), pp. 52–68.[]
  3. It is true that, for example, Ibn al-Nafīs responded in the thir­teenth century with Fāḍil ibn Nāṭiq, a text that came to be known as The­o­logus auto­di­dactus, and that the story was important for Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic com­men­tators. My point is that he was not an al-Fārābī or an Ibn Sīnā.[]
  4. This latter is, inter­est­ingly enough, a common anti-historical mod­ernist hermeneutic, what we might call ret­ro­spective peren­ni­alism, for reading the Qurʾān to show that it pre­dicted or con­tains every­thing in modern science.[]