Muslims who inspired Spinoza, Locke and Defoe

Muslims who inspired Spinoza, Locke and Defoe

In this time of angst, anger and contestation between the West and the Islamic world, many significant stories of intellectual exchanges between our cultures are often forgotten.

The striking example comes from literature. Millions of readers, Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world have read the famous story of the man stranded alone on an island: “Robinson Crusoe”, by Daniel Defoe, pamphleteer, political activist and British novelist of the 18th century.

Few people know that in 1708, eleven years before Defoe wrote his famous novel, Simon Ockley, an orientalist scholar at the University of Cambridge, had translated and published a 12th century Arabic novel, “Hayy ibn Yaqzan” or “Alive is the son of Ibn Yaqzan” by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl, Andalusian-Arab universal spirit.

Commenting on the influence of Ibn Tufayl’s novel on Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, Martin Wainwright, former editor of the Guardian, remarks: “The great classic is strongly influenced by Ibn Tufayl. »

Ibn Tufayl’s novel tells the story of Hayy, a boy who grows up alone on a desert island, in the company of animals. Growing up, Hayy uses her senses and reason to understand how the natural world works. He explores the laws of nature, develops rational theology, and ponders theories about the origin of the universe. He develops a sense of ethics: out of pity for animals, he becomes a vegetarian, and out of concern for plants, he preserves their seeds.

Hayy then leaves his island and visits a religious society. He finds that the teachings of reason and religion are compatible and complementary. Yet he notes that some religious people can be rude, even hypocritical.

He returns to his island, where he found God and developed his concepts of truth, morals and ethics, relying on observation and reasoning.

Ibn Tufayl’s message is clear and, for the time, quite audacious: religion is a path to truth, but not the only one. Man is blessed with divine revelation, and with reason and inner conscience. People could be wise and virtuous without religion or of a different religion.

Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and John Locke… admirers of Ibn Tufayl

Translations of “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”, in early modern Europe, by Edward Pococke Jr. in Latin, in 1671, by George Keith in English in 1674, by Simon Ockley in English in 1708 have sold widely . Among the admirers of Ibn Tufayl’s work were the Enlightenment philosophers Baruch, Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and John Locke, who attempted to advance a sense of human dignity in a Christianity long tormented by religious wars and sectarian persecution.

Fans of the novel also included a new Protestant sect: the Quakers. Mr. Keith, a prominent Quaker minister, who translated the novel into English, helped to disseminate it in European intellectual circles. He admired the novel because it echoed the Quaker doctrine that every human being had an “inner light”, regardless of creed, sex, or race.

This humanistic theology will have profound political consequences, establishing Quakers, for centuries, as leaders in campaigns that transform the world: abolition of slavery, emancipation of women and other worthy causes.

Knowledge of the work of Ibn Tufayl, who inspired the Quakers, also shone in the works of Abul-Walid Muhammad Ibn Rushd, better known as Averroes.

Ibn Tufayl, minister at the court of an Almohad caliph of Islamic Spain, commissioned Ibn Rushd to write commentaries on ancient Greek philosophy, which became the main source for the European rediscovery of the Greeks. This earned him great reverence in the West.

What is less known is that Ibn Rushd (Averroes) also sought to harmonize his philosophical ideas with Islamic law: the Sharia.

At the heart of Ibn Rushd’s effort was the vision of Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical novel: religion and reason were both independent sources of wisdom. Religion had its written laws, while reason had its unwritten laws, the universal principles of justice, mercy or gratitude. In the event of a conflict between the two, Ibn Rushd argued, the written laws of religion should be reinterpreted, as they were inevitably context-bound.

Ibn Rushd applied this view to the jihad debate, criticizing Muslim militants of his time who called for jihad “until it uproots and utterly destroys anyone who disagrees with it”. He saw this position as reflecting “their ignorance of the intention of the legislator”, or of God, who could not reasonably have intended the “great evil” of war.

He used the same perspective to criticize the weakening of women in medieval Muslim society, which was the result of the denial of their intellectual capacity. He did his best to promote the views most favorable to women in Islamic jurisprudence. Women have the right to refuse polygamy, to enjoy an equal right to divorce, to avoid the veil or to become judges.

Ibn Rushd’s other essential contribution to modern Europe was his call for open debate, where opinions are freely expressed and rationally measured. “You should always, when presenting a philosophical argument, cite the views of your opponents,” he writes, “Failure to do so is an implicit acknowledgment of the weakness of your own.”

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a great intellectual whom we lost last year, had reported how Ibn Rushd’s insight had been taken up by Rabbi Judah Loew of seventeenth-century Prague, John Milton and John Stuart Mill.

Yet conservatives in Islamic Spain abhorred Ibn Rushd’s indulgence in philosophy and accused him of polytheism for quoting a Venus-worshipping Greek philosopher. He was publicly humiliated, exiled and placed under house arrest. His philosophy books were burned. They survived through their Hebrew or Latin translations in Europe. Most of the Arabic originals are lost.

This loss had serious consequences for the Muslims. The orthodox forces of the Islamic world – although parochialism and bigotry have proliferated in other communities as well – still deny the values ​​drawn from the “unwritten laws” of humanity: human rights, religious freedom or gender equality.

Rather, they preach blind obedience to old principles, without asking “why and how”, and without showing reason and conscience. The result is a disturbing religiosity that relies on coercion instead of freedom, and generates moralism instead of morality.

The way forward for the Islamic world lies in the reconciliation of faith and reason. A first step would be to reconsider what Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy ibn Yaqzan” and the works of Ibn Rushd were trying to convey to us.

Tribune by Mustafa Akyo, published in the New York Times, April 5, 2021

Mustafa Akyol is a journalist, opinion contributor. He is a senior researcher at the Cato Institute. This essay is excerpted from his book, Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance [La réouverture des esprits musulmans: un retour à la raison, à la liberté et à la tolérance] published by St Martin’s Essentials, New York, 2021.


Translation by Michael Maschek,