Al-Andalus and the Origins of Orientalism: “Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān” and its Journey through the European Enlightenment

The research project attempts to determine more precisely the relationship between the European Enlightenment and the preceeding ‘Islamic Enlightenment’ (Hans M. Enzensberger) on the Iberian Peninsula, during the age of al-Andalus (711–1492). Shortly after the last traces of al-Andalus vanished from European memory with the expulsion of converted Muslims from Spain (1609–1614), the formation period of Oriental Studies began in Northern Europe, which in turn brought forth the Orientalism of the European Enlightenment. The project centers on the Northern European reception of Abū Bakr Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical novel Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān (Arab يقظان بن حي, Engl. ‘Alive, Son of Awake’), a work from the 12th century which is believed to close the “gap” between the Islamic and the European Enlightenment (Srinivas Aravamudan). It tells the story of a pupil of nature who is raised on an island by a gazelle. Step by step, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān teaches himself all fields of knowledge, up to the knowledge of God.

The novel’s migration through the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, from Arabic to Hebrew and from Hebrew to Latin, was shaped by the Jewish scholar Moses of Narbonne and the humanist Pico della Mirandola. By contrast, its career within the European Enlightenment began with a bilingual edition of the text (Arabic/Latin) titled Philosophus autodidactus, published by the orientalists Edward Pococke Junior and Senior in Oxford in 1671. This edition, which was quickly translated into three modern languages (English, German, Dutch) and caught the attention of Locke, Leibniz, and Lessing, soon proved to be both a predecessor and a product of the Enlightenment.

Based on this literary sensation, the project aims at writing a transnational intellectual history of the Enlightenment which covers various aspects such as the negotiation of religious difference within a divided Christianity (with Boyle, for instance), the experimental spirit and Empiricism (with Locke), the economic imagination (with Defoe), or self-education (with Rousseau). The novel’s ‘journey’ across Northern Europe begs the question of how references to Islam or to an imaginary Orient contributed to a systematic secularization of the Enlightenment discourse. Furthermore, there are points of contact with the agenda of a ‘Radical Enlightenment’ (Jonathan Israel) whose secular writing strategies of textual ambiguity are based on a supposedly oriental ‘secret doctrine’ (U. App). If our thesis holds up, given the extent to which secular concepts of Europe’s Enlightenment depend on literary scenes, tropes, and narrative techniques, these concepts could ultimately be seen as the product of a misreading of the Arabic-Andalusian original from the 12th century. After all, by suddenly declaring Ibn Tufail’s Hayy—supposedly the model for canonical works of European literature such as Morus’ Utopia or Gracián’s El Criticón—as a part of a reframed, imaginary Orient at the end of the 17th century, his work can be appropriated by an intellectual culture of the European Enlightenment which had yet to invent itself.


Fig. above:
Daniel Defoe: Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World (1720), Boston Public Library, p. 9 [left]
Title page Ibn Tufail: The History of Hai Eb’n Yockdan, an Indian Prince: or, the Self-Taught Philosopher, transl. from Lat. by George Ashwell, London 1686 [center]
Title page Ibn Tufail: The Improvement of Human Reason, Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ibn Yokdhan, transl. from Arab. by Simon Ockley, London 1708 [right]

Head researcher(s): Maud Meyzaud