By Jason Webster

At the eastern end of the Sierra Nevada, not far from Granada, there is a small town tucked away in the dusty hillsides, almost forgotten amid the dry, desert-like landscape. Tourists who stray here will find an imposing cathedral, half-empty streets and a vast number of caves in the surrounding area, homes to the large Gypsy community who settled centuries ago in this part of Andalusia. Guadix has a special and rather quiet charm, and treasures are to be found, not least the magnificent painted wooden Mudejar ceilings of some of the town’s churches. Guadix’s greatest gift to humanity, however – a metaphor that one of its greatest son’s developed almost a thousand years ago – is hardly mentioned today, despite forming such an integral part of our culture that it is used constantly in literature, in jokes, and even in Hollywood films.

The name of a small street and a hotel are the only reminders now that Guadix was the birthplace of Ibn Tufail (or ‘Abentofail’ as the locals prefer). If he is referred to at all, it is simply as a writer of the 12th century whose greatest achievement was to have been the mentor of the philosopher Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, who did so much to introduce Aristotelian thought to Europe in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufail, was and is a great figure in the history of ideas. Poet, physician, Sufi, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, he was, like so many others of his time, a polymath, and wrote what is arguably the first European novel.

Hayy bin Yaqzan can be translated as ‘Alive son of Awake’, and is the only prose work of Ibn Tufail that has survived to the present day. Based on an earlier tale by the Persian philosopher Ibn Sina, it is the first desert island story in existence, and has been the inspiration for many other better known versions, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to the Tom Hanks film Cast Away.

Hayy bin Yaqzan tells the story of a baby – Hayy – the son of a princess, whose birth must be concealed. He is abandoned on an equatorial island, where a doe suckles and looks after him. The baby becomes a child, then a youth, and finally a man. He is possessed of great intelligence, and spends his days studying the world around him in order better to understand it. Like a good scientist, he observes natural phenomena, develops theories to explain them, and then returns to his observations to see if his ideas stand up. In such a way he discovers such things as the circulation of the blood, the effect and use of fire, and the movement of the heavens. Each phase of his learning lasts seven years and his knowledge grows until he becomes aware of the soul and the Creator. Finally, in a vivid and transcendental moment, he passes from an intellectual understanding of such things to an intuitive and direct experience of Reality.

At that moment another person arrives on the island. His name is Asal, a devout man who has come looking for a quiet place of contemplation. When they meet, Hayy and Asal realise they share the same ideas – one through direct experience, the other through reasoning – and decide to travel together to Asal’s home town in order to pass on what they know. Once they reach the city, however, they discover that few people there can or want to understand their message, and in the end the two men return to the island.

After A Thousand and One Nights, the story of Hayy is supposedly the most translated work of Arabic literature in the world. A Hebrew version already existed in the 14th century with a commentary by the Jewish philosopher Moses ben Joshua of Narbonne. This was later translated into Latin in Florence in the 15th century. In England there were various translations from 1671 onwards, both into Latin and English. One of these, carried out by Simon Ockley, was published in 1708. Only a decade later, Defoe brought out Robinson Crusoe, regarded s the first English novel.

At the time it was believed that Defoe was inspired by the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who had survived four years alone on a remote island off the coast of Chile, and it is likely that Selkirk’s experiences had an influence on the writing of Crusoe. And yet there are many echoes of Hayy bin Yaqzan in Defoe’s story, partly in the appearance of a second character on the island (Man Friday), but particularly in the third volume, in which Crusoe tells of his vision of the ‘angelic world’ – an unmistakable parallel with Hayy’s experiences.

With the publication of Crusoe, the powerful metaphor of a person living on a desert island, facing the world alone and forced into a life of survival and reflection, fully entered Western culture. It is a clear symbol of the human condition and is so common today that we have largely forgotten where it came from or who introduced it in the first place. But the influence of Ibn Tufail, native of Guadix, continues nonetheless, and will doubtless carry on inspiring more people just as it has done for the last nine centuries.