Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān and the Disappearing Qur’ān - Part 1 – Manuscripts and Margins

Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān and the Disappearing Qur’ān - Part 1 – Manuscripts and Margins

12 June 2023
This tale was part of a theological debate over the ways in which a human may recognize the divine rationally and intuitively.

This is the first part of a four-part series on Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān- click to read part two, part three and part four here.

In the Oriental Collections of the Bodleian Library, amongst the thousands of gems it contains, two manuscripts, which belonged to Edward Pococke (d. 1691), renowned orientalist and first Laudian Chair of Arabic at Oxford in 1636, caught my attention. The reason was that I had been aware of their existence for quite a while, although I had never seen them with my own eyes. Both manuscripts are related to the now famous philosophical-theological tale Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān written by the Andalusian Muslim scholar Ibn Ṭufayl (d.1185).

Briefly, it tells the story of a child living in complete isolation on an unnamed island but reaching philosophical and religious truths through sensorial experiments and reasoning. This tale was part of a theological debate over the ways in which a human may recognize the divine rationally and intuitively. Ibn Ṭufayl engages with al-Ghāzalī’s philosophy as evident in his exordium of the text, particularly Mishkāt al-Anwār [The Niche of Light], in order to correct misunderstandings of the latter’s reception.  Ibn Ṭufayl is believed to have been responding to Ibn Sīna (d. 1037 CE) (Avicenna)’s epistle carrying the same title Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān. Other scholars like Iraq/Syria-based al-Suhrawardī (d. 1191) and Egypt-based physician Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288) also responded to Ibn Ṭufayl’s text within their own disciplines in admiration.

Much has been written on the reception of Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān in the West,[1] and in particular in early modern England, given that at least four different translations of the tale were published in the space of less than forty years: from Edward Pococke’s 1671 Philosophus autodidactus (reedited in 1700), to George Keith’s An account of the Oriental philosophy (1674), George Ashwell’s The History of Hai Eb’n Yockdan (1686) and Simon Ockley’s The Improvement of Human Reason (1708).

The first manuscript is written in Arabic and is titled ‘Risālah Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān’ (MS Pococke 263, ff. 23-71) and the second is in English and contains fragments of Edward Pococke the elderʼs translation of Ibn Ṭufaylʼs tale into English (MS Pococke 429, ff. 1-2, 16-17). The first page (f.1r) of MS Pococke 429 is dated 10 July 1645, suggesting that Pococke started/completed the English translation at that time. The first and second folio pages contain the beginning of the tale, whereas folio 16 and 17 take up on the narrative at a later point in time. There is a gap in the narration between folio 2 and folio 16, and folio 17 ends in the middle of a sentence.


Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān image 1

Image 1. Fragment of Pococke the elderʼs translation of Ibn Ṭufaylʼs Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, MS Pococke 429, f.1r, Bodleian Library, Oxford. As you may have observed, the date when the manuscript was completed has been added in pencil on the top left-hand corner (‘July 10, 1645’). With the date written in Pococke’s hand on the first page, we may safely surmise that this is the first page in the whole translation; meaning Pococke would have translated the tale without the lengthy preface where Ibn Ṭufayl exposes the theological and philosophical background to the work of imagination. This erasure, when repeated in the subsequent published translation in English, contributes to what I call the de-Islamicization of Ḥayy. 


Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān image 2

Image 2. Fragment of Pococke the elderʼs translation of Ibn Ṭufaylʼs Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, MS Pococke 429, f.17v, Bodleian Library, Oxford. This being the last of the four pages extant, which indeed cut in the middle of a sentence. We are still in the beginning of the narrative where Ḥayy is young in age and observes the natural world around him.


This would suggest that a larger, if not complete, translation in English had been done by Edward Pococke the elder even though we only possess four extant folios of it. This could also indicate that Pococke had completed a translation in English of Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān nearly thirty years prior to the Latin version published by his son in 1671. We can very well imagine that the son not just translated from the Arabic into Latin but also used the English translation of his father as a relay between the two. Normally, the default scenario was that a Latin translation was published first followed by translations in vernacular languages. This would be a rare case of a vernacular language serving as relay between the Eastern original and Latin. In any case, the Latin version published in 1671 permitted the subsequent Quaker, Anglican and orientalist retranslations in English that Louisiane Ferlier and I analysed in greater detail in ‘“Enthusiastick” Uses of an Oriental Tale: The English Translations of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqdhan in the Long Eighteenth Century’.

Why are those two manuscripts so interesting and why is there so much to say about them?

MS Pococke 263 (‘Risālah Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān’) contains notes left in pencil in the margins by the hand of Pococke the elder, specifically where Ibn Ṭufayl quoted from the Qur’ān. In the Arabic manuscript, the Quranic passages are seamlessly interwoven with the Arabic tale, with no indication (for instance a change in the colour of the ink, the use of italics or curly brackets) that the readers are perusing passages from the Qur’ān. Indeed, there would have been no need to flag up such passages to Muslim readers, who would have recognised them anyway. However, Pococke, whose translation was destined for a non-Muslim readership, signposted these passages in the margin giving an indication of the name of the sūra and āyāt numbers. This Arabic manuscript is the one that his son Edward Pococke the younger (d. 1727) used for his Latin printed version. Interestingly enough, the son also reproduced the notes for the sūra and ayāt number left by his father into the margins of the Arabic text.



Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān image 3

Image 3. ‘Risālah Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān’, MS Pococke 263, f.61r. The note here says ‘c. Altakwir et al-Qāri‘a’ with c. meaning ‘capitel’ i.e. chapter or sūra. Pococke identifies one quote as recurring in two different sūrāt.


Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān image 4

Image 4. ‘Risālah Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān’, MS Pococke 263, f.33v. at the top ‘Alc. c. Ta-Ha…’ and then other references which are illegible. In the side margin in Arabic the terms constitute a gloss on the text where a cross appears between the lines, with ḥawuzatihi glossed as al-ḥawuzati-l nāḥiya. Finally, in the bottom margin, there seems to be an explanation for the term naqratun also marked with a small cross in the main text, l. 5 from bottom up. 


Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān image 5

Image 5. ‘Risālah Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān’, MS Pococke 263, f.23v. The note in ink mentions sura al-’Alaq. In pencil are corrections of the main text: from bottom up, intahiy is written because of ink staining in the main text, then the main text has a cross in pencil under la jamjama and in the margin ‘lijamjama la yubaiyn kalimahu [‘for the word jamjama the author does not explain the meaning’]’. This note is very interesting – suggesting, a) that Pococke was reading extremely closely the manuscript and b) that he was reading it potentially in the presence of an Arab scholar who would have answered the query in Arabic and Pococke then would have directly taken note of it in Arabic too, as if writing under dictation.

Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān image 6

 Image 6. ‘Risālah Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān’, MS Pococke 263, f.65v. The note in ink says ‘Alc. p.312 al-nūr' and in pencil ‘Alc. p. 274 mariam’. The handwriting is by Pococke and we may surmise that given the indication of a page number that he was reading Ḥayy with a Qur’ān by his side. These two references may indicate two different passages of the Qur’ān quoted in the main text or one reference in the main text that occurs in two different places in the Qur’ān, namely in sūra Nūr and sūra Mariam.


The pencilled references to the Qur’ān are the only marginal notes by a European hand that I could find in MS Pococke 263 (‘Risālah Ḥayy ibn Yaqzān’), which indicate that the manuscript had been scanned by the orientalist in view of finding and isolating the Quranic passages contained in the tale. The question still unanswered is why this effort to underline and effectively isolate these quotations of the Qur’ān which had been seamlessly interweaved by Ibn Ṭufayl? And why the replication of these notes in the published Latin version by Pococke’s son? What were the implications of signposting the Qur’ān, when leaving the Quranic passages unmarked would have avoided drawing the attention of European Christian readers to them? In my next blog post, I will begin to explore these questions.

Further reading

Attar, Samar. 2007. The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought. Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books.

Ben-Zaken, Avner. Reading Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān. A Cross-Cultural Reading of Autodidacticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Conrad, Lawrence I., ed. The World of Ibn Ṭufayl. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān, Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Daiber, Hans. ‘The Reception of Islamic Philosophy at Oxford in the 17th Century. The Pococks’ (father and son) Contribution to the Understanding of Islamic Philosophy in Europe’, in The Introduction of Arabic Philosophy into Europe, edited by Charles E. Butterworth and B. A. Kesel, 65-82. Leiden: Brill, 1994.

Elmarsafy, Ziad. The Enlightenment Qur’an. The Politics of Translation and the Construction of Islam. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

Elmarsafy, Ziad. ‘Philosophy Self-Taught: Reason, Mysticism, and the Uses of Islam in the Early Enlightenment’, in L’Islam visto da Occidente: Cultura e religione del Seicento europeo di fronte all’Islam, edited by Bernard Heyberger et al. Genoa: Marietti, 2009.

Gallien, Claire and Louisiane Ferlier, ‘”Enthusiastick” Uses of an Oriental Tale: The English Translations of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqdhan in the Eighteenth Century’, in Eastern Resonances in Early-Modern England, edited by Claire Gallien and Ladan Niayesh. New York: Palgrave, 2019, p. 93-114.

Gallien, Claire, ‘Orientalist Pococke: Brokering Across Borders, Disciplines and Genres’, in The Internationalization of Cultural Exchange in a Globalizing Europe, 1636-1780, edited by Robert Mankin. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2017, p. 1-30.

Gallien, Claire, From Corpus to Canon: Appropriations and Reconfigurations of Eastern Literary Traditions in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain (contracted with Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Gutas, Dimitri. ‘Ibn Ṭufayl on Ibn Sīnā’s Eastern philosophy’, Oriens 34 (1994): 222-241.

Kukkonen, Taneli. ‘No Man is an Island. Nature and Neo-Platonic Ethics in Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 46.2 (2008): 187–204.

Hasanali, Parveen. ‘Texts, Translators, Transmission: “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” and its Reception in Muslim, Judaic and Christian Milieux’. PhD diss., McGill University, 1995.                      

Kershner, Jon R. Quakers and Mysticism: Comparative and Syncretic Approaches. New York: Palgrave, 2019.

Kukkonen, Taneli. ‘Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān’, in Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Sabine Schmidtke and Khaled El Rouayheb, 233-254. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Loop, Jan. ‘Divine Poetry? Early Modern European Orientalists on the Beauty of the Koran’, Church History and Religious Culture 89.4 (2009): 455-488.

Randazzo, Christy and David Russell. ‘The Unifying Light of Allah: Ibn Tufayl and Rufus Jones in Dialogue’, in Quakers and Mysticism: Comparative and Syncretic Approaches, edited by Jon R. Kershner. New York: Palgrave, 2019, p. 161-180.

Russell, G. A. ‘The Impact of the Philosophus Autodidacus: Pococke, John Locke and the Society of Friends’. in The ‘Arabick’ Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, edited by G. A. Russell, 224-265. Leiden: Brill, 1993.


Suggested Chicago Style Citation: Claire Gallien, “Ḥayy ibn Yaqdhān and the Disappearing Qur’ān - Part 1 – Manuscripts and Margins,” MEMOrients Blog, June 13, 2023 <https://memorients.com/articles/%E1%B8%A5ayy-ibn-yaqdh%C4%81n-and-the-disappearing-qur%C4%81n*-part-1-%E2%80%93-manuscripts-and-margins>

The pictures are private images taken by the author of this blog and not to be reused without permission and citation. The research conducted by the author in the Islamic Collections of the Bodleian Library was generously funded by the Bahari Visiting Fellowship in the Persian Arts of the Book.

The author is currently working on an article to be submitted to the international academic journal Philological Encounters (Brill) on the same topic.

[1] See the list of suggested readings at the end of this post.