Among Denys Johnson-Davies’ Favorites: ‘The Island of Animals’

Among the books translator and author Denys Johnson-Davies (1922-2017) had wanted to see back in greater circulation — possibly with fresh illustrations — was his adaptation of the The Dispute Between Animals and Man, one of the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, written in the tenth-century, The Island of the Animals:

This 96-page book was published in 1994, and follows events that unfold when a storm brings humans to an island that had hitherto belonged only to non-human animals.

It is not many tenth-century Arabic texts that have been translated and adapted for a wide audience, and this was received with some acclaim.

“Moving and educational,” Publishers Weekly” wrote, “this fable is accompanied by superbly detailed black-and-white illustrations, including many full-page spreads. An important book that will be enjoyed by adults and children alike, and a reminder to all of the importance of humane treatment of animals.”

The School Library Journal suggests its suitable for grades 6-12, while Audrey Shabbas of Arab World And Islamic Resources and School Services lists it as Grade 5 through adult.

John Esposito wrote it was, “An ideal Anthology for the study of the Islamic tradition, from the Qur’an to classical texts of Islamic law and mysticism…. provides readers with excellent translations, faithful to the original texts but rendered in clear prose, of classical Islamic source materials,” while another review complains that the “designs sometimes repeat.”

Davies’ translation was also adapted to the stage at Golden Thread Theatre, in 2006, by director Hafiz Karmali. Of the production, Karmali wrote:

Drawing from theatre traditions east & west including commedia dell arte, vaudeville, Khayal (the art of shadow puppetry evolved at Muslim court entertainments), and featuring world music, Island of Animals is an entertaining performance of cross-cultural dimensions. Adapted from the writings of the 10th Century philosophers, Ikhwan al-Safa, the writing emulates the famous Sanskrit Tales of Bidpai, (Kalila wa Dimna), and anticipates Attar’s Conference of the Birds by at least one hundred years.