Hayy ibn Yaqzan
Hayy ibn Yaqzan
by Ibn Tufayl
THE LITRARY WORK
A philosophical tale set on a deserted island at an unspecified time; composed between 1169 and 1182; printed In Arabic with Latin translation in 1671, in English in 1674.
Isolated from human civilization, the infant Hayy ibn Yaqzan is raised by a gazelle on a deserted island Through observation, experimentation, and speculation, he develops profound understandings of the physical and celestial realms. He tries, after a fateful visit, to convey these insights to others, with disappointing results.
Although Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical tale Hayy ibn Yaqzan is one of the most famous medieval Arabic stories to reach the West, precious little is known about the author’s biography. Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl was born c. 1116 in Gaudix, 60 kilometers northeast of Granada in al-Andalus, then the Muslim controlled region of southern Spain and North Africa, and he died in 1185. In 1147, when he was about 30 or 31, Ibn Tufayl traveled to Marrakesh (in modern-day Morocco), where he pursued a political career in the Almohad court. After serving for a time as secretary to the governor of Ceuta, Morocco, and Tangier, Morocco, he became the personal physician of the ruling caliph Abu Ya‘qub al-Mansur and continued to enjoy his patronage even after stepping down from this post. Apart from Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Ibn Tufayl’s works include ascetic and mystical poems, political poems calling on Arab tribes to battle Christian invaders, and a “Rajaz Poem on Medicine” consisting of more than 7,700 verses on theoretical and practical aspects of medicine. In Hayy ibn Yaqzan, he explores some of the most pressing questions of his day about philosophy and religion through the medium of imaginative fiction.
Twelfth-century politics in North Africa
Along with the story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan comes a universal message—through a person’s rational faculties, unaided by human instruction or even language, the person can discover the truths of the natural world, metaphysics, and divinity. Setting the story on a generic island at an unspecified time helps establish this universality. But despite its indefinite setting, the story features intellectual interests, assumptions, and conclusions that point quite clearly to its origins in twelfth-century Almohad North Africa.
At the time of Ibn Tufayl’s birth, Muslim Spain and the Maghrib (North Africa) were under the control of the Almoravids. The dynasty had entered Spain from North Africa in the late eleventh century, coming in response to a petition from the prince of Seville, al-Mu‘tamid, who wanted help in staving off the conquering forces of the Christian king Alfonso VI. Al-Mu‘tamid got more than he bargained for when the Almoravid prince Tashfin ibn Ali came to his aid and then seized Seville for himself. Soon after, the Almoravids conquered the numerous petty states (taifa kingdoms) that made up Muslim Spain. Throughout the period of Almoravid rule, the dynasty fought to protect its holdings from the swelling military might of Christian forces from northern Spain. Ibn Tufayl was no doubt aware of the continually shrinking status of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, as the Christian armies advanced in their conquest (generally called the “Reconquest” by Christian historiography).
In the late 1140s, Muslim Spain was conquered by another Muslim dynasty from North Africa, the Almohads, whose origins hark back to the early twelfth-century spiritual leader Muhammad ibn Tumart. Proclaiming himself “Mahdi” (“Rightly Guided One,” who, it was believed, would rise to power just before the end of time), Ibn Tumart led an unsuccessful revolt against the Almoravids. His successor Abd al-Mu’min, however, conquered the Almoravid capital of Marrakesh in North Africa in 1145 and then proceeded to topple the Almoravids in al-Andalus as well.
It was in 1147, the year of the Almohad conquest of al-Andalus, that Ibn Tufayl journeyed to Marrakesh to seek a career at the nascent Almohad court, becoming a secretary in 1152, then court physician a decade later. Like the Almoravid period, the years of Almohad rule in al-Andalus saw unrelenting conflict with Christian forces from the north. Perhaps in response to the persistent conflict, the Almohads adopted an intolerant form of Islam that led to the persecution of Jews and Christians, one of the rare episodes of widespread forced conversion in Islamic history.
It was Ibn Tufayl’s good fortune to serve at the court of Abu Ya’qub al-Mansur, one of the few Almohad rulers sympathetic to the pursuit of philosophy. In general the anti-philosophical thought of al-Ghazzali (1058–1111) dominated Almohad ideology. According to the thirteenth-century author Ibn Said al-Andalusi (died 1286), Andalusian intellectuals remained unaccomplished in the art of philosophy and astronomy because the suspicions of the masses kept creativity in check, “Both of these [philosophy and astronomy] are of great interest to the elite, but no work on these topics can be undertaken openly out of fear of the common folk” (Ibn Said al-Andalusi in Conrad, p. 10). Because of the anti-philosophical trend that became particularly fierce after Ibn Tufayl’s death, Ibn Rushd (more commonly known by his Latin name, Averroes; 1126–1198), Ibn Tufayl’s successor as court physician and the most renowned Arab philosopher to reach the West, was exiled from the court of Cordoba, Spain, and remained relatively unknown in the Islamic world as a philosopher (though he did maintain a reputation as a jurist). Read against this background, Hayy ibn Yaqzan stands out as a bold contribution to philosophy in the Almohad period in that it contains a defense of the philosophical project and an admonition against its neglect.
Twelfth-century Islamic philosophy
Far more apparent in Hayy ibn Yaqzan than contemporary political events is the state of intellectual achievement in al-Andalus and the Maghrib in Ibn Tufayl’s day. Ibn Tufayl was well-trained not only in traditional Islamic teaching but also in the philosophical tradition of Muslim thinkers who had expanded upon the works of classical philosophers and natural scientists (such as Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Plotinus) known to the Islamic world through Arabic translations. In fact, for the most part, Aristotelian and Neoplatonic physics and metaphysics informed Ibn Tufayl’s world-view. The earth was a sphere surrounded by concentric spheres in which the planets were embedded. The heart was the seat of the human soul, which consisted of three parts, the “rational soul” (unique to humans), the “animal soul” (common to humans and animals), and the “vegetative soul” (common to humans, animals and plants). The human body was a microcosm, a model of the universe in miniature.
Muslim philosophers in the East (al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, known by his Latin name, Avicenna) and in Spain (Ibn Bajjah—in Latin, Avempace) speculated about the identity of God. With their help, Muslims developed a view of God as an incorporeal Being, despite the many references in the Quran to humanlike characteristics (similar discussions were held among Jews and Christians about anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Bible). God was understood to be the First Mover of Aristotelian physics, the originator who brought about the world either through an act of Will or out of Necessity, as explained by Aristotle (in the fourth century b.c.e). To concur with the later (third century c.e.) Neoplatonic view of creation, the scriptural creation story was often interpreted allegorically as a chain of successive emanations from God (called the One). (All existence, said the Neoplatonic philosophers, emanated from the One, with whom the soul could be reunited.) One hotly debated topic (about which Ibn Tufayl remained uncertain) was whether the world was “created in time,” as religious tradition maintained, or was “eternal,” as Aristotle held.
Despite the numerous achievements in Islamic philosophy (yet to reach its apex with Ibn Rushd), Ibn Tufayl remained frustrated by the limits of these achievements and by the scarcity of sources. His dissatisfaction with intellectual progress in his day is apparent in the introduction to Hayy ibn Yaqzan,
Do not suppose that the philosophy which has reached us in the books of Aristotle and or in Avicenna’s Healing will satisfy you… or that any Andalusian has written anything adequate on this subject.… Our contemporaries are as yet at a developmental stage.
(Ibn Tufayl, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, pp. 99–100)
Hayy ibn Yaqzan is more than a fictional tale that digests and popularizes the intellectual traditions of al-Andalus. Rather, it braids together various intellectual strains—philosophical and mystical—to produce a unique and original synthesis. The tale participates in the “developmental” process its writer ascribes to philosophy in his day.
Although Ibn Tufayl was recognized by scholars in the East and West primarily as a faylasuf, a philosopher, there are undeniable leanings toward Sufism (Islamic mysticism) throughout Hayy ibn Yaqzan. In general, Sufis (despite their variety) sought to achieve states of spiritual intimacy with the Divine through such practices as fasting, prayer, wearing simple garments of wool (Arabic, suf, hence “Sufi”), repetitive movements and chanting the name of God (called dhikr). According to some, the spiritual seeker could attain a state of intimacy with the Divine wherein the boundary between seeker and object (i.e., God) would become obliterated.
Ibn Tufayl has not been identified as a member of any of the specific Sufi orders of his day. Yet his writing shows an awareness of and appreciation for some of Sufism’s general goals and motifs. He may have studied Sufism while residing in Marrakesh, a prominent Sufi center in the Almohad period. The introduction of Hayy ibn Yaqzan contains an apology for the ecstatic utterances of famous Sufis charged with blasphemy; their statements, according to Ibn Tufayl, have been misconstrued simply because it is impossible to explain mystical experience through language. His protagonist, Hayy, adopts habits reminiscent of Sufi practices (asceticism, leaving his cave only once a week to obtain food, moving in circular motions like the famous “whirling dervishes” of the Mawlawi [or Mevleviyeh] Sufi order). As noted, Ibn Tufayl was primarily a philosopher; nevertheless, the author of one thirteenth-century Sufi biographical work (Kitab al-tashawwuf ila rijal al-tasawuff [Book of Longing for the Men of Sufism]), Ibn al-Zayyat, cites Ibn Tufayl as his own teacher’s mentor (Cornell, p. 136).
Early translations of Hayy ibn Yaqzan unfortunately omit the important introduction in which the author sets forth his reasons for composing the text and paints a picture of the state of intellectual achievement in his day. As is the case with many medieval Arabic texts, the author addresses his work to a petitioner who has asked for clarification on a particular point, in this case the philosophy of the renowned Eastern philosopher Ibn Sina.
Ibn Tufayl writes that the petitioner’s questions stimulated him such that he was elevated to an indescribable state of sublimity. It is in such a state of sublimity, Ibn Tufayl writes, that certain Muslim mystics would utter radical, even blasphemous statements, such as the martyr al-Hallaj’s (died 922) cry “I am the Truth!” (a name for God), seeming to identify himself with God (see Murder in Baghdad , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Ibn
IBN SINA (AVICENNA)
A Persian philosopher who wrote primarily in Arabic, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina was born in the west Asian city of Bukhara in the year 980. His works, which began to be translated into Latin in the twelfth century, would play a central role in the development of philosophy in the West (where he became known as Avicenna). Altogether he wrote from 100 to 250 works. Among them are a treatise on prayer, a commentary on several surahs (chapters) of the Quran, the al-Qanun fi al tibb (Canon of Medicine), which formed the basis of medical studies in the East and West for centuries, a great summa of philosophy entitled the Kitab al-shifa (The Book of Healing), al-Risala fi al ishq (The Treatise on Love), a (mostly lost) philosophical encyclopedia Kitab al-insaf (The Book of impartial Judgment), and the trilogy of mystical romances, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, The Recital of the Bird, and Salaman and Absal The first in the trilogy, Hayy ibn Yaqzan expresses what ibn Sina called hikmah mashriqiyah, or “oriental philosophy.” A mediating angel representing the Active Intellect leads the protagonist Hayy ibn Yaqzan, symbolizing the human soul, on an eastward journey through metaphysical geography. In the process of this journey, philosophy ceases to be the cold, nonexperiential pursuit of theoretical knowledge; rather, philosophy’s contents—knowledge of matter and form, of substance and accident—become experienced to help free the soul from the fetters of corporeal existence. In the words of Henri Corbin, “Hence the cosmos is no longer the external object, the distant model, of descriptions, of theoretical inventions, of deductive explanations: it is experienced and shown as a succession of the stages of a more or less perilous exodus upon which one is able to enter or which one has essayed” (Corbin, p. 33), Ibn Sina’s Hayy ibn Yaqzstn did not become known in the West until the modern period but did influence generations of Muslim thinkers, notably Ibn Tufayl and the illuminationist Suhrawardi, author of Qissat al-ghurbah al-gharbiyah (The Story of the Occidental Exile). It influenced as well the twelfth-century intellect Abraham ibn Ezra, who produced a Hebrew rendition of Hayy ibn Yaqzan (called Hayy ben Meqitz) in rhymed prose, Ibn Sina died in 1037 near Harnadhan.
Tufayl sympathizes with the dilemma of mystical experience—once one achieves a sublime state in which the distinction between self and God is obliterated, the experience becomes inexpressible through language. He illustrates this with a well-known verse by al-Ghazzali,
It was—what it was is harder to say.
Think the best, but don’t make me describe it away.
(Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 96)
Any attempt to convey the sublime mystical experience only leads to misunderstanding. Thus, rather than offering a description of his own experience of ecstasy, Ibn Tufayl will present a fictional account, the tale of how one man achieved ecstasy using nothing but his faculties. That man is Hayy ibn Yaqzan, whose name literally means “Alive, son of Awake.”
Hayy has been nursed, weaned, and raised by a gazelle on a “certain equatorial island lying off the coast of India,” which, in medieval Arabic literature, is somewhat like setting a story in a “distant galaxy far far away” (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 103). The author alerts the reader to the fictional nature of the narrative by presenting two alternate versions of how Hayy arrived on the island. In one version, Hayy came to life spontaneously out of clay, thanks to the superlative temperateness of the equatorial climate. In the second version, the sister of a tyrant king married a kinsman in secret, far from the eyes of her brother, who insisted on choosing her spouse himself. Soon she conceived and bore a child and, fearing her royal brother’s wrath, cast the infant into the sea in a casket, praying for the baby’s protection (a scene reminiscent of the Moses story in the Quran [20:39; 28:7]). A current carried the casket to a deserted island and lodged it in a thicket that protected it from inclement weather. When the baby grew hungry, his cries alerted a gazelle that nursed him from her udder.
By the age of two, Hayy learned to walk and went foraging with his gazelle-mother. He grew up among other gazelles, eating and sleeping with them and mimicking their various sounds. Soon Hayy discovered the physical differences between himself and the animals. At first he took these differences for his own deficiencies; he was naked because he lacked fur; he recognized too that he was physically weaker than the animals and unequipped with defensive attributes such as horns or claws. Later, at the age of seven, he realized he had an advantage over the other animals. He alone could use tools to clothe and protect himself. Hayy began to reason for practical purposes.
During Hayy’s seventh year, his gazelle-mother grew ill and died, which led to perhaps the most transformative experience of Hayy’s life. Hoping that he might heal the gazelle, using tools he himself had fashioned, he split open her chest and explored her organs. Reaching the same conclusion as Aristotle, Hayy reasoned that, that which renders the body without sensation or motion must be located in the heart. His mother was gone; only her lifeless body was left, low and worthless. Hayy was distinguishing between the being that had been his mother and the body she occupied.
Hayy soon fashioned himself a home and learned to control fire for warmth. He expanded his diet, learned to roast fish and meat and became a hunter. With great diligence, he pursued the questions his mind raised about the nature of life. He dissected and vivisected various animals, “improving the quality of his mind” until he reached “the level of the finest natural scientists” (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 117).
At age 21, Hayy moved beyond this hands-on approach to the natural sciences and began to consider in his mind all entities that generate and decay in the world (plants, animals, minerals, water, steam, ice, snow, fire, smoke). He contemplated the qualities they share and those that differentiate one from the other. Considering collections of animals, he thought of them not only as individual beings but also as species and then of the entire animal kingdom as a unit. Next he did the same with plants. And then he compared plants and animals, finding them to be alike in nutrition and growth but different in sense perception, locomotion, and sensation. He concluded that all bodies, whether animate or inanimate, share the quality of physicality. Hayy was thinking abstractly.
Recognizing that something apart from corporeality must distinguish animals from plants and inanimate objects, Hayy began to contemplate the spiritual world, which “cannot be apprehended by the senses, but only by reasoning” (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 123). He discovered what philosophers call the “animal soul” and the “vegetative soul” and sought to understand the nature of the soul, much as he had sought to understand the nature of the body after the death of his gazelle-mother. Ultimately Hayy reached many of the same conclusions as the philosophers of Ibn Tufayl’s day: all objects are composed of matter and form, everything that comes into being must have some cause, and so forth.
In his search for causes, Hayy postulated that there must be some Cause of all causes. Unable to find this Cause in the sensory world, he speculated further concerning the celestial realm and metaphysics. By way of experiments carried out through reason only, Hayy concluded (agreeing with Aristotle) that the physical universe is finite. By observing the motions of the heavenly bodies, he learned that the firmament is spherical.
Hayy also contemplated one of the most fiercely debated topics of Ibn Tufayl’s day, whether, as religious tradition holds, the universe was created from nothing (ex nihilo) in time or whether, as Aristotle maintained, it is eternal. Neither solution seemed wholly satisfactory to him. Unable to resolve the issue, Hayy reached an astounding realization—both premises lead to a single conclusion. If the world was created in time, then it was created through the will of a Maker, the Cause of all causes, who cannot be apprehended by the senses. If the world is eternal, then the cause of its eternal motion must be an incorporeal Mover. Hayy in this way came to know what medieval philosophers understood to be God, the Unmoved Mover, the ontological cause of the world, whose eternal, unwavering existence, beneficence, and mercy sustain the world. The twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides would reach a similar conclusion.
Reaching the age of 35, Hayy becomes solely concerned with understanding this Being, believing that coming to know the Necessarily Existent before death is the key to everlasting joy and
HEPTADIC STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT
In the modern field of developmental psychology, Erik HL Erikson was influential for his epigenetic theory of personality development, which taught that critical elements of human personality unfold according to a hardwired plan, just as physical growth does. Like many aspects of modern thought, this system has ancient and medieval precursors, albeit with significant differences. The Greek poet Solon was probably the first to delineate the “ages of man,” according to which the human being develops in ten distinguishable stages of seven years each (for this reason the system is called “septennial” or “heptadic”). In keeping with this scheme, Hayy ibn Yaqzan’s cognitive and intellectual faculties develop according to a heptadic system. Each stage allows for achievements beyond Hayy’s grasp at the previous stage. Up until age seven, Hayy is a child dependent upon his “mother” for nourishment and acts on the basis of Instinct and imitation. From ages seven to 21, Hayy uses reason toward practical ends, creating tools and experiments to learn about the natural world. At 21, he begins to contemplate metaphysics and at 28, he uses pure reason to examine such abstract problems as the finite or infinite nature of the universe and whether the universe is created in time or is eternal. In the remaining seven-year stages through age 49), Hayy seeks to know God through spiritual exercises that lead to his having the sublime experience of obliterating the distinctions between himself and the object of his contemplation.
delight. He quickly recognizes that his senses are of no use in this pursuit, since the Being is incorporeal. Encountering no other being on earth that pursues knowledge of the Being, he turns his attention toward the heavenly bodies, which he surmises must have knowledge of the Necessarily Existent since they are not subject to the hindrances of sensory distractions. Hayy believes that he is a species apart from the other animals, more akin to the celestial bodies. Even on the level of physical resemblance, he sees his body as a microcosm of the cosmos.
Hayy supposes that he can achieve understanding of the Necessarily Existent by imitating animals, celestial beings, and the Maker Himself in various ways. So he seeks to emulate the actions of the heavenly beings, even as he accepts that his body, like that of animals, requires sustenance and care. He swears to eat only the bare minimum of food, limiting his diet to only vegetables and fruits in order to preserve the work of the Creator. When he consumes fruits and vegetables, he is careful to disperse the seeds so that the species will not perish. He resorts to eating meat only when nourishing vegetables are unavailable and even then takes only from what is most abundant. He aids all plant and animal life, thereby imitating heavenly beings (because they offer nourishment and protection). Also he keeps his body immaculately clean (because the stars are luminous and untainted), moves in Sufi-like circular motions (to imitate orbits), and fixes his mind on the Necessarily Existent Being. Soon afterward, Hayy tries to rid himself of his physical being entirely, sitting secluded in a meditative state without eating or moving. Ultimately the world of the senses melts away, even self-consciousness and identity, such that all that remains is the One, the True Being. Through nothing but his power of reason, Hayy has acquired the sum total of philosophical and theological teaching in Ibn Tufayl’s day, mastering both physics and metaphysics.
However, the philosophical tale does not end here. One day, Hayy encounters Absal, a human from a nearby island who has come to Hayy’s island in search of spiritual solitude. The guest, of course, baffles Hayy, who has never before set eyes on such a being. Absal hails from an island where all of the inhabitants adhere to an unnamed “true religion” that bears striking similarities to Islam. The religion is based on the teachings of a “certain ancient prophet” and has its own “Law” (called Sharf ah, the Arabic term for Islamic law proper); there are obligations to pray, fast, make pilgrimage and give charity (four of Islam’s “Five Pillars”). Absal’s practices of asceticism and spiritual solitude mimic the Sufi methods; having sworn off his worldly possessions, dressed in a woolen cloak (like Sufis), he spends his days in the service of God, eating little and contemplating His “most beautiful names and divine attributes” (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 157).
Both Hayy and Absal refrain from their pursuit of sublimity in order to learn more about each other. Absal teaches Hayy to speak and Hayy recounts all he has experienced and learned. Absal listens attentively to Hayy’s experiences beyond the sensory world, concluding that “all the traditions of his [Absal’s] religion about God, His angels, bibles and prophets, Judgement Day, and Heaven are symbolic representations of these things that Hayy ibn Yaqzan had seen for himself (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 160). Absal then teaches Hayy about the deficiencies of human civilization, whereupon Hayy develops pity for humans and a desire to save them.
By God’s command, a misguided ship finds Hayy and Absal on the shore and ferries them back to Absal’s island. Recognizing (like many medieval philosphers) that the masses may not be amenable to his teachings, Hayy speaks only to an educated elite, headed by Absal’s friend Salaman. Salaman and his circle, while steadfast in the practice of religion, are unfamiliar with the symbolic nature of the Law. Despite initial hopes, Hayy is unable to persuade even this group to think beyond the constraints of the physical world and the literal interpretation of their religion.
Hayy ibn Yaqzan began to teach this group and explain some of his profound wisdom to them. But the moment he rose the slightest bit above the literal or began to portray things against which they were prejudiced, they recoiled in horror from his ideas and closed their minds… the more he taught, the more repugnance they felt, despite the fact that these were men who loved the good and sincerely yearned for the Truth. Their inborn infirmity simply would not allow them to seek Him as Hayy did, to grasp the true essence of His being and see Him in His own terms.
(Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 163)
With resignation, Hayy accepts that these humans can do no better than continue on their present course of literal adherence to the Law and never achieve the “level of the blessed” (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 165). Hayy and Absal return to the deserted island, again achieve states of spiritual ecstasy, and so serve God until death overtakes them.
The critique of orthodox Islam
Most of Western scholarship has stressed the philosophical dimension of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, focusing on the story up to the point of Hayy’s sublime experience. However, it is from the tale’s second part, following the appearance of Absal, that one can decipher Ibn Tufayl’s attitudes toward contemporary religious belief and practice.
As noted, the religion of Absal’s island bears a striking resemblance to Islamic practice. The Law of the island dwellers contains statements in favor of a life of solitude but other statements in favor of social integration and community involvement. Ibn Tufayl contrasts these two aspects of Islam through the characters of Absal and his friend Salaman.
Absal devoted himself to the quest for solitude, preferring the words of the Law in its favor because he was naturally a thoughtful man, fond of contemplation and of probing for the deeper meaning of things; and he did find the most propitious time for seeking what he hoped for to be when he was alone. But Salaman preferred being among people and gave greater weight to the sayings of the Law in favor of society, since he was by nature chary of too much independent thinking or doing. In staying with the group he saw some means of fending off demonic promptings, dispelling distracting thoughts, and in general guarding against the goadings of the devil.
(Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 157)
Prior to Absal’s sojourn on Hayy’s island, Absal and Salaman studied together, ardently maintaining the same beliefs about God, angels, resurrection, and reward and punishment. While both men were passionate adherents of the religion, Absal was a reflective and ascetic spiritualist who read the Law allegorically while Salaman was a political ruler concerned with the literal meaning of the Law and the outward performance of religious precepts. The story presents both paths as valid alternatives, but not equally so; in fact, there is a clear preference for the contemplative-allegorical approach and a rather unsubtle critique of an anti-philosophical orthodox Islam.
The critique is illustrated most strikingly through the ironic usage of a Quranic quotation in the text. As Absal teaches Hayy about the religious Law of his island, Hayy is dumbfounded by references to the corporeal existence of God, laws dealing with property and money, and the absence of general ethical teachings such as the curbing of wealth and of gluttony. Why did the prophet not describe God as an incorporeal entity and offer ethical prescriptions concerning moderation (like those of Aristotle and Plato)? According to Hayy, if people understood the truth as he had come to know it, they would not quibble over money or own personal property and would take only what was necessary to survive. Here the narrator inserts,
What made him [Hayy] think so was his naive belief that all men had outstanding character, brilliant minds and resolute spirits. He had no idea how stupid, inadequate, thoughtless, and weak willed they are, “like sheep gone astray, only worse.”
(Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 162)
The final part of the quotation is from the Quran (25:44), from a passage that censures the pagans of Mecca for not accepting Muhammad’s revelation. By directing this charge against the believers on Absal’s island who, after all, did follow the basic precepts of their “true religion,” Ibn Tufayl is making a thinly veiled critique of institutional Islam in his day.
Like many of his contemporary philosophers, Ibn Tufayl held the uneducated masses in low regard. Yet, his critique is not leveled against the masses only. Also members of the elite, the men of learning and power under Salaman, are neither willing nor capable of grasping Hayy’s teachings. They do not see that the teachings of their faith are merely symbols, garments for the truth that Hayy attained through his philosophical and spiritual engagement. In Ibn TufayPs view, proper religious practice entailed speculation, meditation, and an allegorical approach toward law beyond what is required through the practice of precepts and literalist interpretation.
While Ibn Tufayl would not have advocated a renunciation of religious practice in favor of meditation and asceticism alone (even Hayy becomes a “believer” to some extent and adopts basic tenets of Absal’s religion), his critique of the limits of orthodox Islam is striking. Ibn Tufayl insisted upon the equivalence of philosophy and religion. In contrast, the rising orthodox view in his day held in contempt speculation and the allegorical interpretation of the Quran. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan may be his way of advising the ruling Almohad dynasty, Ibn Tufayl’s sometime patrons, to resist the growing orthodox trend. The disparaging portrayal of Salaman and his circle was certainly intended as an admonition to the ruling elite to not devalue the philosophical endeavor. Not long after Ibn Tufayl’s death, an intolerant, orthodox form of Islam did predominate (partly as a unifying ideology to resist the Christian Reconquest), and it indeed stamped out the philosophical strain of theology.
Although not addressed explicitly, an important question grows out of Ibn Tufayl’s narration with regard to the validity of other religious traditions. If the specific practices and teachings of Islam are really only metaphors for a truth that Hayy reached without instruction, then could not the practices and teachings of other religions (at least monotheistic ones) be equally valid metaphors for that same truth? There is no evidence that Ibn Tufayl saw this relativist suggestion as a logical corollary of his theory of the symbolic nature of revealed religion. That is, we do not know that he saw this conclusion as a necessary outcome of his theory that the tenets of revealed religion are only metaphors for truth. If he did, it may have been beyond the literary freedom of his time to espouse such a suggestion. In any case, the universal teaching of Hayy ibn Yaqzan attracted non-Muslims. There survives an anonymous medieval Hebrew translation, a Hebrew commentary by the fourteenth-century Jewish philosopher Moses of Narbonne, and a fifteenth-century Latin translation (from the Hebrew) by Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola. Hayy ibn Yaqzan would enjoy an even warmer reception in late-seventeenth-century Europe.
Sources and literary context
Hayy ibn Yaqzan bears the imprint of diverse sources, including (among others) the Quran and hadith (sayings of and about the prophet Muhammad), Mu‘tazilite theology, medical and mathematical works, al-Ghazzali’s Mishkat al-anwar (The Niche of Lights), Sufi literature, and of course, the work’s predecessor of the same name, Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Sina, the famous philosopher of the Islamic East about whom Ibn Tufayl’s petitioner had inquired. Ibn Sina’s work is a symbolic tale of an almost dreamlike quality in which a Sage named Hayy ibn Yaqzan (representing the Active Intellect) guides the narrator (representing the Human Soul) on a journey through metaphysical geography—through the realms of matter and form—ultimately to meet the Divine King. The names of Ibn Tufayl’s other main characters are borrowed from another of Ibn Sina’s allegorical tales, Salaman and Absal.
Perhaps the most surprising source of influence is an Alexander romance that is preserved fragmentarily in Arabic. In this story, the infant of a royal family is cast away at sea but is miraculously delivered to an island refuge where he is raised by a deer. Unlike Hayy, however, the youth begins to acquire knowledge only when encountered by another human being (who turns out to be his father). Despite the similarities, the stories lead to opposite conclusions. Knowledge in the Alexander romance comes through instruction and convention; in Hayy ibn Yaqzan, it is acquired naturally.
Publication and reception
Little is known concerning the reception of Hayy ibn Yaqzan in the medieval period apart from the survival of a handful of Arabic manuscripts and the Hebrew and Latin translations. The tale was first published in the West in 1671 by Edward Pococke with an introduction by his father, a renowned professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford University. Translating it into Latin, Edward Pococke bestowed a title upon the work that betrays his own particular reading: Philosophus autodidactus, sive epistola Abijaafar, Ebn Tophail de Hai Ebn Yokdhan. In qua Ostenditur, quomodo ex Inferiorum contemplatione ad Superiorum notitxam Ratio humana ascendere posit (Self-taught philosopher: in which it is demonstrated by what means human reason can ascend from contemplation of the Inferior to knowledge of the Superior). By privileging the first part of the tale (up until Hayy’s attainment of the sublime) over the second (Hayy’s sojourn in the land of Absal), Pococke revealed the interests of his fellow late-seventeenth-century philosophers: Is religion natural or practiced only out of convention? Is the concept of God self-evident or derived through rational speculation? It has been suggested that the striking similarity between the self-taught philosopher and John Locke’s famous claim that the human mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) at birth is more than mere coincidence. Locke had personal connections to the Pocockes, both father and son, and began his drafts for his Essay on Human Understanding in the same year that Pococke’s edition of Hayy ibn Yaqzan appeared. Pococke’s Latin translation circulated among intellectuals throughout Europe and was soon retranslated into Dutch, German and English. First and foremost, Hayy ibn Yaqzan attained a reputation as a book of philosophy that espoused the natural philosophers’ conviction that human reason, as long as it remained unhindered, was a reliable tool for learning the mysteries of the world, metaphysics, and God. There has been speculation that beyond this service, Hayy ibn Yaqzan played a role in shaping Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1717). Though this classic is likewise an adventure of isolation and fortitude set on a deserted island, significant plot differences allow for limited comparison only. In the modern Arab world, Hayy ibn Yaqzan continues to be reprinted frequently and to occupy a place in popular imagination through paintings, films, and television specials.
—Jonathan P. Decter
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