Ibn Tufayl was a medieval thinker and an heir to the oriental philosophy of Avicenna Ibn Sina and the scholarship of Algazel Al-Ghazali. His work Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is a fable treating the life of an ideal man who comes to physical, intellectual, and spiritual maturity outside any human community. Only in the final pages of the tale does Hayy encounter society, culture, and religious tradition, and the encounter is a disappointing one in many respects. The narrative itself is reasonably compact, but the University of Chicago edition of the English translation includes a great deal of useful apparatus.
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Find out more Album folio fragment with scholar in a garden. Attributed to Muhammad Ali His story Hayy ibn Yaqzan is the tale of a child raised by a doe on an unnamed Indian Ocean island. Each has a version of human happiness. Ibn Tufayl begins with a vision of humanity isolated from society and politics. He introduces Hayy by speculating about his origin. Whether Hayy was placed in a basket by his mother to sail through the waters of life like Moses or born by spontaneous generation on the island is irrelevant, Ibn Tufayl says.
His divine station remains the same, as does much of his life, spent in the company only of animals. Later philosophers held that society elevates humanity from its natural animal state to an advanced, civilised one. Ibn Tufayl took a different view. He maintained that humans can be perfected only outside society, through a progress of the soul, not the species. It proves easy enough for him to fend off other creatures by waving sticks at them or donning terrifying costumes of hides and feathers.
Desperate to revive her, Hayy dissects her heart only to find one of its chambers is empty. The coroner-turned-theologian concludes that what he loved in his mother no longer resides in her body. Death therefore was the first lesson of metaphysics, not politics. Pondering the plurality of matter leads him to conclude that it must originate from a singular, non-corporeal source or First Cause.
He notes the perfect motion of the celestial spheres and begins a series of ascetic exercises such as spinning until dizzy to emulate this hidden, universal order. By the age of 50, he retreats from the physical world, meditating in his cave until, finally, he attains a state of ecstatic illumination. Reason, for Ibn Tufayl, is thus no absolute guide to Truth.
Yet many later modern European commentaries or translations of Hayy confuse this by framing the allegory in terms of reason. After Hayy achieves his perfect condition, an ascetic is shipwrecked on his island. Hayy is surprised to discover another being who so resembles him. Curiosity leads him to befriend the wanderer, Absal. Hayy is driven by compassion to teach them the Truth. The encounter is disastrous. Hayy realises that they are incapable of understanding.
They are driven by satisfactions of the body, not the mind. There can be no perfect society because not everyone can achieve a state of perfection in their soul. Illumination is possible only for the select, in accordance with a sacred order, or a hieros archein.
This hierarchy of being and knowing is a fundamental message of neo-Platonism. This is a radical critique of the law and its ethical principles: they are normatively necessary for social life yet inherently contradictory and impossible. Like the islanders, we follow principles that can undermine themselves. To be hospitable, we must be open to the stranger who violates hospitality.
To be democratic, we must include those who are antidemocratic. To be worldly, our encounters with other people must be opportunities to learn from them, not just about them.
In the end, Hayy returns to his island with Absal, where they enjoy a life of ecstatic contemplation unto death. They abandon the search for a perfect society of laws. Their eutopia is the quest of the mind left unto itself, beyond the imperfections of language, law and ethics — perhaps beyond even life itself. The islanders offer a less obvious lesson: our ideals and principles undermine themselves, but this is itself necessary for political life.
For an island of pure ethics and law is an impossible utopia. Perhaps, like Ibn Tufayl, all we can say on the search for happiness is quoting Al-Ghazali : It was — what it was is harder to say. She is the author of Reading Darwin in Arabic, She lives in New York. Murad Idris is assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
Like the later medieval Christian theologians, Islamic and Arabic thinkers sought to reconcile reason and the revelation of their scripture. In eleventh-century southern Spain, Arabic philosophers achieved a thriving intellectual center in the cultural milieu of al-Andalus Andalusia. Ibn Tufayl ca. Ibn Tufayl presented this view in an intriguing essay that posited human solitude as an essential method for acquiring the highest knowledge. But Ibn Tufayl offered a novel presentation for his recapitulation of philosophical ideas. The purpose of his narrative is to point to esoteric doctrines, beyond philosophy and reason, in order to attract the discerning, as Ibn Tufayl puts it. But he affirms that is it presented in a veiled way in order to discourage the foolish.
Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
The title is taken from the name of the main character, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Al-Farabi is strongly criticized for what is said to be his inconsistent view concerning the afterlife. There Hayy is found alone as an infant. Philosophers were of the opinion that he was born spontaneously when the mixture of elements reached an equilibrium state, making it possible for this mixture to receive a human soul from the divine world. Traditionalists believed that he was the son of a woman who chose to keep her marriage to her relative, Yaqzan, secret from her brother who ruled a neighbouring island and did not find any man qualified to marry his sister. After breastfeeding Hayy well, she put him in a box and threw it into the waters, which took him to the uninhabited island. She suckled him, protected him from harmful things and took care of him until she died when he was seven years of age.
Ibn Tufayl and the story of the feral child of philosophy