Ibn Tufayl, Abu Bakr Muhammad (before 1110-85)

Ibn Tufayl's thought can be captured in his only extant work, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (The Living Son of the Vigilant), a philosophical treatise in a charming literary form. It relates the story of human knowledge, as it rises from a blank slate to a mystical or direct experience of God after passing through the necessary natural experiences. The focal point of the story is that human reason, unaided by society and its conventions or by religion, can achieve scientific knowledge, preparing the way to the mystical or highest form of human knowledge. The story also seeks to show that, while religious truth is the same as that of philosophy, the former is conveyed through symbols, which are suitable for the understanding of the multitude, and the latter is conveyed in its inner meanings apart from any symbolism. Since people have different capacities of understanding that require the use of different instruments, there is no point in trying to convey the truth to people except through means suitable for their understanding.

  1. Life and works
  2. Ibn Tufayl's introduction to Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
  3. Hayy's birth and rational progress
  4. Harmony of Hayy's philosophy with revealed religion
  5. Suitability of religion in its outward aspect to the majority of people

1. Life and works

Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Malik Ibn Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Tufayl al-Qaysi is known to the West as Abubacer. It can be estimated that he was born in the first decade of the sixth century ah (twelfth century ad), based on the fact that he was in his sixties when he met Ibn Rushd in ah 564/ad 1169. Born in Wadi Ash (Guadix), a small town in Spain about sixty kilometres northeast of Granada, he died in Morocco in ah 581/ad 1185. Ibn Tufayl was the second most important Muslim philosopher in the West, the first being Ibn Bajja.

With the exception of some fragments of poetry, his only extant work is Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (The Living Son of the Vigilant). The title and names of characters of this work are borrowed from two of Ibn Sina's philosophical treatises, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan and Salaman and Absal, and its framework is borrowed from an ancient eastern tale, The Story of the Idol and of the King and His Daughter. The title is taken from the name of the main character, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. In the introduction and conclusion, the author addresses the reader directly; in other parts of the work, he uses a 'thin veil', a symbolic form, a story to express his philosophical views.

2. Ibn Tufayl's introduction to Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

In the introduction the author presents some of the views of his predecessors, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali and Ibn Bajja. Al-Farabi is strongly criticized for what is said to be his inconsistent view concerning the afterlife. No criticism of Ibn Sina is given; on the contrary, it is said that Ibn Sina's oriental wisdom will be expounded in the rest of the work. Ibn Bajja's views are said to be incomplete, mentioning the highest speculative state but not the state above it, that of 'witnessing' or mystical experience (see Ibn Bajja). While al-Ghazali's mystical experience is not in doubt (see al-Ghazali), none of his works on mystical knowledge are said to have reached the author. The introduction is intended to announce the author's intention, namely the elaboration of Ibn Sina's oriental wisdom and to show how the work differs from those of his predecessors.

3. Hayy's birth and rational progress

The story of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan takes place on an equatorial island uninhabited by human beings. 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.

A deer who had just lost her son and was still experiencing the feelings of motherhood heard Hayy's cries. She suckled him, protected him from harmful things and took care of him until she died when he was seven years of age. By then he had learned to imitate other animals in speech, and he covered parts of his body with leaves after noticing that those animal parts are covered with hair or feathers. The deer's death transformed Hayy's life from one of dependency to one of exploration and discovery.

In an effort to find out the reason for the deer's death, a reason which he could not locate by observing her appearance, he dissected her with sharp stones and dry reeds. Noticing that every bodily organ has a proper function and that the left cavity of her heart was empty, he concluded that the source of life must have been in this cavity, and must have abandoned it. He reflected on the nature of this vital thing, its link to the body, its source, the place to which it has departed, the manner of its departure and so on. He realized that it was not the body but this vital entity that was the deer and the source of its actions. With this realization he lost interest in the deer's body, which he then viewed as a mere instrument. While he could not decipher the nature of this vital thing, he observed that the shape of all deer was similar to that of his mother. From this he concluded that all deer were managed by something similar to the vital thing that managed his mother's life.

After his discovery of life, he came across a fire. He noticed that, contrary to other natural objects, which move downward, fire moves upward. This indicated to him that the essence of fire is other than that of natural things. He continued to investigate other parts of nature: animal organs, their arrangement, number, size and position, as well as the qualities that animals, plants and inanimate things have in common and those that are proper to each of them. Through continued reasoning he grasped the concepts of matter and form, cause and effect, unity and multiplicity, as well as other general concepts concerning the earth and the heavens. Concluding that the universe is one in spite of its multiple objects, he moved on to consider whether it is created or eternal. Through highly sophisticated reasoning, he found that neither the idea of creation nor that of eternity is immune to objection. Though he could not rationally decide whether the universe is created or eternal, he concluded that it must have a cause on which it remains dependent and that this cause or necessary being is non-physical and above it in essence, even if not in time.

He also concluded that the thing in him which knew this cause must also be non-physical. The more detached this non-physical thing in him was from sensory perceptions, the clearer was its vision of this cause, a vision that gave the highest joy. Even though sensations obstructed this vision, he felt obliged to imitate animals by experiencing sensations to preserve his animal soul, which would enable him to imitate the heavenly bodies. Imitating the heavenly bodies by doing things like circular movement provided him with continuous but impure vision, for attention in this type of imitation is still paid to the self.

By knowledge of the necessary being, Hayy sought to imitate this being's positive attributes; by an attempt to transcend the physical world, he sought to imitate the negative ones. Imitation of the necessary being for the sake of this being involved no attention to the self and hence provided him with pure vision. Not only was Hayy's self or essence obliterated in this state, but so also was everything other than the necessary being. No human sight, hearing or speech could grasp this state, as it lies beyond the world of nature and sense experience. Therefore no explanation of necessary being can be given, only mere signs, as Ibn Sina contends in al-Isharat wa-'l-tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions). One who seeks an explanation of this state is like one who seeks 'the taste of colours inasmuch as they are colours'. Verification requires direct experience. Using human language, which is described as an inadequate instrument, to hint at the truth Hayy is said to have witnessed in this state, the necessary being is said to pervade the universe as sunlight pervades the physical world. Trying to express the inexpressible, the author says that Hayy realized in this state that the whole is one, even though unity and multiplicity, like other contraries, exist only for sense perception. The Neoplatonic pantheistic tendency is here obvious (see Necessary being; Neoplatonism).

4. Harmony of Hayy's philosophy with revealed religion

On a neighbouring island a group of people, including the king, Salaman, practised a religion which was sound yet provided the masses with symbols, not direct truths. Absal, a friend of Salaman, observed the rituals of this religion but, contrary to others who adhered to its literal meaning, he delved into its inner truths. Being naturally inclined to solitude, which was in agreement with certain passages of the Scripture, Absal moved to the island on which Hayy lived. When he encountered Hayy he was frightened, until Hayy made it clear that he intended no harm. Absal then taught Hayy human language by pointing to objects while uttering the corresponding words.

With the acquisition of language, Hayy was able to explain to Absal his development in knowledge. At hearing this, Absal realised that what Hayy had witnessed were the realities described in his own religion: God, the angels, the holy books, prophets, afterlife and so on. When Absal discussed the truths as detailed in his religion, Hayy too found these truths in agreement with what he had come to know. However, Hayy could not understand why Absal's religion resorted to symbols and permitted indulgence in material things.

5. Suitability of religion in its outward aspect to the majority of people

Hayy expressed interest in visiting the neighbouring island to explain to its people the pure truth. Absal, who knew their nature, reluctantly accompanied him. Addressing the most intelligent group on this island, Hayy was shown respect until he tried to go beyond the literal meaning of their Scripture. The people then shunned him, distracting themselves from the truth by commercial activity. Hayy understood then that such people are incapable of grasping the direct truth and that religion is necessary for their social stability and protection. Social stability and protection, however, in no way secure happiness in the afterlife. Only preoccupation with the divine, which is rare among people of this kind, can provide such security. In contrast, the preoccupation with this world in which the majority of people indulge results in darkness or hell. While the truths of reason and revelation are the same, the majority of those adhering to the latter do so for worldly success and hence achieve eternal misery. Realizing that an attempt to enlighten those incapable of vision will only destabilize them without preparing them for happiness, Hayy asked people to continue practising their religion, warning them only against indulgence in worldly matters. Hayy and Absal returned then to the deserted island to practise their mysticism in isolation.

Ibn Tufayl ends the work by describing it as 'containing a piece of discourse not found in a book nor heard in ordinary speech'. How is this to be understood when he had already told us in the introduction that the work is an elaboration of Ibn Sina's oriental wisdom? Perhaps the answer can be found in Ibn Tufayl's emphasis on the novelty of a certain 'discourse' or 'speech', not on the novelty of its content. If so, the originality of the work would seem to lie only in its form.

See also: Ibn Sina, abu 'Ali al-Husayn; Mysticism in Islamic philosophy; Necessary being; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Ibn Tufayl (before 1185) Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (The Living Son of the Vigilant), ed. L. Gauthier, Beirut: Catholic Press, 1936; trans. L. Goodman, Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, a Philosophical Tale, New York: Twain Publishers, 1972. (Ibn Tufayl's only extant work, this book captures his main philosophical thought.)

References and further reading

Conradi, L.I. (ed.) (1996) The World of Ibn Tufayl: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Hayy Ibn Yaczan, Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Sciences Series, vol. 24, Leiden: Brill. (Contains a large bibliography of works on Ibn Tufayl.)

Goodman, L. (1996) 'Ibn Tufayl', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 22, 313-29. (Good examination of Ibn Tufayl's life and thought.)

Hawi, S. (1973) 'Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, Its Structure, Literary Aspects and Methods', Islamic Culture 47: 191-211. (Focuses on the most essential elements of the work, insisting that it is not a 'symbolic expression' but a 'philosophical discourse'.)

Hawi, S. (1974a) Islamic Naturalism and Mysticism: A Philosophical Study of Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Yaqzan, Leiden: Brill. (Study of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.)

Hawi, S. (1974b) 'Beyond Naturalism: A Brief Study of Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan', Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society 22: 249-67. (Lucid and shows a good grasp of Ibn Tufayl's view of mystical experience.)

Hawi, S. (1976) 'Ibn Tufayl's Appraisal of His Predecessors and Their Influence on His Thought', International Journal of Middle East Studies 7: 89-121. (An attempt to show Ibn Tufayl's originality and the influence on him of al-Farabi and al-Ghazali, rather than Ibn Sina.)

Hourani, G. (1956) 'The Principal Subject of Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan', Journal of Near Eastern Studies 15 (1): 40-46. (An excellent article, which reconsiders the principal subject of Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. It rejects Gauthier's thesis that the essential subject of the work is the harmony of religion and philosophy, arguing instead that it is the ascent of unaided human reason from elementary to mystical knowledge.)

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