Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan as Parody
Early 12th century Muslim Spain was home to some of the most influential polymaths in the world. Decidedly a focal point of cultural exchange and preservation, Andalusian society patronized the likes of Ibn Bajja (Avempace), Ibn Tufayl (Abubacer), Maimonides, and Ibn Rushd (Averroës). The works of such thinkers, too often ignored today, represent some of the highpoints of medieval thought, inspiring countless philosophers, novelists, and more—from Thomas Aquinas and Galileo, to Dante and Daniel Defoe.
Ibn Tufayl specifically was not only a talented mathematician, poet, and court physician, but also a deep philosopher and theologian. His genre-defying work, Hayy ibn Yaqzan pioneered a new kind of writing. I say genre-defying because, despite centuries of scholarship and analysis, there is no consensus in the academic world about the genre of Hayy. Some say Ibn Tufayl wrote the first ever “philosophical novel,” some say he invented the genre of castaway narratives (more popularly called Robinsonades, coined after Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), and one of the book’s recent translators, Lenn Evan Goodman, ruled it a “philosophical tale.” Within the span of one page, Michael Miller characterizes Hayy as an “Islamic story,” “philosophical fable,” “thought experiment,” and “novelette,” while Fedwa Malti-Douglas manages to refer to Hayy as a “treatise,” “story,” “myth,” and “allegory” within a single paragraph. There are also claims about what Hayy is not. For example, G. A. Russell writes that it is “not scriptural, nor specifically mathematical, astronomical, or medical.” Ibn Tufayl himself says that he will relate to us, “the story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Absal, and Salaman, who were given their names by Avicenna himself. For the tale points a moral for all with heart to understand, ‘a reminder for anyone with a heart or ears to listen and to hear’” (103). I want to propose a new reading of Ibn Tufayl’s timeless text as a parody of the anti-social mystic who alone can reach an understanding of the Divine through nothing but pure reason and intellectual prowess.
Hayy ibn Yaqzan follows the life of the novel’s titular hero, who grows up in a remote and uninhabited island, and ultimately finds God through his empirical study of nature. The name Hayy ibn Yaqzan literally translates to “Alive, son of Awake” and Ibn Tufayl offers two different accounts of how Hayy came to the island: either Hayy was spontaneously generated, the spawn of a serendipitous mixing of elements, nutrients, and weather patterns on the island, or he was the product of a forbidden relationship, and his mother cast him into the sea to protect herself and her baby. Despite the alternative conception stories, Ibn Tufayl reassures us that the rest of the story is a single, unified narrative. A doe takes care of Hayy until his seventh year, when the doe passes away. Hayy develops a thorough and mostly material curiosity until “he reached the level of the finest natural scientists” (117). Ibn Tufayl conveniently skips Hayy’s adolescence, and tells us that when Hayy turns twenty-one, he has amassed knowledge of not just the material world around him, improving his living conditions by making clothes and shelter, building weapons, and using fire, but he has also considered the animating spirit in each living being.
In the next seven years of his life, Hayy moves from the study of the physical to the metaphysical. He discovers unity and multiplicity, comes to differentiate the forms of the animal, vegetative, and pure souls, and becomes familiar with the laws of cause and effect. As he steps into his twenty-eighth year, Hayy studies the celestial bodies and considers whether his world is created or eternal, concluding that there must be “a non-corporeal Author of the universe” regardless (133). He spends the next seven years in deep contemplation of the nature of this Author, and finds Him to be necessarily existent, eternal, independent, and ontologically prior to everything created.
By age thirty-five, Hayy has ceased studying the physical world, and has shifted his focus “from craft to Craftsman, deepening his love of Him, totally detaching his heart from the sensory world, and binding it to the world of mind” (135).What follows is the self-imposed training and spiritual growth of Hayy and finally his “complete death-of-self and real contact with the divine'' (152) as he reaches the age of fifty. Having exhaustively abstracted his understanding of the One, Hayy now spends as much time as he possibly can in contemplation, and longs that God “would ease him altogether of his body, which constantly called him away from his post” (156).
Unbeknownst to Hayy, a visitor from nearby comes to his island in search of solitude and peace for divine contemplation. Hayy finally runs into the visitor, Absal, and after an initial state of confusion, the two men get to know each other. Absal teaches Hayy how to talk, and as Hayy explains his beliefs, Absal realizes that Hayy is “a man of God” and that he wants to become Hayy’s disciple (160). When Absal talks about his own island and the traditional religious practices there, Hayy accepts most of its tenets (for example belief in Heaven and Hell, rebirth and resurrection) but remains puzzled by two things: the use of symbols in religious instruction, and the sanction of amassing wealth and eating more than one needs to survive (161).
As he learns the truth about the condition of people on Absal’s island, Hayy feels immense pity and wants to go there so that maybe “through him . . . they would be saved” (162). Despite Absal’s warnings of the effort’s doom, Hayy and Absal travel to the island where Hayy starts teaching a group of men (Absal’s friends, and thus the people on the island most capable of understanding Hayy’s wisdom) with rather disappointing results. When Hayy sees that the more he tries to teach them, the more they resent him, he apologizes to the people of Salaman and says that he “had seen the light and realized that they were right.” Absal and Hayy promptly return to Hayy’s island, where they serve God until their deaths (165).
From the beginning, by giving us two conception stories, Ibn Tufayl signals the unconventional and potentially satirical nature of his narrative. One version of the story recounts Hayy as a baby that is spontaneously generated, where the other gives him a conventional human family and a narrative of abandonment. But, we are told, it holds no significance for Hayy’s story. Ibn Tufayl reassures us that “both factions give interchangeable versions of [Hayy’s] upbringing,” (109) despite the elaborate details and background for each possibility, whether it be a scientific account of how human beings come to be from a mass of clay, or a story describing the life of a princess under her brother’s invasive and overbearing rule (106–107).
Two alternative conceptions further highlight the absurdity of each story by contrasting it with the other. After he explains the spontaneous generation process, Ibn Tufayl tells us that those who “deny it . . . relate a different version of his origin.” But the other story is unbelievable in its own right. For example, despite the king’s possessive nature, his sister is able to get married in secret (“but lawfully”), bear a child, nurse the child, and cast the child into the sea after nursing him. She is able to hide the entire course of her pregnancy, labor, and nursing period from her brother, arousing no suspicions whatsoever. Then, after she puts her baby in an ark, and casts the ark into the sea, a powerful current takes the ark and brings it to the island where Hayy grows up. The ark is then placed in “a pleasant thicket, thick with shady cover, floored by rich loam, sheltered from wind and rain, and veiled from the sun.” The tide, the breeze, the nails on the ark, the sand, and the nearby doe, all align perfectly in a chain of events that protect baby Hayy, open the lid of his ark, and carry his cry to the doe (105). For the modern reader, the process paints an image of a Rube Goldberg machine that delivers babies. One feels obligated to ask—“why would someone feel compelled to believe one or the other of these accounts, when both seem equally unlikely?”
Another theme emerges early on in the text where pivotal points in Hayy’s life resemble prophetic motifs in the Islamic tradition. For example, Hayy’s conception stories include similarities to Prophets Adam and Moses. Hayy’s generation out of a mass of clay is directly parallel to God telling the angels, in Surah Hijr, “‘I will create a mortal out of dried clay, formed from dark mud” (15:28) regarding Prophet Adam. Similarly, in the forbidden relationship story, Hayy’s mother recounts prayers from the Quran, “Almighty God, you formed my baby, when it was nothing, a thing without a name. You fed him in the darkness of my womb and saw that he was smooth and even and perfectly formed” (105) referencing not just the same verse (15:28–29), but other verses as well (see: 73:1–2, 32:6–9, 38:71–72) which mention God’s creation of man from clay. In addition to the mother’s prayer, her putting Hayy in an ark and casting him into the sea is reminiscent of what Moses’s mother did for his safety, “We inspired your mother, saying, ‘Put your child into the chest, then place him in the river. Let the river wash him on to its bank, and he will be taken in by an enemy of Mine and his’” (20:38–39).
As Hayy grows up among the island’s animals, he learns to imitate bird calls and animal cries so well “that eventually his voice and theirs could hardly be distinguished” (109). In this way, Hayy’s abilities remind us of the ability of Prophet Solomon, who was “taught the speech of birds” (27:16) and could understand other animals like ants (27:18). When Hayy loses his doe mother, his situation resembles the Prophet Muhammad’s, who lost his father before he was born and his mother when he was six years old. Later, Hayy’s contemplation of the cosmos and his understanding of a Creator mirror the Prophet Abraham’s questioning before God grants him prophethood. Hayy scrutinizes “all the physical things he knew and to which his thinking had always been confined,” and he understands that they all develop and decay, and not being exempt from change, “none could exist without there being a cause of all this change” (128). Hayy’s contempt for this sort of change and decay echoes the cry of Prophet Abraham, “When the night grew dark over him he saw a star and said, ‘This is my Lord,’ but when it set, he said, ‘I do not like things that set’” (6:76).
Through appealing to popular prophetic motifs within the religious tradition, Ibn Tufayl builds Hayy up to be the archetypal man, a naturally enlightened prophet, and mystic philosopher. Look at him, Ibn Tufayl is saying, Hayy: made of clay like Adam, survived the odds like Moses, orphaned at an early age like Muhammad, and found God by studying nature, like Abraham. Hayy has special abilities like Solomon, he seeks to be among Adam as the first man, Moses as the most mentioned prophet in the Quran, Abraham as the friend of God (4:125), and Muhammad, as the last prophet in the world, a mercy to mankind (21:107). However, Hayy fails spectacularly in meeting the reader’s expectations. Ibn Tufayl elevates Hayy by associating him with major prophets and messengers, but draws a glaring contrast when Hayy leads a life of isolation, and dies with only one disciple to his name—who was self-motivated to follow Hayy’s example in the first place. Hayy has no patience to deal with people, and no skills required to do prophetic work.
It is comical how easily Hayy gives up on Salaman’s island, especially after making the trek there in full confidence that he could reveal the Truth to Salaman’s people and save them (162). Unlike the prophets he so emulates, among them patriarchs of large communities and vast kingdoms, Hayy is quick to renounce his mission and commitments. Where God asks Prophet Muhammad, “you would kill yourself with grief that they will not be believers” (26:3), Hayy is content and unexpectedly sure of himself in leaving the island’s people with their ignorance and dogmas. It adds insult to injury when he tells them before he leaves that “he had seen the light and realized that they were right” (164). Let us remember that Ibn Tufayl writes in the preface, “if I tell you of the highest levels I reached without first going over the preliminary steps that lead there, it would do you no more good than blind faith” (103). But this is precisely what Hayy does in the island of Salaman. Having had decades to reflect on divine truths without the worries of society or the dangers of human or animal conflict on his island, Hayy steps into the complicated web of normal human life, and expects everyone to immediately be on board with his spiritual curriculum. He is looking at Salaman’s people from such a privileged perspective that his ultimate dismissal of them should be warning enough for us as readers. His attitude is not one of merciful outreach, but that of a pitying savior. Even though he is supposed to have grasped the “true essence of His being,”(163) Hayy has rather idolatrous tendencies when he thinks he, himself, can deliver the people in Salaman’s island. Shouldn’t such an enlightened being know that “it is God who guides whoever He will” (28:56)?
Like the misguided Prophet Jonah who left his people and his mission in a bout of anger (21:87), Hayy also leaves the island after he sees “that the torture pavilion already encircled [the people of the island] and the shadows of the veil already enshrouded them” (163). Upon realizing his mistake in running away, however, Jonah apologizes while he is in the belly of the fish, and God declares, “If he had not been one of those who glorified God, he would have stayed in its belly until the Day when all are raised up” (37:143–44), whereas Hayy returns to his island and goes back to his meditations as if nothing happened. Every prophetic comparison and every turn in Hayy’s story is a sign that he is far from what the reader should aspire to. The Islamic tradition has no account of a prophet who strived so little and so hastily as Hayy does for Salaman’s people. And we are to believe that this is the man who had real contact with God?
What furthers the comedic nature of this last section is how anticlimactic it is when compared to the rest of Hayy’s narrative. “The closing act is so out of key with the uplifting mood of what has gone before that it has driven some scholars to view the entire story in light of its framing sequence” writes Taneli Kukkonen. The reader expects the story to end at the point where Hayy experiences the ecstasy of being with God. Having peaked in such a lofty and divinely inspired place, it comes as a surprise when Ibn Tufayl introduces Absal and takes our hero on what proves to be a strikingly underwhelming journey as Hayy leaves his island and attempts to teach his mystical truths to other people with no success whatsoever. This little afterthought of a section is perhaps the best argument for Hayy being a parody. Instead of making a case for asceticism and mystical and philosophical contemplation in solitude, Ibn Tufayl drags Hayy into society and ridicules him. Hayy’s introduction to and his subsequent rejection of society is not a logical conclusion to Hayy’s journey—instead, it is a sign that this story is betraying our expectations on purpose. Ibn Tufayl is showing us how this idealized trope fails in real life, among real people.
Michael Kochin has written about this apparent disconnect in the text between Hayy and society:
While Ibn Tufayl appears to extol the solitary weed Hayy, at the same time he presents Hayy as a failure. Hayy fails to ameliorate the condition of ordinary believers or to encourage the few who are capable of speculation because he cannot understand human beings and the kingdom of images in which they live. Worse, Ibn Tufayl hints that Hayy himself cannot reach the loftiest levels in intellectual speculation, and Hayy’s failure is connected to his defective grasp of the use of images.
Kochin has spotted a contradiction in what is prescribed and what is practiced in the world of Hayy. On the one hand, Hayy has “attained understanding beyond that offered by the images contained in religion” but, “because the highest things cannot be communicated without images, Hayy’s own understanding of the divine order cannot be perfect if he can explain all of what he understands to Absal without using images. Hayy seems in fact to have failed to attain that level of understanding which requires communication through images.” This contradiction, especially when held against the backdrop of Ibn Tufayl writing a rather symbolic story with Hayy, bolsters the idea that Hayy’s narrative is, in fact, not meant to be taken as a guide but instead something more akin to parody.
In the introduction to Hayy and outside of the strict bounds of Hayy’s story, Ibn Tufayl implies that Ibn Bajja could have been a sort of hypocrite, when he writes, “perhaps he [Ibn Bajja] felt that describing this state [joy of intimacy with the divine] would force him to say something derogatory to his own way of life or at odds with his encouragement of amassing wealth and of the use of various artful dodges to acquire it” (98). Would it not be strange for Ibn Tufayl to take issue with Ibn Bajja’s potential attitude as such, while writing a story about an ascetic Sufi leading a life completely unlike that of Ibn Tufayl? At the end of the day, we need to keep in mind that Ibn Tufayl was a widely respected part of the social and intellectual elite—in fact, described as a sort of cultural minister. To read Hayy as a guide or to see it as a blueprint for the perfectly spiritual and mystical life is to accept that Ibn Tufayl is an idealist at best, and a hypocrite at worst. On the contrary, when we read Hayy as a parody, we see that “although on the surface Hayy ibn Yaqzan seems to praise the life of the solitary as Ibn Bajja conceives it . . . at a deeper level Ibn Tufayl demands that the philosopher remain within political life to educate through images.”
Throughout Hayy, we have competing interpretations of divine truths and religion. There are practices and understandings that are available to the many, and realities that only the few can experience. There is always a level of secrecy, some sort of veiling at play, both within Hayy’s life in the story, and in how Ibn Tufayl interacts with us, his readers.
The mainstream reading of Hayy, has been to see the story as a revolutionary religious and political thought experiment, where Ibn Tufayl endorses “natural or rational religion,” and enables men to find moral truths and the divine without contact with any other human beings or religious establishments, including prophets and revelation. Translator Lenn Goodman writes that Ibn Tufayl was “eager to reconcile religion and philosophy” (4) and even Absal sees Hayy as a person in which “reason and tradition were at one” (160).
Like the people in the island of Salaman, we can take Hayy’s story at face value, or we can aim for a deeper meaning. The average reader of Hayy probably feels wistful at the prospect of living alone on a tropical island in contemplation of God. Away from the hustle and bustle of social lives and structures, it is easy to romanticize the story of Hayy. However, the deeper meaning of the text gives us the exact opposite message: the life Hayy leads is a dream—unrealistic, unattainable, and unfavorable. At the end of Hayy, when Ibn Tufayl writes, “I have not left the secrets set down in these few pages entirely without a veil—a sheer one, easily pierced by those fit to do so, but capable of growing so thick to those unworthy of passing beyond that they will never breach it,” (166) perhaps he means that those who are reading Hayy closely, will observe some self-discipline practices and think about mystical union with the Divine, actions that are generally beneficial for believers. However, those who pierce the veil will see the irony, sheer absurdity, and impracticality of the life that Hayy leads.
Hayy himself “accepts that his own contribution is not desirable for society,” while still being rooted in a sort of spiritual arrogance. The people of Salaman’s island seek God in a “human way” says Hayy, they cannot “see Him in His own terms” (163). It is a metaphysically confusing and theologically impossible notion that Hayy possesses some super-human access to understanding God, not as an enlightened man, but as a being who understands God as God—without being limited by his human-ness. How so, we are not told. What Hayy sees as a contribution to society or a much-needed liberation of its people, is actually a one-way ticket to its slow but inevitable destruction. By demanding separation from society and “bodily matters at large”—Lauri writes that, “a higher form of living might be possible for the mystic-philosopher” but Malti-Douglas is right to point out that Hayy’s island creates “a one-time male utopia, an ideal world which cannot be recreated.”
In light of the impossibility of that mystic-philosophers commune, we should also remember that Ibn Tufayl “gave great weight to revelation, not only at the literal, but also at the more profound level” (4). In his introduction to Hayy, Ibn Tufayl says Al-Farabi’s preference for philosophy over revelation is a big “failing” (100). For someone who so values revelation in the form of scripture and presumably in the form of creation, thinking of Hayy as anything other than a cautionary tale or a parody does injustice to Ibn Tufayl and his own spiritual journey.
Even in the last page of the text, Ibn Tufayl endeavors to draw a sharp contrast between his own life and that of Hayy’s. When Hayy realizes he cannot help the people on the island, he endorses their way of life and quietly takes his leave. In contrast, Ibn Tufayl says, “Farewell my brother, whom it was my duty to help.” (166). For Ibn Tufayl, it is the duty of those who have already reached higher levels of wisdom and spiritual experience to help those who are at the start of their journeys. As such, Ibn Tufayl clearly does not agree with Hayy’s judgment of society, or the role of a mystic philosopher in it. If anything, we should look to Ibn Tufayl as our role model for perfect philosophical, mystical, religious, and social integration. He reminds us that building intimacy with the Divine requires “no small amount” of time and devotion to the endeavor but assures us too that our efforts will be blessed and we will be “glad in the morning of the ground [we] gained at night” (103).
What better way to start than with the story of Hayy?
McGinnis, Jon, David C. Reisman. Classical Arabic Philosophy: An Anthology of Sources. 284 ↩︎
Miller, Michael R. “Alive and Awake in Allah.” 477 and Conrad, Lawrence, et al. The World of Ibn Tufayl: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, 53 ↩︎
Russell, G. A., et al. The ‘Arabick’ Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-century England. 228 ↩︎
Kukkonen, Taneli. No Man Is an Island: Nature and Neo-Platonic Ethics in Hayy ibn Yaqzan., 188 ↩︎
Kochin, Michael S. “Weeds: Cultivating the Imagination in Medieval Arabic Political Philosophy.” 402 ↩︎
Ibid., 413 ↩︎
Kochin, 410 ↩︎
Hoiem, Elizabeth Massa. “From Philosophical Experiment to Adventure Fiction: English Adaptations of French Robinsonades and the Politics of Genre., 8 ↩︎
Lauri, Marco. “Utopias in the Islamic Middle Ages: Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Al-Nafis.” ↩︎
Lauri and Conrad, 68 ↩︎
Abdel Haleem, M. A. The Qur’an. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Conrad, Lawrence --, et al. The World of Ibn Tufayl: Interdisciplinary Perspectives On Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.
Germann, Nadja, and Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Tufayl. 2008. “Philosophizing without Philosophy? On the Concept of Philosophy in Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.” Recherché de Théologie et Philosophie Médiévales. Forschungen Zur Theologie Und Philosophie Des Mittelalters 75 (ii): 271–301.
Russell, G. A. --, et al. The ‘Arabick’ Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-century England. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1994.
Hoiem, Elizabeth Massa. “From Philosophical Experiment to Adventure Fiction: English Adaptations of French Robinsonades and the Politics of Genre.” Children’s Literature 46 (2018): 1-29.
Ibn Tufayl, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, and Lenn Evan Goodman. Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale. Updated ed., with a new pref. & bibliography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Kilito, Abdelfattah, Eric Sellin, and Mbarek Sryfi. 2014. Arabs and the Art of Storytelling: A Strange Familiarity. Vol. First edition. Middle East Literature in Translation Series. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Kochin, Michael S. “Weeds: Cultivating the Imagination in Medieval Arabic Political Philosophy.” Journal of the History of Ideas 60, no. 3 (1999): 399-416.
Kukkonen, Taneli. “No Man Is an Island: Nature and Neo-Platonic Ethics in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 46, no. 2 (2008): 187-204.
Lauri, Marco. “Utopias in the Islamic Middle Ages: Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Al-Nafis.” Utopian Studies 24, no. 1 (2013): 23-40.
Marmura, Michael E. “The Philosopher and Society: Some Medieval Arabic Discussions.” Arab Studies Quarterly 1, no. 4 (1979): 309-23.
Featured image: Photo of Mount Teide in the Canary Islands, Spain by Marek Piwnicki via Unsplash.
Nur Banu Simsek is a writer and puzzle solver. She is an alumna of the University of Chicago. You can find more of her writing at In the Belly of the Fish. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.