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Ibn Tufayl: Living the Life of Reason
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 Ibn Tufayl Living The Life Of Reason
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Ibn Tufayl
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Living the Life of Reason – Book Sample

Ibn Tufayl: Living the Life of Reason –


Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: An overview


  • The Almohad Revolution
  • A New Intellectual Order
  • The Caves of Guadix
  • The Medical Tradition
  • In Royal Service
  • Sufi, Musicologist, Medical Author
  • Sponsor


  • Hayy: A Synopsis
  • An Architectural Design
  • Hayy’s Theme
  • Pointers and Reminders
  • The Spiral Path
  • Authority and Authentication
  • Harmony and Hierarchy


  • The Island
  • The Perfect Climate
  • From Ceylon to Mali
  • The Twice-born Child
  • History or Drama
  • Seeing with One’s Own Eyes
  • Beginning from the Beginning
  • Experience and Art
  • The Limits of Skill


  • Taking in the World
  • Structure and Scaffolding
  • Suspended between Worlds
  • Natures and Powers
  • Forms and Universals
  • Synthesis and Analysis
  • Matter
  • The Elements
  • The Heavenly Spheres


  • Living Nature
  • Vital Heat
  • The Vehicle of the Soul
  • The Spirit which is God’s
  • Diffusion and Suffusion
  • Plurality and Unity
  • The Human Distinction
  • The Science of the Soul


  • Finitude and Transcendence
  • Two Worlds
  • Ought from Is
  • Three Lives
  • The Conservation Principle
  • Kinship with the Heavens
  • Leaving the World Behind


  • Unveiling the Mysteries
  • From Asceticism to Mysticism
  • Tasting the Truth
  • Theological Precepts
  • Like Knowing Like
  • Annihilation and Restoration
  • Faces and Names
  • The “Eastern Wisdom”
  • Sensation and Intellection
  • Arrival


  • Religion and Society
  • Asal and Salaman
  • Language and Reality
  • Modeling Perfection
  • Re-entering the Cave
  • Human Weakness
  • Morality and Scripture
  • Mortality and Revelation


  • Arabic Margins
  • Hebrew Echoes
  • Early Modern Success
  • The “Robinson” Question
  • Orientalist Ideas
  • Back to Ibn Tufayl
  • Bibliography
  • Index

ISLAND LIFE – Living the Life of Reason

What would it be like to grow up on an island without a human companion or teacher? How would the world appear in one’s eyes? Where would one seek comfort and security, and where would one find oneself most challenged? What would the formative experiences of one’s life be? Above all, would a human child developing under such circumstances simply become part of the animal kingdom, blending into their natural surroundings, or would a spark of humanity, however

defined, inevitably shine through?

These are the questions that Ibn Tufayl’s early modern readers in Europe saw Hayy as addressing. The same features of Ibn Tufayl’s book – its superficial aspects, one might say – were also reproduced time and again in the many Hayy imitations written in Europe during the eighteenth century. This is only natural. While there are layers upon layers to Hayy, and while the following chapters make the case that a carefully considered cosmology underlies its presentation, there is a peculiar pleasure to reading Hayy simply as a rollicking adventure story, an imaginative thought experiment, and a parable of man’s triumph over his surroundings. Equal parts Jungle Book and Robinson Crusoe, such a reading discloses many interesting and important facts about Ibn Tufayl and his life-world as well. It is not only in the ponderous and profound that a writer’s character stands revealed. It is equally as much in the telling asides and inessential flourishes that we may catch a glimpse of the way he viewed the world.

Ibn Tufayl’s writing is at its most playful in the passages that describe Hayy’s childhood and youth, and in a sense it is at its most creative too. Throughout much of Hayy, Ibn Tufayl’s prose has to serve dual purposes: besides carrying the narrative, it also acts as the vehicle through which a great deal of theory is conveyed. Once Hayy becomes a young adult, his voice has to become that of a budding philosopher. Correspondingly, a certain self-seriousness sets in. But in describing Hayy’s day-to- day dealings, his youthful emotions, and his natural surroundings, Ibn Tufayl is free from the burden of philosophizing and able to utilize his authorial voice in other

ways – to entertain as well as to educate, and above all to immerse us in Hayy’s imaginary universe.

When Hayy covers himself up with eagle feathers and accidentally makes himself so fearsome that he scares off other animals (Hayy, 37–38); when he carries a fiery branch to his cave in order to keep it warm and lit night and day, then smells the savory aroma of the fish that he casts in the flames (48–49); and when much later in the story Hayy mistakes Asal’s black woolen coat for a hide and expresses puzzlement at this new kind of animal he has never encountered before (139–140), no other purpose need be postulated for Ibn Tufayl’s prose than the sheer joy of inventive storytelling. Other seemingly innocuous instances of Hayy’s mundane observations, however, may be more pregnant with meaning.


What is the island like on which Hayy lives out his days? Ibn Tufayl in his author’s guise gives us a few coordinates. The island has a mild and equitable climate; though isolated, it is not terribly far from the nearest land mass or from human civilization; most important for the wellbeing of the infant who is to grow up on it, the island hosts an abundance of flora and fauna, none of which, however, poses a threat to him (33).

Ibn Tufayl does not always bother to remain even within these modestly prescribed parameters. When it comes to describing how Hayy,  now an adult, casts a benevolent eye towards all God’s creatures, Ibn Tufayl says that one of Hayy’s activities is to help smaller animals escape those that prey on them (115), just as he also helps untangle plants so that each can reach out to the sun unimpeded. So are there predatory animals on the island or not? The short answer is that Ibn Tufayl does not really care. Each statement serves a purpose in its immediate context: one explains how a human infant, who at the beginning is the most helpless of all, can survive on the island (35–36), while the other illustrates the ethical principle of respecting, protecting, and nurturing all life (see chapter 6). Similarly, when Ibn Tufayl lets slip that Hayy gets to thinking about the properties of ice (Hayy, 55, and see chapter 4), this is in the context of teaching about the various forms that water can take. It does not really matter that Hayy will never have encountered frozen water on his pleasantly warm island.

Beyond this, the island forms the stage and the setting for Hayy’s development; it is never an object of interest in itself. We learn nothing of the island’s shores, for instance, or its forest covering, or whether it has any mountains or hills.

THE PERFECT CLIMATE – Living the Life of Reason

One feature to which Ibn Tufayl devotes several pages of text is the latitude at which Hayy’s island sits. Ibn Tufayl wants this to be south enough to be hugging the equator (20). This, however, poses a problem, inasmuch as the most authoritative sources in both philosophy and medicine – Aristotle and Ibn Sina, Hippocrates and Galen – had described the equatorial zone as fundamentally inimical to human life, perhaps to life in general, and certainly to civilized society. Ibn Tufayl faithfully reproduces the argument against life along the equator, saying that it represents the view of the common philosophers and the foremost medical authorities, before proceeding to refute it (20–24).

The line of reasoning that says that humans cannot thrive close to the equator goes back to a Hippocratic treatise called Airs, Water, and Places. In the treatise, which was also translated into Arabic, a theory of seven climates is sketched out, of which the middle one is deemed the most conducive to optimal human development, individually as well as collectively. Since it is the most perfectly balanced between the hot and the cold and the humid and the dry, the fourth climate allows for temperamentally balanced animals to emerge, including humans. This in turn leads to cultures that strike a favorable balance between the refined and the rough, the civilized and the spirited.

According to the Hippocratic view, which is not quite racialist but is certainly environmentally and culturally determinist, climate in the end is destiny. Those who live at cold latitudes cannot help but be irascible to a fault, freedom-loving but coarse in custom. The inhabitants of hot regions, by contrast, may naturally incline towards a sophisticated culture, but they will of necessity be sapped of the essential life-force that would lead them to assert their independence. As a result, southerners become lax in their private morality and easily subject to tyranny.

The theory of seven climates became an established part of the scientific outlook of the late antique and medieval period (Altmann 2005). Unsurprisingly, those who inhabited the fourth zone – roughly, present-day Spain, Italy, and Greece, along with portions of the Near East – endorsed the theory as confirming their own superiority over their neighbors to the north and south. Ibn Rushd’s paraphrase of Aristotle’s Meteorology, written concurrently with Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, is informative in this regard. In a passage that combines parochial pride with an underlying inferiority complex,

Ibn Tufayl’s protégé and fellow countryman avers that the fourth zone is the optimal climate, since it makes philosophers even out of uncouth Arabs. The statement underlines the need of Andalusian intellectuals working under the Almohad regime to play up their own cultural achievements, at same time acknowledging how the Arabs, who originally came from hotter climes, still carried the stigma of being intellectually inferior.


Ibn Tufayl  endorses all the basics of the ancient climatological theory. A perfect balance between the primary qualities – hot, cold, moist, dry – is needed in order for human development to occur in an optimal way (Hayy, 99–104) and in determining this, the amount of heat in the atmosphere is of paramount importance. The only premise Ibn Tufayl contests is that the equator will necessarily be all that hot.

Ibn Tufayl’s reasons have to do with how heat is generated by the celestial spheres that rotate around the earth. Appealing to demonstrative proofs furnished by the physical sciences (21), Ibn Tufayl argues that the only way the sun can cause heat in the sublunary world is through its luminosity. But even along the equator, he says, the sun is only directly overhead during the two equinoxes, while the rest of the time it tilts slightly to the north or south. Thus there is no compelling reason to think that the equatorial zone would be inhospitable to life.

This is an oddly technical argument to place right at the beginning of the treatise. Why press the point, especially since Ibn Tufayl acknowledges that he is going against majority opinion? Here an intriguing sliver of intellectual heritage rears its head. The story of Hayy’s spontaneous generation on “an equatorial island, off the coast of India” finds a ready parallel in the Letters of the Brethren of Purity, a fourth-/tenth-century eclectic philosophical text of Iraqi provenance,  where the reference is to Ceylon, or the Arabic Sarandib (de Callataÿ 2013). Ibn Tufayl never explicitly refers to the Brethren, probably because the Letters were held in low esteem both by al-Ghazali (Deliverer, 33) and by the more established Aristotelian tradition. His reliance on the Letters remains unsubstantiated otherwise. Still, even this minor echo indicates that Ibn Tufayl likely drew on more sources than he lets on. We know that the Letters were popular in Andalusia before the more orthodox Aristotelianism of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina took hold; Ibn Tufayl may still have relied on the Letters even as he presented himself as dispensing the fresh wisdom of Ibn Sina.

Ibn Tufayl may have had added empirical reasons for claiming the equatorial zone hospitable. The Almoravid empire, which preceded the Almohads, had established trade routes through Western Africa, extending down to Ghana and Mali. It is thanks to Almoravid activism that Malikite law is the predominant form of Shari’a taught in centers of learning such as Timbuktu even today. These trade links will have impressed upon the Muslim West how large and powerful kingdoms lay south of the Sahara, even in places where Greek climatological theorization did not allow for human civilizations to flourish.

THE TWICE-BORN CHILD – Living the Life of Reason

Ibn Tufayl’s comments on climate are occasioned by the question of how the infant Hayy originally ended up on his island. Ibn Tufayl provides two alternatives, which he embeds in an Islamic context through references to Scripture. According to one account, Hayy is born spontaneously from a gaseous bubble emerging from the earth’s clay, in which case we are witnessing an outflow of that divine spirit which according to the Qur’an is “one of God’s charges” (Q. 17:85). An alternate story puts Hayy in an ark similar to the one that carried Moses (Q. 20:37–40, and see Exodus 2:1–10), only this time the baby flees from a fractious ruling family rather than landing in its care.

The intent of the scriptural allusions is clear. We are meant to perceive the hand of God in the way Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, “Living Son of Wakeful,” awakens to the world around him. This is made all the more important by the fact that God practically disappears from view for the following fifty pages. But why account for a single phenomenon twice?

Ibn Tufayl maintains that not everybody will accept his strange account of spontaneous generation and that he has had to furnish a more mundane story in order to bring the rest of his readership to accept the presence of the infant on the island. This is surely true as far as it goes. When it comes to explaining how a child might be born, not from a mother and a father but out of the churning rotations of the very cosmos itself, things get very complicated very quickly. Ibn Tufayl does his level best to keep the exposition accessible, but with limited success. The reader is rapidly introduced to elemental forces and mixtures, to varying degrees of equilibrium between them – this is where the equitable climate comes in – and to some kind of otherworldly power that operates on all these (27–30). We ourselves will have to relegate discussion of Ibn Tufayl’s theory to a later point (chapter 5), which is a sign of how out of place it is in its original context.

But the ark story poses its own set of problems. It is told with Ibn Tufayl’s customary verve and attention to detail – a tyrant king rages; a box holding an infant floats precariously on the waters, then crashes to shore; a starving baby cries dejectedly amongst the reeds until a doe hears it and has pity on the boy – but it does not really gel with the main narrative. Ibn Tufayl himself does not appear all that invested in his hastily concocted tale of courtly intrigue. His initial description of Hayy’s proximate kingdom does not match the one given later, in the book’s epilogue.

There is a reason for the disconnect. The story about the king and his sister appeals to unique circumstances and chance happenings rather than any universal rule in to which its protagonist might tap, whereas Hayy’s entire narrative is driven by naturalistic explanations being unearthed that account for why things are the way they are. Even the most peculiar events driving Hayy’s development are typically resolved through Hayy discerning some universal rule that explains the particular occurrence. Hayy, in other words, is able to amass experience (tajriba) and to learn from it. The episode in the king’s court, by contrast, stands virtually alone in that it teaches no discernible lesson. The story is merely an entertaining diversion, something that could conceivably have happened and might plausibly account for Hayy’s presence on the island, but nothing more than that.


An underlying philosophical point bears noting, inasmuch as it tells us something about the kind of book Hayy wants to be. Aristotle’s Poetics (chapter 9) puts across the curious thesis that fiction can sometimes be truer than the truths found in history books. This, Aristotle says, is because history merely chronicles things that happened one way, but might just as well have happened another (it concerns itself with contingent facts), whereas the dramatist, even when concocting an imaginary tale, thereby wishes to tell something about how things must be, always and forever. The tragedian’s art therefore comes closer to that of the philosopher. In a properly fashioned play, individual events act as the catalyst to certain universal truths concerning human nature becoming manifest. “Pride comes before a fall” would be an example.

Arabic authors found it hard to understand the Poetics, in part because they lacked the live theatrical performances that informed Aristotle’s original treatise. Jorge Luis Borges has a delightful short story on this called Averroes’s Dream, set in twelfth- century Andalusia. In the story, Borges describes how Ibn Rushd effectively turned Aristotle’s Poetics into a theory of allegorical expression: fictional entities stand in for real ones, mundane characters for higher truths, etc. This is not altogether wrong, even if it misses Aristotle’s keen attention to the details of storytelling and to the emotional response drama is supposed to generate. (The Arabic philosophers additionally interpreted Aristotle’s poetics in terms of his logic, but that is another story.)

The Arabic Aristotelian theory of poetics adds to our appreciation of Hayy as a piece of writing. It helps explain the book’s unapologetic didacticism and the way its author presents a tidily sealed metaphysical and moral universe. In devising Hayy, Ibn Tufayl did not seek to craft a modern psychological novel; instead, Hayy’s life is meant to demonstrate and illustrate the universal structures and features that shape and guide all our lives, including the laws that govern the cosmos. Through Hayy’s activities we get to join in the task of uncovering these underlying regularities.

But how to match the narrative to the theory it is meant to convey? Ibn Tufayl has a plan for this, although it is not always perfectly realized.

SEEING WITH ONE’S OWN EYES – Living the Life of Reason

Ibn Tufayl’s comments regarding the climate around the equator (20–24) and the subsequent account of Hayy’s spontaneous generation (27–32) constitute an exception to how information is parceled out in Hayy. Ibn Tufayl generally takes care not to introduce anything more complex into his scheme than what the reader can absorb thanks to sharing in Hayy’s earlier experiences. (Significantly, the offending section occurs before Ibn Tufayl can avail himself of the teaching device of Hayy’s eyes and ears.)

In the main, Ibn Tufayl is content to let Hayy’s eyes and ears guide us as we, and he, become acquainted with the boy’s surroundings. The very first thing we learn about the world is how assiduously mothers care for their young – a surprisingly tender first lesson and one that is sketched out in detail, as the doe that takes pity on Hayy not only soothes the crying baby and offers him milk but also brings warmth and cooling as necessary, cradles the infant, and later introduces him to solid foods (33–34). Other early observations include the fact that animals communicate in various ways through the sounds that they make (34) and that they vie for mutual supremacy (35). From here, Hayy’s lessons regarding animal and plant life, in particular, come thick and fast. Ibn Tufayl says that their study preoccupies Hayy for a significant spell between the ages of seven and twenty-one (46–47).

This aspect of the book draws on a long literary tradition dedicated to the wonders of nature; it contrasts with Andalusian poetry’s proclivity towards celebrating cultivated gardens rather than wildlife (Jayyusi 1992). Bestiaries in the world of classical Muslim literature could be presented as meditations on God’s providential care for all creatures. They could also be unapologetic entertainments, having no purpose other than providing amusement and some trivia to the reader. Ibn Tufayl’s portrayals of animal anatomy and animal functions start out as the latter because Hayy, his protagonist, does not start from a worldview that would include a God. In keeping with both the theological and philosophical traditions in Islam, the affirmation of God’s existence is a conclusion to be reached, not an immediate intuition from which we start. As wholly immaterial and unlike anything in the world, God rests behind a veil that must be pierced.

This, plus the fact Ibn Tufayl is resolved only to discuss matters that occur to Hayy, accounts for the near-total absence of any discernible pious sentiment from the early parts of the narrative. When Hayy is inspired to bury the corpse of his adoptive mother through observing one raven bury its companion (46), this plainly echoes the Qur’anic story of Cain and Abel (Q. 5:33–34); yet no religious motivation is ascribed to Hayy. Similarly when Hayy stands at the threshold of discovering a transcendent First Cause, Ibn Tufayl feels compelled to burst out in Qur’anic citations (73–74), but these come and go without the protagonist being any the wiser. Such knowing asides are at any rate kept to a minimum. For a professedly religious author, Ibn Tufayl is noticeably reluctant to editorialize in the early stages of the game.


Hayy’s early education is, furthermore, remarkably hands-on. His discovery of the circulatory system through dissecting the dead doe’s chest is only the most spectacular and detailed example of this (40–45). Later on, an actual vivisection allows Hayy to confirm that a kind of vital heat is what courses through an animal’s body and maintains its life functions (49–51). Hayy also discovers the elemental properties of fire in the course of taming a flame and experimenting on what he can

do with it. This includes roasting a beached fish, a successful experiment that leads Hayy to take up hunting and fishing, as well as an omnivorous diet (48–49).

All this is rather more revolutionary than it sounds. Our current didactic model emphasizes learning through trial and error, internally motivated processes of concept formation and theorization, and a continual interaction with our environment – precisely the techniques promoted by Ibn Tufayl through Hayy’s example. We might consequently think, or like to think, that there is not much difference between learning something within a school system and discovering something for oneself.

However, the pedagogy  in  Ibn  Tufayl’s intellectual  environment  was  markedly different. On the side of the traditional religious sciences (‘ulum al-din) the emphasis was firmly on a mastery of a corpus of authoritative texts and interpretive traditions

– the Qur’an, the sayings of the Prophet, the ever-expanding body of legal rulings. What may come as a surprise is that when it came to learning philosophy, attitudes were not much different. Here, too, a reliance on a long-since established curriculum prevailed, and with it the understanding that a budding thinker should be inducted to its language and established practices as early as possible. The general perception was that since the time of Aristotle, most of what there was to know in the world had been discovered. Knotty conceptual puzzles remained, of course, but they too were  best treated in the context of scholarly commentary and a

demonstrated mastery of the foregone philosophical tradition.

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