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Two Andalusian Philosophers
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 Two Andalusian Philosophers
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Ibn Tufayl
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INTRODUCTION – The Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan

The Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan (risdlat b.ayy ibn yaq;_dn) is described by its author, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl, as an introduction to the philosophy or “wisdom” intimated by one of the most

renowned philosophers of Islam, the Sheikh and Master, Abu ‘Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna). It was written to counter what Ibn Tufayl perceived to be the damaging influence of pseudo-philosophic ideas then current in Muslim Spain. Hayy ibn  Yaqzan is thus, on one level, a sort of primer on mediaeval Islamic philosophy.

The book establishes its frame of reference with a short and selec­ tive critique of Islamic philosophy before introducing the narrative frame­ work of a boy of obscure origins reared by a gazelle on a desert island, without human contact. The very uncertainty of the boy’s origins is used by the author as an opportunity to include a theory of the origins oflife. As the boy gradually becomes aware of his surroundings, he begins to understand that he is somehow different from the other animals, yet supe­ rior by virtue of the technical advantages he can realise with his hands.

At the age of seven, the shock of the gazelle’s death sets the boy upon the quest which is the book’s central theme: the search for the spirit of life. Through sustained observation and reflection, accelerated by the chance discovery of fire and underpinned by his natural intelligence, ingenuity and increasingly more refined reasoning, he acquires mastery of the environment and expertise in the natural sciences.

In parallel with this scientific knowledge, the eponymous Hayy ibn Yaqzan – i.e., “a living son of consciousness” – reasons from the diversity of the world to its wholeness and from the particular objects of sensory perception to an abstract epistemology of universal forms. He infers the existence of God as both the necessary, primary and non­ corporeal cause of the universe and its prime mover. Along the way, he deals with many of the major issues of metaphysics. In short, he becomes a philosopher.

His own self, or essence, with which he has perceived the necessarily existent cause of the universe must also, he reasons, be non­ corporeal, with the potential to ascend to Him and thereby achieve eternal happiness. He develops a practical plan to achieve this and thus engages with the path to which all knowledge leads and is the purpose of life. Through meditation and exercise, he disciplines himself to transcend sen­ sation and consciousness until finally, at the end of the seventh septenary of his life, he consummates his search.

At this point, he makes the acquaintance of Absal, a doctor of religion and ascetic, who teaches him language and knowledge of the faith (Islam, naturally), which Hayy accepts, although not without some reser­ vation. For his part, Absal recognises that Hayy’s wisdom is a transcen­ dent interpretation of revealed religion and a superior achievement to his own profession of faith. Hayy becomes fired with missionary zeal and the two travel to a neighbouring island, where Absal’s old friend Salaman is now ruler, on a project to enlighten the population. However, they meet only thinly veiled hostility and, finding even the most likely candidates for enlightenment unable or unwilling to make the necessary commitment, they give up the attempt and return to Hayy’s island where they spend the rest of their lives in meditation and devotion.

Within these few pages, the author presents a theory (perhaps testimony is a better word) of human evolution, from apparently random beginnings to purposeful conclusion. Each episode in the story represents a distinct and coherent line of reasoning and is itself a preparation for the next. The result is a systematic treatment of the principal areas of interest to mediaeval Islamic philosophy.

From a modem perspective, it is not difficult to fault Hayy ibn

Yaqzan on detail. Much of the physics is wrong and there is one unfortu­ nate astronomical error; the anatomy is more theoretical than practical. The author finds some difficulty in maintaining the fiction of Hayy’s solitary life. Despite his hero’s inability to understand human language, he has him talk to himself on occasion. Moreover, it is not easy to understand how the sophisticated, systematic thinking displayed by Hayy could be accomplished without language. Nevertheless, Hayy ibn Yaqzan makes no concession to faith, no provision for saintly intercession and no appeal to the supernatural. The consistency of method makes Hayy’s progress ap­ parently relentless but the author never asks his readers to put reason aside or take what he says on trust. Whatever the validity of his inferences for the existence of God, it is hard to suppose, as one commentator has observed, that the subsequent description of the mystic state was imagined merely to provide confirmation. 1 The author acknowledges that there can be no proof:

Those who would describe it cannot. Only those who have united and who know can ever comprehend.

It is the essential seriousness of Ibn Tufayl’s rational approach to his central theme which convinces the reader he is in the company of a refined and  authentic intelligence who is letting him into a secret. Hayy ibn Yaqzan is an exquisitely crafted example ofa true philosopher’s art.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn ‘Abdulmalik ibn Tufayl – known to the mediaeval Latin world as Abubacer – was born in the first decade of the twelfth century in the Andalusian town of Wadi Ash (modem Guadix), some 60 kilometres north-east of Granada. Little is known of his life. He studied in Granada, later practising there as a physician until 1154 when he became  secretary to the governor of the province ofCeuta and Tangier. In 1164, he received appointment as court physician at  Marrakesh to the second Almohad Sultan, Abu Ya’qoub Yousuf. The “generous, sincere and good friend” to whom Hayy ibn Yaqzan is formally addressed -while a wider readership is explicitly sought – is perhaps his patron, the Sultan.

Andalusia 2 in the first half of the twelfth century was beset by a series of factional conflicts that were temporarily halted by the Almohad3 seizure of power, between 1150-70, from a base in Morocco. As well as bringing a degree of stability to the country and respite from the creeping gains of the Reconquista, the Almohads introduced an ideology inspired by their founder, Ibn Tumart (died 1130), that called for a return to the certainty of scriptural sources as the true basis of faith and the rejection of accretions to  worship and belief, sanctioned by custom and time, that the religious establishment upheld. To this end, the Almohads trained and appointed politico-religious cadres to positions of legal and administrative authority throughout their domain. This policy met sustained opposition from the religious establishment and it is unclear if it ever managed to secure much popular support – the consensus of historians is that Almohad authority remained based upon the threat of military force. However, a conspicuous feature of the Almohad state was the dichotomy between official, doctrinal orthodoxy and the encouragement of scholarship at court and, during their seventy-year period of rule, philosophy, science and the arts prospered within limited circles of privilege.4

Ibn Tufayl was proficient in all the sciences of his day

Ibn Tufayl was proficient in all the sciences of his day and a near­ contemporary states having seen writings by him on medicine, physics, philosophy and theology. However, the only extant works which can, with certainty, be attributed to him are Hayy ibn Yaqzan and some fragments of verse. It is probable that he wrote Hayy ibn Yaqzan sometime between 1169-79.5 He was responsible for attracting many scholars to the court, including the young Abu’l-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd (Averroes) who would succeed him as court physician.

As a philosopher, Averroes achieved much wider fame in Latin Europe than Ibn Tufayl but the latter’s subsequent influence has been impressive. In 1671, a Latin translation of Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Edward Pococke, accompanied by the first printed Arabic text, was published.6 In 1708, Simon Ockley, professor of Arabic and Cambridge divine, made the first translation from Arabic into English.7 As a result of Pococke’s and Ockley’s translations, Hayy lbn Yaqzan attracted much attention through­ out Europe in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and it is likely that the author of that other tale of a desert-island dweller adapted the outline of lbn Tufayl’s book for his own account of a man’s achieve­ ment of intellectual and spiritual maturity or

the great work of sincere repentance for my sins, and laying hold of a Saviour for life and salvation, to a stated reformation in practice, and obedience to all God’s com­ mands, and this without any teacher or instructor.8

Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719 and, while the logic of the arguments advanced by the prodigal son of the cross might not have impressed the living son of consciousness, many of the reflective passages in Defoe’s story are suggestive oflbn Tufayl’s.9 The influence of Hayy ibn Yaqzan has also been identified in the philosophies of Spinosa, Leib­ nitz and Rousseau.

Ibn Tufayl remained in the Sultan’s service until the latter’s death

in 1184 and survived him by one year, dying in Marrakesh in 1185. By the end of his life, he appears to have abandoned all other interests in favour of prayer and meditation. He was one of the leading and most respected figures of his day and Abu Ya’qoub’s son and successor, Mansour, personally led the city in mourning.

Introduction – The historian of science, George Sarton, commended Hayy ibn Yaqzan – TWO ANDALUSIAN PHILOSOPHERS

The historian of science, George Sarton, commended Hayy ibn Yaqzan as “one of the most original books of the Middle Ages”10 yet Ibn Tufayl makes no claim to philosophic originality. Many of the ideas, allegories and proofs he presents are taken from the writings of scholars discussed in the book’s introductory section, where the author refers to specific works by Farabi (Alfarabius or Avennasar), lbn Sina (Avicenna), Ghazzali (Algazel) and Ibn Bajja (Avempace).11 The influence of Hel­ lenic thought – Aristotelian, Platonic and Neoplatonic – is clearly apparent in Hayy ibn Yaqzan.12 Islamic culture was, of course, the inheritor of the Greek philosophic tradition, much as early Renaissance Europe was to inherit the Islamic tradition.

On certain points, however, philosophy appeared to part company from Islamic doctrine, leading to periodic accusations of unbelief and heresy being raised against philosophers. The apparent contradiction between the Aristotelian doctrine of the sempiternity of the universe – i.e., that is has always been and will always be – and the religious belief in creation in time is a case in point13 (and one of the most interesting sections in Hayy ibn Yaqzan is where Ibn Tufayl has his hero address and reconcile these two beliefs). Although the historical roots of the dispute reach back to the formative stages of Islamic thought, the most coherent attack on metaphysics was made in about l 095 by Abu Hamid Ghazzali, in The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Ghazzali later summarised his position in his autobiography, The Deliverance from Error:

It is  in theology that  most of their [i.e., philosophers’] errors are made  and, because the conditions of proof cannot be fulfilled here as they can be in logic, there are numerous disagreements among them. As conveyed by Farabi and Ibn Sina, the teachings of Aristotle sometimes approximate to Islamic doctrines. Their errors are re­ ducible to twenty basic articles, three of which necessitate the charge of unbelief and seventeen the charge of heresy. It was to refute their position on these twenty articles that I wrote The Incoherence. The three which contradict the beliefs of all Muslims are: ( l) the claim that there is no physical resurrection – i.e., that it is only incorporeal souls which are rewarded or punished [in the hereafter] and that reward and punishment are spiritual, not physical; they are quite correct to assert the truth of the spiritual aspect, because it is a fact, but in rejecting the corporeal resurrection they are not only mistaken but have denied scripture; (2) the claim that God has knowledge only of universals and has no knowledge of particulars; this is likewise downright un­ belief, the truth being that neither in the heavens nor on Earth does the weight of a speck of dust escape His attention [Quran XXXIV, 3]; and (3) the claim that the universe is eternal a parte ante and a parte post. No Muslim holds any of these beliefs.14

In Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the relationship between rational metaphysics and revealed religion is represented by the personal meeting between Hayy and Absal and would be dealt  with more conventionally by Averroes in his refutation ofGhazzali, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. However, the tension between the two is the central, unresolved difficulty for Islamic philosophy, which was never able to free itself completely from a defensive position.


The term used by Ibn Tufayl for the philosophy which forms the subject  of his  book can be read in the Arabic as either al-b.ikmat al­ mashriqiya (“oriental wisdom”) or al-b.ikmat al-mushriqiya (“illuminating wisdom”). This has given rise to confusion among some European scholars and led to a supposition that two separate philosophies exist. This is an error.

In the course of a critique of Avicenna’s doctrine on the sempi­ternity of the universe, Averroes says that contemporary followers of Avicenna claim the Mastercalled it “oriental philosophy” because it is the doctrine of the Orientals.

He also notes that Avicenna himself believed his approach to be superior to that of the ancient Greek philosophers, from which it may be concluded that, on this issue at least, Avicenna adhered to the doctrine of an eastern system of philosophy that was distinct from the Greek tradition. That this philosophy contains the essential features of what came to be known as al­ ishrdq or Illuminism – i.e., the second of the two possible readings (in Arabic, al-hikmat al-mushriqiya is semantically equivalent to hikmat al­ ishrdq ) is clear from the substance of Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Illuminism is strongly influenced by Sufism 16and one of its basic tenets is that, while human intellectual development involves rational inquiry, the thinking man eventually needs some sort of metaphysical inspiration, or revelation, to break out of the endless succession of contradictions delivered by scientific knowledge; hence the symbolism of light, which is a feature of this philosophy, and the frequent reference made to the scriptural verse:

They will ask you about the spirit. Say, “The spirit proceeds from the command of my Lord, how little is the knowledge that you have been given “.17

Critical of the anti-rational approach of some Sufis, lbn Tufayl presents scientific knowledge and metaphysics as the natural preparation for en­ lightenment. Whether he intended Hayy ibn Yaqzan as an introduction to “oriental wisdom” or “illuminating wisdom” is, therefore, unimportant because the two terms refer here to the same thing.


Epistemology is a complicated business in Islamic philosophy, involving an elaborate cosmography (perhaps familiar to readers of Dante) that is central to a proper understanding of Hayy ibn Yaqzan. The episte­ mological theories of Islamic philosophers derive from the Neoplatonic elaboration of an obscure and much discussed Aristotelian theory that conceives of man’s potential intellect being actualised by an eternally active intellect, much in the way that light acts upon the faculty of sight:

Since LJust as] in the whole of nature there is something which is matter to each kind of thing (and this is what is potentially all of them), while on the other hand there is something else which is their cause and is productive by producing them all – these being related as an art to its material – so there must also be these differences in the soul. And there is an intellect which is of this kind by


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