Ibn Tufayl’s “Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān”: Philosophical Fiction from the 12th Century

I’m a great fan of the “philosophical novel” – that stream of narrative, which, though deeply rooted in a specific place and period, can transcend its immediate context and raise timeless questions on the meaning and value and purpose of human life, society, nature, the entire universe. That story which – for me – dissects and debates one or more of these dichotomies: belief/skepticism, faith/reason, conformity/individualism, good/evil, freedom/determinism, origins/ends, virtue/vice, love/hate, sacrifice/egotism, pain/pleasure, melancholy/joy, order/chaos, justice/unfairness, violence/peace, beauty/ugliness, finally, life/death.

The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1979-1880)

Over the years, I have delved into philosophical novels of both theistic and atheistic bents. When I’m reading, I may not endorse every view proposed or attitude displayed by the characters that I encounter but I always enjoy the mental processes, the rigor with which arguments are thought out, articulated, and very often, translated into physical action. Here, true education and entertainment lies in the mere fact of being able to consider the world from a certain perspective – whether you make it your own or not.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938)

If one were to take recent history, the philosophical novel has proved to be an extremely malleable form of art. It can be a massive neatly-structured project like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers’ Karamazov or a shorter and more obscure diary like Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea or something totally different. Those interested in learning more about the genre can check out this introductory page on Wikipedia. The list is long and diverse and one “early example” mentioned is a 12th-century book called Philosophus Autodidactus (“The Self-Taught Philosopher”), originally titled Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān  (a wonderful English translation  with a detailed introduction, notes and bibliography is available from The University of Chicago Press).

Ibn Tufayl’s Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān: A Philosophical Tale translated by Lenn Evan Goodman (2009, University of Chicago Press)

Widely popular in Europe during the Enlightenment, Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān is a highly influential work written by the Muslim polymath Ibn Tufayl (1105–1185) – theologian, physician, vizier, astronomer – who was born in Andalusia and died in Marrakesh; he operated within the intellectual and spiritual framework established by the Persian polymath Avicenna/Ibn-Sīnā (c.980–1037). The tale is that of a child named “Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān” who is raised by a doe foster-mother on an equatorial island lying somewhere off the coast of India. He is the only human there, surrounded by wild nature and cut off from all signs of civilisation (Mowgli and Tarzan immediately come to mind). Ḥayy learns to survive, he discovers fire, devises tools and weapons. He makes sense of the universe on his own terms, without formal instruction. He notices change and motion, vitality and decay. The unity of things, and their diversity.

Hayy finds God – first by way of independent rational inquiry, then by way of mystical experience. Later, he meets a castaway named Absal, who takes him to another island – inhabited by people having their own culture, language, tradition, religious, legal and commercial codes…commitments and conflicts. Ḥayy, despite having understood them full well, remains unimpressed and returns to his original environment.


“She treated him gently and tenderly, taking him where fruit trees grew and feeding him the sweet, ripe fruits that fell from them. The hard-shelled ones she cracked between her teeth, or if he wanted to go back for a while to milk she let him. She brought him to water when he was thirsty; and when the sun beat down  she shaded him. When he was cold she warmed him…” (Photo: Pixabay)


To a reader in the early 21st century, Ibn Tufayl’s book is, in many ways, quite a provocative project. First, it provides an ultimately bright and hopeful vision of nature and the universe in general – one in which aggression is overcome by generosity, in which the human intellect remains alive and active and sharp in isolation, even when it loses the luxuries and challenges of civilisation (contrast this with Lord of the Flies by William Golding).

Furthermore, Hayy exhibits personal agency. He can rise above his history and surroundings. He can think sophisticated thoughts, make intelligent decisions. His responses are not mere mechanical reflexes produced before the stimuli in his environment (contrast this with Behaviorism).

Finally, I think it is Hayy’s arrival at the idea of God that seems most astonishing. His spiritual ascent is no blind piety. He doesn’t want to believe in a supernatural figure because he wants to fill the gaps in his limited understanding of nature’s processes. Rather, like a good Aristotelian, he observes things moving around him, he perceives a chain of causes – and this leads him to a pure Being, an Unmoved Mover, a non-Corporeal First Cause – not an invisible sky-father. The one thing that I found a little weird was Hayy’s discomfort with “sensory things” after he discovers his “Necessarily Existent” God. Instead, of delighting in the objects of nature as creations of God, he begins to regard them as distractions that divorce him from the highest Truth.

Still, Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān is a very rewarding experience. I cannot recommend it enough.


“He would concentrate on that Being for a time, but as soon as he did some sensory thing would present itself to view, some animal cry would split his ears, some image would dart across his mind, he would feel a pain somewhere, or get hungry or thirsty or hot or cold, or have to get up to relieve himself. His thoughts would be disrupted, and he would lose what he had begun to reach.” (Photo: Pixabay)


An excerpt from the last few pages, describing Hayy’s experiences on the inhabited island:

The ruler of the island and its most eminent man at this time was Salaman, Absal’s friend who believed in living within society and held it unlawful to withdraw.


Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān began to teach this group and explain some of his profound wisdom to them. But the moment he rose the slightest bit above the literal or began to portray things against which they were prejudiced, they recoiled in horror from his ideas and closed their minds…


…the more he taught, the more repugnance they felt, despite the fact that these were men who loved the good and sincerely yearned for the Truth. Their inborn infirmity simply would not allow them to seek Him as Hayy did, to grasp the true essence of His being and see Him in His own terms. They wanted to know Him in some human way. In the end Hayy despaired of helping them and gave up his hopes that they would accept his teaching. Then, class by class, he studied mankind. He saw “every faction delighted with its own”. They had made their passions their god, and desire the object of their worship. They destroyed each other to collect the trash of this world, “distracted by greed till they went down to their graves”. Preaching is no help, fine words have no effect on them. Arguing only makes them more pig-headed. Wisdom, they have no means of reaching; they were allotted no share of it. They are engulfed in ignorance. Their hearts are corroded by their possessions.


Related stuff on this blog that you should check out: The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar and The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition by Al-Nuwayrī.