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Discovering The Divine On A Deserted Island: The Fantastic Story Of Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan

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The story of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan is as unlikely as is its impact on the world centuries after it was written. The twelfth century novel was written by Abu Bakr Ibn Tufail, advisor to the ruler in Marrakesh, whose kingdom then included Andalusia, Tufail’s native land.  The anthropomorphic and philosophic novel tells the story of the book’s protagonist, Hayy, who grew up among animals on a deserted island but was still able to find the divine through developing the virtues of his heart and the discipline of his mind. In the nature versus nurture debate, Hay illustrates that you can be a moral and decent human being without having been formally educated in schools or part of a social or religious order.

The storyline of Hayy’s life is straightforward: paradise gained, paradise lost, and paradise regained. But we also learn of some of the great debates that are still relevant for us today. We learn of the ultimate irrelevance of hierarchy in society. We learn that man is born a tabula rasa and subsequent experience and learning are then filled in. That knowledge can be acquired without schools and universities. That man must learn to live while respecting animals and vegetation. And we learn that anyone, anywhere, is capable of finding spiritual depths through his or her own nature without relying on nurture.

Perhaps it is relevant to point out that the time in which the novel was written was an age dense with the ideas of some of the greatest philosophers of the Muslim world—Avicenna and Al Ghazali in the East, Ibn Arabi and Ibn Rushd in the West. Alongside these towering Muslim figures, there were those belonging to the other Abrahamic faiths such as Rabbi Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Ibn Tufail as a scholar was undoubtedly inspired by his contemporaries and his own predilection for Sufi philosophy is reflected in the life of Hayy. Indeed, Hayy reflects Ibn Arabi’s Insan i Kamil, or Perfect Man concept, which is what Hayy aspires to be. At the same time, Ibn Tufail was a successful public figure as advisor to the ruler of his time. Indeed, so successful was he that when he died he was given a state funeral by the ruler.

It is often said of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (“Alive, Son of Awake”) that it is “the most important story you’ve never heard of.” Let us then proceed to hear the story and examine its immense impact. 

The story

The story begins with the infant Hayy finding himself on a deserted island in the Indies. How he came to be there is explained in two different origin stories that the author provides us. In the first, Hayy is the son of a princess who has reason not to keep him and casts him into the sea in a box from where he finds himself on a deserted island. In the second version, he is created out of the clay on the island in a process of spontaneous regeneration.

Hayy is then adopted by a mother deer, who has lost her own child recently, and Hayy grows up   believing that the animal is his actual mother. The mother teaches him to pluck fruit and vegetables while also feeding Hayy her own milk. Hayy has the same strong visceral love for his deer mother that a child feels for a human mother. When the mother eventually dies, Hayy is devastated and in anguish wants her back alive. Her death raises important questions for Hayy. Confronting his dead mother’s body, he asks, what has been taken away from my mother to reduce her to this inanimate object?  What or who has done this? What made my mother what she was? What makes me, who I am? And what leaves in me when my body dies? Who is responsible and who is the great creator responsible for life and death? Witnessing her going from one form to another also raises questions of what will happen to Hayy himself, how long he has in his life, and what is the purpose of life? He cuts her open and examines her heart to see what was taken from it which caused her death. Cutting open the heart, he sees the chamber and asks, was her spirit in this chamber which has been now emptied, who took it, and how can it be brought back?

While growing up, his mother helped Hayy realize that he was very different to the animals around him, who he came to respect and love. He became aware of his nakedness and the fact that he did not possess the nails, the claws, and the sharp teeth of the animals or their fur to protect him from the elements. But what he did have was the capacity to reason and use his common sense. He also had an innate human goodness, something that he manifested throughout the story. Hayy is essentially a decent and moral human being.

Hayy developed the habit of retreating by himself to meditate and wonder at the beauty of nature around him and the mystery of the stars above him at night. His respect for the animals leads him to become a vegetarian. He finds himself in a state of peace, contentment and welfare, what the ancient Greeks called eudemonia. At the age of 30 he meets Absal, who has come from a neighboring land and is destined to become his good friend. Hayy learns Absal’s language and after a while he accompanies Absal to Absal’s own country. There they find that people are not interested in ideas or knowledge but are bound down by rituals and empty rhetorical debates. Disillusioned, both Hayy and Absal return to the original island. In Absal, Hayy has found a fellow soul-mate and the two develop a spiritual rapport. Together they conduct spiritual and experience ecstatic Sufic states. There is talk of a mystical exercise involving circling which reflects the orbs of the stars and sun—circling like Rumi’s whirling dervishes, the mevlevis,  who circle while pronouncing the names of God, linking what is above, the divine, with what is on earth. Hayy practices something similar. Indeed, much of Hayy’s search for the divine reflects the practices of the mystics and Sufis and the spiritual depth reached by Hayy and Absal is what Sufis aim to achieve.

As there are two origin stories that the author presents us in the novel, he also provides us two conclusions. One ends with the main characters reaching an ecstatic transcendental mastery of the universe, and the other a more mundane ending with the two returning to the island and living their final days in peace.

The impact

Ibn Tufail’s great novel, Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan, however, did not make the impact that it could have in the Muslim world. Perhaps it was too heavy with allegory and philosophic engagement to become popular. This was after all the era of One Thousand and One Nights where the public expected their swashbuckling heroes to fly around on magic carpets and marry beautiful princesses after battling evil wazirs. The impact of the novel on Europe, however, was vast. As one modern scholar explained, it “could be considered one of the most important books that heralded the Scientific Revolution” (Samar Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought, Landham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2007).

In the late fifteenth century, the Italian scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, author of Oration on the Dignity of Man, known as the “Manifesto of the Renaissance” translated Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan into Latin. Pico was the hero of Sir Thomas More and, in the words of one scholar, “in certain respects we can read More’s Utopia as a response to Tufayl’s novel” (Daniel Regnier, “Utopia’s Moorish Inspiration: Thomas More’s Reading of Ibn Tufayl,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme, Vol. 41, No. 3, Summer 2018, p. 17).

In the seventeenth century Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan was brought to England from Syria by Edward Pococke, the first chair of Arabic at Oxford University who was also John Locke’s favorite professor. Indeed, Locke spoke eagerly of a meeting to discuss the book, which caused a sensation among European intellectuals and it was celebrated by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza, who had it translated into Dutch. It became the third most translated Arabic text following the Quran and One Thousand and One Nights. The story directly or indirectly may well have influenced Daniel Defoe’s own novel Robinson Crusoe, commonly regarded as the first novel in the English language. In Defoe’s third volume of Robinson Crusoe’s story, Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, as in Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan, the character makes philosophical statements like “the soul of man is capable of being continually elevated above the very thoughts of human things—is capable of traveling up to the highest and most distant regions of light” (see Tom Verde, “Hayy Was Here, Robinson Crusoe,” Saudi Aramco World, Vol. 65, No. 3, May/June 2014).

Themes of the tabula rasa, or the blank slate as found in the work of Locke, governance, relations between humans, and the question of how to live a good and moral life while preserving one’s own individuality are found in Ibn Tufail’s novel. There is also a line from Locke to Thomas Jefferson, an admirer of Locke and therefore into the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution. Even before Jefferson, the Reverend Cotton Mather, in his 1721 textbook for the Puritans of New England, The Christian Philosopher, writes of the “Mahometan” Ibn Tufail who showed the ability of human reason to affirm God’s existence and a creator. As Mather put it, Ibn Tufail demonstrated that “without any Teacher, but Reason in a serious View of Nature, led on to the Acknowledgment of a Glorious GOD” (Denise A. Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, New York: Vintage Books, 2013, p. 20). The reverend was stressing the importance of science and progress in government and its compatibility with religion and his writings on the subject were amongst the earliest on American society and politics.

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage” concept reflects Hayy, and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book bears a remarkable resemblance to Hayy’s own story as Mowgli grows up under the tutelage of a she-wolf who brings him up as his mother. Similarly, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, the main character is raised by a she-gorilla. More recently we had the novel The Lord of the Flies in which a group of school children are involved in a plane crash and find themselves on a deserted island. In The Swiss Family Robinson an entire family is shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island.

Although Ibn Tufail lived in the twelfth century, his character Hayy is a remarkably modern twenty-first century liberal intellectual. He stresses individualism, sensitivity to animals, a deep respect for nature and the environment, and vegetarianism. He is Socratic in his way of asking questions and coming to his own understanding based on evidence. He relies on deductive logic, not religious revelation to come to his conclusions. Hayy emphasizes knowledge and science to discover the highest truths and deepest mysteries of life. He also demonstrates the capacity of the individual living on their own to acquire wisdom and enlightenment.

That in essence was the core spirit that generated the Enlightenment in Europe which in turn was the engine that drove the early American Founding Fathers. Like so many of his contemporaries, Ibn Tufail combined his knowledge of medicine, philosophy, science, astronomy, and mathematics and poured them into his novel, another characteristic that would have been notable in the work of artists and scholars of the Enlightenment and that is the definition of a “Renaissance Man.”

Hayy established through his life the power of goodness, of a man being able to use his intelligence to discern the eternal truths and the answers to the human predicament through personal experience and without recourse to rituals or schools of thought or spiritual masters. And it is noteworthy that Absal, who is from the neighboring kingdom, is impressed by Hayy as Absal himself has been thinking along these lines and is escaping from an environment where more orthodox and rigid thinking are commonplace.

Hayy’s kindness and moral bearing in the face of tremendous adversity is striking. While Hayy is alone, he maintains his sense of benevolence. While he could be bitter about his life and ask, for example, what happened to his parents who pushed him into the sea like Moses, he does not. There is no anger or recrimination in him. He accepts life as it is and makes an attempt to find truth. This spirit reflects Nietzsche’s concept of Amor Fati, to accept, even embrace, your fate and not let it become a burden or hurdle.

How is Hayy’s story relevant in our Covid dominated world? What lessons does it have for us? First, the urgent issue of climate change: Hayy underlines respect for vegetation, trees, plants, and the natural environment which is extremely relevant for us as we face this crisis. Second:  There is a simplicity and austerity in living, in practicing silence, and meditation. Third, the need to avoid excess and consumerist self-indulgence. Fourth, to come to conclusions based in fact and knowledge. Finally, the importance of compassion and love for all life including that of animals—Hayy treats his mother deer like his real mother. In short, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan is asking us through his example to discover ourselves and to strive towards a higher vision. With Covid we have the possibility to think anew about how to treat our fellow humans and the natural environment that we share. By heeding the lessons from Hayy’s life, we really are given a chance to think of our own life.

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1 Comment

  1. Ahmed August 23, 2020

    “Hay illustrates that you can be a moral and decent human being without having been formally educated in schools or part of a social or religious order.”

    Once we figure out what is moral. To this day humans have been unable to do so.

    He is wrong. What God says deems moral is moral.


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