Ibn Tofayl – ابن طفيل – Hayy Ibn Yakzan

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Talking about my favorites. This is one of my favorite stories. I remember when I was young that we had a big collection of Illustrated Classical Novels روايات عالمية مصورة  (I think that was its name). It included main classics. What I liked most was Hay Ibn Yakzan. I loved the idea of discovering life all by yourself. Later on I heard that this story was the one that inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe. Wehn I read the real story (not the illustrated one), I discovered that it was a HEAVY read as I am not used to reading philosophical essays, I also discovered that Ibn Tofayl didn’t intend to show how Hay discovered life, but how he discovered divnity. What I also understood very clearly was the differentiation between the superficial symbols of religion that are used to reach the masses and the real concepts that connect all religions.

Here is a summary of the story from muslimphilosophy.com:

The story of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan takes place on an equatorial island uninhabited by human beings. There Hayy is found alone as an infant. Philosophers were of the opinion that he was born spontaneously when the mixture of elements reached an equilibrium state, making it possible for this mixture to receive a human soul from the divine world. Traditionalists believed that he was the son of a woman who chose to keep her marriage to her relative, Yaqzan, secret from her brother who ruled a neighbouring island and did not find any man qualified to marry his sister. After breastfeeding Hayy well, she put him in a box and threw it into the waters, which took him to the uninhabited island.

A deer who had just lost her son and was still experiencing the feelings of motherhood heard Hayy’s cries. She suckled him, protected him from harmful things and took care of him until she died when he was seven years of age. By then he had learned to imitate other animals in speech, and he covered parts of his body with leaves after noticing that those animal parts are covered with hair or feathers. The deer’s death transformed Hayy’s life from one of dependency to one of exploration and discovery.

In an effort to find out the reason for the deer’s death, a reason which he could not locate by observing her appearance, he dissected her with sharp stones and dry reeds. Noticing that every bodily organ has a proper function and that the left cavity of her heart was empty, he concluded that the source of life must have been in this cavity, and must have abandoned it. He reflected on the nature of this vital thing, its link to the body, its source, the place to which it has departed, the manner of its departure and so on. He realized that it was not the body but this vital entity that was the deer and the source of its actions. With this realization he lost interest in the deer’s body, which he then viewed as a mere instrument. While he could not decipher the nature of this vital thing, he observed that the shape of all deer was similar to that of his mother. From this he concluded that all deer were managed by something similar to the vital thing that managed his mother’s life.

Harmony of Hayy’s philosophy with revealed religion

On a neighbouring island a group of people, including the king, Salaman, practised a religion which was sound yet provided the masses with symbols, not direct truths. Absal, a friend of Salaman, observed the rituals of this religion but, contrary to others who adhered to its literal meaning, he delved into its inner truths. Being naturally inclined to solitude, which was in agreement with certain passages of the Scripture, Absal moved to the island on which Hayy lived. When he encountered Hayy he was frightened, until Hayy made it clear that he intended no harm. Absal then taught Hayy human language by pointing to objects while uttering the corresponding words.

With the acquisition of language, Hayy was able to explain to Absal his development in knowledge. At hearing this, Absal realised that what Hayy had witnessed were the realities described in his own religion: God, the angels, the holy books, prophets, afterlife and so on. When Absal discussed the truths as detailed in his religion, Hayy too found these truths in agreement with what he had come to know. However, Hayy could not understand why Absal’s religion resorted to symbols and permitted indulgence in material things.

Suitability of religion in its outward aspect to the majority of people

Hayy expressed interest in visiting the neighbouring island to explain to its people the pure truth. Absal, who knew their nature, reluctantly accompanied him. Addressing the most intelligent group on this island, Hayy was shown respect until he tried to go beyond the literal meaning of their Scripture. The people then shunned him, distracting themselves from the truth by commercial activity. Hayy understood then that such people are incapable of grasping the direct truth and that religion is necessary for their social stability and protection. Social stability and protection, however, in no way secure happiness in the afterlife. Only preoccupation with the divine, which is rare among people of this kind, can provide such security. In contrast, the preoccupation with this world in which the majority of people indulge results in darkness or hell.

(a more detialed version can be found here)

11 responses to “Ibn Tofayl – ابن طفيل – Hayy Ibn Yakzan

  1. I read this story and I still read it from time to time because Ibnu Tufayl wants to say many things that ordenary people don’t understand, or would not like to understand.The story is not easy to grasp from the first or second time.It needs rereading it many times.Generally I like it.I think it another way which is not different from the religion to reach God or the necessary being.

  2. i’m reading this story right now, till now i reached the 3rd section were he attempts to discover religions. the thing i liked most of it, is how ibn tufayl wanted to show that philosophy and religion compliment eachother and don’t contrast. He also wanted to show how you can reach the idea of a god through your own mind and not affected by others. Eventhough i’m an atheist, i truly enjoyed reading this story, i was also impressed by ibn tufayl’s trial to clarify the concept of the soul, through anatomy, especiially since the soul itself is considered to be an illusion. I recommend reading it to both theists and atheists, it’s quite a fascinating read, but i don’t think there are any english translated copies of it, for i only found mine in arabic.

  3. Brother or sister.
    First of all, i want to say thank to your great post here.
    Last night i read about moslem philosophy and found the explanation of ibnu tufayl.
    Curiuos to reading about hay bin yakzan but i don’t have the book or ebook.
    I want to ask you where could i get the story?

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