Reason, Revelation, and Discovering the Virtuous in Ibn Ṭufayl’s Literary Thought Experiment

Reason, Revelation, and Discovering the Virtuous in Ibn Ṭ ufayl’s Literary Thought Experiment

hayy-ibn-yaqzan-01Any book interested in the confluence of virtue ethics and narrative cannot afford to ignore Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān by the Andalusian philosopher Abū Bakr ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185–6). He is known simply as “Ibn Ṭufayl” in Arabic and as “Abubacer” in the Latin-writing premodern West. Ibn Ṭufayl was a court physician and friend to the Almohad caliph Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf (r. 1163–84), which allowed him to introduce the great philosopher Ibn Rushd or Averroës to his future patron. Ibn Ṭufayl so admired his predecessor, Avicenna, that he wrote a prequel or origin story to Avicenna’s narrative Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. Capturing enough of a sense of personal narrative and interiority to be sometimes called a “novel,” Ibn Ṭufayl’s version of this tale tells of the birth and maturation of Ḥayy, the old man in Avicenna’s account. Ibn Ṭufayl presents Ḥayy as an unusually rational human being who discovers the inner meanings of life, and the finest way to live, using only his intellect and his immediate surroundings. Aside from this allegory, little remains from Ibn Ṭufayl—a few treatises on medicine and a correspondence with Averroës.

The mark that this text left on the course of European philosophy and literature certainly deserves the notice given to it in Samar Attar’s The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought. Its publication in Hebrew, Latin, Dutch, French, German, and English, sometimes multiple translations in one language, corresponded with its having become one of the more popular books of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.1 The text garnered such admirers as Baruch Spinoza (d. 1677), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (d. 1716), and Alexander Pope (d. 1744). It is possible that Daniel Defoe’s (d. 1731) Robinson Crusoe—considered by some the first novel in English—received inspiration from Ibn Ṭufayl’s text.2 The story of a self-taught genius (the title, in fact, was often rendered as Philosophus autodidactus, or “the autodidactic philosopher”) resonated with Enlightenment ideals of individualism, rationality, and even empiricism.3 Indeed, G. A. Russell has argued that John Locke’s (d. 1704) momentous shift toward an empirical epistemology sprung from his exposure to a Latin translation of Ḥayy and to his close friendship with the translator, Edward Pococke, and his father.4 Influence is difficult to prove conclusively, without textual evidence. Details aside, one of the legacies of the text, even beyond the age of the Scientific Revolution, has been Ibn Ṭufayl’s call to a reason-centered curiosity that might uncover scientific, metaphysical, and ethical truths.

  • THE BIRTH AND EDUCATION OF ḤAYY

The narrative begins in a mode akin to science fiction. An equatorial island near India just so happens to have such a perfect balance of heat, and a body of clayish earth with such a perfect balance of natures, that a child was born without mother or father, a case of spontaneous generation. Ibn Ṭufayl’s discussion of the island is one of many places in which he disagrees with other philosophers. The island, named al-Wāqwāq, is not in the fourth clime, but rather right on the earth’s equator, one of many ideas that shows the influence of the Brethren of Purity on Ibn Ṭufayl.5

5 Ibn Ṭufayl shows clearly the marks of influence of the Brethren’s animal fable. The Brethren see the equator as the finest balance of seasons and day-lengths, most suited for the human constitutional form, for which reason they trace human origins to that area, specifically mentioning India as an ideal location in that regard. See notes by Goodman and McGregor in Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn, pp. 68, n. 16, 206, n. 271. The Brethren also intimate the ethical soundness of a vegan diet. Perhaps more important, their entire fable takes place on an island upon which animals and humans meet for the first time, with a history of oppression taking place elsewhere, and present a case adjudicated by a jinn king. The island for the Brethren allows for a thought experiment in which the superiority of humans to animals is considered, much like Ibn Ṭufayl’s island allows him to consider the human as a blank slate.

Contrary to the prevailing opinion among experts of his day, Ibn Ṭufayl theorizes that the equator is not excessively hot, because its exposure to sunlight is more balanced than that of other regions of the earth. (Of course, the equator is indeed hot.) According to Ibn Ṭufayl, the equator has the least fluctuations of hot and cold, the most temperate climate, and—more important—has the greatest propensity to receive the “highest light” that represents God’s own emanation.6 Thus it happens that, within the earth of that island, a pocket of clay becomes so perfectly balanced in terms of heat, cold, wetness, and dryness, that it contains—in its middle section—a lump resembling the balanced human constitution. When the divine spirit, which is everywhere, attaches itself to that clay, the body begins to form, beginning from the heart. From this lump of clay, Ḥayy comes to be.

The human form, according to Ibn Ṭufayl, is the material body closest to the spheres in perfection, so that the serendipitous occurrence of this proportioned earth, ready to accept soul, is extraordinary, yet possible. This possibility qualifies Ibn Ṭufayl’s narrative as not only an allegory, but also a thought experiment: Is it possible for a person, cultivated in the perfect clime and with the perfect complement of constitution and rational faculties, to uncover the secrets of existence without the aid of society or revealed religion? Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān proceeds to argue that such would be possible by rational reflection upon indicators of the Necessary Existent, or, as the Qurʾan says, God’s “signs in the horizons and themselves” (Q 41:53). Ibn Ṭufayl borrows the term “Necessary Existent” (wājib al-wujūd), meaning “God,” from Avicenna. It signifies that all beings (other than God) are contingent, in that their nonexistence is a possibility, while God exists by necessity. As Ḥayy will discover in this story, God is the cause and perfection of all contingent things.

Perhaps anticipating objections about the likelihood of spontaneous generation—a possibility that had been raised by Avicenna and a theme captured allegorically by Plato—Ibn Ṭufayl mentions another possibility at the beginning of his tale.7 In the narrative’s alternate origin story, the child was born from a secret marriage on a nearby island, placed by his mother in Mosaic fashion in a chest, and marooned on the uninhabited island in question.8

In either case, the child, once born, soon runs out of nutrients and cries out. A deer, who has recently lost her fawn, hears the child’s sound. She nurses him with her own milk, and becomes his foster mother, feeding him with the fruits and other plant-life that she would normally consume. He grows, noticing differences between himself and other animals: Unlike other animals he has neither a proper means of self-defense, such as horns or great speed, nor a natural covering for his genitalia, which he finds embarrassing. He solves both by using his hands, which are far more dexterous than the paws of animals, to make weapons from sticks and clothes from leaves, which he later replaces with the remains of a dead eagle.

The death of Ḥayy’s foster mother is a crucial and touching moment in the story. When the doe lies down and dies, Ḥayy is baffled. He cannot understand why, nor can he see an impediment or wound. Hoping to revive her, he begins to dissect his mother and uses inductive reason to locate the problem not in her limbs, but in her heart, the importance of which Ḥayy infers in its being so central and so well protected by surrounding tissue. He further localizes the life property to the chamber on the heart’s left side, which is empty. Ḥayy soon realizes that he cannot bring his mother back to life, and, indeed, his mother was not the decaying body before him, but the life-force that has escaped it. When Ḥayy later discovers fire, he surmises that fire is the cause of life; a live animal dissection, in which the heat of the animal’s heart’s inner chamber nearly burns him, confirms his hypothesis.

animal-humors

A medieval illustration of a dissected horse with notes in Arabic

By the age of twenty-one, Ḥayy has not only discovered the source of animal life—the innate heat that spreads from the heart—but has also learned to hunt, store food, ride animals, and make more advanced weapons as well as sewn clothing. Scientifically, Ḥayy’s feats in the seven years that follow are even more amazing. He begins to use similarities and differences he observes among animals, plants, and the rest of the world around him to understand the nature of the sensory and even supersensory world. In line with the narrative’s sense of realism and consistency, Ḥayy first focuses on animals, because he identifies with them. All animals are composed of parts, such as organs; all move, perceive, and sense by their own volition. He then notices that plants grow and consume, and in that sense share qualities with animals, but do not move, perceive, or sense. Lastly, he notices minerals and other substances, which have qualities of height, width, and depth, as does everything else that has a body, much as all bodies are light or heavy. Ḥayy begins to discriminate between the bodies and forms of things and the souls that animate them, such that animals have an animal soul (allowing them to move and sense) and a plant soul (causing them to feed and grow), while plants only have the latter.

During the next seven years, until Ḥayy is thirty-five, his questions become more complex and the reach of his intellect more grand. He sets his sights on the heavens and on the nature of the universe, which he determines is finite. He has begun to see an agent—a cause, mover, and creator of all things—in the world around him. After that, he begins to contemplate the mover more seriously, and comes to the conclusion that, in order to be a cause for needy, perceptible, and limited things, the mover must be self-sufficient, imperceptible, and unlimited. Moreover, Ḥayy considers how he himself has come to know this Necessary Existent, which is not by means of the senses. Rather, only something that transcends bodies and matter can perceive another transcendental being. There is, in other words, something infinite within himself.

Ḥayy also begins to act upon his knowledge. He decides to imitate celestial bodies, such as planets and stars, because he has determined that his own animal spirit resembles them. The animal spirit within the human being has achieved such equilibrium between the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) that it is almost celestial. It is to the body what planets and stars are to the cosmos: so perfectly formed and balanced that, were it allowed to move, the animal spirit in the human would, like the celestial orbs, rotate around a center and revolve around itself. Beyond this heavenly animal spirit, Ḥayy also has an essence that seems to be derived from the Necessary Existent, which becomes most apparent when he ceases to contemplate other things and even forgets himself. Although these realizations bring him to see the body in a disparaging light, he acknowledges that he has been created to live, so he must serve the body—by eating, for example—but only enough to ward off death, since the needs of the body distract him from focusing on higher matters, especially pondering the Necessary Existent.

Celestial bodies, according to the author, move in perfect harmony with the will of the Necessary Existent. Moreover, their movements also bring benefit to the creatures on earth. So, similarly, Ḥayy determines to be of benefit to the plants and animals of the island, by untangling plants choked by other vines or by assisting animals in need of water. His determination to limit the calls and hence distractions of the body also has him commit to a strict and simple diet. Moreover, Ḥayy does not want to act against the order of life caused by the Necessary Existent, so his diet aims to avoid as much harm as possible. Whenever possible, Ḥayy observes a fruitarian diet that leaves plants unharmed, even preserving and replanting the seeds. In further imitation of the celestial bodies, Ḥayy tries to be as flawless and luminescent as possible by keeping himself very clean and fragrant. Ibn Ṭufayl’s audience would recognize in this Islam’s many guidelines on personal hygiene. Lastly, Ḥayy tries to imitate the movements of celestial bodies, which reflects their constant congruity with the will of the Necessary Existent. He engages in circular motions, circumambulating the island and spinning around himself, which would strikingly remind Ibn Ṭufayl’s audience of the circumambulation of the Kaʿba on the Hajj and perhaps the Sufi practice of audition and ecstatic movement (samāʿ).

Ḥayy also seeks to emulate the Necessary Existent, to which the hiddenmost, infinite essence within him corresponds. To achieve this, Ḥayy must try to cease all impeding types of perception and thought; he must close his eyes, block sound coming to his ears, and limit his imagination. Achieving this sublime sense of awareness of the Necessary Existence proves difficult, and Ḥayy will waver between imitating the celestial orbs and trying to emulate the Necessary Existence. Spinning helps him clear everything from his mind, but eventually he must cease all bodily movements, even those in imitation of celestial bodies. He spends much of his time with his head cast down toward the ground, without food, silent in his cave. Eventually, he achieves a constant awareness of the Necessary Existence and a corresponding unawareness of himself.

  • AFTER SELF-ANNIHILATION: THE EPILOGUE

In the seventh seven-year portion of his life, Ḥayy achieves the apex of mystical experience, namely, a constant awareness of God limited only by the needs of his emaciated body, of which he longs to be rid.9 Now fifty years old, Ḥayy will be drawn to human society through a chance encounter. Here Ibn Ṭufayl shows his reverence for Avicenna by linking another of his allegories (that of Salāmān and Absāl) to the narrative, creating backstories and an expanded literary universe. In this case, Ibn Ṭufayl responds to the explicit challenge Avicenna presents in his Allusions and Admonitions, in which he declares, “So solve the puzzle, if you can,” the very challenge discussed in Chapter Two. Avicenna’s challenge specifically uses terms from Arabic literary criticism to encourage readers to analyze the proverb of Salāmān and Absāl and expand upon it in prose.10 Here, in Ibn Ṭufayl’s response to that challenge, Salāmān and Absāl are friends belonging to a nearby island. Both are religious, but they represent the two polar proclivities engendered by revealed religion. Salāmān sees religion as a social phenomenon; he finds his life’s purpose in the company of others and is drawn to that part of religion—law—that concerns the functioning of human society. In Salāmān’s opinion, divine law forbids withdrawal from society. It is little wonder that he becomes the chief authority on the island. Absāl, however, seeks inner meanings and solitude. For this reason, he decides to live out the rest of his life as a recluse on a lush island nearby that he presumes to be uninhabited. The island that Absāl has chosen is, in fact, Ḥayy’s island.

For some time, because of Ḥayy’s self-cloistering in the cave, Absāl imagines he is alone. Even when he sees Ḥayy, he supposes that Ḥayy has come to the island for the same reason as himself, seclusion, and so avoids him. Their meeting is a masterfully written scene: Ḥayy has a difficult time recognizing another human being. Absāl—who tries to flee from the curious Ḥayy—is amazed by Ḥayy’s strength, a result of the latter’s supreme constitution and life on the island. In an ironic exchange, Absāl teaches Ḥayy his human language (beginning with naming simple objects) in order to guide him, by means of proper learning, to his religion. This is ironic because Absāl will soon discover that the self-taught, illiterate Ḥayy has an enviable expertise of the mysteries of the universe. Ḥayy’s ideas seem to possess an element of perfection. Developed in abstraction from human language (which is based upon metaphor), Ḥayy’s ideas are based upon images, that is, direct vision.

Indeed, Ḥayy’s knowledge is so superior that Absāl soon longs to become a pupil of Ḥayy. It is Ḥayy who confirms the veracity of Absāl’s religion. Ibn Ṭufayl never defines the religion of Absāl’s home island, though it clearly resembles Islam, and Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān remains vague enough to serve as a commentary on what the author might have imagined all religions to be—assuming that his definition of religion included only those that were monotheistic and scriptural. Ḥayy sees the truth in Absāl’s religion and in the prophet who first communicated it, but he is bothered by that prophet’s use of symbols to represent higher truths in an indirect and adulterated fashion. Ḥayy wonders why the truth was not presented directly. Moreover, he is unsettled by the worldliness of the religion’s rules, rules that assume people will engage in trade and will make transgressions upon another’s property. To Ḥayy, property is a silly concept and a distraction. Why ritual, moreover, when it is far more important to exact stringent restraints on the pursuits of the body? Ḥayy determines to become a guide and teacher for the people of Absāl’s island.

Absāl and Ḥayy journey to the inhabited island. Though riveted by the feral man’s origins, the elect group gathered by Absāl to learn from Ḥayy cannot accept a conception of God divested of human attributes—despite their being the most intellectually gifted residents of the island. His teachings are too weighty for their minds. What is more, the story implies, only the rarest of people can renounce worldly goods in the way that Ḥayy expects.

In the end, Ḥayy realizes that Salāmān and his ilk are correct in their reliance on a religion of rituals, myths, symbols, and legally imposed limits: correct not in terms of absolute reality but in consideration of their own deficient capacities for truth. He encourages them to cling to tradition. He returns, along with Absāl, to his island, where he uses his self-taught means to return to his former spiritual station, and Absāl—following his lead—comes almost as close.

Ibn Ṭufayl ends by disclosing that he has written this tale to refute fallacious views in vogue during his age. He wishes to enkindle the ambitions of those who are worthy to pursue the path of sublime secrets, a path that he, like Ḥayy, knows well because “I have ascended to towering heights beyond the reach of eyesight.”11

  • KNOWING THE TRUTH, KNOWING THE GOOD: DO WE NEED RELIGION?

Moral philosophers might use fictional scenarios (or science-fictional ones) to isolate a particular problem in ways that the humdrum course of life does not allow. An imagined scenario that poses a question is called a “thought experiment.” In his book After Virtue, contemporary Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre isolates key philosophical questions by taking recourse to an imagined scenario, though he uses more of an extended metaphor than a thought experiment. He begins his argument for a modern Aristotelian virtue ethics by imagining a world in which only fragments of the natural sciences remain accessible to us. Public outcry against perceived abuses of those sciences led disgruntled masses to burn scientific books and support the state-sponsored execution of physicists and chemists, leaving only scattered instruments and text-portions, the uses and meanings of which are unknown. People, later, try to revive those lost sciences. The problem, MacIntyre posits, is that, in this attempted revival, only the semblances of science survive; specific terms gleaned from those remains are used in partially correct ways, and the sciences and scientific terminology seem to be whole, despite the fact that the complete reasoning behind them has been lost. Such is the state of moral language in Western thought, MacIntyre says. Moral philosophers after Aristotle rely on terms such as “utility,” “duty,” and “natural rights,” when—as Nietzsche has shown—what is presented as irrefutably rational is in fact more a matter of individual judgment.12 Instead, MacIntyre makes one of the most famous cases for a contemporary virtue ethics, by arguing that humans are naturally driven by narratives and need some defined end or telos from which to derive virtues, which can serve as a ground for laws that actually resonate with human self-betterment, as opposed to pseudo-rational universal dictates.13 MacIntyre’s revisionist reading of Western thought, in which philosophers took a wrong turn at the Enlightenment, begins, then, with a dystopian metaphor that he references throughout his book.

Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy story aims at no less a task than MacIntyre’s After Virtue. By proposing the “desert island” scenario, Ibn Ṭufayl has allowed himself to start humanity from scratch. Having removed the elements of society and revelation, he imagines a moral world devoid of religious preconceptions, in which only observations of the natural order shape the truth. Because the author presents Ḥayy’s observations as if they have no prejudice, the reader can accept conclusions drawn from them as certain fact. Of course, like some of the best science fiction accounts, Ibn Ṭufayl’s story has a surprise ending. At the end of Ḥayy, the protagonist discovers that religion, in offering diluted and representational truths along with infantilizingly rigid rules, was right about human beings all along. Ḥayy’s hopes were too lofty, and the prophet of Salāmān and Absāl’s religion knew more about human nature in setting the bar so low. Ḥayy’s way of life, like his island utopia, and like the highest reaches of human knowledge and existence, must by definition involve the very few. The integrity of the optimistic and individual protagonist contrasted with the soberingly real deficiencies of human society can be found in much of modern science fiction, as well. One might have in mind, for example, the surprise ending of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, when the human protagonist finds a destroyed Statue of Liberty on the coast, realizing that the alien planet was actually “home” and that the ape-scientist Dr. Zaius was right about human beings, in a sense, because their intelligence, when coupled with their beast-like drive for dominance, actually brought about their ruin and their subjugation to other simian species.

Debate has surrounded Ibn Ṭufayl’s views of revealed religion. George Hourani reads the ending of the narrative, in which Ḥayy recognizes the congruity between revelation and philosophy, as a sort of dissimulation. The author’s environment was too religiously conservative to be left without such an ending, in Hourani’s view.14 This opinion coincides with a larger thesis held by Leo Strauss, who saw premodern philosophy in general as esoteric and anti-religion, using codes to communicate that which the inflexible masses could not handle.15 According to this reading, Muslim philosophers—enlightened by the unveiled truth of the intellect—were not really “Muslim” at all by the standards of those with scripture-centered, fideist perspectives. Philosophers’ interpretations of the resurrection and religious moral codes, especially, were dressed in allegories because the truth was simply too seemingly heterodox for most to hear. Léon Gauthier, however, has read the ending as an honest statement of congruity.16

When viewed as a thought experiment, the story of Ḥayy clearly explores the question of whether a person can reach the truth without the aid of religion or society. The answer is a resounding “yes.” The protagonist, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, is Ibn Ṭufayl’s interpretation of the possibilities for a human who “blazes with intuition,” as Avicenna had put it.17 One comes to the conclusion by the end of Ibn Ṭufayl’s tale that revelation—especially symbols and ritual—are only necessary because capacities such as Ḥayy’s are so rare. This is the second question in the thought experiment: Can Ḥayy’s experiences apply to the masses, or even an elect group of people? The answer is, of course, “no.” The masses need religion, that is symbols (or even myth) and ritual, because of the simpler manner in which their minds work. In this, Ibn Ṭufayl’s stance coincides with that of al-Fārābī, an earlier philosopher mentioned along with Avicenna in Ibn Ṭufayl’s introduction to Ḥayy.18 According to al-Fārābī, prophets of religions were legislators who had perfected philosophical reasoning. The masses, however, could only understand through representations. For this reason, prophets translated their philosophies into parables, images, symbolic language, and other representations that would appeal to the imaginations of the masses.19 “Philosophy,” known by the prophet-legislator, takes on the configuration of “religion” when presented to the masses, much like a computer programmer might discern and deal with code, when all we see are funny and moralizing cartoons on a computer screen and not the “reality” (here, code) behind them. Religion’s purpose, according to al-Fārābī, is to put philosophically ascertained truths into action, which is virtue.20 Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, then, might be categorized among those works that consider religion to be a socially realized, representational, simpler, and yet necessary form of true philosophy. For both al-Fārābī and Ibn Ṭufayl, it is philosophy that presides over religion, much like reason should preside over imagination, and principles should preside over actions.21

The difference between these two, the philosopher and the masses, yields two separate but related moral codes, as portrayed in the story. Two sets of “laws” appear in the text. The first is Ḥayy’s private set of restrictions, based on his relationship with reality. They are self-imposed and have the clear objective of facilitating his awareness of the Necessary Existent and his conformity with the natural order. The second set of laws comprises the rules and rituals of Salāmān and his people, namely, “Sharia.” Many of the principles behind the two are the same, such as sensory limitation, volitional abandonment of desires, and recognition of the wellbeing of others. The key difference is that the first set of laws follows naturally from reason and has a telos that is much higher, namely furthering the most sublime level of contemplation. For this reason, the first set of laws is much more exacting. The second set of laws is accepted as divine command and has only become necessary because of people’s social interactions, as well as their inability to relinquish worldly pleasures. The second, lower set of laws serves as a fail-safe for the many who will not pursue the way of Ḥayy, but who nevertheless deserve to be morally good and achieve thereby some level of bliss in the afterlife.

While not everyone can be a Ḥayy (a philosopher-master), or even an Absāl (a pupil), Ibn Ṭufayl hopes that those few competent souls will read his text, draw inspiration from it, and achieve the loftiest human pinnacles of divine resemblance. If one considers Ḥayy as a precursor to the modern novel, as Emilio González-Ferrín has argued, Ibn Ṭufayl’s grand aspirations might tell us something about the possibilities of the book’s many contemporary descendants.22 Many novels present protagonists who either figure out their place in the world or help us reconsider ours; we might call this an exploration of selfhood. Perhaps our view of the novel changes when we observe that this modern mode of exploration has at least one ancestor in a philosophical thought experiment, one entrenched in the ethical perfection of the human self, with or without religion.

  • DIRECT VISION VERSUS PHILOSOPHY: DISTINCT PATHWAYS TO PERFECTION

Like MacIntyre, whose eyes are set on the past as he constructs a philosophical framework for the present, Ibn Ṭufayl proposes a way forward for those who seek the truth, one that he claims is grounded in the concealed, mystical teachings of Avicenna. This claim has been disputed and is the subject of debate among those who study Islamic philosophy. While Ibn Ṭufayl asserts that his blending of Sufism and philosophy merely expands upon Avicenna’s hidden “Eastern philosophy,” Dimitri Gutas finds Ibn Ṭufayl’s claim contestable and probably false—a case of “dramatic license at best or deliberate distortion at worst.”23 According to Gutas, Avicenna gradually parted ways with Aristotle, developing his own philosophical system, one that was “Eastern” insofar as it was associated with Avicenna’s own homeland, Khurāsān, as opposed to Greece.24 His evidence, based on close textual analysis, is compelling. Salman Bashier, on the other hand, argues that Ibn Ṭufayl simply proclaims that Avicenna had written a book presenting the utter truth of philosophy without Peripatetic arguments. Furthermore, claims Bashier, Avicenna says as much himself.25

Ibn Ṭufayl certainly tries to remain loyal to much of Avicenna’s thought. In Ḥayy’s construction of categories of body (jism) and soul (nafs), he begins to realize the intuitive truth of Avicenna’s cosmology. Bodies—in Avicenna’s thought—are divisible, have dimensions (length, width, and depth), and are ultimately transient. Souls are indivisible, immaterial, and can act only through bodies. The intellect is indivisible, immaterial, independent of bodies, and distinguished from the Necessary Existent only in its contingency upon It.26 Ibn Ṭufayl does not elaborate on or even frequently mention Avicenna’s highest cosmological category, intellect (al-ʿaql), preferring the Qurʾanic language of “light,” language one also finds in Ghazālī. Moreover, as Gutas has shown, Ibn Ṭufayl tries to find a middle ground between two contradictory epistemologies. He valorizes Avicenna’s epistemology, which places prophecy within the purview of the intellect; prophecy is a sort of immediate and rational intuition. At the same time, however, Ibn Ṭufayl endorses Ghazālī’s binary division between the intellect and a higher, prophetic, visionary faculty beyond reason; reason has limited access to the truth for Ghazālī, but not for Avicenna.27

It is difficult to tell, then, if one ought to pursue the truth primarily through reason, or primarily through trying to awaken inner vision. On one hand, Ibn Ṭufayl implies the centrality of the “intellect” throughout the narrative. It appears in Ḥayy’s rational method of attaining the truth, in the use of Avicenna’s allegories, and in a fleeting mention of the “intellect” in the context of supernal “vision.” The “eye of your intellect” as the medium of such vision seems to contrast with Ghazālī’s description of revelation (or “prophecy”) as that “eye.”28 If one focuses on Ḥayy’s rational progression, then the intellect seems to be God’s secret lodged in humanity, so that reason grants human beings access and proximity to the divine. Reasoning, in this scenario, is worship: In rational reflection, we find our ontological and ethical perfection and ultimately our happiness. On the other hand, if one focuses on the author’s description of a vision beyond and purer than reasoning, then one might concentrate one’s efforts on the Sufi practices mentioned throughout the narrative (remembrance, seclusion, silence, sensory limitation, hunger, meditative bodily movement, and benevolence to creatures). Ibn Ṭufayl presents both, side by side.

To what extent, then, is philosophical reasoning in conformity with supersensory (or “mystical”) visionary experience? This question seems to have been current among Muslim intellectuals in the Iberian Peninsula. One such intellectual, Ibn ʿArabī, describes the time when, as an adolescent, he went to Cordoba and met Averroës, the famous Spanish philosopher and friend of Ibn Ṭufayl mentioned above. Averroës had known Ibn ʿArabī’s father, who was an Almohad administrator in Seville. Having heard about Ibn ʿArabī’s mystical visions, Averroës was excited to meet him in person. Ibn ʿArabī’s autobiographical account of the encounter, one that escapes my abilities of paraphrase, captures the tension between direct esoteric knowledge and philosophical rational knowledge:

He embraced me and said to me, “Yes?” I said to him, “Yes.” So, he became even more delighted with me, because I had understood him. Then I sensed why my response had brought him such joy, so I said, “No.” Thereupon he became dejected; his color changed; and he doubted what he had [of knowledge]. He said, “How have you found the affair in unveiling and divine effusion? Is it what philosophical speculation has given us?” I said, “Yes. No. And—between the yes and the no—spirits fly from the matter they quicken and necks from their bodies.” He turned sallow and was overtaken by shivering. He sat down and began saying, “There is no power and no strength except in God.” He knew what I was suggesting to him.29

There was a meeting place in the medieval Iberian Peninsula between Sufism and philosophy, and Ibn ʿArabī and Ibn Ṭufayl stood on either side of the border that separated these two ways of knowing. For Ibn ʿArabī, God’s revelation (Sharia) and personal revelation (supersensory vision) work closely together, while rational thought depends on personal perspective, constitution, and preconceived objectives.30 While he allows seekers to be receptive to philosophy and even learn from it, Ibn ʿArabī holds that philosophers ultimately fall short because they seek wisdom from rational thought instead of from God directly.31

In Ibn Ṭufayl’s story, however, reason and spiritual exertion work hand in hand. The philosopher is a Sufi by default, because it is the rational thing to do. Ḥayy’s proofs of the Necessary Existent start from observing animals and end with observing the heavens, coming to conclusions about God through a premodern scientific method (in a manner that resembles Abraham’s astronomically based conclusions about God in Q 6:76–9). Observation and reason lead him to engage in Sufi practices that reinforce his witnessing of realities. Moreover, not only is the philosopher a Sufi, but the Sufi is a philosopher (and scientist) by default, because one seeks to know the Beloved whose acts encompass everything, and to know the Beloved, one must know the acts. That is, to know God, one must know creation.

  • WHAT IS IBN ṬUFAYL’S “ETHICS”?

Part of the social context of Ibn Ṭufayl’s attempt to reconcile Ghazālī (representing Sufism) and Avicenna (representing philosophy) was the rise of Sufism in the Iberian Peninsula. Ibn Ṭufayl was, as Vincent Cornell has shown, a Sufi, a link in at least one Moroccan Sufi chain of initiation, a proponent of Sufi praxis (such as the practice of seclusion), and yet a clearly committed philosopher who championed intellection over mere submission to revealed scripture.32 While, from a historical perspective, this distinguishes him from many other Muslim philosophers, we might use Ibn Ṭufayl’s Sufi lineage to ensure that we do not confuse his advocacy of reason and observation with several prominent advocates of those same faculties today. Ibn Ṭufayl’s rationalism is incredibly God-focused and Neoplatonic (in that it focuses on an emanation of the One). While a champion of unhindered scientific thought, Ibn Ṭufayl is no Richard Dawkins. The ethics he proposes has none of the positivism of scientism, nor the skepticism of moral relativism. What, then, does the author put forward in terms of ethics?

Ibn Ṭufayl wants to spur readers to seek an unveiling of the unseen truths of existence, an unveiling that becomes a constant vision or “witnessing” (mushāhada) of the Real.33 He prescribes a benevolence to plants and animals that mimics the way the heavenly spheres benefit all beneath them, advocating—as much as possible—a vegan diet, and even, when possible, a fruitarian one. He prescribes an exacting asceticism aimed at constant remembrance of the Necessary Existent in seclusion. Finally, he prescribes a sincere and selfless desire to guide others to a life of rational contemplation and beatific vision, even if that desire is ultimately proven futile. In terms of practice, Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy is also a celebration of seclusion. With seclusion comes silence, which is another practice important in numerous Sufi orders. Ḥayy is silent not for forty days, but—aside for some animal noises he makes early in life—for fifty years.

The Sufi-philosophical cosmology of the book also presents a cohesive system in which metaphysics informs ethics. Ibn Ṭufayl belonged to a group of Muslim thinkers who saw truth as emanational; they viewed creation as a process by which God knows himself. In that knowing, God has created mirrors, so that everything that exists reflects some aspect of His perfection, though none as completely as human beings. The telos of human existence is to reflect divine attributes as faithfully as a polished mirror might reflect the sun, an image that appears in Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy.34 All of Ḥayy’s actions reflect that goal, and the more he knows about the nature of creation, the more he knows about the nature of God, and the more he can perfect his own soul. Examples of this include Ḥayy’s imitation of the rotation of the heavens, or his emphasis on shutting out sensory input so that, as Ghazālī suggests, the polluting pathways to the heart—likened to rivers feeding into a pool—might be blocked. Consequently the pool of the heart can be cleared of its turbid water, clay, and other obstructing contents, allowing fresh water (prophetic knowledge) to spring up from below.35 In this example, presented by Ghazālī and implied by Ibn Ṭufayl, there is an assumption that a human being strives for attributes of virtuous perfection, gains knowledge (or light), and then receives even loftier, divine attributes of virtuous perfection, from a higher source. One might approach the light by rational means, but the job of the moral agent is ultimately reception. Ibn Ṭufayl’s ethics, therefore, derives directly from his metaphysics; metaphysics and ethics are a congruent whole.

  • SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ON “UNIVERSALS” AS A WAY TO CONCEIVE OF VIRTUE ETHICS

An unwritten theme in Ibn Ṭufayl’s narrative is that the good can be found only by conceiving of universals. Ḥayy’s ability to discern shared properties in things, categorize them, and then conceive of universals brings him to his own philosophical view of the world, including his ethics, his program for life. Ḥayy’s first philosophical realization is one of category, when he determines that the life-force of his deer-mother was of a different category than her body, which has died: “He knew that his mother, who had awakened his love and nursed him, was that now-departed ‘thing’ and nothing else, and from it had proceeded all her actions, not from this functionless body.”36 The doe’s soul was more essentially “she” and boundlessly more elevated than the body it inhabited. Life, action, and will are associated with that life-force, while limits, physicality, and death are associated with the body. It is this realization, Taneli Kukkonen reminds us, that propels Ḥayy away from the body, toward what is more abstract, universal, and thus divine.37

As Ḥayy’s understanding of the world becomes more abstract and conceptual, he awakens to truths (and true habits) that are more universal. Later in his life, for example, Ḥayy’s musings about his mother’s death will mature into a more clearly articulated theory that “decomposition and disappearance are only properties of bodies.”38 Similarly, he will realize that while animals are many in species, there is one spirit shared by all of them, like “one water or one drink divided into many vessels.”39 He has also come upon the notion of quiddity (māhīya) or “what-ness,” which describes individual things as having a conceptual essence that allows for multiple realizations: All deer share in “deer-ness,” so that an individual deer is but one realization of this quiddity.40 This will later allow Ḥayy to create three categories of being (resembling those in Aristotle’s Metaphysics) that will determine his ethics—the animal, the celestial, and the divine.41 Ḥayy’s animal properties mean that he must endeavor to survive, by eating and drinking. His celestial properties mean that he must be engaged in contemplation and purity. Lastly, his “divine” properties (those he shares with the Necessary Existent) are those that are not bodily. This means that he must devote himself to renunciation and ascetic practice, in order to erase his own selfhood to the degree possible and allow the light of the Real to overcome his perception.

Ḥayy’s observations of celestial bodies are particularly noteworthy, because it is from them that he abstracts a notion of benevolence. Ḥayy notices certain properties common to celestial bodies, properties that allow him not only to categorize them as heavenly, but also to strive to imitate them. They give or limit heat to that which is below them, that which is on earth, and through the influence of their order the lower spheres became prepared to receive “spiritual forms.”42 Their benevolence seems to result from their near-perfection and purity, since their occupation in contemplation of the Necessary Existent makes them unreliant on all that is beneath them. They have “translucence, luminescence, and visibility free from opacity and all varieties of impurity, moving in circles, some rotating around themselves, others orbiting others.”43 From them, Ḥayy learns to be a caretaker of everything on the island; he shields some plants from the sun, for example, or protects them from other plants. Ibn Ṭufayl posits, in other words, that even a concept such as “benevolence” can only be derived from universals, that is, from a grouping of shared qualities that come to be known first by sensory perception.

In Ibn Ṭufayl’s narrative, universal encompasses universal until Ḥayy begins to understand his place in the cosmos as being defined not by his species, but by life, justice, and goodness. His extreme renunciation of the worldly and the sensory (which is his form of temperance) actually means taking part in something more universal than the body. This seems to be an invitation to us, as readers, to do the same. By noticing that all of these categories become subsumed by larger categories, Ḥayy progresses to that which encompasses all universals but is not encompassed by them, which is the Real, or the Necessary Existent, namely God. This is not simply a theoretical process, but—as is evidenced by changes in Ḥayy’s daily practices—an ethical one as well. Ḥayy’s process of self-perfection through self-discipline and habits is also a transformative realization of the truth.

NOTES

1 Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment, p. 40.

2 Ibid., pp. 21–7; Watt, The Rise of the Novel.

3 Elmarsafy, “Philosophy Self-Taught,” pp. 141–3.

4 Russell, “The Impact of the Philosophus autodidactus,” pp. 252–3.

5 Ibn Ṭufayl shows clearly the marks of influence of the Brethren’s animal fable. The Brethren see the equator as the finest balance of seasons and day-lengths, most suited for the human constitutional form, for which reason they trace human origins to that area, specifically mentioning India as an ideal location in that regard. See notes by Goodman and McGregor in Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn, pp. 68, n. 16, 206, n. 271. The Brethren also intimate the ethical soundness of a vegan diet. Perhaps more important, their entire fable takes place on an island upon which animals and humans meet for the first time, with a history of oppression taking place elsewhere, and present a case adjudicated by a jinn king. The island for the Brethren allows for a thought experiment in which the superiority of humans to animals is considered, much like Ibn Ṭufayl’s island allows him to consider the human as a blank slate.

6 Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, p. 64.

7 Bashier, The Story of Islamic Philosophy, pp. 53–5.

8 Even according to this alternate introduction, Ḥayy is still born in the vicinity of that which Ibn Ṭufayl has defined as the ideal clime for a balanced human constitution.

9 As Mohammed Rustom highlights, Ḥayy experiences his annihilation (a topic discussed in Chapter Nine) as a witnessing of the Real in a “polished mirror.” See Rustom, “The End of Islamic Philosophy.”

10 Gutas, “Ibn Ṭufayl on Ibn Sīnā’s Eastern Philosophy,” p. 234.

11 Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, p. 130.

12 MacIntyre, p. 258.

13 Ibid., p. 129.

14 Hourani, “The Principal Subject of Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy Ibn Yaqzān,” p. 45. See also Ibn Ṭufayl, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, p. 47 (Goodman’s introduction).

15 Khalidi, “Orientalisms in the Interpretation of Islamic Philosophy,” p. 27.

16 Hourani, “The Principal Subject of Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy Ibn Yaqzān,” p. 41.

17 Gutas, “Ibn Ṭufayl on Ibn Sīnā’s Eastern Philosophy,” p. 226.

18 Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, p. 59.

19 Walker, “Philosophy of Religion in al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Ṭufayl,” p. 91.

20 Ibid., p. 92.

21 Walbridge, God and Logic in Islam, pp. 74–82.

22 González-Ferrín, “The Disobedient Philosopher,” p. 19.

23 Gutas, “Ibn Ṭufayl on Ibn Sīnā’s Eastern Philosophy,” p. 223.

24 Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, pp. 335–7.

25 Bashier, The Story of Islamic Philosophy, p. 15.

26 See Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s lucid explanation in An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, p. 200.

27 Gutas, “Ibn Ṭufayl on Ibn Sīnā’s Eastern Philosophy,” p. 239.

28 Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, p. 114. See also Ghazālī, al-Munqidh min al-Ḍalāl, p. 36; Gutas, “Ibn Ṭufayl on Ibn Sīnā’s Eastern Philosophy,” pp. 238–9.

29 Ibn ʿArabī, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyya, p. 1:154.

30 Rosenthal, “Ibn ʿArabī between ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Mysticism’,” pp. 9–10.

31 Ibid., p. 32.

32 Cornell, “Ḥayy in the Land of Absāl,” pp. 136, 163.

33 Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, p. 101.

34 Ibid., pp. 116–17.

35 Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, pp. 3:74, 8–12.

36 Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, p. 75.

37 Kukkonen, “No Man Is an Island,” pp. 194–6.

38 Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, p. 109.

39 Ibid., p. 84.

40 Kukkonen, Ibn Tufayl, p. 56.

41 Ibid., p. 87.

42 Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, p. 124.

43 Ibid., p. 125.

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