By Marwa Elshakry and Murad Idris
26 March, 2019
Ibn Tufayl, a 12th-century Andalusian,
fashioned the feral child in philosophy. His story Hayy ibn Yaqzan is the tale
of a child raised by a doe on an unnamed Indian Ocean island. Hayy ibn Yaqzan
(literally ‘Living Son of Awakeness’) reaches a state of perfect, ecstatic
understanding of the world. A meditation on the possibilities (and pitfalls) of
the quest for the good life, Hayy offers not one, but two ‘utopias’: a eutopia
(εὖ ‘good’, τόπος‘place’) of the mind in perfect isolation, and an
ethical community under the rule of law. Each has a version of human happiness.
Ibn Tufayl pits them against each other, but each unfolds ‘no where’ (οὐ
‘not’, τόπος ‘place’) in the world.
Ibn Tufayl begins with a vision of humanity
isolated from society and politics. (Modern European political theorists who
employed this literary device called it ‘the state of nature’.) He introduces
Hayy by speculating about his origin. Whether Hayy was placed in a basket by
his mother to sail through the waters of life (like Moses) or born by
spontaneous generation on the island is irrelevant, Ibn Tufayl says. His divine
station remains the same, as does much of his life, spent in the company only
of animals. Later philosophers held that society elevates humanity from its
natural animal state to an advanced, civilised one. Ibn Tufayl took a different
view. He maintained that humans can be perfected only outside society, through
a progress of the soul, not the species.
In contrast to Thomas Hobbes’s view that
‘man is a wolf to man’, Hayy’s island has no wolves. It proves easy enough for
him to fend off other creatures by waving sticks at them or donning terrifying
costumes of hides and feathers. For Hobbes, the fear of violent death is the
origin of the social contract and the apologia for the state; but Hayy’s first
encounter with fear of death is when his doe-mother dies. Desperate to revive
her, Hayy dissects her heart only to find one of its chambers is empty. The
coroner-turned-theologian concludes that what he loved in his mother no longer
resides in her body. Death therefore was the first lesson of metaphysics, not
Hayy then observes the island’s plants and
animals. He meditates upon the idea of an elemental, ‘vital spirit’ upon discovering
fire. Pondering the plurality of matter leads him to conclude that it must
originate from a singular, non-corporeal source or First Cause. He notes the
perfect motion of the celestial spheres and begins a series of ascetic
exercises (such as spinning until dizzy) to emulate this hidden, universal
order. By the age of 50, he retreats from the physical world, meditating in his
cave until, finally, he attains a state of ecstatic illumination. Reason, for
Ibn Tufayl, is thus no absolute guide to Truth.
The difference between Hayy’s ecstatic
journeys of the mind and later rationalist political thought is the role of
reason. Yet many later modern European commentaries or translations of Hayy
confuse this by framing the allegory in terms of reason. In 1671, Edward
Pococke entitled his Latin translation The Self-Taught Philosopher: In Which It
Is Demonstrated How Human Reason Can Ascend from Contemplation of the Inferior
to Knowledge of the Superior. In 1708, Simon Ockley’s English translation was
The Improvement of Human Reason, and it too emphasised reason’s capacity to
attain ‘knowledge of God’. For Ibn Tufayl, however, true knowledge of God and
the world – as a utopia for the ‘mind’ (or soul) – could come only through
perfect contemplative intuition, not absolute rational thought.
This is Ibn Tufayl’s first utopia: an
uninhabited island where a feral philosopher retreats to a cave to reach
ecstasy through contemplation and withdrawal from the world. Friedrich
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would be impressed: ‘Flee, my friend, into your
The rest of the allegory introduces the
problem of communal life and a second utopia. After Hayy achieves his perfect
condition, an ascetic is shipwrecked on his island. Hayy is surprised to
discover another being who so resembles him. Curiosity leads him to befriend
the wanderer, Absal. Absal teaches Hayy language, and describes the mores of
his own island’s law-abiding people. The two men determine that the islanders’
religion is a lesser version of the Truth that Hayy discovered, shrouded in
symbols and parables. Hayy is driven by compassion to teach them the Truth.
They travel to Absal’s home.
The encounter is disastrous. Absal’s
islanders feel compelled by their ethical principles of hospitality towards
foreigners, friendship with Absal, and association with all people to welcome
Hayy. But soon Hayy’s constant attempts to preach irritate them. Hayy realises
that they are incapable of understanding. They are driven by satisfactions of
the body, not the mind. There can be no perfect society because not everyone
can achieve a state of perfection in their soul. Illumination is possible only
for the select, in accordance with a sacred order, or a hieros archein. (This
hierarchy of being and knowing is a fundamental message of neo-Platonism.) Hayy
concludes that persuading people away from their ‘natural’ stations would only
corrupt them further. The laws that the ‘masses’ venerate, be they revealed or
reasoned, he decides, are their only chance to achieve a good life.
The islanders’ ideals – lawfulness,
hospitality, friendship, association – might seem reasonable, but these too
exist ‘no where’ in the world. Hence their dilemma: either they adhere to these
and endure Hayy’s criticisms, or violate them by shunning him. This is a
radical critique of the law and its ethical principles: they are normatively
necessary for social life yet inherently contradictory and impossible. It’s a
sly reproach of political life, one whose bite endures. Like the islanders, we
follow principles that can undermine themselves. To be hospitable, we must be
open to the stranger who violates hospitality. To be democratic, we must
include those who are antidemocratic. To be worldly, our encounters with other
people must be opportunities to learn from them, not just aboutthem.
In the end, Hayy returns to his island with
Absal, where they enjoy a life of ecstatic contemplation unto death. They
abandon the search for a perfect society of laws. Their utopia is the quest of
the mind left unto itself, beyond the imperfections of language, law and ethics
– perhaps beyond even life itself.
The islanders offer a less obvious lesson:
our ideals and principles undermine themselves, but this is itself necessary
for political life. For an island of pure ethics and law is an impossible
utopia. Perhaps, like Ibn Tufayl, all we can say on the search for happiness is
It was – what it was, is harder to say.
Think the best, but don’t make me describe
After all, we don’t know what happened to
Hayy and Absal after their deaths – or to the islanders after they left.
Marwa Elshakry is associate professor of history at Columbia University
in New York. She is the author of Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950(2013).
She lives in New York.
Murad Idris is assistant professor of politics at the University of
Virginia. He is currently working on two book projects, one on Ibn Tufayl’s
Hayy ibn Yaqzan and another on constructions of Islam in language. His latest
book is War for Peace: Genealogies of a Violent Ideal in Western and Islamic
Edited by Sam Haselby