Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” – A Book Review

I have a friend who was an erstwhile archeologist. Not Zahi Hawass, digging piles of gold from the sands of ancient Egypt but a local archaeologist who worked for a municipality in England. Clearing lands and approving building permits, excavating ancient Roman latrines or guardhouses. Its important work in the old places, because the deeper we go, we find that when a layer of civilization is brushed away often times another is found beneath, and another beneath that in the great story of humanity.

Philosophy is like this. Each generation picks up something from the one before, who had learned from before and before that going back to the very foundations of writing – of thinking. The Greeks, most often. And the Bible, the old testament (or the Torah); Moses and Aristotle, everything comes from them.

Only for those who read, that is; something that happens less and less in these days of perpetual outrage and haughty ignorance.

I just finished Hayy Ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl. Tufayl was born in Almohad Al-Andalus, in the little town of Guadix north of Granada in the 12th century, at the height of Caliphate control of Iberia. He was a doctor, a philosopher, a theologian, and a poet. He served the governor of Granada from the palace of Alhambra and was the physician to the Berber Almohad Sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf in Marrakesh.

Marrakech 168

Mosque of the Booksellers

Tufayl was, above all, a thinker. “Behind him Ibn Tufayl left his disciples, his children, and his books.” What a wonderful thing to be said about such a monumental figure of philosophical thought. And Yaqzan was his most important work, and his only surviving philosophical treatise, which has been like a boulder thrown into the pond of rational thought well after the days of Islam’s Golden Age. “The title of the Latin translation, ‘Philosophus Autodidactus’ (The Self-Taught Philosopher), captured the imagination of generations of philosophers and theologians. How this tale shaped the course of European thought in the 17th century and during the Enlightenment presents a fascinating example of the travel of ideas across religious, cultural and linguistic boundaries.” It is said he influenced Locke’s philosophy and Jefferson read the book on rainy afternoons in his hilltop mansion of Monticello.

Hay Ibn Yaqzan is the story about a little boy who “comes to being” or is transferred to a desert island to be raised by gazelles. In the course of his life, and with no help except his own pure reason through an Aristotelian process of thought he begins to discover natural creation, man’s place in nature (above the animals), the existence of the metaphysical and finally the “Necessarily Existent Being” (Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’). At the end of the short book, he is finally taken from the island to attempt to share his knowledge with man, only to be met by failure as he realizes that men are illogical and nasty – and he finishes his story admonishing them to hold tightly to religion because left alone the natural state of humanity is evil. “He saw that most men are no better than unreasoning animals, and realized that all wisdom and guidance, all that could possibly help them was contained already in the words of the prophets and the religious traditions. (…) There was nothing to be added.”

On a personal note, I love north-African Islamic civilization. It is old and ornate and beautiful; full of wisdom and tradition and purpose. I’ve walked the Medina in Marrakesh, gazing up longingly at the Mosque of the Booksellers; I’ve wandered through the hidden corridors of the Alhambra and I’ve strolled the sandy alleys of Timbuktu, popping into the ancient libraries that were once the greatest collection of knowledge since the library of Alexandria. The preservation of Greek philosophy and the importance of mono-theistic theology have led those societies for a time to sit at the apex of civilization, and the works of their collective minds are still strewn across the deserts of Africa. And their commitment to reason and understanding still influences us, through its pre-eminent place in our own philosophical traditions.

Why did Ibn Tufayl write the story of Yaqzan? “Fearing that the weak-minded, who throw over the authority of prophets to ape the ways of fools, might mistake these notions for the esoteric doctrines which must be kept secret from those unfit to know them, and thus be all the more enticed to embrace them, I decided to afford them a fleeting glimpse of the mystery of mysteries to draw them to true understanding and turn them away from this other, false way.” I could not have said it better myself; and isn’t this why we, who dare to be writers, do so?

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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