Ibn Tufayl believed that human reasoning leads to mysticism Image Credit:

Although details of his early upbringing are obscure, Ibn Tufayl was part of a group of Arab philosophers who thrived in Spain, working for the governor of Ceuta and Tangier. He served the Almohads in North Africa from the middle of the 12th century onwards and became court physician and counsellor to the caliph Abu Yaqub Bin Yousuf, a sovereign who celebrated scientific innovation. It was in this position that Ibn Tufayl inspired such luminaries as fellow polymath Ibn Rushd and the astronomer Noor Al Deen Al Biturji. Ibn Tufayl’s most important work, the philosophical romance “The Living Son of the Vigilant” [‘Risalat Hayy Ibn Yaqzan’] describes the process of self-education as a young child discovers truth and knowledge. It stands out a rare philosophical treatise that covers the gamut “from a blank slate to a mystical or direct experience of God after passing through the necessary natural experiences”.

In his opus, the author highlighted how human reasoning could invent scientific knowledge as a way to prepare for mysticism. He further demonstrated that while religious truth was the same as philosophy, “the former is conveyed through symbols, which are suitable for the understanding of the multitude, and the latter is conveyed in its inner meanings apart from any symbolism”. By advancing such a view, Ibn Tufayl differentiated between those who required the use of symbols, and those who relied on “instruments” to reach the truth.

Early life and times

Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn ‘Abdul Malek Ibn Mohammad Ibn Tufayl Al Qaysi is known to the West as Abubacer. He was born at the beginning of the 12th-century in Guadix, Granada (Spain), and studied medicine and philosophy in Seville and Cordova before accepting an administrative position with ‘Abdul Mu’min, whose son, Abu Sa‘id, made him the “confidential secretary” to the governor of Ceuta and Tangiers. In 1163, Abu Ya‘qub Yousuf succeeded ‘Abdul Mu’min after which Ibn Tufayl’s promotions accelerated. In fact, the sultan spent long hours, sometimes stretching over days and nights, with Ibn Tufayl, discussing philosophical and political concerns. As he neared old age, Ibn Tufayl trained his protégé, Ibn Rushd, to succeed him as court physician, though he himself never retired. He died in Marrakech (Morocco) in 1185CE and was buried with due honours, with the monarch Yousuf Al Mansour presiding over the funeral.

‘Risalat Hayy Ibn Yaqzan’

For his opus, Ibn Tufayl used the title of an Ibn Sina philosophical treatise, adapted the names of latter’s characters for Salaman and Absal, and based the framework on an ancient Eastern tale, “The Story of the Idol and of the King and His Daughter”. Be that as it may, what Ibn Tufayl offered was a novel presentation, as he recapitulated key philosophical ideas, including the discussion of esoteric doctrines beyond philosophy and reason, precisely to attract the discerning.

In his introduction, the author presents useful summaries of views held by major philosophers, ranging from Al Farabi to Ibn Sina, and from Al Gazzali to Ibn Bajjah. This effort, he affirmed, was to discourage the foolish and, perhaps, to submit to religious conformity at a time when such views often led to persecution.

The book has a lucky protagonist, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. An infant who is all by himself on an uninhabited equatorial island, he is discovered and nurtured by a doe which has just lost its baby. The doe takes care of him until she dies when he is 7 years old. The doe’s death transforms Hayy, whose life changes from one of dependency to one of exploration and discovery. By presenting this prototype human being as a solitary soul, Ibn Tufayl illustrates how reason guides the human intellect and, equally important, how learning follows a logical path.

Unsure about the reason for the doe’s death, Hayy dissects her and notices that the left side of her heart is empty, which leads him to conclude “that the source of life must have been in this cavity, and must have abandoned it”. This discovery creates a chain of reflections in his mind about the correlation between the nature of living things and death, with the inevitable conclusion “that it was not the body but this vital entity that was the deer and the source of its actions”. In other words, the body is a mere apparatus, and there must be something else to govern life.

If Hayy’s early years are spent under the doe’s care, the child is taunted by other animals when his “mother” is no longer there to protect him, which lead to further re-evaluations. He instinctively hides in a cave where he discovers fire, which moves upwards — yet another critical detection. Hayy thus sees fire as a symbol of inner life, a source that differs from natural things, which leads him to conceptualise “matter and form, cause and effect, unity and multiplicity, as well as other general concepts concerning the Earth and the heavens”.

Pondering such fundamental questions, he considers creation itself, and though he cannot decide whether the Universe is created or eternal, Hayy concludes that a non-physical phenomenon must exist to explain nature’s harmony with the heavens. “All bodies, whether they are animate or inanimate, are one thing,” he writes, allowing him to affirm the existence of a soul that is superior to any animal body. In Ibn Tufayl’s words, seeing the whole Universe as one great being, and uniting all its many parts in his mind by the same sort of reasoning which has led him to see the oneness of all bodies in the world of generation and decay, Hayy wonders whether all this has come to be from nothing, or emerged from nothingness but always existed.

In effect, Hayy reaches the consideration of what Aristotle first addressed in non-corporeal cause, which Ibn Tufayl called the “necessarily existent”, whose very awareness ensures happiness and triumph over misery. Hayy thus comes to the conclusion that no living creature can actually grasp this state since it lies beyond the world of nature. Therefore, one must accept certain signs but only verify what they can, through experiences in the physical world. What cannot be verified, Ibn Tufayl posits, must be understood as a mystical experience, the highest form of knowledge that can be attained through reason.

Harmony of philosophy with revealed religion

Since Ibn Tufayl wished to analyse the kind of thinking that could evolve outside societal pressures, he successfully demonstrated in his opus that natural reason was sufficient to engender ethics, along with the core knowledge of the Universe that must be in harmony with revelation. In other words, he wished to illustrate the concord that existed between nature and revelation, a critical step.

As the narrative progresses, Hayy, who is 50 years old in the second part of the book, is confronted with yet another test when he comes into contact with a society on a nearby island.

In this land lives a people ruled by a monarch Salaman. They practise a religion that provide the masses with symbols, but not direct truths. Religion, which is an integral part of this culture, is harmonious but largely mechanical. The reader is then introduced to Absal, a friend of Salaman, who observes all of the rituals, like the masses, but also delves into the religion’s inner truths. Absal “loved contemplativeness in law” and deeply “devoted himself to the quest for solitude,” even if the practical Salaman accepts the necessity of the law to rule with security and stability in mind. In search of solitude for inner contemplation, Absal moves to the island on which Hayy lives, where their paths cross. Absal assumes Hayy to be “another anchorite who had come to the island in search of solitude”. Absal is shocked that the two cannot communicate but then decides to teach Hayy human language and, in turn, Hayy shares both his survival skills and his mystical insights. In what can only be describes as a meeting of the minds, Absal and Hayy recognise their common purpose, which is a poignant moment in the narrative.

Hayy is fascinated by Absal’s descriptions of the use of rituals and laws, which he finds to be superficial, and the two agree to sail to Absal’s city, where Hayy teaches his spiritual methods. The experience proves a huge mistake. Distraught that his efforts have come to naught, Hayy gives up and concludes that society is nothing but “a catalogue of passions, worldliness, arrogance, stubbornness and ignorance. People cling to factions and pass their lives in base materialistic pursuits,” he writes.

In Ibn Tufayl’s words, Hayy saw clearly and definitely that to appeal to them publicly and openly was impossible. He saw that most people are no better than unreasoning animals, and realised that all wisdom and guidance, all that could possibly help them, was contained already in the words of the prophets and the religious traditions. None of this could be different. There was nothing to be added.

Hayy (Ibn Tufayl) thus surmises that for the overwhelming majority of people, outward conformity to religious rituals and doctrines are sufficient, since they simply cannot absorb philosophical questions. For them, no interpretation is the best interpretation, and Hayy in fact recommends to Salaman that they should hold fast to their observances “regulating outward behaviour and not delve into things that did not concern them, submissively to accept all the most problematical elements of the tradition and shun originality and innovation”.

While Hayy is shown respect, Ibn Tufayl adds an interesting twist to his analysis, noting that few believers are willing to go beyond the literal meaning of their scriptures, because they are preoccupied with commercial activities. This is an unsympathetic assessment and, naturally, while Hayy understands why the masses behave in this way, he also reaches the damning conclusion that such people were incapable of grasping the direct truth. Simply stated, the learned could not teach or proselytise, because society is not interested in reaching new heights. All it can possibly achieve is maintaining what is good in its culture, as religion is deemed necessary for social stability and protection, while waiting for eternal salvation.

Consequently, Ibn Tufayl avows, social stability is not sufficient to secure happiness in the afterlife, and his narrative ends with Hayy and Absal returning to the uninhabited island to resume their hermitism where they “served God until man’s certain fate overtook them”. Both choose to be solely preoccupied with the divine.

Legacy to Arabs and Muslims

The manner in which Ibn Tufayl concluded his tale was a nod to Al Gazzali, who had recommended withdrawal from society for reasons of conscience and moral consistency, and to avoid the inevitable hypocrisies of social intercourse. It is worth recalling that Al Gazzali spent the last 16 years of his life as a recluse from society and its activities, to follow the path of mystical experience, which Ibn Tufayl emulated.

Inasmuch as both Al Gazzali and Ibn Tufayl were preoccupied with the ultimate truth and how to distance mankind from darkness, it mattered that both affirmed that the truths of reason and revelation were the same, even if “the majority of those adhering to the latter do so for worldly success and hence achieve eternal misery”. Muslim thinkers, like their monotheistic counterparts, attempted to enlighten those incapable of vision, though practically all separated the wheat from the chaff. Most warned against indulgences in worldly matters, encouraging contemplation and advocating solitude as well as prayer. Few reached the levels of mystics such as Ibn Tufayl, though many recognised their benefits, enlightened by philosophers whose search for the truth gave meaning to life itself.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of, “Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia”, London: Routledge, 2013.

This article is the twenty-third of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.