Ibn-Tufayl and the state of nature

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts

  • Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (excerpted in D.E. Cooper and P.S. Fosl, eds., Philosophy: The Classic Readings)

Secondary Texts for Instructor

  • Montada, Josef Puig, ‘Philosophy in Andalusia: Ibn Bājja and Ibn Țufayl’, in Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 155-179.
  • Steitieh, Dalal Malhas, ‘Ibn Tufayl’, in Joy A. Palmer (ed.), Fifty Major Thinkers on Education (London: Routledge, 2001).

Suggested Courses

  • TBD

Overview

A central concern of the ‘golden age’ of Islamic philosophy was the relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and the Islamic tradition. What is the proper relationship between Greek philosophy – a product of a pagan culture ignorant of the definitive revelation given to the Prophet Mohammad – and the tradition grounded in that revelation? A key question was the authoritative status of the Islamic religious and cultural tradition: is authentic participation in that tradition a necessary precondition for a relationship with Allah or are there other, alternative routes that dispense with the specific teachings and practices of Islam? One remarkable response to this question was given by Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Malik Ibn Muhammad Ibn Tufayl al-Qaysai – better known as Ibn-Tufayl, latinised as Abubacer. A startling polymath, one of his decisive contributions to Islamic philosophy and literature was Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (‘The Living One, Son of the Vigilant’). This remarkable book is distinctive for being the first instance of a ‘state of nature’ scenario, of a sort more familiar, to Westerners, from Thomas Hobbes and Robinson Crusoe. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan tells the story of a young man, Hayy, born supernaturally on a island without any other human company or society. Raised by a doe, with only his own experience and native reason, Hayy gradually generates a vast knowledge – of the natural world, then of theology and cosmology – until he gradually achieves a profound mystical union with God. The story is remarkable for its implication that a person could attain a genuine and profound union with God without the aid of scripture, tradition, or religious instruction. But Ibn-Tufayl adds a further twist to his story. Hayy’s island is visited by a pious religious adept, Asal, who quickly recognizes his spiritual accomplishments and persuades him to visit his home country – a thinly disguised Islamic society. To Hayy’s alarm, the people are morally and spiritually corrupt: the use of images and allegories disguises religious truths, and the love of material goods is openly tolerated. Hayy’s efforts to instruct them fail and in the end generate resentment, and so he retreats back to his island, publicly recanting his teachings, judging that any higher religious instruction could only backfire. Depending on how one reads the story, Ibn-Tufayl is subtly arguing that human reason, unguided by revelation, scripture, and tradition, is sufficient in itself to achieve a life of authentic devotion to Allah. More provocatively, Ibn-Tufayl is using Hayy to criticize the corrupt moral and religious tendencies of the Islamic society of which he was a member. Read in this way, the story of Hayy Ibn Yaqzam teaches not only that the tradition is not essential to a life of faith, but that it might even be an obstacle to it. 

Discussion Questions

  • How do ‘state of nature’ stories work? Why do people like Ibn Tufayl use them?
  • Despite being alone without any help at all, Hayy turns out amazingly well. This may seem a little too convenient! Come up with other ways that the story of Hayy might have gone.
  • Is it compassionate or patronising for Hayy to decide to stop trying to educate people and instead tell them to stick – happily but unthinkingly – to their tradition?

Activities

Have students recap Ibn-Tufayl’s account of Hayy’s development on the island, focusing on how he takes empirical observations and then infers from them increasingly complex abstract ideas. Then ask them to imagine a ‘twist’ to the story by inviting them to retell the story such that Hayy ends up as a polytheist, rather than a monotheist. Use this exercise to raise critical questions about the uses and limits of state of nature scenarios – does one only get out of them what one builds into them, in a way that should cause suspicion about their uses in philosophy? Or can a state of nature story offer genuine insights into human nature?  

Author Information

Ian James Kidd (University of Nottingham)
ian.kidd@nottingham.ac.uk