A Doe, a Deer, a Philosopher. Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. (Living Son of Awake.)

“No man is an island, entire of itself…” (John Donne, Meditation 17)

…and that goes even for the writer of our island story Ibn-Tufayl. Ibn-Tufayl was a 12th century philosopher living in Andalusia, or Medieval Spain. He was originally a secretary for the ruler of Grenada and became a vizier to the Almohads. (He eventually recommended his successor Averroes to the Almohad king in 1169.)


It was during this time, working for the Almohads that Ibn-Tufayl wrote the first ever philosophical novel, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan or “Living; Son of Awake.”  This book, borrowed it’s title from an earlier allegorical tale written by Avicenna, whose title was the same, though its content was very different.(1) In this novel, which had a profound influence on the history of philosophy onwards, Ibn-Tufayl expounds on philosophical ideas including, but not limited to, epistemology, human nature, the relation of religion and philosophy, existence of actual infinites, the eternity of the universe, and the existence of God.

But like any good philosopher, he knows that he stands on the shoulders of his predecessors, and in the prologue written for the book, mentions them and talks about what he thinks about them before giving the account of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. He mentions three distinct men: Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, and Ibn-Bajja. He praises them in some ways, and dismisses them in others. He curtails the conception of Avicenna as a rationalist, believing that Avicenna’s book on “Oriental Philosophy” (which is now mostly lost) is more expressive of Avicenna’s true belief, that God is beyond reason and that the only way to know him is through a mystical union with him. He cites that Al-Ghazali was also another in this tradition to have attained the mastery of the mystical union with God, and is annoyed however that Ghazali seems to go both ways in his arguments so it’s hard to see where exactly he falls. And he says that his predecessor, Ibn-Bajja, while impressive, was not a mind of the same caliber of the other two, but still had a lot to be learned from.

And then, after giving us an account of his predecessors(which I cover here because I will be referring back to them throughout the post), he proceeds to tell the tale of Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan.

He starts with two differing accounts of Hayy’s birth; one involving spontaneous generation, and the other involving a normal birth and abandonment. He describes the setting as an island with an ideal climate, such that it is possible that human beings be spontaneously generated.(2) There is an extended explanation about why this island is in the ideal climate and an explanation of Aristotelean physics regarding the heating of bodies. That the Earth not heated through convection or contact or motion, since the Sun is itself not hot, and the Earth is not moving, nor does the air heat evenly. The only conclusion then is that the sun heats according to its light, which is best absorbed by suitable objects.

Then the account is given for those who do not believe spontaneous generation is possible. Ibn-Tufayl explains that on an island opposite of the ideal island, there was a King, a tyrant really, who refused to allow his sister to marry until he found her a mate suitable for her. She however, had a relative who’s name was Awake(Yaqzan) whom she married in secret and concieved a child with. After nursing it, in fear of her brother, she put it in a wooden ark and sent it away praying for God to watch it and protect it. Sure enough, it was protected, as it arrived on the island safely. There the child started to cry and was rescued by a doe, (a gazelle) who had recently lost her own fawn and was feeling matronly, who decided to nurse Hayy until he was strong.

We then get the second account, that of the spontaneous generation. Here, in harking back to the medical tradition that had come up before him, through Galen, Al-Razi and Avicenna, we see a detailed account of the generation of the human body from nothing. First, we see the matter suitably prepared to receive a form from the Active Intellect. Avicenna thought that the active intellect of Aristotle’s De Anima was an intellect that mediated the forms out forms out to suitably prepared matter. We see this in Ibn-Tufayl’s work.

“They tell us, that as soon as this Spirit was join’d to the receptacle, all the other Faculties immediately, by the Command of God, submitted themselves to it”(Ibn Tufayl, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan)

The suitably prepared matter then began to form itself according to the human form, gaining organs and divided faculties for different functions. Within these organs there is the heart, which contains the vital heat which is distributed throughout the body and keeps it functioning. We see the brain formed to manage all the senses and help us to avoid what is harmful and pursue what is good, and we see the liver formed to manage our bodily humors and all our nutritive needs. Eventually, he developed blood vessels and nerves and the rest of the organs and burst out of the patch of fermented earth where he grew, so that he could be found crying by the doe. And this is where the two stories reunite.

Hayy grows strong among the deer, living and grazing amongst them. He and the doe were inseperable, she always leading him to good water and good food, helping him crack hard nuts open so he could eat them and they protected each other and spoke to each other in calls suited for animals. Hayy soon learned to imitate the call of all animals, not just of Gazelle, and he could speak and communicate to them for the purposes he came upon.

Soon though, Hayy began to notice he was unlike the other animals. All the other animals were well coated in fur, and he was not. Other animals had natural means of defense, such as antlers or horns, but he had none. As such, he was not particularly strong or fast either, and often found himself losing fruit when others tried to take it from him. He also noticed that he was naked, that his genitals and other organs were open and exposed unlike the other animals, who had theirs well protected.

And thus the seven-year old Hayy grieved. He grieved and put his mind about solving the matter, that he could come up with some way of protecting himself and covering himself. He tried at first to use leaves, but they failed miserably, the string always wearing out quickly and the leaves withering and dying so he had to remake it. He began also to fashion spears and other primitive weapons, and used them to protect himself from the beasts, noting that he had better hands than the rest of them. He continued to grow older, and after he was at least eight years of age, he had grown tired of repairing his leaf-clothes and thought perhaps he’d take the tail of some animal that had died, and went about to search for one.

And by chance he came upon a dead eagle, and stealing it’s wings he fashioned himself a garment, and after he started wearing it, no animal but his mother would approach him. Soon though, the doe died, and Hayy did not know what was happening.

“Then he began to peep into her ears and eyes, but could perceive no visible defect in either; in like manner he examin’d all the parts of her body, and found nothing amiss, but every thing as it should be. He had a vehement desire to find that part where the defect was, that he might remove it, and she return to her former state. But he was altogether at a loss how to compass his design, nor could he possibly bring it about.”

“Upon this he resolv’d to open her Breast and make enquiry;”

Hayy noted that when he shut his eyes or something was put in front of them, he ceased to be able to see until the obstruction was removed. The same with his ears and other senses. He reasoned that his faculties could be obstructed and that if obstructed they could be restored by removing the obstruction.

He however, could not find any visible obstruction on her outside, and concluded that it must be an internal obstruction, and if it is indeed an internal obstruction it must be an obstruction in a place that would cause all her faculties to cease(if obstructed). He reasoned that it must be an organ that all other organs needed to function, and since there are only three cavities in the body, namely, the chest, the head, and the stomach, the organ which is central to them all would be in the center. He reflects on his own experience and finds that indeed, he feels the presence of such an organ in his own body, the beating of which he cannot perceive himself as living without. It is why he shields it instinctively in fights, a hand will heal, this thing will not.

So realizing he’s never seen any animal recover from this condition naturally he sets about with a quest to remove whatever obstruction is occurring in the organ, and gets himself some sharpened rocks and goes to work breaking into the torso of his mother animal. (Kids, don’t try this at home.)

In the chest cavity he finds the lungs and heart, and concludes that the heart must be what he’s looking for, since it is centrally located within the chest cavity and it is well protected by the pericardium. After breaking through the pericardium, he opens up the heart and finds that it has two halves, one of which is full of congealed blood, the other…empty. He knows that that the blood didn’t get like that on it’s own, until after the body was in this state(for he knew blood congeals outside of the body but not inside.). He also notes that the blood in the heart is no different than other blood and that whatever he’s looking for cannot be blood because “I lost a great deal of it in my skirmishes with the Wild Beasts, and yet it  never did me any considerable harm, nor render’d me incapable of performing any action of life”, and so he concludes it must be something that once was here, but is not now. And this privation is what caused the absence of life. He concluded that the thing that had abandoned it before its own house came to ruin, would not return now that the body was mangled as it was.

He thus decided that it was not bodies that mattered, but this principle that gives them life. This idea, that we are souls imprisoned in bodies wishing to escape is a very platonic concept that we see in many of the Aristotelian philosophers of the Arabic world.

He then buries the Gazelle and turns to contemplate upon the nature of this life-force. One day however, a fire arises on the island by friction, and he was frightened, having never seen flames before. He found that the flames were bright, and transformed anything that they touched into it’s own image, “till at last his admiration of it and the innate boldness and fortitude which God had implanted upon his nature prompted him on, that he stretch’d out his hand to take some of it.” He however, found out he could not handle it that way and used a stick instead, and carried it back to the cave that he had made his home.(3)

Hayy tended the flames day and night, and found them to be good for warmth and light, and noticed they tried to move upwards all the time. He concluded that it must be one of the substances that the stars are made of, and continued to test its power by throwing different things into it. It was by this method, he accidentally discovered cooking. After this he began to hunt and to fish, in order to obtain more meat that he might throw upon the fire.

He began to admire the fire more and more, and noticed that whatever had departed from the doe, must also be similar to, if not identical with, the fire in front of him. Because as long as animals lived they were warm, and when they died, they became cold. He also could feel the greater warmth in the area of his chest that was equivalent, and concluded that if he could dissect any animal alive, he might be able to observe this fire inside of them. And if it is not fire, he would at least know of the kind of substance it was that animates the body.

And so he went about doing so, soon discovering that there is a sort of, hot vapor that animates all life. And he began to become curious as to how animal parts were arranged in order to do this, and so he began his inquiry with dissection of many kinds to see how they were assembled. Soon he concluded that even though there were many different faculties within an animal, they were nonetheless one, and the hot vapor guided used the body like Hayy used his weapons. He too had many different kinds of weapons, some for defense, some for offense and so on, and his one body used them all. He concluded that the animal soul (4)uses the eyes, and ears, and limbs to perform its function. All these members were fitted to do their function, but none of them could function without the soul that was animating it.

By the time he reached this understanding, Hayy was 21 years of age.

He further taught himself to hunt and ride horses and to overcome greater problems and challenges of beasts that were faster than him or stronger than him. He also set about studying the world around him, dividing the world into things that generate and decay and things that don’t. The things that generate and decay are plants and animals, and the things that do not are everything else, from rocks to water. He also comes to understand that the world is vastly diverse, but also very unified. It is in one sense one and in another sense many. It is a multiplicity in a unity. He explains this by discussing how among animal kind, they vary only in their properties in the account of their matter. They however contain the same animating substance.  He uses an analogy of bowls of different substances filled with varying amounts of water. In some bowls the water gets colder, and in others it stays about the same temperature. In others it is deeper and in others it is shallower. In all though, it is the same water, one amount of water, though in many containers.

He also concluded the same thing about plants, and then that plants and animals are one. Stones too receive their nature by how much of this warm air they receive(namely, none.) We return to the analogy that is used at the very beginning of the story, in that when this island receives light, it does not receive it like a transparent object, where light passes right through it, nor does it receive it like an opaque object that is not polished, which reflects poorly. Rather it receives light like a mirror, which after light hits it can start fires. Rocks are like transparent objects, vegetables and animals are like the non-polished opaque objects, and man would be like the polished objects. This is how he understood the idea of the Active Intellect sending forms.

Then, Hayy begans to notice that fire always moves up and the other elements also tend to act according to their own natures, and that all objects have extension and form. Because extension by itself is no object, but when conjoined with form it becomes an object. He stumbles upon the whole of Aristotelian physics in this cave through empirical observation. He also begins to start a study of where all the new things come from. Everything must have a cause and so he got the idea that there had to be a maker of some kind. He argues that because matter doesn’t have form inherent to itself but that forms seem to come upon matter when it exists then there must be an efficient cause of the form. He then began to contemplate the heavens, and the bodies that were there. He knew they were bodies, because they had extension, and he began to consider if they had infinite length or not. He concluded they could not by conducting a thought experiment.

“This heavenly body is bounded on the near side, without doubt, since I can see it with my own eyes. Only the far side admits of doubt. Nonetheless I know it is impossible for it to extend forever. For if I imagine two lines beginning on this finite side, passing up through the body to infinity, as far as the body itself supposedly extends, and imagine a large segment cut from the finite end of one and the two placed side by side with the cut end of one opposite the uncut end of the other, and my mind travels along the two lines towards the so called infinite end, then I must discover either that the pair of lines really do extend to infinity, the one no shorter than the other, in which case the cut line equals the intact one, which is absurd…or else that the one does not run the full length of the other but stops short of the full course, in which case it is finite. But if the finite segment that was subtracted is restored, the whole is finite. Now it is neither shorter nor longer than the uncut line. They must be equal then. But one is finite so the other must be finite as well, and so must the body in which these lines were assumed to be drawn. Such lines can be assumed in any physical thing. Thus to postulate an infinitely extended physical body is fallacious and absurd.” (Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, as translated by L.E. Goodman.)

This argument against actual infinities is reminiscent of the arguments found in Al-Ghazali’s “Incoherence of the Philosophers” regarding the eternity of the universe. Ghazali argues that if the universe is eternal, then Jupiter and Saturn have been orbiting for the same amount of time, namely, infinite time. And have thus completed infinite rotations. But we see that in the time it takes for Jupiter to do two rotations, Saturn only completes one. Thus they do not have identical numbers of rotations, and this is simply an absurdity created by postulating an infinite universe.

Hayy(unsurprisingly) agrees with Al-Ghazali on this idea, that actual infinities are impossible. He thus came to understand the whole heavens and all the creatures on the earth as One. Then he began to wonder whether or not the universe had been here forever, or if it too had been created! And he determined that it didn’t matter either way. Both arguments lead you back to a necessary being. If the universe indeed sprang up Ex-nihilo, then it could not have created itself, but must have had an immaterial cause in order to bring matter into existence. It would be inaccessible to our senses or else it would be a body, and it should be impossible for him to be imagined either, as our imagination can only represent to us the forms of things in their absence. This understanding of imagination is very Aristotelian, it shows up frequently in his De Anima. And so he comes to a full Asharite understanding of God, like Al-Ghazali, believing God to be beyond imagination or senses to get at, by postulating a beginning of the universe.

He then postulates an eternal universe(ignoring for a moment the difficulty of actual infinities), and discovers that it also needs an immaterial creator. Since the motion of the heavens must be eternal if the universe is eternal since there could be no rest from which it needed to start. (Since all matter inherently seems to move in a given direction according to its nature.) All motion requires a mover, and every power which passes through a body or is applied to a body, doubles as the body doubles. It takes two times the energy to move an object twice the size. All body must necessarily then be finite, and all power that the bodies possess then must also be finite(since power is determined by the object.) But in order to move the universe infinitely, there must be infinite power, and so this mover that set everything into motion cannot be finite, and therefore must not have a body.

This is astounding! The eternity of the universe question that continues to rage through Jewish philosophy as well as later Arabic philosophy and Western Philosophy, Ibn-Tufayl says is irrelevant since you come to the same conclusion either way. (A sentiment echoed by the later Thomas Aquinas.)

Anyways, Hayy continues with his train of thought, and he contemplates the necessary existent and comes to realize that no matter what it seemed to be immaterial, omnipotent, eternal, not subject to decay and necessarily existent. It had no imperfections about it, because imperfection is non-existence, non-being, and the being that surely gives all other being its motion contains no non-being. It is a Necessary Existent.

This is reminiscent of his predecessor Avicenna, who also ran what might be the first argument for God’s necessary existence. It went something like this.

“There is existence, or rather our phenomenal experience of the world confirms that things exist, and that their existence is non-necessary because we notice that things come into existence and pass out of it. Contingent existence cannot arise unless it is made necessary by a cause. A causal chain in reality must culminate in one un-caused cause because one cannot posit an actual infinite regress of causes (a basic axiom of Aristotelian science). Therefore, the chain of contingent existents must culminate in and find its causal principle in a sole, self-subsistent existent that is Necessary. This, of course, is the same as the God of religion.”(5)

Hayy was continuing therefore in a proud Tradition of self-made men. Avicenna taught himself and so therefore could Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. He then began to ponder upon himself, what means of which he came to know this being, if not through reason or imagination. He realized that only “like can perceive like” (Aristotle, De Anima, II. 5) and that he must be able to perceive God due to the fact that he has a capacity that is similar to his. And this capacity he called Reason, and he began to ponder what becomes of the Reason after it leaves the body. He comes to three conclusions.
1. A person has never exercised their reason and dies and ceases to exist like animals.
2. A person exercises their reason and glimpes God and falls away, therefore going to him and being in eternal torment at its loss.
3. A person exercises their reason and lives in full enjoyment of God so that their intellect goes to behold the active intellect.

The ultimate goal then of a human is to escape the prison of the body. This very Platonic concept became Hayy’s sole reason for existence, and so he began to meditate upon the being of God. But eventually, his bodily needs seized him and he realized he could not do without them.

In an interesting passage, Hayy determines that there are three things he has to do to fulfill his desire to be united to God. 1. Imitate the animals. 2. Imitate the Heavens. 3. Imitate God. And so he does his best to do these things. He imitates the animals by fulfilling his desire to eat and drink, but now he does not eat the flesh of animals, due to the fact that to kill them would be to interfere with God’s plan for them, and he is all wise. But he does not fulfill himself beyond the minimum he needs to.

“Or at times he would spin around in circles until he got dizzy.”

His imitation of the heavenly bodies was two-fold, in the contemplation and awareness of God, and in imitating their circular motion. When he was not doing the first imitation, he would be meditating on God and the awareness of the necessary existent. At times he would take the idea of imitation literally and

“Hayy prescribed himself circular motion of various kinds.  Sometimes he would circle the island, … Sometimes he would march around his house or certain large rocks a set number of times, … Or at times he would spin around in circles until he got dizzy.” (L.E. Goodman translation.)

He did this to rid himself of visual stimuli, of any vision of particulars so that he could escape his world as much as he could, in imitation of those beings that perpetually observe the Necessary Existent.(6)

Eventually he obtained the union with the Necessary Existent he was seeking, and could do it only for a time, but grew stronger and stronger the more he practiced.

Then the story could end here. With Hayy attaining his enlightenment. But it does not.

We return to the opposite island from the first of the two birth stories. There we meet two religiously devout men. Absal and Salaman. They are both very religious, and study their texts thoroughly, though one has a tendency to take passages literally, the other metaphorically. Absal believes that the truth must be reached in isolation and asceticism, whereas Salaman believes that it is in cities and communal gatherings they are to be found. The two disagree irreparably, and Absal departs for the nearby island that is uninhabited in order to be alone and seek union with God.

Eventually Absal encounters Hayy Ibn Yaqzan on the island, and though both initially fearful of the other, wind up becoming friends. Absal teaches Hayy language in hopes of teaching him about God.

“So Absal began teaching him to talk, at first by pointing at some basic objects and pronouncing their names over and over, making him pronounce them too and pronounce them while pointing, until he had taught him nouns.  Then he progressed with him, little by little and step by step, until in no time Hayy could speak.” (Ibid)

They compare ideas and are astounded to find out that they already agree!

“Hearing Hayy’s description of the beings which are divorced from the sense-world and conscious of the Truth — glory be to Him — his description of the Truth Himself, by all His lovely attributes, and his description, as best he could, of the joys of those who reach Him and the agonies of those veiled from Him, Absal had no doubt that all the traditions of his religion about God, His angels, bibles and prophets, Judgment Day, Heaven and Hell, were symbolic representations of these things that Hayy Ibn Yaqzan had seen for himself. The eyes of his heart were unclosed. His mind caught fire. Reason and tradition were at one within him. All the paths of exegesis lay open before him. All his old religious puzzlings were solved; all the obscurities, clear.”

“Hayy understood all this [the religious traditions as explained by Absal] and found none of it in contradiction with what he had seen for himself from his supernal vantage point. He recognized that whoever had offered this description had given a faithful picture and spoken truly. This man must have been a ‘messenger sent by this Lord.'”

And so Absal and Hayy continue to discuss what they know and what they have seen, and Absal tells him about the many that are back on his home island that follow this religion and are blind to the truth. Hayy does not understand why people need to have laws told to them, or to have the Truth explained to them through symbols in order for them to understand, and Absal believes that Hayy could be the new prophet to lead them all out of darkness.

But after much trying, they discover that even though they appealed to the highest intellectual class of people in the city, it was more for amusement than genuine learning. No one really wanted to change. The people were too stupid and stubborn to change their ways. They cannot understand truth without symbols to explain them. Hayy was astounded and confused, were all humans this way? He continued to teach and try and attempt to persuade the people until they got tired of his ideas and branded him as dangerous, and so he and Absal left to go back to the island after encouraging the people to continue as they had always done.

“Hayy now understood the human condition.  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. None of this could be different.  There was nothing to be added.  There is a man for every task and everyone belongs to the life for which he was created…

“So Hayy went to Salaman and his friends and apologized, dissociated himself from what he had said.  He told them that he had seen the light and realized that they were right.  He urged them to hold fast to their observance of all the statutes regulating outward behavior 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, follow in the footsteps of their righteous forebears and leave behind everything modern.”

And then the story ends. Salaman and the others on the island continue on in their ignorance, and Hayy and Absal “…served God on the island until man’s certain fate overtook them.”

The way this story ends is important. Had it ended with Hayy achieving enlightenment, it would have been a perfect end on an Avicennan and Ghazalian story. Someone follows Avicenna’s philosophy, with a bit of the Asharite flair of Al-Ghazali and winds up achieving union with God.

But to continue it as he did, is a tribute to his predecessor Ibn Bajja. Ibn Bajja believed that the cities could not be saved by the Truth. That in order for a city to be ideal, it had to help the most of its citizens achieve happiness, and their own perfection. But it does this through the lack of art and jurisprudence, and a lack of ‘weeds’. Weeds are people who

“Now the people who discover a right action or learn a true science that does not exist in the city belong to a class that has no generic name. As for the ones who stumble upon a true opinion that does not exist in the city or the opposite of which is believed in the city, they are called weeds (Rule of the Solitary, Ibn Bajja”

This does not mean that there are not false beliefs in the city, but rather that everyone believes them to be true, or that there is no way to tell if it is true or false.

Hayy in this story, is a weed. He shows up in this city and starts trying to smash the Status Quo. He starts preaching against the false beliefs that everyone holds as true, and thus interferes with them achieving their happiness and order.

Symbolic religion is required to keep order, but only because men are stupid. That is the conclusion that this book reaches about the human race in general, whereas the ideal man is a solitary man, living in mystical union with God. And so it turns out that John Donne was wrong, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan was an island, self-taught and self-enlightened. And lost into the Active Intellect of God.(7)


(1) Avicenna’s original tale was a short romance about the Active Intellect, embodied as a sage, instructing the human soul on the nature of the universe.
(2) “Animals and plants come into being in earth and in liquid because there is water in earth, and air in water, and in all air is vital heat so that in a sense all things are full of soul. Therefore living things form quickly whenever this air and vital heat are enclosed in anything. When they are so enclosed, the corporeal liquids being heated, there arises as it were a frothy bubble.” (Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals 3, 11)
(3) The cave is rather significant. It could be a symbol of Plato’s cave, or it could have to do with the cave where Muhammad received his revelation. The latter of these two seem more likely, as Hayy later describes the prophets as men like himself.
(4) He had not yet used this term, instead calling it the warm air, or the faculty.
(5) http://www.iep.utm.edu/avicenna/
(6) It is entirely possible this is a reference to the whirling meditation of the Sufi Dervishes.
(7) This may be what began to set the tone for Averroës’ controversial notion of the Universal Intellect.

Further Material:

“Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” Translated by L.E. Goodman. http://www.amazon.com/Ibn-Tufayls-Hayy-Yaqzan-Philosophical/dp/0226303101

“Fantasy Island: Ibn-Bajja and Ibn-Tufayl” The History of Philosophy Podcast, Dr. Peter Adamson. http://www.historyofphilosophy.net/ibn-tufayl


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