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Ibn Tufayl’s Critique of Cosmopolitanism in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

Ibn Tufayl’s Critique Of Cosmopolitanism In Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

Since the end of the cold war and the rise of globalization, many have begun to look hopefully to a cosmopolitan era governed by universal tolerance that transcends local ethnic or national boundaries. Ibn Tufayl, speaking to us from nine centuries ago, explores the possibility of cosmopolitanism and offers a thoughtful response to its hopes in his book Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Although Ibn Tufayl’s work has been unjustly neglected in our times,[1] the importance and necessity of the study of this work is more evident today than it has been for many decades. While Ibn Tufayl is engaged in a valiant attempt to free human brings from a state of ignorance, the enlightenment and tolerance reached by Ibn Tufayl’s hero Hayy is not the model Ibn Tufayl thinks is possible for political society and politics in general.

Although Ibn Tufayl believes that a genuinely enlightened individual is “cosmopolitan,” that is, free from parochial prejudices and in a sense at home in all cities, Ibn Tufayl is not of the opinion that a cosmopolitan society or a cosmopolitan world order can ever exist in practice. The story’s hero attempts but fails to establish a society in which citizens belong to their common humanity, rather than to any particular city or tradition. The notions concerning “progress” and “improvement of society” and the belief that the majority of human ideas about the most fundamental questions of reality could be aligned with enlightened beliefs are, therefore, tempered by Ibn Tufayl’s strong streak of pessimism and his sense of the dangers and challenges to the conventions that help to stabilize political life.

Because of the weight that Ibn Tufayl assigns to sectarian religion and the general character and spirit of a nation, he suggests that there can be no universal model of an enlightened state or moderate government. He teaches the arts of prudence, moderation, and understanding of the irresolvable differences among nations and peoples, rather than cosmopolitanism. For the East, he refers to the role of religion in stabilizing society and guiding morality, and for the West he tempers the extremes of cosmopolitanism by revealing its limitations.

My aim in this essay is to present the main philosophical arguments of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan and to suggest that this Islamic medieval tale teaches that genuine progress and enlightenment exist but are possible only in rare individuals and not in groups or any political organizations. Although Ibn Tufayl’s hero, Hayy, discovers happiness and enlightenment in a life in accord with nature, rather than a life regulated by revealed religion or social convention, his awareness is hardly practicable by the majority of human beings or even desirable for human societies. Any attempt to jettison a society’s mores will likely lead that society into destruction and cause it more harm than its own traditions ever could, Tufayl warns.

This essay is divided into three main parts. The first attempts an explanation of the two conflicting accounts of Hayy’s origins and offers an interpretation of how they might fit together. The second part traces Hayy’s intellectual development, which is divided into several seven-year periods. Each stage is unique and represents the protagonist’s progress toward enlightenment.[2] The purpose of tracing Hayy’s intellectual development is to show how it is possible for a rare individual to discover the natural order of existence—and hence be at home in the world—without the aid of religious scripture or particular political traditions and conventions. Hayy’s failure to align society with his wisdom constitutes a limitation on cosmopolitanism.

Consequently, the third section examines Hayy’s introduction to society, his failure to enlighten his fellows, the lesson he draws from his failure to educate others, and his reasons for returning to his desert island to resume his life of philosophy. The argument and action of this narrative implies that Ibn Tufayl embraces the possibility of a qualified cosmopolitanism, provided that society is protected from what he calls “newfangled” sophistic teachings, and that the genuine philosopher does not compromise his happiness and way of life in the futile attempt to enlighten others.[3]

The literal translation of the title Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, “The Living One, Son of the Wakeful,” is significant. “The Living One” stands for human intellect and alludes to a verse in the Holy Koran in which it is said about God that “neither slumber nor sleep overtaketh Him” (2:255). M. Saeed Sheikh points out that Hayy Ibn Yaqzan “symbolically represents the theme that human intellect partakes of the divine intellect and hence has the capacity to know reality in its innermost truths, independent of prophetic revelations as recorded by scriptures.” (124).[4] The book’s subtitle, Asar al-Hikmat al-Ishraqiyyah, “Secrets of the Illuminative Philosophy,” is borrowed from a work by Ibn Sina of the same name, as are the names of the main characters of Ibn Tufayl’s novel—Hayy, Salaman, and Absal.

The story’s hero, Hayy, is cast upon an uninhabited Indian island as an infant. He is nourished and raised by a doe, and he succeeds by the powers of his own reason to arrive at self-knowledge and an understanding of God and nature, along with his own place within the cosmos. He is a prototype of the philosopher. The temperate climate of his desert island, “where human beings come into being without father or mother,” underlies the extraordinary pattern of his paradigmatic life, his entirely “natural” development (103).

Ibn Tufayl offers two conflicting versions of his main character’s origin as a castaway. The first account, an obvious metaphorical alternative to the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, tells us that Hayy was spontaneously generated, like Adam, without father or mother (103).[5] His fictitious island, described in terms reminiscent of Platonic symbolism, is situated under the sun, which Ibn Tufayl associates with God and knowledge. The splendor of the sun’s natural light assists and supports human perfection, “setting afire all that it apprehends so that it alone remains, then it is like a mirror reflecting on itself, burning on itself” (107). According to this account, Hayy is born outside of any particular society or religious tradition and is under no divine commandments. He comes of age under the direct influence of the highest spirit that emanates continuously from God, which the narrator equates Platonically to the sun or the “good” (Republic 6.509). Here, the Highest Reality is responsible for, and is the source of, the growth and generation of all things, giving them their existence, beauty, truth, and understanding.[6]

For those who deny the plausibility of this account of Hayy’s origin, however, Ibn Tufayl offers the following alternative account. Another island, “a large island, rich and spacious,” was inhabited by people over whom “a proud and angry man, was king” (105). This unnamed king had a sister whom he “forbade to marry until he himself should find a fitting match.” Moved by the powerful and spontaneous force of love, however, the sister secretly but lawfully married a kinsman named Aware and conceived a son by him—hence the title of the book, “The Living One, Son of the Wakeful.” Fearing exposure of her secret and concerned about her family’s safety for having gone against the will of her tyrannical brother, she cried out to God, trusting Him to protect her son as she placed him in a box and cast him out into sea. “The powerful current caught the box and brought it that very night to the coast of the other island,” where it broke open, the baby cried, and a doe mistook the baby’s cry for help from one of her own fawns. She nourished and eventually raised him, protecting him from harm (105–6).

Since both accounts are obviously metaphorical, one can read these two suggested beginnings as the two extremes of Hayy’s existence. Ibn Tufayl teaches that every individual is a combination of nature and convention. On the one hand, each of us is born a member of the human species. On the other hand, each of us is also born in and conditioned by a particular regime with a unique tradition, speaking the common language of our ancestors; we are shaped by a shared history and formed by particular habits. Ibn Tufayl suggests here that the attachments acquired at birth are very powerful and difficult, if not impossible, for most of us to overcome. Thus birth plays an important role in defining individuals and nations.

Parents claim authority over their children on the basis of birth, just as peoples claim rights to land or territory based on ancestral claims rooted in their origin. Local or tribal loyalties die hard, Ibn Tufayl implies. Hayy’s mother’s liberation from her brother’s authority negates the family’s or dynasty’s ancestral claims. Only by separation from tradition and family can she claim freedom, just as John Locke proposed that birth does not confer rights.[7]

On the other hand, her liberation from her brother’s authority and family connection would spell the end of her authority over Hayy, for the source of her attachment to Hayy lies in family ties. According to the first account, however, Hayy is born to neither father nor mother. He is autonomous by nature. The first account is consistent with the general teaching that Hayy’s perfection consists in his independence from others (133).

Combining the two accounts leads us to conclude tentatively that the progress of Hayy’s education toward self-knowledge is due to his independence both from family and immediate relations and from the claims of revealed religion inherited along with family connection. Ibn Tufayl’s book permits the reader to glimpse the shocking inference “that man may attain to supreme salvation by the inner light alone, without the aid of prophetic revelation”[8] or familial bonds to arrive at a life according to nature that answers the cryptic challenge of the oracle, “Know thyself!” As Lenn E. Goodman observes, “For Ibn Tufayl, as for the Platonist, to know oneself was to see in oneself affinities to the divine and to accept the obligation implied by such a recognition to develop these affinities—to become, in as much as was in human power, like God.”[9]

Hayy’s first seven-year stage of existence is childhood. He begins life dependent on his doe-mother but gradually grows into an autonomous being. Like a young fawn, Hayy follows the doe, observing and imitating her behavior as he learns to crack nuts with his first teeth. Her body provides him with warmth and her instinct to protect him shields him from harm. His dependence on her is rewarded by a protection more instinctual than loving.

His first cries for assistance are directed by his immediate needs and environment. Since his capacity to reason has yet to develop, he cannot make the logical connection between his tears and a future desire. His cries are immediate and natural reactions to need. At this stage he follows his “mother” everywhere, careful never lose sight of her: “She stay[s] with him, leaving only when necessary to graze. The baby [grows] so fond of her he would cry if she were late, and then she would come rushing back” (109).

Eventually he learns to walk and, having grown teeth, he joins the doe on feeding expeditions. When he is cold, she warms him with her body. For several years he lives among the deer, “imitating their calls so well that . . . his voice and theirs could hardly be distinguished” (109). He discovers desires and aversions, memory and recollection, and the capacity to retain the idea of an object that he had previously encountered, “for their images were fixed in his mind” (110).

Slowly Hayy develops a more meaningful sense of the outside world and his place in it, as he becomes aware of how different he is from his animal companions. He discovers that fawns begin to grow horns but that he does not have natural weapons or tools. Consequently, the animals are able to wrestle food away from him, for he is considerably weaker and slower than they. He observes how they all have fur, hair, or feathers but that he is naked. Hayy’s sense of shame and frustration marks this particular stage of his development: “The fact that the private parts of the animals were better concealed than his own disturbed him greatly and made him very unhappy” (110). It is important to note that, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Hayy enjoys a protected existence where “there were no beasts” to threaten his life. Unlike Adam, however, Hayy lives under no commandments from God and gradually comes to knowledge and shame without being punished for it (137, 150). His God is not punitive, for His divine authority and existence do not depend on human adulation. Like the Platonic god in the Republic, the God Hayy discovers through his reason alone “in Himself, has no need of [humans] and is utterly independent of them” (133).

Hayy’s second stage of development begins at age seven and ends at age fourteen. This stage ends the previous one of total dependence and helplessness. At the age of seven, he begins to engage in rational, human thought processes, sublimating his shame and frustration into a form of practical reason that allows him to think of material objects around him in terms of means to ends in order to help himself. He starts to compare and contrast himself to the animals in his natural environment, and having finally “lost hope of growing feathers or fur on his own,” he resolves to “make up the deficiencies.” Taking “some broad leaves from a tree [and putting] them on, front and back,” he makes himself a belt. However, the leaves soon wither and dry, representing his first confrontation with death. He improves his “clothing” by using the skin of an eagle: “Boldly taking hold of the eagle, Hayy [cuts] off the wings and tail. . . . He stretch[es] off the remaining skin and split[s] it in half, trying it about his middle, hanging down, half in front and fasten[s] the wings to his arms.” (110). He now “so terrifies the animals that not one of them would fight with him or get in his way.” Only his inseparable “mother” doe remains with him until her death (111).

As she dies, their roles reverse—he has become the caretaker. He feels grief for the first time and tries to call out to her and to “discover the place where she was hurt so he [can] take away the hurt and allow her to recover” (111). He is not successful. One of the most important lessons that Hayy will learn is that of his own defenselessness against human mortality. Although he comes to understand his powerlessness, Hayy never rebels against death. Rather, he finds his freedom in understanding his mortal relationship to created beings. Because of his extreme separation from other humans, the attachments that usually stem from birth never take root in him. His liberation from the fear of death is remarkably easy.

Nevertheless, and entirely by himself, Hayy discovers the soul in his very human quest to search for the mysterious force in the body that failed in the doe. Thinking about her dying shifts his attention away from imitating others and the mundane practical concerns of daily existence to an involvement with something deeper—the soul. His quest to discover the vital element ensconced in a living organism, giving life to its limbs, “leads him to learn about anatomy and biology and to use logic in order to solve the problem he is facing.”[10] Hayy experiments, examines, compares, contrasts, and reasons until he learns that motion governs the natural world, that the soul and the body must be distinct, and that the soul is higher than, and the master over, the body. He ponders:

“What I’m looking for is [no longer in the body]. . . . I can see that [the body] is empty. I cannot believe it serves no purpose, since I have seen that every organ exists to carry out some specific function. How could this chamber, with its commanding position, have none? I can only believe that what I was searching for was here but left, leaving the chamber empty and the body without sensation or motion, completely unable to function. Realizing that whatever had lived in that chamber has left while its house was intact, before it has been ruined, Hayy saw that it was hardly likely to return. . . . The body now seemed something low and worthless compared to the being he was convinced had lived in it for a time and then departed.” (114)

He has now separated himself from the animals around him. He has gained, entirely free from human social contact, an awareness of death and the mysterious power of the soul. He is repulsed by the decay and terrible stench of his “mother’s” decaying body. His revulsion and contempt send him to bury the doe, and then he resumes his natural philosophizing (115).

As Hayy enters the third stage of his life, between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, he makes the realization that each individual deer has the same form and figure as his mother and so must also share in that force that gave her motion and direction. Pursuing his spontaneous logic, Hayy generalizes this observation and concludes “that each animal, although many in respect of its parts, its various senses and types of motion, [is] nonetheless one in terms of that spirit which stems from a single fixed place and diffuses from there to all the organs. All parts of the body,” he concludes, “are simply its servant or agents” (117). Drawing on his own relationship to his handmade tools, he reasons that “the spirit employ[s] the body much as he himself employ[s] the tools. . . . The same body handle[s] all these tools, using each appropriately for its own purpose” (117).

In the same way as Plato in the Theatetus, Hayy concludes that the soul uses the eyes as tools to see, the ears to hear, the nose to smell, the limbs to move, and the liver to digest. Each of these organs of the body is at the service of the “spirit and would be deprived of it functions were it not directed by the spirit through what we call the nerves” (117–18). These reflections lead him to conclude, entirely on his own, that understanding the mastery of the soul over the body leads to human happiness. Hayy’s perfection lies in living a life according to nature, in which he orders his existence through reason (or the soul). His natural philosophy, spontaneous and honest, is free of any social, religious, or political authority. His own self-mastery is his version of cosmopolitanism, and his ultimate happiness will result in the “triumph over misery” gained by his awareness and contemplation of the divine order. He feels a natural proclivity to become like God, “for it is God alone who “brought him his awareness of the Necessarily Existent being” (142–43), and not any social pressures or coercion. Whether Hayy’s example serves as a practical model for a cosmopolitan society (as Attar suggests) or not, however, remains to be seen. He is, after all, still isolated in his existence.

Hayy reaches the age of twenty-one and enters the fourth stage of his development, which lasts until the age of twenty-eight. This period is marked by a consideration of all objects in the world, their generation and their decay. He remarks that “inasmuch as things differ they are many, but inasmuch as they correspond they are one” (119). At this stage in his development, Hayy broadens his reflections to include the universe and his own place within it. He concludes that the spirit within him is one, and it is this which is his real self; all physical organs are mere tools. Shifting his attention to animal species in general, he observes that each whole species—deer, horses, asses, etc.—is one in this respect: “The spirit present throughout the species must be a single entity, undifferentiated except through its division among all those [various, individual, physical parts],” just as water is one and may be divided into different bowls, cooler in some and warmer in others (120). Taking these thoughts to a spiritual level leads him to conclude that the whole plant and animal species, like water, “must too have a single substance in which all partake, and which makes them all one being” (120–21).

Some commentators, such as Attar, apply the same categories Hayy deduces from the animal world to the human species and conclude from this that the universalism Hayy observes in animal and plant species is the basis for his full-blown cosmopolitan outlook, since we are all members of the human species. Therefore, cosmopolitanism must be the necessary conclusion of any enlightened society. Although it is true that each human is a member of the human species, no such universal model of politics is possible in practice. Hayy’s own rejection of society and his subsequent return to the solitary life of his desert island could never inform politics.

In order to achieve his brand of universal cosmopolitanism, Hayy must remain outside society. Observing plant and animal species, Hayy notices a hierarchy. Although plants and animals are alike in nutrition and growth, he concludes that “animals are higher than the plants in that they possess sense perception, locomotion, and sensation as well” (121). Much later, when Hayy moves on to spiritual development, he will conclude that God is identical with what Aristotle calls the Unmoved Mover, who is thought thinking itself (107) and the Being from whom all other beings emanate (130–35).

However, in his young manhood, his thoughts are still limited to the physical. His enlightenment or discovery of metaphysics will come much later. Once Hayy reaches the highest level of philosophical reflection, his soul will be able, through conjunction with the active intellect, to rejoin God in a realm that transcends the material world, in which Hayy “becomes like Him . . . in self-knowledge” (147). At this stage of his development, however, the only beings he knows or believes to exist are physical (122).

Hayy’s examination of the physical world forces him to conclude that by necessity all that comes into being changes and decays, and so must have a cause other than itself (127). He comes to the conclusion that the “proneness of a body to certain kinds of motion as opposed to others must be due to its disposition or form” (127). “Clearly the acts emerging from forms did not really arise in them, but all the actions attributed to them were brought about through them by another Being.” At this point in the narrative, Ibn Tufayl interjects the following: “This idea to which he had now awakened is the meaning of the Prophet’s words: ‘I am the ears He hears by and the sight He sees by.’ As it is written in the unshakeable Revelation: ‘It was not you but God who killed them; and when you shot, it was not you who shot, but God’” (127). Hayy’s rational insights appear to be in harmony with Revelation; in reality, Ibn Tufayl’s point is that Hayy has discovered God, or the Mover of the universe, purely by his own reason without the assistance of scripture or established religious institutions: “He has no sacred text to subscribe to, no prophets to follow, no prayers to perform, no fasting, or pilgrimage to undertake, no strict rules to adhere to.”[11] His contemplative life is supported in nature, rather than in political authority or religious scripture, and so can be carried out only in nature, in solitude, outside of society’s distractions.

Having completed four stages of seven-year periods, Hayy reaches the fifth stage of his development, which begins at age twenty-eight and ends at age thirty-five. At the beginning of this stage, his attention turns to heavenly bodies (128). He studies the size of the sun and the moon and all the stars in the skies and examines their movement. His study of their motion leads him to conclude that, first of all, the firmament is spherical (129), and then that “all that is in [it] are . . . one organism whose parts are joined organically together” and that all bodies from his previous studies—earth, water, air, plants, and animals—are “enclosed within this being.” He uses a simile to describe his observations: “The whole [is] like an animal. The light-giving stars [are] its senses. The spheres . . . [are] . . . its limbs. And the world of generation and decay within [is] like the juices and waste in the beast’s belly, where smaller animals often breed, as in the macrocosm” (130). By now he has come to the profound realization that humans must be no more than a tiny insignificant organism within the vast space of the universe.

In this middle period of his life, Hayy turns his attention to the question of creation. Observing “the oneness of all bodies in the world of generation and decay,” Hayy wonders whether the world was created out of nothing or nonbeing. He questions whether the world always existed (130). Perplexed, he examines these conflicting positions and thinks through their implications. After several years of hard rational work, he comes to the understanding of a divine creator:

“If he [assumes] that the universe had come to be in time, ex nihilo, then the necessary consequence would be that it could not have come into existence by itself, but must have had a Maker to give it being. This Maker could not be perceptible to the sense; for if it could be apprehended by sense perception, then it would be a material body, and thus part of the world, itself in time and in need of a cause. If this second cause were physical, it would need a third; a fourth, and so ad infinitum—which is absurd. Thus the world must have a noncorporeal Cause. (131)”

“Alternatively, if Hayy assumes that the world is eternal, and that it had always been as it is now, and [had] not emerged from non-being, this would imply that its motion too was eternal and had never begun, never started up from rest. Now every motion requires a mover. This mover can be either a force distributed through some body—self-moving or externally moved—or a force which is not distributable or diffusible in physical bodies. . . . Yet it has already been proved that every material body must be finite. So every force engaged in an infinite task, that force cannot belong to a physical thing. But we have found the motion of the heavens to be ceaseless and eternal, for ex hypothesi it has gone on forever and had no beginning. Ergo the force that moves them must be neither in their own physical structure nor in any external physical being. It can only belong to some Being independent of all material things and indescribable by any predicate applicable to them.” (132)

His mind is now clear: “He was no longer troubled by the dilemmas of the creation versus eternity, for either way the existence of a non-corporeal Author of the universe remained unscathed, a Being neither in contact with matter nor cut off from it, neither within nor outside it—for all these terms, ‘contact’ and ‘discontinuity,’ ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are merely predicates of the very physical things which He transcends” (133). Hayy concludes that “since matter in every [physical] body demands a form, as it exists through its form and can have no reality apart from it, and since forms can be brought into being only by this Creator, all being . . . is plainly dependent on Him for existence itself” (133). Hayy’s Creator’s power is infinite, perfect, and if He did not exist, nothing in the universe could exist (133). Knowing this will bestow happiness and allow mortals to contemplate the “Necessarily Existent” Being (143), a spiritual condition in which one’s personal identity “dies” and only the awareness of the “ever living one” exists in a vision of total autonomy (150). In a conclusion critical to understanding Ibn Tufayl’s cosmopolitanism, Hayy acknowledges: “But He, in Himself, has no need of [created beings] and is utterly independent of them” (133).

The same could be said, and needs to be said, of the enlightened philosopher’s relationship to his fellows, for the philosopher’s perfection consists in imitating God, or the Creator, as much as possible (147). Thus the supreme love for God enters Hayy’s spiritual scheme: “Given room for . . . growth, reason might mature to wisdom,” but “wisdom seeks more than knowledge; it seeks an active relationship of love . . . with God” (11). Hayy’s cosmopolitanism lies in his independence from others, as Ibn Tufayl indicates by the protagonist’s eventual abandonment of society in favor of a life devoted to contemplation. It is this understanding of the world and the human place within it that informs the cosmopolitanism that characterizes Hayy’s enlightened life.

Indeed, at the age of thirty-five, and at the start of his sixth stage of development, his awareness has transcended his interest in created things, including his own particularly. “By now thought of this Subject [God, the Creator, is] so deeply rooted in his heart that he [can] think of nothing else” (134–35). He realizes that God cannot be apprehended through the senses, for the senses can apprehend only physical objects, but “by some nonphysical means . . . which is neither inside nor outside, neither in contact with it nor disjoined from” the world (135). The awareness that brings him to understand this Being must be his soul, he guesses, by which he has come to know Him as “non-corporeal and not qualifiable by any physical predicates.” Hayy’s physical self, then, is not his true self; his true identity must be “that by which he had apprehended the Necessarily Existent” (136).[12]

Hayy concludes that his true essence, that nobler noncorporeal being within him that “allowed him to apprehend this Being, [is] unlike bodies and would not decay as they did” (137). Hayy weighs the implications of his awareness of the Creator against his own mortality and draws the following moral lesson:

“Leaving the body at death, anyone with an identity like his own, capable of awareness such as he [possesses], must undergo one of these three fates: If, while in command of the body, he has not known the Necessarily Existent, never confronted Him or heard of Him, then on leaving the body he will neither long for this Being nor mourn His loss. His bodily powers will go to ruin with the body, and thus make no more demands or miss the objects of their cravings now that they are gone. This is the fate of all dumb animals—even those of human form.”

“If, while in charge of the body, he has encountered this Being and learned of His goodness but turned away to follow his own passions, until death [overtakes] him in the midst of such a life, depriving him of the experience he has learned to long for, he will endure prolonged agony and infinite pain, either escaping the torture at last, after an immense struggle, to witness once again what he [has] yearned for, or remaining forever in torment, depending on which direction he tended toward in his bodily life.”

“If he knows the Necessarily Existent before departing the body, and turns to Him with his whole being, fastens his thoughts on His goodness, beauty, and majesty, never turning away until death overtakes him, [turns] towards Him in the midst of actual experience, then on leaving the body, he will live on in infinite joy, bliss, and delight, happiness unbroken because his experience of the Necessarily Existent will be unbroken and no longer marred by the demands of the bodily powers for sensory things—which alongside that ecstasy are encumbrances, irritants and evils.” (137–38)

The first and second fates belong to various lives or types that Hayy will eventually encounter within society. The last fate is his, and the ascetic lessons he draws from it inform his decision later to return to his desert island, rather than to remain among his fellows. For Ibn Tufayl, solitude is the only path to understanding and enlightenment.

Hayy, in the spiritual quest that marks this sixth stage of his life, comes to realize that certain obligations follow from his awareness of Him: “Hayy [sees] that his nobler part, by which he knew the Necessarily Existent, [bears] some resemblance to Him . . . and the obligation . . . to endeavor, in whatever way possible, to attain His attributes, to imitate His ways, and remold his character to His, diligently execute His will, surrender all to Him . . . and rejoice in His rule” (142). Hayy eventually experiences a mystical annihilation, in which “the self vanishes; it is extinguished, obliterated— and so are all other subjectivities. All that remains is the One, True identity, the Necessarily Existent—glory, exaltation, and honor to Him” (143).

It is only in his fifties, at the end of the seventh stage of his development, that Hayy meets another human being for the first time. That person, Absal, introduces Hayy to society, at which point Hayy will also for the first time perceive that the universe consists of two different worlds—a natural one, the only world he has known up to now, and an artificial one inhabited by trivial, materialistic beings whose lives are described in the second fate mentioned above, unenlightened, uneducated, and incapable of genuine knowledge. They frustrate his attempts to teach them enlightened, universal cosmopolitanism. Their hopeless and limited materialism sends Hayy back into voluntary isolation.

Absal was a young man of ability and high principle who had grown up on a nearby island, where, according to the second account of Hayy’s origins, Hayy was born. Absal teaches Hayy to speak his language. Once the two can communicate, Hayy shares with Absal his knowledge of the Creator. Upon hearing Hayy’s description of a Being that transcends the physical world and is the uncaused cause of all things in the universe, “and the joys of those who reach Him and the agonies of those veiled from Him,” Absal’s “mind catches fire” and he concludes that “Reason and tradition were at one within [Hayy]” (160). Absal looks on Hayy “with newfound reverence” and resolves to become his disciple, following his example and direction, for he believes Hayy is a man of God, one of those who “know neither fear nor sorrow” (160).

Absal introduces Hayy to all the religious traditions connected to his culture: the divine world, Heaven and Hell, rebirth and resurrection, the humanly constructed laws and the notions of justice informing them. Absal describes to Hayy the acts of worship, prayer, poor tax, fasting, and pilgrimage, “and other such outward practices” (161). Hayy has two concerns about their religion: “First, why did [their] prophet rely . . . on symbols to portray the divine world, allowing mankind to fall into the grave error of conceiving the Truth corporeally and ascribing to Him things which He transcends and is totally free of (and similarly with reward and punishment) instead of simply revealing the truth?”

Second, Hayy wonders, “Why did [their prophet] confine himself to these particular rituals and duties and allow the amassing of wealth and overindulgence in eating, leaving men idle to busy themselves with inane pastimes and neglect the Truth” (161). Hayy is dumbfounded that their revealed religion relies on reward and punishment to enforce the laws, rather than the inner motivation toward love, which he has experienced on his island. If the people genuinely understand the Truth as Hayy does, what need do they have of all these laws, “for which human beings might struggle and risk amputation” (162)? Hayy cannot understand why God, in His perfection and independence, would authorize or depend upon such a system of rewards and punishments to compel belief and obedience. His perplexity stems from his “naive belief that all men [possess] outstanding character, brilliant minds and resolute spirits. He [has] no idea how stupid, inadequate, thoughtless, and weak willed they are, ‘like sheep gone astray, only worse’” (162).

Hayy’s naivete leads him to believe that he could enlighten the inhabitants of the island about the true nature of God and virtue, an experiment that will end in total failure. His failure to reform society, however, brings him closer to a genuine understanding of what Ibn Tufayl considers to be the human condition and the philosopher’s relationship to politics and civic religion.

Although Hayy is the prototype of the cosmopolitan individual, by the end of story he will understand the limits of enlightenment and societal “progress.” Pitying humans and hoping that he may save them from their ignorance, Hayy resolves to reach out and to teach them the truth so that they will no longer be governed by the incoherence of their particular laws, but by a universal reason and enlightenment. He seeks, like the modern proponents of world citizenship, to reform their society along cosmopolitan lines, free from parochial habits and opinion. Absal warns him how defective the inhabitants of the island are in character and how heedless of God’s Word they are, but Hayy simply cannot accept his counsel. Absal eventually compromises, blinded by his own hope that through “Hayy God might give guidance to a body of aspiring acquaintances of his, who are somewhat closer to salvation than the rest” (162). This will be the test group: if Hayy fails to teach them, it would be impossible for him to teach the masses.

Hayy begins to teach his profound wisdom to Salaman, Absal’s close friend and the ruler of the island, and Salaman’s inner circle but meets only with frustration: “But the moment [Hayy rises] the slightest bit above the literal or [begins] to portray things against which they [are] prejudiced, they [recoil] in horror from his ideas and [close] their minds. Out of courtesy to the stranger and in deference to their friend Absal, they [make] a show of being pleased with Hayy, but in their hearts they [resent] him. . . . The more he [teaches], the more repugnant they [feel], despite the fact that these [are] men who [love] the good and sincerely [yearn] for the Truth” (163).

Hayy eventually abandons his hope of enlightening Salaman and his inner circle and, in desperation, turns his attention to different classes and types of people. Again, he meets failure: “They . . . made their passions their god. . . . They [destroy] each other to collect the trash of this world, ‘distracted by greed ’til they [go] down to their graves.’ Preaching is no help; fine words have no effect on them. Arguing only makes them more pig-headed. Wisdom, they have no means of reaching; they were allotted no share of it. They are engulfed in ignorance. Their hearts are corroded by their possessions. God has sealed their hearts and shrouded their eyes and ears” (163).

This is the moment when Hayy begins to understand the human condition, his unique relationship to it—and the limits or impossibility of spreading enlightenment and establishing a cosmopolitan society. He realizes that any attempt to persuade through reason or convert others through force, as their prophet has tried to do, is bound to fail. Indeed, he recognizes the necessity for religion, rather than enlightenment or cosmopolitanism, to bring a simulacrum of order to society: “The sole benefit most people could derive from religion [is] for this world, in that it help[s] them lead decent lives without others encroaching on what belong[s] to them. . . . He [sees] that most men are no better than unreasoning animals, and realize[s] that all wisdom and guidance, all that could possibly help them [is] contained already in the words of the prophets and the religious,” and that his own teaching would do more harm than good (164). These people, distracted by the social character of their lives, can never be motivated by a love of the universal, Hayy’s true cosmopolitanism.

Upon observing the limits of people caught up in society and their need for rules and guidelines, rewards and punishments, Hayy employs irony in order to quit this society without creating social disarray: “He [tells] them that he [has] seen the light and realize[s] that they [are] right. He urge[s] them to hold fast to their observance of all the statutes regulating outward behavior and not delve into things that [do] 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 forbears and leave behind everything modern [presumably his lessons in cosmopolitanism]. He caution[s] them most emphatically not to neglect religion or pursue the world as the vast majority of people do” (164). The dangers of Absal’s aspiring group’s achieving wisdom present too great a risk to the smooth running of the community: “If ever they were to venture beyond their present level to the vantage point of insight, what they had would be shattered” (165).

The anticosmopolitan conclusion of this story could not be clearer. Hayy’s maturity consists in understanding that the world is not, and can never become, rational. Any attempt to improve and elevate human life by displacing political and religious traditions by reasoned philosophy, as Salaman had suggested, would result in utter degradation of human life and society. Although he is able to imagine the best possible human life for a solitary individual on the basis of his natural reason alone, he now understands how vital it is for communities to preserve the conditions, especially the moral and religious beliefs, they require to maintain political order.

Since Hayy’s perfection and happiness are founded on philosophy, and as his experience with Salaman makes clear, philosophy arouses political opposition. Ibn Tufayl seems to teach that either one must preserve culturally constructed norms to live in a society, or one must pursue perfection in isolation. Hence, Hayy voluntarily returns to his desert island with his friend Absal. There, away from the distractions of human institutions, the two will lead philosophical lives, free from prejudice and ignorance. By the end of the book, Ibn Tufayl makes absolutely clear his preference for the higher and ultimately greater satisfaction of the philosophical life over the social or communal, where religion is (and must remain) a moral and political tool for the guidance of ordinary mortals. Ibn Tufayl suggests a solution for those of us who do not possess a desert island of our own. This island-space can be imagined, he advises, where we philosophers can exercise prudence by practicing secrecy and irony. By doing so, his readers can live and even thrive as solitary philosophers while residing in imperfect cities (165).[13]

Hayy is cosmopolitan only insofar as he does not distort his awareness of the true order of things by futilely seeking to convert others to his way of life. Like the divine Being whom he seeks to imitate as much as possible, his full maturity is grounded in an understanding that his happiness does not depend on any created thing, be it his own biological parents, whom he never seeks to discover at any point in his life, or his fellow humans. He does not need to be a philosopher king in order to achieve his end. He is genuinely autonomous; his life of contemplation is an end in itself, requiring nothing more than a modest existence where the mundane practical concerns of his body are met. His story affirms the possibility of attaining true happiness and self-knowledge without the assistance of established religion and laws, but equally it affirms the impossibility of an enlightened society. Although Hayy is in spirit a “citizen of the world,” Ibn Tufayl teaches that the majority of humans must be protected from newfangled theories by self-styled intellectuals and must necessarily belong to either a tribe or a nation, governed by laws and religious customs designed to help them lead decent lives (164). For Ibn Tufayl the awareness of human mortality is natural, and our knowledge of its relationship to the opinions that we hold about the true, the good, and the beautiful is the portal through which self-knowledge and the best life can become possible.

It is fitting to conclude, as does Ibn Tufayl, with his anticosmopolitan teaching:

“And this—may God give you spirit to strengthen you—is the story of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, Absal and Salaman. It takes up a line of discourse not found in books or heard in the usual sort of speeches. It belongs to a hidden branch of study received only by those who are aware of God and openly I have broken the precedent of our righteous ancestors, who were sparing to the point of tightfistedness in speaking of it. What made it easy for me to strip off the veil of secrecy and divulge this mystery was the great number openly spread by the self-styled philosophers of today, so widely that they have covered the land and caused universal damage. Fearing that the weak-minded, who throw over the authority of prophets to ape the ways of fools, might mistake those 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.” (165–66)



[1] A notable exception is Samar Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tyfayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007), 50, 63.

[2] Ibn Tufayl, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, a Philosophical Tale, trans. with an introduction and notes by Lenn E. Goodman (Los Angeles: Gee Tee Bee, 2003), 7. All references to Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (most of them given parenthetically in the text) are to this edition.

[3] Since very little has been written on Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, except for Samar Attar’s excellent work, the reader must judge my essay on the basis of its own merits. Although I agree with the importance Attar places on Hayy’s story, I do not agree with her conclusion that Ibn Tufayl teaches a cosmopolitan politics.

[4] M. Saeed Sheikh, Islamic Philosophy (London: Octagon Press, 1982), 124.

[5] See, for example, the reference to Genesis in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, 107.

[6] Compare Koran 2:255. For an excellent discussion of the relationship between the Platonic notion of generation and knowledge in Avicenna’s metaphysics, see Lenn E. Goodman, Avicenna (London: Routledge, 1992), 49–122, particularly 51–53.

[7] See, for example, chapters 2–11 in the First Treatise on Government and the first chapter of the Second Treatise, in which Locke reinterprets man’s relationship to God to argue that birth does not confer rights.

[8] Sheikh, Islamic Philosophy, 129.

[9] Lenn Evan Goodman, Ibn Tyfayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (Los Angeles: Gee Tee Bee, 2003), 17.

[10] Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment, 43.

[11] Ibid., 47.

[12] It is around this stage in his development that Hayy, inside a cave, begins to meditate on his inner awakening, reminding one of both Plato’s allegory of the cave in the Republic and Muhammad, who is traditionally believed to have withdrawn to a cave on Mount Hira in which he received the divine inspiration for the Koran. Unlike Plato’s cave, Hayy’s cave is not a social womb in which ignorance impedes intellectual enlightenment, and unlike Muhammad’s cave, Hayy’s cave is a place of private enlightenment in which his discoveries cannot inform society, as Muhammad’s clearly did. For an interesting comparison of these two examples, see Goodman, Ibn Tyfayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, 218n.

[13] For a similar treatment of the relationship between philosophy and politics in Farabi’s reading of Plato, see Leo Strauss, “Farabi’s Plato,” in Louis Ginzburg: Jubilee Volume, ed. Saul Lieberman, Shalom Spiegel, Solomon Zeitlin, and Alexander Marx (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945), 359–83.


This excerpt is from Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization: Citizens Without States (University of Kentucky Press, 2011). Also see “Cosmopolitanism: Citizens Without States“; “Introduction to Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization“; “Aquinas’s Mediated Cosmopolitanism and the Impasse of Ancient Political Philosophy”; “Kant’s Teaching of Historical Progress and Its Cosmopolitan Goal“; The Limits of Modern Cosmopolitanism“; “An Introduction to Martin Heidegger“; “The Postmodern Condition of Cosmopolitanism.”

Khalil M. HabibKhalil M. Habib

Khalil M. Habib

Khalil Habib is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Pell Honors Program at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. He is editor, along with Lee Trepanier, of Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Globalization: Citizens without States (Kentucky, 2011).

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