Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: Solitude and Understanding

From its earliest centuries, Islamic philosophy engaged ancient Greek thought in the form of Plato and Aristotle. Like the later medieval Christian theologians, Islamic and Arabic thinkers sought to reconcile reason and the revelation of their scripture.

In eleventh-century southern Spain, Arabic philosophers achieved a thriving intellectual center in the cultural milieu of al-Andalus (Andalusia). Ibn Tufayl (ca. 1110-1182), called Abubacer in the West, inherited Aristotelian rationalism and the philosophy of Ghazali, Farabi, his teacher Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), and the celebrated Ibn Sina or Avicenna.

This vigorous school of thought had mastered the Greeks but also criticized logic and mathematics, affirming the human soul's innate capacity to discover not only natural law but to reach the most abstruse mystical doctrine. Ibn Tufayl presented this view in an intriguing essay that posited human solitude as an essential method for acquiring the highest knowledge.

Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan was derivative in basing its title and several characters on Avicenna. "Hayy Ibn Yaqzan" (the name means "Alive, son of the Awake, the Vigilant") was the title of a work by Avicenna, and the two other characters of the tale, Absal and Salaman, are also the names of characters in Avicenna's work. But Ibn Tufayl offered a novel presentation for his recapitulation of philosophical ideas.

The purpose of his narrative is to point to esoteric doctrines, beyond philosophy and reason, in order to attract the discerning, as Ibn Tufayl puts it. But he affirms that is it presented in a veiled way in order to discourage the foolish. This is a standard disclaimer safely affirming religious conformity.

The protagonist Hayy ibn Yaqzan grows up from infancy to adulthood on a uninhabited island. Essentially he is a feral or wild child. The infant Hayy is discovered and nurtured by a doe, fed on doe's milk. By presenting this prototype human being as a solitary, a social tabula rasa, Ibn Tufayl can show his reader how reason guides the human intellect naturally and that learning follows the same logical path identified by the methods of the philosophers. Moreover, the solitude of the uninhabited island is a model of the natural development of the mind in the absence of the diversions and distractions of society.

Hayy's youngest years are socialized by the doe's kindness, gentleness, and nurturing. Upon her death, the young Hayy suffers the taunts and attacks of other animals until he moves into a cave and discovers fire. Hayy sees fire as a symbol of the inner fire or warmth that animates living things, the inner life-source. Hayy confirms this insight, propelled by curiosity: he dissects animals (beginning with the dead doe) out of the desire for knowledge, concluding that warmth is an animating spirit.

All animals, despite their diversity into species, are "one in reality," the maturing Hayy concludes. "All bodies, whether they are animate or inanimate, are one thing."

Continuing this logic, Hayy progresses from animating factor to the existence of the soul that is superior to corporeality. Says the narrator:

Seeing the whole universe as in reality one great being, and uniting all its many parts in his mind by the same sort of reasoning which had led him to see the oneness of all bodies in the world of generation and decay, Hayy wondered whether all this had come to be from nothing, or in no respect emerged from nothingness but always existed.

In effect, Hayy had reached the consideration of Aristotelian prime mover or non-corporeal cause, which he calls the Necessarily Existent.

Hayy had learned that his ultimate happiness and triumph over misery would be won only if he could make his awareness of the Necessarily Existent, so continuous that nothing could distract him from it for an instant ... attainment of the pure beatific experience, submersion, concentration on Him alone whose experience is necessary. In this experience the self vanishes; it is extinguished, obliterated -- and so are all other subjectivities.

Thus Ibn Tufayl insists that mystical experience is the highest form of knowledge and can be attained through reason and disposition. In his allegory, Hayy reaches this conclusion (or the author, accepting it already, uses the story to demonstrate it).

But Ibn Tufayl shows the second most important factor in the successful quest for understanding: self-discipline. To cultivate and maintain self-discipline, the naturalness of the state of solitude is requisite. There is the direct influence here not only of Arabic thinkers already cited but of the Sufi tradition that saw reason (both in its limits and its compelling logic) together with nature leading to the culmination of individual purpose: mystical union.

As the narrative continues, Hayy's self-discipline unfolds self-discovery. Hayy is presented discovering what weakens and distracts spirit, what worsens vices. He limits himself to actions that gain him food and physical safety. He eats only what is sufficient to stave off hunger, attempting to control appetite. He deduces that he should spend a minimum of time on the appearance of his dwelling. He finds positive the experience of "never allowing himself to see any plant or animal hurt, sick, encumbered, or in need without helping if he could." Hayy concludes that cleanliness matters. And he decides to imitate the Necessary Existent by at least approximating the behavior of the celestial beings or bodies rotating in the night sky in solitude and silence.

Tirelessly he battled against the drives of his body -- and they fought back. But when for a moment he had the upper hand and rid his mind of tarnish, he would see with a flash what it was like to reach this third type of likeness to the stars.

The third type of likeness contrasts to the two other types, to the inanimate and animate beings on earth.

Hayy then sought to cut off sensory experience in order to pursue mystic ecstasy. This he discovered in a crude way by making wide circular motions (like celestial beings) with his body until he had lost the senses and imagination -- a clear early reference to the secretive whirling practice of Sufi dervishes. But ultimately Hayy learns to cut off the senses and imagination in the stillness and silence of his dwelling place: a cave.

The cave is the model of a new kind of learning, as Ibn Tufayl's translator notes.

The cave in our [Western] tradition, which owes more to Athens on this point than to the East, is a symbol of darkness and dogmatic slumber, not of personal enlightenment but of ignorance and unconcern. The great awakening is the moment when a solitary individual stumbles out of the hidden darkness of the cave and away from the cave-thoughts into the sunlight.

Ibn Tufayl stands at a crossroads between Muhammadan and Platonic conceptions. For him the cave is not the social womb but the sacred solitude of a man and his creator. Yet the mission imparted is not public recognition but private enlightenment. The means remain those of Muhammad, but the end has become the end of Islamized philosophy: salvation by the intellectual approach to God.

The two models of the cave are explicit in their differences. In Plato's Republic, the cave is darkness and ignorance contrasts with coming out of the cave into sunlight and enlightenment. But here Ibn Tufayl proposes that the cave is not darkness but inner solitude and reflection, and coming out of this womb-like symbol is not to embrace public and social life but for one's self-knowledge and understanding.

The cave retains this image of inner exploration and enlightenment in the Far East, linked, perhaps, to geography. Caves are prominent in the traditions of India and Tibet. But the cell, the anchorhold, the hut and cottage, are all related to the same configuring of places of nurturing solitude. Such places of solitude have the same function in the entire range of solitary perception, be it enlightenment or harmony with nature.

At this point, Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan reaches the end of the first of two sections, though the author does not so delineate his narrative.

Comparative settings

The story of living on an uninhabited island or in social isolation conjures comparison with a number of later well-known instances of literature and speculation, ranging from those concerning human origins and human nature on the one hand and narratives of shipwreck, abandonment, survival, and social isolation on the other.

The abstract philosophical tale of Iby Tufayl is the historically first of a series of such reflections on the nature of human behavior and learning. For though by modern psychological criteria, the intellectual development of Hayy as feral child is quite impossible, Ibn Tufayl's purpose is to offer the trajectory of right thinking given the absence of contrived culture and society. Ibn Tufayl attempts to show that natural reason alone can engender ethics and a knowledge of the universe that is in harmony with revelation, in this case the revealed scriptures of Islam.

But a feral child, will, of course, not develop in the trajectory of the protagonist Hayy. As Rousseau notes in the preface to his own parallel tale, Emile, or An Education (1762), "a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster than the rest." A child left on his own in the wilderness will develop only the animal nature that is at the core of our evolutionary development. However, Rousseau does not see socialization, given its present form, as yielding much better results than being left in nature.

Prejudice, authority, necessity, example, all the social conditions into which we are plunged, would stifle nature in him and put nothing in her place. She would be like a sapling by chance sown in the midst of the highway, bent hither and thither and soon crushed by the passers-by.

Rousseau is more emphatic in his celebrated opening phrases of Emile.

God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. Man forces one soil to yield the products of another, one tree to bear another's fruit. He confuses and confounds time, place, and natural conditions. He mutilates his dog, his horse, and his slave. He destroys and defaces all things; he loves all that is deformed and monstrous; he will have nothing as nature made it, not even man himself, who must learn his paces like a saddle-horse, and be shaped to his master's taste like the trees in his garden.

For Rousseau the perversion of human nature by society is only offset by the close nurturing of a kind and attentive mother, who alone can engender the psychological values that will make the child perceptive, thoughtful, and ultimately independent and free. Ibn Tufayl's version of a mother for his purposes is represented by the mother doe, meeting the infant's own biological and psychological needs in conformity (given the different context) to the criteria of Rousseau. Ibn Tufayl took the Arabic tradition of child-rearing (for example, two years minimum of breastfeeding) and applied its practices to the beneficent surrogate mother of his character Hayy.

Hayy's development from feral to thinking, acting human being has parallels in literary lore, such as Kipling and Burroughs, the British writers. Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli (in The Jungle Book, 1894) is a feral child raised by benign jungle animals in the recesses of India, the one country where reports of feral children were most numerous. Edgar Rice Burroughs presents a feral Caucasian boy in the African jungle who would be called Tarzan. In neither case are these fictional characters more than literary entertainments, of course. There is no interest on the part of these authors to explore deeper issues of social isolation and human development. But they attest to the enduring interest in the topic.

However, one survival tale does attempt to address some deeper issues, but in doing so must sacrifice the device of feralness. Daniel Defoe's Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) depict a mature young man thrust into the solitude of a desert island after shipwreck. Defoe was reportedly influenced by the report of a marooned Alexander Selkirk, who in 1712 published an account of his experiences. But, coincidentally, Ibn Tufayl's Hay Ibn Yaqzan was translated into English for the first time in 1713. Because Defoe was such a voracious reader, it is not unlikely that he had read Ibn Tufayl as well.

Of Selkirk's model tale, Defoe scholar John Richetti notes:

Selkirk's story celebrates the virtues of isolation: regression to a primitive or natural state accompanied by sentimental, unworldly contentment in delicious solitude.

Selkirk himself related that, as Richetti notes, he "frequently bewailed his return to the world" which could not "with all its enjoyments, restore him to the tranquility of his solitude."

Similarly, Rousseau's tutor of Emile allows young Emile to read only one book, namely Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, for to Rousseau Crusoe's island is a "virtuous retreat from social corruption." It is Defoe's setting that Rousseau appreciated.

But to Defoe's character the island is an odious prison and a providential test of worthiness. Crusoe is a reluctant candidate for solitude. Unlike Ibn Tufayl's Hayy or even the mariner Selkirk, Defoe's Crusoe constantly laments his fate and prays to God for deliverance. Defoe's tale is often presented as a lesson in acquiring survival skills, of ingenuity and physical adaptability, but there is no intellectual component to Crusoe's progress. Crusoe has already brought his cultural and social values with him, and they are merely suspended on the island, while Crusoe awaited rescue and return to society.

Crusoe having survived and progressed in skills and self-confidence, applying technology and entrepreneurship, the island becomes a productive colony and material resource to Crusoe. The reader might well be disappointed at the end of the novel to learn that Crusoe's solitude has only been a device for his turn of fortune and real goal of making money. Upon rescue, Crusoe profits from selling the loyal Xury into slavery and is pleased to learn that his Brazilian plantation, with its slave labor, is doing nicely. As Richetti notes:

Crusoe's transformation from terrified and confused survivor to colonial master and avenging overlord of his island marks Robinson Crusoe as one of the key modern myths of English and even of European culture.

The baggage of social and cultural values carried into solitude or fictional settings of isolation are further explored by modern writers such as William Golding in his Lord of the Flies. In this novel, adolescent boys shipwrecked on an island revert to the worst instincts, lacking social authority to enforce order. This cautionary tale proposes not so much a vision of solitude but a vision of society in its barest form. The predatory behavior on the uninhabited island is to be taken as human's natural tendency and the violent potential of aggression and power when stripped of the contrivances of class, caste, and civilization (civilization as in "civitas," meaning city or city life).

In Golding's scenario there is no opportunity to explore refinements of reason and the attainment of enlightenment, for his characters are already formed, immaturely incapable of profound thought. The necessity of sheer survival easily overwhelms the group. The scenario is what Rousseau predicted of the collective. But Crusoe, alone, doesn't get much further intellectually from his experience, either.

Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: Conclusion

The second part of Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan makes a thoughtful foray into the social dimension of his now finely-honed protagonist, anticipating what the later writers cited above do in laying out social consequences for their respective protagonists.

By now, Hayy is fifty years old. The narrator describes an island near Hayy's uninhabited one. The character of the people in this society "where true religion reigns," -- that is, Islam -- is shaped by their culture, as would be expected, and religion is an integral part of this culture. Absal "loved contemplativeness in Law" and deeply "devoted himself to the quest for solitude." On the other hand, Salaman, also the island's ruler, accepts the necessity of the Law and its literalness, and enjoys mingling in society.

Absal was attracted to the uninhabited island and went "to live there in solitude." For a while his path does not cross Hayy's, but one day Absal glimpses Hayy from afar and assumes him to be "another anchorite who had come to the island, as he had, in search of solitude." But when they encounter one another again they don't know what to make of each other.

Eventually, recognizing their common purpose, the two hermits get along for years. Absal teaches Hayy to speak and Hayy shares both his survival skills and his philosophic and mystic insight. Hayy could not comprehend society or the use of rituals and laws of which Absal tells him, finding them superficial in the light of mystical experience.

One day the two sail to Absal's city. Absal encourages Hayy to teach his spiritual methods to Absal's curious friends and Hayy is enthusiastic. Hayy makes a sincere effort but is rejected by Absal's friends. After a while Hayy gives up his efforts. He assesses his encounter with society. Society, he concludes, is a catalog of passions, worldliness, arrogance, stubbornness and ignorance. People cling to factions and pass their lives in base materialistic pursuits. "He 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 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.

Hayy had not reverted to a fundamentalism wherein obedience and conformity to scripture and tradition were sufficient. Nor was his a fideism of the cynic. Rather, he concluded that for the overwhelming majority of people, this outward conformity to religious ritual and doctrine was as far as they could venture in addressing basic philosophical questions. For them, no interpretation was the best interpretation.

In the next sequence of the tale, Hayy is ushered before Salaman and his closest advisors. He tells them that they should

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.

Thus the intelligent or enlightened person in such a society as Hayy encounters -- and by extrapolation all societies -- will not teach or proselytize, as Hayy decided not to do, having failed in his initial enthusiastic ventures. But mingling with society in a tactful fideism was not Hayy's preference either, as already suggested.

He had taught society how to reach the heights, but society is not interested in the heights; it could at least maintain the good in its culture, a perennial core that all cultures can access. Why debate the merits of one scripture or practice versus another when each is sufficient for maintaining the good in each culture, for the majority of its people. This was the gist of the broad-minded philosophy of medieval Arabic thinkers. The benevolence and tolerance of their presence in medieval Spain produced a high point in world cultural history.

Ibn Tufayl's narrative ends with Hayy and Absal returning to the uninhabited island to resume their eremitism and practices. In this manner of concluding his tale, Ibn Tufayl appreciated the lesson of the great philosopher Ghazali himself, who had recommended withdrawal from society for reasons of conscience and moral consistency, to avoid the inevitable hypocrisies of social intercourse. Ghazali himself had spent the last sixteen years of his life reclused from society and its activities in order to follow the path of mystical experience. And it is what Ibn Tufayl recommends as well.

And so, concludes Ibn Tufayl of Hayy and Absal, the hermits "served God until man's certain fate overtook them."


The Muslim and Arabic philosophers advocating solitude are perhaps no more mainstream in their tradition than those of Christianity and are less known in the West. Yet Ibn Tufayl recognized and pursued, even in the structure of a didactic tale, important themes promoting the benefits of solitude, adding an important contribution to questions of human nature, social development, and mystical thought.



Ibn Tufal's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan was first translated into English in 1708 by Simon Oakley and is revised, with an introduction, by A. S. Fulton. London: Chapman and Hall, 1929. Subsequent translations are Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan: a Philosophical Tale, translated with introduction and notes by Lenn Evan Goodman. New York: Twayne, 1972; The Journey of the Soul: the Story of Hai bin Yaqzan, translated by Riad Kocache. London: Octagon, 1982; Two Andalusian Philosophers, translated with a introduction and notes by Jim Colville. London: Kegan Paul, 1999; and much abridged in Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings, edited by Muhammad Ali Khaldidi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.