Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ibn Tufayl's novel Hayy Ibn Yaqzan - the most original written work of the Middle Ages

R. Briffault said that Muslim Spain was "the cradle of the rebirth of Europe" and I agree with him. Ibn Tufayl was a prominent philosopher, astronomer and thinker who was born and grew up in the region surrounding Granada during the reign of the Muwahids, who had crossed over from Morocco in the twelfth century. It was he who had introduced Ibn Rushd to the Caliph, in order to complete the annotation of the works of Artistotle that had been begun by the other eminent philosopher, Ibn Bajja. Of his works, the only one that remains is the tale of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (The Living Son of Awake).

Hayy is an interesting tale, described by one writer as "the most original work of the Middle Ages". The story of Hayy begins on an island, somewhere with an ideal and pure climate. Interestingly, we are told that either Hayy was abandoned by his family or that he was generated from the land itself. Either way, he is raised by a deer mother from infancy and lives only with the wild animals. Through natural curiosity and the use of his intellect, Hayy begins to explore the world around him and accumulate knowledge through observation initially. As his investigations become more complex and mature, Hayy begins to observe the existence of phenomenon and worlds that exist beyond the sensible. Finally, Hayy comes to the conclusion that there is a creator for this universe.

In the epilogue, Hayy is convinced by visitors to his island to come to another inhabited land and help spread his knowledge to the people there. Once he arrives he is horrified by the indifference of the general population to philosophy and the search for wisdom. He advises those who have invited him to continue with the safe and literal understandings of religion, to avoid further confusion for them, and the reader is left with the message that there is some knowledge to which the general mass of humanity is unsuited to comprehend, that it is best left to those able to understand.

The book itself is quite simple to read but the philosophical concepts underpinning it will be strange and perhaps confusing to those unfamiliar with Islamic and neo-Platonic philosophy. Before starting the story, Ibn Tufayl gives us a summary of the ideas that were dominant in philosophical circles of the time. He gives some thoughts about Avicenna, of whom he is extremely admiring, a passing glance at al Farabi and a sympathetic view to al Ghazali's approach to philosophy. Later in the work, it is very clear that he considers God to be The Necessary Existent, rooted firmly and centrally within a very Avicennan understanding of the universe. As with Avicenna, it is not entirely clear how he reconciles the Quranic understanding of God with his own, ie the Ghazalian understanding of God in which the necessity of actions is directed from God rather than within each of the causes and effects that permeate from the Necessary Existent.

Some curious notes about what Ibn Tufayl believes in. He holds an Avicennan view that the Sun is actually cold for some reason, that the soul is housed in a chamber within the heart and that this soul is a white gaseous substance which is extremely hot to the touch. The book ends with a discussion of sufism and the way it can be used to acquire knowledge. Yet I was left with a slightly depressed feeling at the end of the book. If Ibn Tufayl wished to show a path for those seeking true knowledge and ecstasy in finally seeing the perfection of God, he also paints a depressing picture of the inability of the majority of humanity in ever reaching that point. In a sense, he is a precursor to Ibn Rushd's own quite elitist perspective of philosophy.

Ibn Rushd later deemed it outrageous that al Ghazali had made the tools of philosophy readily available for the common masses, meaning that they would start to ask questions they were not prepared to hear the answer for. In fact he advocated the death penalty for those who dabbled with philosophy foolishly. Quite a remarkable position for somebody that is usually hailed as a liberal and enlightened beacon of Islamic philosophy and a reversal for the traditional and orthodox view that al Ghazali was a conservative and dogmatic influence on Islamic philosophy. Ibn Tufayl's disapproval of having philosophy popularly available stemmed perhaps from his despair in triggering people's interest in the topic, whereas Ibn Rushd seems more interested in keeping them at bay and preserving philosophy as the unique activity for an intellectual elite.

Overall the book is something that is very interesting to those who want to understand more about Islamic philosophy, but it will be extremely boring for those who have no background in the topic and think this will give them an insight. One thing I find particularly annoying is the Arabic commentary which usually accompanies such books. Although in my copy, the commentary was actually really good, I know that my copy of al Ghazali's Revival of the Religious Sciences, the commentator and editor of the books not only seems to have very little philosophical background, but a stern orthodox approach to Islam which disapproves of al Ghazali's sufism and method of using weaker hadiths to push a point across. The footnotes are littered with unhelpful and disparaging remarks which are really unnecessary. One theory I have for this is that the Ibn Tufayl book appears to have been released by a Shia publishing house based in Beirut, whereas my al Ghazali books were edited by an orthodox Sunni scholar. I don't like to make too much of a generalisation, but Sunni religious authorities tend to be remarkably boring, unimaginative and often ridiculous in the positions they hold with regards to philosophy. I would like to be disproved in this initial observation but my hopes are not high in this regards.

There are is an online version of this book, along with information about Ibn Tufayl, available on the excellent Muslim Philosophy website.

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