Hayy ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Novel by Ibn Tufayl

If I tell you this is a story of a man on a desert island who keeps goats, builds himself a shelter and finally discovers footprints in the sand, what would you think of? Broadly, this story – like Robinson Crusoe – is about man’s ability to survive in a natural state, free of society, history and tradition. The character of Hayy is brought up on a deserted island by a doe, which provides milk for the infant and raises him. With the death of the doe, however, Hayy continues to survive by using the human capacity to reason.

The author of this work, Ibn Tufayl (c.1105-1185), was an Andalusian Muslim philosopher who was concerned with the extent to which philosophy and religion can be harmonised: To what extent is society required in order to attain knowledge of truth? Human beings are seen as uniquely self-thinking intellects: at least, almost unique, with one other possible exception; that of God. Human beings have, it seems, this capacity for self-intellection of which the only other parallel is God. Intuitively, being human conjures up an image of something magical, mysterious and special. Human beings are ‘God-like’; we all partake, to some extent at least, in God’s perfection. In a solitary state, with no knowledge of the ‘other’, can one attain self-awareness?

It is these questions that the novel addresses through the character of Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Brought up isolated from other human beings, to what extent can Hayy acquire knowledge; not merely of the empirical kind, but the spiritual? The novel supports the empirical method whilst also recognising its limitations. It emphasises the power of human reason and of the human to transcend himself: to progress to supernatural and divine matters.

Roy Jackson will be giving a talk on the novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan at the University of Cordoba on Wednesday 11th March, 2015.