What is a human without society? To some, the question is nonsensical; to others, none is more important. Because, for the latter group, the isolated human in a “the state of nature,” give us access to true human nature. Writing in 12th century Islamic Spain, Ibn Tufayl considers this question in the allegorical and philosophical tale of Hayy Ibn Yaqzān. This Islamic text, though largely ignored by Islamic world went on the inspire the later European philosophers, most famously Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in their discussion of the state of nature.

The Tufayl chronicles the spiritual development of Hayy, a boy raised on by wolves, who through his own exploration reasons to (and beyond) the Qur’anic God reaching the height of Islamic spirituality: a meditative, ecstatic, Sufi-like, feeling of God. Tufayl directly contradicts Islam’s most prominent philosopher, Al-Ghazali by demonstrating the reason is sufficient to truly feel god. In Deliverance from Error, Al-Ghazali famously concludes that one must relinquish reason and take a leap of faith. This contradiction in the role of reason is often explored.

However, an often overlooked aspect of the tale is the significance of the physical world for gaining knowledge. In this essay, I argue that Hayy’s process of gaining knowledge, reasoning from the physical world to the soul and eventually to God, and his changing relationship with the physical world through this process show that Ibn Tufayl’s religious worldview is humanistic and this-worldly. Ibn Tufayl, unlike Al-Ghazali, sees this life and the physical world, as ultimately worth affirming, not one to be endured.

Hayy’s knowledge of God is based on knowledge of the physical world. Knowledge of the physical world underlines God since he defines God and the soul as that which is “non-physical.” The “non-physical” is not a mere description of God, but the definition of God. Hayy first makes distinguishes the “physical” and “non-physical” when his doe mother dies. Looking at her dead body, with her heart in his hands, Ibn Tufayl narrates Hayy reasoning, “[f]rom that - and not from this lifeless body - all those actions had issued. The body was simply a tool of this being, like the stick with which he fought the animals” (Ibn Tufayl, pg. 115). Hayy reasons that his mothers identity must have once been in “that,” which he is holding — her heart. He sees “that” as the driver of the body and the source of her “true” identity. The “physical” was “simply a tool” of the non-physical. Hayy reasons by analogy. Just as the stick is the “tool” he used to fend off animals, the body is the tool for “that.” This process of observation of the physical world and reasoning about it is his method of gaining knowledge about God. After realizing the importance of the physical world for knowledge of the non-physical, Hayy turns to dissecting and studying the animals around him. The knowledge he gains after years of studying animal behavior and anatomy helps him clarify what he called “that,” his mother’s “true” identity, into the concept of the “soul.” He comes to see all living beings as “compounded out of the corporeal factor and another, non-physical factor […]. He dropped the physical and his mind fastened on the other factor, which is called simply the soul.” (Ibn Tufayl, pg 124) Living things are a mixture of physical and non-physical factors. The soul — defined as the “non-physical” — uses the body — the “physical.” This relationship of utility between the binary “physical” and “non-physical” is a central idea he develops in his spiritual progress. The definition of God, which is based on the negative emphasis (non-physical) shows that knowledge of God is in the physical world. Ibn Tufayl imbues this world and knowledge of it with divine importance since only by studying it do we come to learn about God.

Hayy’s dual concept of the self — the idea that we are a combination of the physical and non-physical — forms the hierarchy of his morality. The higher, “non-physical” is associated with the nobility and the “physical”, although it is not characterized as inherently evil, is seen as the “lower” “animal” part of himself. From this hierarchy, Hayy infers a moral obligation to study and cultivate the “non-physical” and therefore emulate God, whom Hayy importantly refers to in this passage using the capitalized, Qur’anic pronoun “Him.”

”… Hayy saw that his nobler part, by which he knew the Necessarily Existent, bore some resemblance to Him as well. For like Him it transcended the physical. Thus another obligation was to endeavor, in whatever way possible to attain His attributes […] and remold his character to His […]. He recognized, however, that he was like the lesser animals in his lower half, the body for it belonged to the world of generation and decay. […]Still, he knew that this body had not been created for him idly. It had not been linked with him for nothing. He must care for it and preserve it, even though in do in so doing he would do no more than any animal. “(Ibn Tufayl, pg 142)

Hayy “nobler parts” refers to his capacity to reason. To emphasize that Hayy is reasoning to God, the term “the Necessarily Existent” with capitalization refer to God. As Hayy realizes that a part of him — specifically that capacity to reason — he must now try to be like God. At this point in the passage, Ibn Tufayl switches from calling God “Necessarily Existent” to the capitalized “Him”. Ibn Tufayl makes this decision because it shows a correspondence between “him” (Hayy) and “Him” (God). The syntactic similarity between “him” and “Him” helps convey the point. Hayy derives a moral obligation is to become like God, in “whatever way possible.” To turn the lowercase h into an uppercase H. As humans, there is a “part” of us that is like God — namely our reason. Hayy must “remold” his “lower part” according to his “higher” one. The word “remold” rather than a more destructive term, as used by the Sufis, like “annihilate” implies an acceptance/integration of the self rather than a destruction of oneself. Ibn Tufayl sees the self as a mixture of the physical body and the soul — the “physical” and “non-physical”, or the animal and the God. At no point does Ibn Tufayl tell us to reject the physical. Hayy’s body is not to be mortified or hated. Yes, it is lower than his “nobler parts”, but it is a part he must accept as a responsibility to “care for” and “remold.” His body, a symbol of his connection to the physical world, has as a purpose. It was “linked” to him for a reason, namely to, “remold” it according to his “higher” self.

One way to see Hayy’s spiritual progress is his use of the physical world as a “tool” for progressively “higher” ends. Hayy always used the physical world, but what changes as he develops spiritually is his reason why. In the first quarter of his life, Hayy realizes that “despite his lack of natural weapons, he could manufacture everything he wanted to make up for the lack” (Ibn Tufayl, pg 118). Hayy is superior to all other animals because of the tools he makes for protection, shelter, hunting, etc. However, his “use” of reason is for the same end as the animals. After the death of his mother and the beginning of his exploration of the soul, Hayy dissects animals to gain knowledge of the “physical world” and “non-physical world.” He now uses the physical world to gain knowledge, a uniquely human pursuit, guided by reason, and therefore a “nobler” end than mere survival and material comfort. Finally, in his last stage before a peak experience of God, his “use” of the physical world is purely for material sustenance to “resemble” God. Ibn Tufayl narrates, “Hayy knew that his supreme goal was this third form of mimesis [of God]; but this would not be his without a long stint of training and self-discipline through the second, and this itself would not hold up for long if he neglected the first.” (Ibn Tufayl, pg. 143) The second form of mimesis is a reference to the celestial bodies, and first to “inarticulate animals.” (Ibn Tufayl, pg. 142) Ibn Tufayl constructs a tri-level pyramid. At the base of the pyramid are physical necessities like food and shelter. As he progresses up the pyramid, the reason for using the “physical world” changes but remains necessary. still is needed. At the highest for of mimesis, the physical world is used only to sustain Hayy’s body. Ibn Tufayl’s refusal to neglect the “base” materiality of human identity emphasizes its importance in peak religious experience in a way that is radical. Humans are a mixture of “Himself” (God) and the animal, and we must accept all of ourselves. From survival to knowledge, and finally mimesis of God, we are inescapably reliant on the “physical world.” We do not have to destroy this “animal” part of ourselves use it and “remold it” for our highest purpose — the emulation of God.

At this point, one might object that I have overstated the significance of the physical world. An alternative explanation for the continual references to physicality is to avoid plot holes in the story, and therefore the “physical” is not as philosophically significant as I have argued. However, this text, the story, and philosophy work together. Ibn Tufayl’s peculiar choice of medium, a philosophical tale, emphasizes that the plot is deeply intertwined with his underlying philosophy. Hayy’s isolation from society means he does not have access to the Qur’an or any textual, communitarian aspects of Islam. For the Islamic tradition where the foundational text is the unequivocal word of God, this is radical. However, equally significant, Ibn Tufayl’s choice to put Hayy on an island burgeoning with life brings him closer to nature in a way society does not allow. Civilization separates us from nature and the “physical world.” Humans are removed from contending with other animals and from the harshness of the natural world. We no longer need to fight for our safety in the way Hayy has to. It is the combination of the lack of scripture and society, as well as the proximity and harshness of the physical world, that leaves Hayy with only two things — his reason and nature. Faith in scripture is no longer an option, and neither is the material protection from nature by society. So when Hayy perfectly understands the God of the Qur’an as confirmed by Absal, and describes an ecstatic experience with God similar to that of the Sufis and Al-Ghazali, it is both brilliant and radical.

The consequences of the primacy of the physical in Hayy Ibn Yaqzān illuminate a radical difference in Ibn Tufayl’s and Ghazali’s religious worldview. While they describe similar experiences of God and agree on the societal importance of the Qur’an, for Ibn Tufayl it is not the annihilation of the self, but a subordination of the physical body to the Godly “true” self that leads to ultimate spiritual salvation. When we use all the tools at our disposal — reason and the physical world — for the singular purposes of mimesis we feel God. Reason is sufficient and the physical world is a tool not an obstacle on the way to salvation. Al-Ghazali and the Sufi see the “physical” more antagonistically. While one can achieve ecstatic union with God, the body is in the way, and therefore, self-mortification and severe asceticism are often practiced. Their worldview, in contrast to Ibn Tufayl’s, is other-worldly. Life, under their worldview, should only be endured until the Day of Judgement. The ecstatic experience of God is a respite from this-world. Whereas for Ibn Tufayl the world and all of its beings have a spark of God emanating from them. There is a harmony that is possible between the “physical” and “non-physical.” At his peak, Hayy is not a physical and non-physical being but experiencing the unity of purposes in himself and in this world. He does this by integrating and subordinating the physical self to the true, transcendent, and “non-physical” self. Whereas the Sufi path is shrouded in mysticism and faith, Hayy’s path is based entirely on the universal human of reason grounded in experience of the physical world. It is not easy to figure out, but the Qur’anic understanding of God is accessible in nature and human nature. Ibn Tufayl is not critical of Qur’an in any way, but through the tale of Hayy Ibn Yaqzān shows that it is not absolutely necessary. It is possible to reason to an experience of God in a ‘state of nature.’ This possibility has radical implications for Islamic spirituality.

Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzān is an allegorical and philosophical tale that emphasizes the primacy of physicality. Hayy’s knowledge of God and the soul is based on knowledge of the “physical.” Hayy “uses” the physical world to accomplish increasingly spiritual ends and comes to see his animal, physical self as a necessary responsibility and part of his identity. In emphasizing the primacy of the physical, Ibn Tufayl put the whole human, their mixed identity and place in the natural world, at the forefront of his religious worldview. He sees the physical world as the basis for knowledge of God. Humans are a unique species with a Godlike capacity to reason. When the highest form of reason — the mimesis of God — uses the physical world and body for this sole purpose, one reaches the height of Islamic spirituality. For these reasons, Ibn Tufayl’s religious worldview is humanistic and focused on this world. One does not need to annihilate oneself or parts of oneself for intimacy with God. Hayy’s God is consistent with the God of the Qur’an. Still, in telling this story, Ibn Tufayl presents a compelling, rational case for a God, a mixed self, and a path to reach him, which all thinkers, regardless of faith or religion, will continue to wrestle with across centuries and civilizations.

References Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, tr. Lenn Evan Goodman (University Chicago Press, 2009)