Alive, Son of Awake

Hayy Bin Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl. In Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings, edited by Muhammad Ali Khalidi (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Hayy performs surgery on the doe.

Hayy performs surgery on the doe.

Fitting, I think, that what is regarded as the world’s first philosophical novel can’t decide between science fiction and biblical plagiarism. The work is Hayy Bin Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl, a Muslim philosopher and court physician who lived in 12th century Spain and North Africa. Its title, translated literally “Alive, son of Awake,” is the same as an earlier (though very different) mystical work by the Muslim Persian philosopher Ibn Sina, known to the Latin West as Avicenna.

The story follows Hayy, an inquisitive man who lives his entire life as the sole human being on a tropical island. Like the authors of Genesis itself, Ibn Tufayl isn’t sure exactly how he wants the story to start, so he gives it two possible beginnings. First, due to a convergence of natural forces explained in exacting pseudoscientific detail, Hayy comes about through spontaneous generation. But then Ibn Tufayl also allows for the scenario that our hero, instead, was born under suspicious circumstances and was set adrift by his mother into the sea, like Moses, to be led by the grace of God to an island that can provide for him. A doe suckles him through his infancy. When she grows ill, and Hayy is still a boy, he repays her by attempting surgery on her insides. It doesn’t succeed, but he learns a lot in the process.

Over the course of the 7 7-year periods of Hayy’s life, Ibn Tufayl has him discover the basic, cherished truths of the medieval Islamic world’s philosophical subculture. He reasons about the minds of animals, about the baseness of his body, about physics, about the stars, and, at the summit of it all, about the nature of God, whom he only knows to call the “agent” or “efficient cause.” The defining moment of Hayy’s life comes at age 35, when he becomes certain of this deity’s existence. After that, he becomes ever more lost in ecstatic trance, which he aids by closing his eyes and whirling around like a dervish.

Just after accomplishing his proof, writes Ibn Tufayl,

His heart was so preoccupied with the agent that he became absorbed in thinking about Him to the exclusion of all other things. He was distracted from his previous examination and inspection of existents to the point that, from that time onwards, he could not set his sight on anything without seeing in it some trace of His handiwork. His thought would carry him immediately to the Maker, leaving the product behind. He yearned more keenly for Him and his heart turned away completely from the inferior perceptible realm and became attached to the superior intelligible realm.

His ecstasies become so intense that Hayy loses interest in living and prays that God will take him. When 7×7 years have passed, at age 50, his eternal soul begins to melt away from the undeserving cracker of his body, and the island with it, and reaches the bliss of pure spirit… and this translation ends. There are more adventures, mystical and otherwise, in the full version.

Ibn Tufayl’s little book is the part of a rich medieval Islamic culture that isn’t well enough known in the West today, but which played a decisive role in Europe’s intellectual heritage. Hayy was translated into Latin in the 17th century, where it encouraged Enlightenment greats like Spinoza, Locke, Boyle, and, of course, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Hayy represents, charmingly, a particular picture of the human ideal, which also happens to be a total lie: curious, rational, self-sufficient, spiritual-but-not-religious, and emphatically male, with no need for a woman.

But isn’t there a little Hayy in all of us?

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.