Ibn Tufayl, Abu Bakr Muhammad


Ibn Tufayl, Abu Bakr Muhammad
(d. 581/1185)
   One of the most influential philosophers of the Islamic West, Ibn Tufayl was a close companion of Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf, the Alhomad caliph of Andalusia, serving him in various capacities as a court physician, possibly as a judge, and less probably as a vizier. He seems to have been something of a cultural minister as well, engaging in lengthy philosophical conversations with the caliph and bringing numerous scholars and thinkers to his court. One such thinker was the philosopher Ibn Rushd, who through Ibn Tufayl’s connections and encouragement took up the monumental task of writing his three-tiered commentary on Aristotle’s corpus, a project initially proposed by Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf himself. Ibn Tufayl had no time for such undertakings, and indeed his body of writings is relatively small. His major work is Hayy ibn Yaqzan (‘Living, Son of Awake’), a philosophical fable about an individual who grows from infancy to adulthood on an uninhabited equatorial island. In the absence of human society, language, culture, tradition and revelation, relying only upon observation and his own optimal intellect, Hayy comes to learn about the physical world, the soul and God, recapitulating as he does the whole developmental history of human reason. Having achieved comprehensive theoretical knowledge of physical and metaphysical realities, the philosophical autodidact goes on to model his ethical life on the imitation of God, take up Sufi-like practices, and finally experience intimate, mystical knowledge of God, thereby suggesting that philosophy and mysticism are two sides of the same coin. Hayy is eventually discovered by Absal, a resident of a neighboring island, who teaches him to speak and tells him about the revealed religion of his homeland (a thinly veiled version of Islam), which turns out to be a symbolic presentation of the truths that Hayy has independently attained through reason and experience. Hayy returns with Absal to the neighboring island but soon realizes (à la al-Farabi) that the vast majority of people are not equipped to approach the truth as he did, that prophecy is a beneficial necessity, and that it is better for the simple folk to be left with their literalist faith, so long as it does not become too worldly and corrupt. Hayy and Absal return to the uninhabited island and live out their lives as philosopher-mystics, in solitude from the rest of humankind. Ibn Tufayl claims that his Hayy ibn Yaqzan is a presentation of Ibn Sina’s ‘Eastern philosophy’ (al-hikmat al-mashriqiyya), although the narrative of book is quite unlike Ibn Sina’s ‘visionary recital’ of the same name. Its philosophical import is not always Avicennan either: in Ibn Sina’s tale, ‘Hayy ibn Yaqzan’ is a poetic name for the active intellect, which on his account is external to and independent of particular human beings. In Ibn Tufayl’s tale, however, it becomes a proper name, suggesting that the active intellect is in fact something intrinsic to the individual thinker.
   Further reading: Conrad 1996; Hawi 1974/97; Ibn Tufayl 1972/2003

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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