The Politics of Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān — Idris
By Murad Idris | Published on August 26, 2019
I’m currently writing a book on the politics, ethics, and global reception history of Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to be in conversation with you. What I will offer are a few ideas—theses, provocations, open questions—that represent how I currently envision this project and my own approach to Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān.
The ending of the allegory is where we confront its most directly political theoretic discussions. The conclusion of the story is very obviously about an epistemic hierarchy: the very best—a select few—are able to attain true knowledge thanks to their natural dispositions whereas the best of the rest—the most decent people among everyone else—have religious discourse, or a version of the truth mediated and obscured by symbolism. And the best thing that the select few like Ḥayy and Absāl can do is leave ordinary people alone; their natural dispositions are different, and the ordinary are hopeless. This is important because the rulers are not the wisest and because the wisest are not those who ought to rule.
This is the first way in which the text exemplifies an answer to that hoary question, what is “political” about Islamic political philosophy: in statements about the relationship of epistemic hierarchy to community and governance.
But underlying or parallel to the text’s insistence on hierarchy and on the separation of philosophy and governance is whether the best of the rest can be agents in their own right. These islanders, I argued in a 2011 article, act out of ethical principles. These principles, as recorded in the text itself, are the commitments to hospitality, friendship, and community. The problem for them, I argued, is that these principles end up undercutting themselves.
This is, in short, the text’s critique of political life and a second way in which it speaks to the “political” in Islamic political philosophy: the relationship of principles to action, ethics to politics, the self-subversion limits of ideals, and who gets to act and speak.
Readers have tended to venerate the main character, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. Part of the task, however, is to interrogate why and diagnose the compulsions behind this identification. In the text’s voice, he is endowed with superhuman cognitive and spiritual faculties. I would suggest that perhaps most of us have more in common with the islanders, in terms of ethical principles that undermine themselves, our sociality, and our fundamental and banal ordinariness.
This is the third way to approach that same question, namely the text’s affective hold over readers in the uneven priority it gives subjects.
Readers have tended to accept the text’s depiction of the islanders as inferior and of Ḥayy as superior. While Ḥayy is remarkable for his journey and superhuman characteristics, we should consider the source: a philosopher thinks philosophers are the best. We might be inspired by Fedwa Malti-Douglas’s brilliant and provocative reading of gender in the allegory, to look more directly at Ibn Ṭufayl’s silences, elisions, and obsessions against the grain.  Let us reframe the story: Ḥayy was spontaneously generated or abandoned by his mother in an ark (in either case, an allusion to prophet-like figures). He was raised by a doe. When this surrogate mother figure dies in front of him, he dissects her (again—he clinically dissects his mother figure’s corpse). Perhaps his “discovery” that her soul has departed and she lives on somewhere else is better understood as trauma and denial. As a youth, he terrorizes animals. As an adult, he turns around and around, to mimic celestial motion, but perhaps he confuses dizziness with divine inspiration. He had not met another human being until he was an adult. He incessantly harasses an island of strangers into embracing what he believes is the truth. He decides that anyone who happens to not agree with him is an irrational beast doomed to hellfire.
This is a fourth way in which the text exemplifies an answer to the same question, what is “political” about Islamic political philosophy: its representations of ordinary life and power.
If the text’s authorship in the early twelfth century is its most important date, the second-most important for its hold over “Islamic philosophy” may very well be 1671, when it was edited and translated into Latin by Edward Pococke as Philosophus autodidactus, or the “self-taught philosopher.” It is this edition and translation (and the slew of translations that followed) that gave the text its canonical status worldwide, including in Arabic. By this I mean two things: first, to put it somewhat provocatively, the text became a “classic,” imbued with great significance for a philosophical “tradition” in which it had been, for all intents and purposes, rather marginal; and second, that canonized as a classic, it was no longer part of an engaged or lived discursive tradition but rather a piece of a reified and rarified tradition that was simultaneously being invented as “Islamic” always in relation to the Western-modern, and onto which modern readers would project their hopes, dreams, anxieties, prejudices, desires, and frustrations.
This is a fifth and indirect response to what is “political” about Islamic political philosophy: the historicity of the category that elevates the text to its contemporary level and social functions.
In this way, it is only a slight exaggeration to call Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān a Rorschach blot. Modern readers have tended to see the same sets of resonances, often presented as prefigurations or direct influences of modern European texts, even though the evidence is often circumstantial at best. Apparent similarities become an occasion—or an alibi—for locating the text’s importance in relation to Europe, for Europe, thereby making the intellectual traditions of the colonized the origin of their own colonizers. As I discuss in a 2016 article, modern editors and scholars in the Middle East read the text through the lens of their geopolitical, cultural, and scientific inferiority vis-à-vis Europe. Ibn Ṭufayl became their cultural avatar, superior to Robinson Crusoe and John Locke and/or their forefather and first influence. For some, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓan even caused the Enlightenment if not modernity as a whole; for others, the text prefigures the kind of subject produced and championed by the Enlightenment. And in some more recent versions, the ending was entirely transformed, to become more palatable to egalitarian sensibilities; I’m currently writing about this for pieces on Ibn Ṭufayl and pedagogy and on Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān’s global reception and translations. Just as important, of course, are the things that scholars don’t read into it. For example, commentators do not read Ḥayy’s preaching in relation to the failures or limits of toleration discourse and thereby as resonating with a different set of examples (like, as Teresa Bejan argues in another context, that of Roger Williams). And when Ibn Ṭufayl is presented as a proto-Lockean, this is usually for the ideas of man as a blank slate and the development of rationality through individual experience, and not, for example, Locke as apologist for settler colonial expropriation; they do not point out that Ḥayy does not try to take the native islanders’ land away on account of his supposed superiority. I attempt to raise similar points elsewhere when comparing Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān to the “state of nature” theorists Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
A sixth way, then, to understand what is political in Islamic political philosophy: the resonances and frames by which texts have been received and read, and the historical and cultural narratives into which they are implicitly and sometimes explicitly placed.
Finally, this makes reading Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān a historically, culturally, and politically laden act. The text’s status, reception history, and frames of interpretation are not easily separated from the colonial terms through which it has been read. And interpretations today continue to be a part of this long genealogy of reading into the text, onto text, and inventing Islamic philosophy. My tentative argument is that the way to navigate our way with this text—given what I have indicated about its content, its status, and its reception history—is to read it against the grain of each, toward a more emancipatory and egalitarian politics, through and against the lineages into which it would be placed.
Taking all these layers together enables a vision of the political in Islamic political philosophy as the possibility of a project that is anti-canonical in orientation toward text, author, and “tradition,” attuned to power in the resonances and frames it invites or dispels, and genealogical in the pasts and futures it narrates and reinvents.
- I make this point again in more abbreviated form in the course of a recent co-authored piece in Aeon.
- She points out that mother is either nonexistent or fails him, he dissects the surrogate mother figure, he skips puberty, and the allegory ends as a homoerotic male utopia with no women. See Fedwa Malti-Douglas, “Ibn Ṭufayl’s Male Utopia,” in The World of Ibn Ṭufayl: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on “Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān,” ed. Lawrence I. Conrad (1996), pp. 52–68.
- It is true that, for example, Ibn al-Nafīs responded in the thirteenth century with Fāḍil ibn Nāṭiq, a text that came to be known as Theologus autodidactus, and that the story was important for Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic commentators. My point is that he was not an al-Fārābī or an Ibn Sīnā.
- This latter is, interestingly enough, a common anti-historical modernist hermeneutic, what we might call retrospective perennialism, for reading the Qurʾān to show that it predicted or contains everything in modern science.