The second part of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn
Yaqzanmakes a thoughtful foray into the social dimension of his now
finely-honed protagonist, anticipating what the later writers cited above do in
laying out social consequences for their respective protagonists.
By now, Hayy is fifty years old. The narrator describes an island near Hayy’s
uninhabited one. The character of the people in this society “where true
religion reigns,” — that is, Islam — is shaped by their culture, as
would be expected, and religion is an integral part of this culture. Absal
“loved contemplativeness in Law” and deeply “devoted himself to
the quest for solitude.” On the other hand, Salaman, also the island’s
ruler, accepts the necessity of the Law and its literalness, and enjoys
mingling in society.
Absal was attracted to the uninhabited island and went “to live there in
solitude.” For a while his path does not cross Hayy’s, but one day Absal
glimpses Hayy from afar and assumes him to be “another anchorite who had
come to the island, as he had, in search of solitude.” But when they
encounter one another again they don’t know what to make of each other.
Eventually, recognizing their common purpose, the two hermits get along for
years. Absal teaches Hayy to speak and Hayy shares both his survival skills and
his philosophic and mystic insight. Hayy could not comprehend society or the
use of rituals and laws of which Absal tells him, finding them superficial in
the light of mystical experience.
One day the two sail to Absal’s city. Absal encourages Hayy to teach his
spiritual methods to Absal’s curious friends and Hayy is enthusiastic. Hayy
makes a sincere effort but is rejected by Absal’s friends. After a while Hayy
gives up his efforts. He assesses his encounter with society. Society, he
concludes, is a catalog of passions, worldliness, arrogance, stubbornness and
ignorance. People cling to factions and pass their lives in base materialistic
pursuits. “He saw clearly and definitely that to appeal to them publicly
and openly was impossible.”
He saw that most people are no better than unreasoning animals, and realized
that all wisdom and guidance, all that could possibly help them was contained
already in the words of the prophets and the religious traditions. None of this
could be different. There was nothing to be added.
Hayy had not reverted to a fundamentalism wherein obedience and conformity to
scripture and tradition were sufficient. Nor was his a fideism of the cynic.
Rather, he concluded that for the overwhelming majority of people, this outward
conformity to religious ritual and doctrine was as far as they could venture in
addressing basic philosophical questions. For them, no interpretation was the
In the next sequence of the tale, Hayy is ushered before Salaman and his
closest advisors. He tells them that they should
hold fast to their observance of all the statutes regulating outward behavior
and not delve into things that did not concern them, submissively to accept all
the most problematical elements of the tradition and shun originality and
Thus the intelligent or enlightened person in such a society as Hayy encounters
— and by extrapolation all societies — will not teach or proselytize, as Hayy
decided not to do, having failed in his initial enthusiastic ventures. But
mingling with society in a tactful fideism was not Hayy’s preference either, as
He had taught society how to reach the heights, but society is not interested
in the heights; it could at least maintain the good in its culture, a perennial
core that all cultures can access. Why debate the merits of one scripture or
practice versus another when each is sufficient for maintaining the good in
each culture, for the majority of its people. This was the gist of the
broad-minded philosophy of medieval Arabic thinkers. The benevolence and
tolerance of their presence in medieval Spain produced a high point in world
Ibn Tufayl’s narrative ends with Hayy and Absal returning to the uninhabited
island to resume their eremitism and practices. In this manner of concluding
his tale, Ibn Tufayl appreciated the lesson of the great philosopher Ghazali
himself, who had recommended withdrawal from society for reasons of conscience
and moral consistency, to avoid the inevitable hypocrisies of social intercourse.
Ghazali himself had spent the last sixteen years of his life reclused from
society and its activities in order to follow the path of mystical experience.
And it is what Ibn Tufayl recommends as well.
And so, concludes Ibn Tufayl of Hayy and Absal, the hermits “served God
until man’s certain fate overtook them.”