Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale

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The Arabic philosophical fable Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is a classic of medieval Islamic philosophy. Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185), the Andalusian philosopher, tells of a child raised by a doe on an equatorial island who grows up to discover the truth about the world and his own place in it, unaided—but also unimpeded—by society, language, or tradition. Hayy’s discoveries about God, nature, and man challenge the values of the culture in which the tale was written as well as those of every contemporary society.

Goodman’s commentary places Hayy Ibn Yaqzan in its historical and philosophical context. The volume features a new preface and index, and an updated bibliography.

“One of the most remarkable books of the Middle Ages.”—Times Literary Supplement

“An enchanting and puzzling story. . . . The book transcends all historical and cultural environments to settle upon the questions of human life that perpetually intrigue men.”—Middle East Journal

“Goodman has done a service to the modern English reader by providing a readable translation of a philosophically significant allegory.”—Philosophy East and West

“Add[s] bright new pieces to an Islamic mosaic whose general shape is already known.”—American Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226303109
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2009
  • Edition description: Updated
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 329,167
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Lenn E. Goodman is Professor of Philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. His many books include The Case of the Animals vs. Man before the King of Jinn.

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Read an Excerpt

Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

A Philosophical Tale

By Lenn Evan Goodman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Lenn E. Goodman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30310-9


The Life of Ibn Tufayl

It was considered unseemly for Muslim authors in the middle ages to discuss personal matters in writings intended for the public. Sons were an achievement, and of these we know Ibn Tufayl had three, but whether he had as many daughters, whether he was happily married, widowed, or divorced is no longer known. He wrote once, quoting words attributed to Muhammad, that to make one wife happy is to make the other miserable, but even here it is not known whether his choice of adage is based on bitter experience, contented monogamy, or merely the exigencies of the argument. Those searching for a figure into which they may breathe again the colors of sentiment and passion had best be warned to find another. Ibn Tufayl will not respond to their efforts at resuscitation. Yet he lived and his life was an important one.

Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl was born shortly after the beginning of the twelfth century in the little Spanish town of Guadix, about 50 miles northeast of Granada. He was born a Muslim in a Muslim country and he remained a Muslim all his life. He was well educated and taught medicine as well as practicing it. He was minister to the governor of Granada and served several members of the Almohad dynasty in the same capacity. His highest post was that of minister and chief physician to the Almohad Sultan Abu Ya'qub Yusuf.

The Sultan, Ibn Tufayl's patron, was himself a learned man deeply involved in the intellectual movements of his time. The historian, 'Abdu-l-Wahid of Marrakesh, writes: "He continually gathered books from all corners of Spain and North Africa and sought out knowledgeable men, especially thinkers, until he had gathered more than any previous king in the west. Among the intellectuals that were his friends was Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl, a Muslim philosopher, expert in all branches of philosophy, who had studied the work of many of the truest philosophers including Ibn Bajja. I have seen works of Ibn Tufayl's on both natural and metaphysical philosophy, to name only two areas of his philosophical competence. One of his natural books is called Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Its object is to explain the meaning of human existence according to philosophical ideas. The book, written in the form of a letter, is slim but of tremendous benefit in this study. Among his metaphysical or theological writings is an essay on the soul which I have seen in his own hand (God rest his soul). In his last days Ibn Tufayl devoted all his energies to metaphysics and renounced everything else. He was eager to reconcile religion and philosophy and gave great weight to revelation, not only at the literal, but also at the more profound level. Besides this he was tremendously learned in Islamic studies. I understand that he used to line up for his pay with all the regular employees, medics, engineers, secretaries, poets, archers, soldiers, etc. He said 'If they're in the market for musical theory, I can supply it.' The Commander of the Faithful Abu Ya 'qub loved him so well that he stayed with him in the palace, night and day, not coming out for days at a time."

Ibn Tufayl's duties presumably included giving advice on political questions as well as medical ones; and whether formally or informally, he seems to have performed the role of a minister of culture. Marrakushi writes: "Ibn Tufayl made it his practice to gather scholars from all over the world and saw to it that they obtained the interest and favor of the ruler. It was he who recommended, to the Sultan, Ibn Rushd who first became known and appreciated as a result."

Ibn Rushd (or Averroës, as he is known to the West) himself confirms this, according to one of his students whose words were taken down by the same historian: "I often heard Ibn Rushd relate the following story: 'When I went in to the Sultan Abu Ya'qub, I found him alone with Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl. Ibn Tufayl began praising me and speaking of my family and my background, very kindly adding many good things which I really did not deserve. Having inquired as to my name and origins, the first thing the Commander of the Faithful asked me was "What do they (he meant the philosophers) believe about the heavens? Are they eternal or created?" I was seized with consternation and did not know what to say. I tried to excuse myself by denying that I had studied philosophy. I had no idea how far his prior discussions with Ibn Tufayl had gone. His Excellency saw that I was frightened and confused. He turned to Ibn Tufayl and began to discuss the question with him, referring to the positions of Aristotle and Plato and all the other philosophers, and citing the arguments of the Muslims against them. I soon realized that he was more learned than I would have expected a full time specialist to be. He put me so well at ease that I myself spoke up and he soon saw that I was not as ignorant as I had seemed. When I had gone he sent me a gift of money, and a splendid robe of honor, and a horse.'"

Despite the disappointing performance of the great champion of philosophy, Averroes, at his first interview with the Sultan, it was Ibn Tufayl's evaluation of the man that prevailed at court, and it was through Ibn Tufayl that Ibn Rushd was commissioned to write his monumental commentary on the works of Aristotle. Marrakushi writes: "The same student reports the following words of Ibn Rushd: 'Ibn Tufayl sent for me one day and said, "The Khalif was complaining today about the difficulty of Aristotle's language—or perhaps that of his translators—and the resultant difficulty in understanding his ideas. He suggested that if these books could be furnished with a good interpreter who could explain them after he had thoroughly mastered them himself, then people might grasp them more readily." Ibn Tufayl then said "If you have the energy for such an undertaking, go ahead. I believe you can do it because I see that you are sincere and I know how brilliant and dedicated you are. Only my age and the responsibilities of my office, (and the fact that I must devote myself to something that seems to me to be more important) keep me from doing it myself." It was this that determined me to write my first outlines of the works of Aristotle.'"

When Ibn Tufayl retired as court physician in 1182, Ibn Rushd was asked to serve as his successor.

Abu Ya'qub Yusuf died in 1184 of wounds received at the siege of Santarem in Portugal. His son Abu Yusuf Ya'qub succeeded him and continued his father's patronage of the elderly Ibn Tufayl and deference to his advice. In 1185 Ibn Tufayl died at Marrakesh. The Sultan himself officiated at the funeral. Behind him Ibn Tufayl left his disciples, his children, and his books.

The books include poetry and textbooks on medicine and astronomy—some of which are in verse. One philosophical work survives, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. About the progress of the inner life, as distinct from the private life, Muslims were not reticent. It is through this book that we know Ibn Tufayl.


Educational Philosophy

The story of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is a history of the progressive development, alone, on an equatorial island of an individual human soul. What is the purpose of telling such a story? Close to the surface as subject-problems posed by the premiss of Ibn Tufayl's book are the problems of educational philosophy: 'What is education?' 'What is personal development?' 'How does human growth take place?' 'How can a man attain fulfillment?'

An examination of the form and matter of Hayy's education—the successive phases in the dialectic of his growth and the substantive achievements within each of them may reveal what sort of philosophy gave rise to Ibn Tufayl's attempt to deal with these problems, and perhaps it will expose the coloration of the answers he hoped would solve them.

Hayy's development is schematized in seven stages of seven years each, heptads or septenaries, which may seem, when first observed, the products of an overly neat mind eager to designate "a time for everything." Yet we may come to see these phases, like the ages of man, as a symbolic device, a mirror set against the flux of human growth, portraying the impact of irreversible change: each phase has its own character, in each the soul has a way of life, a method of inquiry, and a level of achievement distinct from what went before and in some sense higher.

Hayy's first phase is childhood. He is nursed by his doe foster-mother; and, when he gets his first teeth and learns to walk, he is weaned. But his weaning is no more than a nominal diminution of his dependence. Now he must follow the doe: she finds him fruit and cracks the shells, warms and shades him and protects him. He relies on her, and she answers his call: his feeling toward her is more trust than love. His identity, at this stage, like that of any infant, is easily lost in the needs beneath which it is submerged and by which, at times, it seems to be subsumed.

His imitation of the animals is intuitive. The infant's first cries for help are directed to the environment at large; gradually they become more specific, are addressed to particular sectors when particular sorts of help are needed, but there is not yet the flash of understanding that means what is "asked for" is planned and expected. There is not yet, behind these cries, a reasoned sense of purpose.

Slowly Hayy develops a sense of the world and the things in it, a taste for some and an aversion for others, but his likes and dislikes are not yet actively expressed, they are passive, ineffectual "affections"; they accomplish nothing. Likewise, his jealousy of the horns the fawns begin to grow and his shame at his own nakedness are emotions of frustration. Childhood is dependence, helplessness: ends without means, wants without grasp and childish aversions that cannot be enforced. Hayy's childhood begins to end at age seven, when he first tries to do something to help himself.

From seven to twenty-one, Hayy lives the life of practical reason, the kind that finds means to ends: he is developing an executive capacity. No longer content to be annoyed by his nakedness, he decides "to do something about it"; he starts to make his own clothes. He grows impatient with waiting for horns to sprout on his head and tired of fighting a losing battle against the animals. So he makes himself a weapon. The doe weakens with age, and he finds the love that once meant dependence turning to concern and care for another being: now it is he who must, somehow, provide. Even when she dies, his grief turns to a desire to do something, to bring her back.

Sparsely at first, then more steadily, as if marking the approach of puberty, signs of a spiritualization appear in Hayy's practical concern. The soul is discovered in his search for the vital part which failed his mother-doe, a momentous discovery for Hayy: action in the natural world remains the basis of his life, as is indicated by his first glimpse of the soul as a hot, gaseous, governing "spirit"—but the plane of action has been elevated. Hayy's involvement now is with souls. He soon learns to dissociate the soul, which he honors as master, from the body, which it abandoned and which is subject to corruption. Like the Stoic hegemonikon, the soul as Hayy knows it at this stage, though material, is a principle of rule; so he trains himself in mastery, by learning to ride. His approach to life remains action oriented: he no longer helplessly wishes for a being like himself, but actively seeks one. By the time he discovers fire he finds it to mean more to him than the utilitarian functions of warmth, light, and cookery; his practical concern is so deeply tinged with the spiritual that he associates fire's universal power, as did the pagan Stoics, with the powers of the soul, and its light, as did the pagan Platonists, with the beauty of the stars. He is infatuated with fire and virtually ready to worship it.

The subtle way in which Ibn Tufayl makes Hayy's ontogeny recapitulate human phylogeny must convince us, if nothing else can, that the figure of Hayy represents something more than himself. His Adam-like position alone on an island, his Promethean role as discoverer of fire, his progress and backsliding, brilliantly experimenting with fire and rashly trying to grasp "a piece of it," show that he is intended to symbolize mankind, for he, like the first man, and like mankind, must discover everything newly for himself. And, if he is man, the incipient spiritualization of his practical reason, even at this primitive stage when he knows no more of the soul than its vital, animal aspect and conceives of its work in terms of the motor functions and of its nature as a crudely material vaporous spirit seated in the heart—is still a momentous step. It marks the entry of man into a world at least quasi-spiritual.

Hayy has gone through three ages: the frustrations of childhood, the ascent to practical reason, where he learns what he can do with his hands and his brain, and the far side of practical understanding where love for the spirit, if only the animal, animating spirit, makes him prone to see spirit everywhere. At twenty-one he begins to think seriously about metaphysics.

All the world lies before him, the stars, like limbs of some great dissected animal symmetrically displayed for his examination. Every being is unique—yet in species, genus, Kingdom, all are one. Pervading Hayy's thought is that strange Platonic logic which identifies souls with forms and, in the unity of forms and functions shared by all living and even non-living things, finds a higher unity of which all objects participate like parts of the same body; and all forms and souls, like scattered drops from a single bowl of water.

This is the age of wonder. The soul seeks questions it cannot answer and struggles with their meanings; the heart seeks a window for itself on the Universe. Hayy's discovery of forms is his first experience of the intellectual, that is, the truly spiritual world. He cannot maintain this attitude; he soon tires of abstractions like forms and prime matter and longs to return to the simplest things. But like the Arab horsemen, for whom farr and karr, mock flight and wheeling charge were one maneuver, Hayy seems to gain more ground in his recovery than he lost in his retreat; for, stopping to consider the changing forms of the elements, he discovers God, the necessary producer of actual change. Again, not knowing whether God is one or many, Hayy recapitulates human history.

The age of wonder cannot last: reason is all too prepared to satisfy the spirit's hunger. Hayy looks and wonders at the stars: are the heavens finite or infinite? But by now he is twenty-eight and reason will not leave him wondering. Elaborate proof is given, a priori, of the finiteness of the heavens, a reductio ad absurdum that seems at once to mimic and epitomize the process of pure reason. Reason does answer questions: to the paradoxical unity and diversity of the world it sets the figure of a great animal with stars for eyes, spheres for limbs, and the corruptible world as wastes and fluids in its giant belly: Man can now visualize with ease his place in the universe. And yet, somehow, there seems a certain taint of the unreasonable in this ultra-rational reason. When Hayy sets out to prove the eternity of the world or its creation in time, Ibn Tufayl lets the diaphanous persona slip for a moment, and behind it we may glimpse a face annoyed at the wrangling of divines: the proofs conflict; and either way, Ibn Tufayl says, God exists. Perhaps there is, in reason itself, a certain room for growth, room to seek beyond abstraction and air-tight proof, in the tangles of whose impeccable logic all is solid but conviction. It is no repudiation of reason to detect in it a sophism or a sophomoric self-certainty that is at once the mask and mark of ignorance. Given room for further growth, reason might mature to wisdom.

Wonder discovers God in a beautiful, unexpected moment and sees Him in the working of the world. Reason proves Him as Designer of the Universe, perfect Cause of Himself and Creator of all. But wisdom awakens when the soul begins to seek deeper. Knowledge itself is a passive affair: is belief any more than willingness, if asked, to affirm a proposition? Conviction is perhaps a state of mind, but like a family sword it is dragged out rarely, only on special occasions, as if it had no more use than for fighting the formal duels that may arise with scholars. For lovers it is not enough to be convinced beyond refutation of one another's existence. Wisdom seeks more than knowledge: it seeks an active relationship of love with the beloved, and with God.

Hayy's wisdom begins as he approaches thirty-five, when he begins to relate to God not merely by knowledge, but by love. God becomes a passion for him that absorbs all his attention and distracts him from everything else. The soul recognizes itself as non-material and comes to see its task as the active seeking of God. Hayy is ready to enter a final pair of seven-year phases. He finds in himself resemblances to the animals, to the stars, and to God Himself. He realizes that his well-being, his happiness and self-fulfillment lie in promoting those resemblances. The physical needs of his animal soul are necessary encumbrances. Beyond them, he must heighten his resemblance to the stars: he must be clean and kindly, graceful in his movements, and ascetic in his habits. But just as the spiritualization of practical reason marked the two-stage transition from adolescence to young manhood, so the spiritualization of his wisdom, its rise from exercise to experience, marks the end of tutelage and beginning of maturity, the fulfillment of self-awareness in the realization that all that has gone before is a "ladder of love" to union with God; for, at the end of his seventh set of seven years, Hayy attains the beatific experience.


Excerpted from Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan by Lenn Evan Goodman. Copyright © 2003 Lenn E. Goodman. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface to the 2009 Edition,
Preface to the Fifth Edition,
1. The Life of Ibn Tufayl,
2. Educational Philosophy,
3. Religious Philosphy,
4. Man and Society,
Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan,
Notes to the Text,
Notes to the Introduction,

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