Saudi Aramco World: May/June 2014 - page 6

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Saudi Aramco World
lates how, after learning the life sciences, his hero moves on
to the study of physics, investigating such questions as why
smoke rises, what causes objects to fall and how water turns to
steam. Observing that fire’s light rises towards the brightness
of the stars, Hayy concludes that its origins must be heavenly,
and he further speculates that it follows the same path as the
soul departing the body, just as heat rises and dissipates from
dead organisms. This directs his attention to the stars, moon
and planets. He mimics their movements by traversing the cir-
cumference of his island on foot, and he accurately calculates
their orbits, thus learning mathematics and astronomy. He
concludes that the
universe is “in real-
ity one great being.”
This leads him to
the eternal question:
“whether all this
had come to be from
nothing, or … always existed.”
He then retires to a cave to fast and meditate, where he
determines that “the world must have a non-corporeal cause,”
that is, a causal being who exists beyond the physical world,
outside of time and beyond human imagination. Hayy realizes
that such a power must be “the Cause of all things,” an insti-
gating entity that Aristotle 14 centuries earlier, and Thomas
Aquinas a generation or so hence, identified as the “prime
mover.” His contemplative journey, in other words, leads him
to the realization of God.
When Absal, a resident of a nearby island, arrives and dis-
covers Hayy, he teaches Hayy human speech and later brings
him back to his own island. There, Hayy is exposed to society.
He closely observes the customs, with particular attention to the
manners of worship. However, he finds the religious authorities
close-minded, petty and “engulfed in ignorance.” Turning his
back on what he regards as corrupt, Hayy returns to his island,
accompanied by Absal, where the two remain until death.
Educated readers read Ibn Tufayl’s novel not as a mere
adventure tale, but as an allegorical examination of the ten-
sion between empirical philosophy and religious orthodoxy.
Ibn Tufayl himself made this clear in his introduction. After
acknowledging the influence of Aristotle’s logic
on Islamic thought, he critiques previous Muslim
philosophers Al-Farabi and Ibn Bajjah (a fellow
Andalusian) who sought to resolve the search
for truth with the certainty of faith. He further
acknowledges his indebtedness to physician Ibn
Sina, dubbing him “prince of philosophers.” Yet
foremost in his inventory is the man he simply
calls “our teacher,” al-Ghazali.
One of Islam’s most influential philosophers,
al-Ghazali lived in the late 11th century, a time
when Sunni Islam was being challenged by vari-
ous factions from within. There were those such
as Ibn Sina who advocated
falsafa
, a clinical
rationalism that drew heavily (a bit too heavily,
charged critics) on Aristotelian logic and eso-
teric metaphysics to explain creation, existence
and revelation that left little room for miracles.
At the other end of the spectrum were Sufi mys-
tics who sought unmediated, transcendental understanding
of God, beyond reason and the earthbound customs of daily
Islamic life.
Al-Ghazali proposed a middle ground. While finding value
in
falsafa
’s systematic approach, he refuted several of its con-
clusions. Regarding mystics, he concurred that knowledge can
come through contemplation, yet he stressed the centrality of
the Prophet Muhammad and God’s revelations in the Qur’an.
Ibn Tufayl largely followed al-Ghazali’s line of thought,
explained Stefan Sperl, senior lecturer in Arabic at London’s
School of Oriental and African Studies. “He disapproved
of superstitious
practices and the
naiveté of the kind
of person who is
totally uninformed
and lacking in the
intellectual tradi-
tion,” said Sperl. In Ibn Tufayl’s own words, those who remain
“ignorant in the Sciences” make false claims to “experiencing
the ultimate truth.”
This doctrine later appealed to generations of progres-
sive, intellectual movers and shakers across Europe—Muslim,
Christian and Jewish—who would look to
Hayy ibn Yaqzan
for inspiration. Chief among them are 14th-century Catalonian
philosopher/physician Moses Narboni, a rabbinical scholar
and commentator on both Ibn Rushd and Maimonides;
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a fair-haired poster boy of the
Renaissance whose Humanist manifesto,
On the Dignity of
Man,
set the Roman Catholic Church on its ear; and Oxford
don Edward Pococke, an early advocate of the study of “Ara-
bick” and in 1636 Oxford’s first chair in the subject.
A
t first blush, Daniel Defoe and his “children’s
adventure classic” may seem out of place in this
intellectual company. Yet this is because popu-
lar editions of
The Life and Strange Surprizing
Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
often have been
whittled down to their bare, adventure-story bones, stripped of
the philosophical passages in which Defoe’s hero ponders the
Wit
h
th
e
Si
err
a
Nevada as a backdrop
,
th
e
hills
of Ibn
Tufay
l’s
nativ
e
Gu
adix region
ha
v
e
be
en
dotte
d
with
cave-
dwellings since at least the
ei
ghth century.
Hayy’s enlightenment while meditating in a cave recalled
not only God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the
Qur’an and Plato, but also Ibn Tufayl’s own childhood.
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