Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Islam, Modernity, and Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan -- Were Hayy and Asal the Villains?

This is a re-edited version of the posting a few days ago; it is now my draft for the khutbah (sermon) scheduled at ISGH Main Center for Friday, December 27.
The focal point is the story of Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan, as told by Ibn Tufail. An old translation is available here. The Arabic original and explanation by the late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Abdel-Halim Mahmoud is available here.
I wish to retell the ancient tale of Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan, Asal, and Salaman, authored by the great Andalusian sage Ibn Tufayl in the "Islamic golden age" of the twelfth century.

The story takes place in two equatorial islands near India, one populated by followers of the true religion, and the other populated by many plants and animals, as well as one human: Hayy.

There are two versions of the story regarding how Hayy got there: The first is that his mother feared for his life and put him in an arc that took him to the island. The second is that the soil of that island was perfectly fermented over millennia, and the sunlight, heat, and water abundance spontaneously gave rise to Hayy. As we shall see, how we begin this story, or any other, is rather irrelevant.

فأقم وجهك للدين حنيفا فطرة اللَّـه التي فطر الناس عليها

في الصحيحين: ما من مولود إلا يولد على الفطرة، فأبواه يهودانه وينصرانه ويمجسانه

A doe cared for Hayy, suckled him her milk as an infant, and then taught him how to eat fruit. As he grew stronger, he mimicked the animals, using fur, feathers, and leather for cover, sticks for weapons (to imitate horns), and ultimately domesticated some animals and used them to hunt, getting to control his environment as he controlled fire, and, ultimately, taking care of the aging doe as she had taken care of him as an infant.

إما يبلغن عندك الكبر أحدهما أو كلاهما فلا تقل لهما أف و لا تنهرهما و قل لهما قولا كريما و اخفض لهما جناح الذل من الرحمة و قل رب ارحمهما كما ربياني صغيرا

When the doe died, Hayy wanted to heal her by removing whatever internal obstruction may be keeping her from moving. So, he dissected her and dissected some live animals for comparison. His conclusion was that there is an unobservable life force in every animal, which acts differently in different organs (as seeing for the eye, hearing for the ear, and so on). Once a part of the body is severed, it can no longer function because it loses access to that life force. Once the life force leaves the entire body, it becomes useless. The doe's body began to rot, and Hayy learned from the example of a crow that killed its brother and buried it that he should also bury the doe's (now useless) body.

But Hayy was still attached to the life force of his mother doe, which had moved her to care for him. He recognized that this life force was not possible to observe with his five senses, but that his intellect, which was part of his own life force, also hidden to the senses, allowed him to prove its existence.

Because his life force was still connected to his mother doe's life force, he reasoned, the life force must be nonperishable, unlike physical bodies that rot and get reabsorbed into the earth. The life force also seemed to act differently for inanimate objects (only determining their dimensions and attributes: steam rises, rocks fall, and so on), plants (allowing them, in addition, to drink and grow), and animals (allowing them, beyond that, to move, fight, care for other animals, and so on).

But only in himself did he find that the life force also wanted to know itself. When properly exercised, it was the student, the teacher, and the knowledge (العالم و العلم و المتعلم), all in one.

في الصحيحين: خلق الله آدم على صورته

He looked to the heavens, and saw how heavenly objects were spheres, rotating around their axes and/or around other spheres in a very orderly fashion. He concluded that the entire universe was like one massive body, with one life force that permeated it all, just as there is one life force within the body, which acts variously as seeing, hearing, motion, intellect, and so on, depending on the organ.

 إن الله يمسك السموات و الأرض أن تزولا و لئن زالتا إن أمسكهما من أحد من بعده إنه كان حليما غفورا

So, by the time he turned thirty, he had concluded that the physical universe was finite, made of many finite objects, and driven by one life force. For quite some time, he was obsessed with the question of whether this universe had existed for all eternity, or whether it appeared all of a sudden. But then, he discovered by his intellect that it made no material difference for him one way or the other: If the universe had existed for an eternity, then even though it is physically finite, the life force must be infinite; and if the universe had emerged out of nothing, then the life force that created it thus must be infinite. Even if the universe was co-eternal, he thought, the life force was essentially prior to the universe even if not temporally prior, just as his hand could move an object without any time delay, but the hand, and his will, was essentially prior to the movement of the object.

إنما أمره إذا أراد شيئا أن يقول له كن فيكون

No matter how and when the universe or he himself started, he concluded, the only important conclusion is that the life force within him, and that will outlive his body, must be connected to the infinite, and infinitely perfect, Essentially Existent (الموجود واجب الوجود). The Essentially Existent must be more perfect than perfection. It must be ultimate mercy, because it made the doe merciful, and it must be most powerful, because all power emanated form it, and all knowing, because all knowledge emanates from its manifestation as intellect.

Separation from that infinite Essentially Existent must be the ultimate loss, he thought to himself. Just like a person who had lost his sight, and aches to see again, his life force ached to be reconnected with the Infinite life force. Such connection must be the ultimate bliss, just as separation must be the ultimate loss.
 كلا إنهم عن ربهم يومئذ لمحجوبون

So, he resolved to live his life in such a way that he is constantly aware of the Infinite life force. This way, at the moment his own life force leaves his body, it will be assured to stay in the state of eternal bliss.

Toward that end, he decided to imitate animals only to the extent necessary, eating only when hungry, killing only when needed. He imitated the planets as best as he could by washing regularly to stay pure, and made some rituals for himself, circumambulating various objects, dividing things in sevens (for the seven visible planets), and the like.

But all this he did to aid in his ultimate objective, which is to be ever conscious of nothing but the Infinite life force. This meant adopting the positive characteristics of the Essentially Existent, by being merciful and helpful to plants and animals, as he saw the Maker's work in every object.

He began to see beyond the beauty of an object, in wonderment over its Maker. Then, he began to notice his own spirit being aware of its Maker. Ultimately, with a lot of work, his own identity began to disappear -- if only for a short time -- and he could only see the Infinite. It was during these episodes, of increasing frequency and duration, that he witnessed what no eye could see, no ear could hear, nor any heart could imagine.

و كان ما كان مما لست أذكره ... فظن خيرا و لا تسأل عن الخبر

Note: Of course, as Suhrawardi pointed out in his follow-up "Western Exile" (الغربة الغربية), what Hayy saw was still infinitely many layers removed from the Essentially Existent, the source of all light. Having pierced through one veil gets you no nearer to the One, for infinity less one is still infinity.

Hayy almost went astray when he thought that his own essence was one and the same as the Essentially Existent, because there was nothing but Him when he paid enough attention. By the mercy of the Infinite, however, he was cured from this affliction when he recognized that numerosity and its manifestations as unity or multiplicity were only attributes of finite physical objects. In the realm of the Spirit, these concepts were absent, just as the concept of time was absent at the junction between the realms of Spirit and substance. It was the mercy of the Essentially Existent that He can make Himself accessible and intimately near, without losing His eminence and inapproachability. Distance, like time and number, ceased to exist in His presence.

ثم دنا فتدلى فكان قاب قوسين أو أدنى ... ما زاغ البصر و ما طغى

So there was Hayy, at the age of fifty, finding himself increasingly in this state of ultimate bliss, interacting with the world only to the extent that his body needed, and impatient to return to that state of gazing upon the Infinite. 

It was then that Asal arrived at his island. Asal and his friend Salaman were two pious men on the other island, populated by followers of the true religion. But Asal wanted to understand the meaning of the religion, and favored in its tradition the praise for solitude and study, whereas Salaman was focused on literal application of the tradition and favored in the tradition its praise of being constantly connected to the community. Ultimately, Salaman gained the upper hand on the island, whereas Asal had felt that he should leave for a desert island to worship Allah in the way that he believed He should be worshipped.

Asal's raft took him to the island wherein Hayy had grown up. The two men were impressed by each others' characters and worship. Asal eventually taught Hayy his language, and then introduced him to his religion. Hayy testified to the truth of Asal's religion, and adopted all of its principles, acts of worship, praying and fasting, as Asal had taught him. In the meantime, Hayy told Asal his story and the conclusions of his lengthy analysis and experience. This lifted the veil from Asal's intellect, and he could suddenly understand the symbolism and usefulness of all that his religion had commanded, both universally and within appropriate time and space, and he could see with ease every scholarly solution that had eluded him, even the hardest problems of jurisprudence.

Hayy then implored Asal that they should go to Salaman's island, and explain these mysteries to the people, so that they will understand their religion, and avoid following literalists without understanding. Asal was skeptical, but agreed to go along on condition that Hayy tries first to teach the scholars on Salaman's island: If he cannot teach them, Asal argued, then Hayy should give up on the dream of teaching the rest. They set sail, and by the grace of Allah ended up on Salaman's island.

Asal was a recognized scholar, and so when he introduced Hayy to other scholars on the island, they first accepted him with open arms (for some reason that Hayy could never understand, they were extremely delighted to find a convert to their religion, and thought that he must be better than them). Hayy began by explaining to them some of the relatively simple juristic issues that they had not understood, and their fascination with him increased. But then, when Hayy began explaining the symbolism of their acts of worship, and describing some of the truths to which their teachings had only hinted, they began to withdraw, politely at first, and then with increasing hostility.

It was then that Hayy understood why the traditions of the true religion had stopped at the point of symbols, and why many of its teachers stopped at the point of laws to regulate behavior. If this was the level of intellectual laziness of the scholars, he could only imagine what the commoners must be like. So, Hayy and Asal apologized to the scholars on Salaman's island. They asked their forgiveness for the confusion that they had caused, which they said was all caused by their own ignorance, and professed that the tradition as taught by Salaman's scholars was perfect as it is, and that they should never teach anything other than what they have always taught. Hayy and Asal then got back on their raft, and by the grace of Allah ended up back on their desert island, where they lived the rest of their lives worshipping Allah as he ought to be worshipped.

This is how the story of Hayy, Asal, and Salaman was told by Ibn Tufayl, nearly nine hundred years ago. Most readers of Ibn Tufayl seemed to think that this was realistically the happiest ending possible, and thus to accept it with a heavy heart.

However, the story had only just begun. Its translation became a best seller in Europe during the late seventeenth century, providing fuel for European enlightenment. For example, Hayy was an inspiration for Rousseau's initial position, from which a social contract was possible to construct, and the individual rationalism and self reliance of Hayy has inspired open-minded scientific inquiry and progress.

In the meantime, the withdrawal of Hayy and Asal meant that the people on Salaman's island continued to practice and understand religion in the same old ways, deprived of much needed reason and understanding. Ibn Rushd, the protege of Ibn Tufayl whom he had introduced to the court of Sultan Abu Ya`qub Yusuf, and encouraged to write commentaries on Aristotle that fueled Western enlightenment, saw his books burned by Salaman's men, as darkness descended upon the Muslim world.

علموا أولادكم غير ما علمتم، فإنهم خلقوا لزمان غير زمانكم

Whom are we to blame: The storyteller who became part of the story by endorsing the elitism of philosophers and scholars, or his characters who thought only of their own short term safety and comfort and gave up on educating the people on Salaman's island?

To teach them effectively, Hayy and Asal would have had to open themselves possibly to learning a thing or two also from Salaman's scholars, and the modern world of capitalism and scientism might not have emerged in its current brutal and soulless form.

Centuries have passed, and the need for Hayy and Asal is still here. Their understanding of science, religion, and society was recycled to people on Salaman's island, who developed virtual lobotomies: in some spheres following the methods of today's heirs to Hayy and Asal, but in others following the literalism of Salaman's scholars. The gap between their traditional understanding of religion, frozen in time in the name of authenticity, and the fast expanding knowledge of the heirs of Hayy and Asal, continues to grow.

Note: At the individual level, we each have our own internal elements of Hayy (pure reason), Asal (speculative but religiously grounded reason), and Salaman (fearful, almost superstitious, adherence to tradition) within ourselves. Our virtual lobotomy stems from variously allowing different components to have primacy in different spheres of our lives.

The Salaman people's thoughts are muddled and incoherent, as they profess what they cannot believe and believe what they cannot defend rationally, and increasingly split literalist legal hairs to reconcile a modern life with an outdated, and therefore false, understanding of their religion. Without understanding it, they are incapable of extracting its value for the contemporary world, exponentiating the loss to themselves and all of mankind.

Did Ibn Tufayl intend to lionize Hayy and Asal as advanced creatures who rightly did not wish to confuse the people on Salaman's island, as many latter day elitists may like to think, or was he indicting himself and people like him for being so cowardly and complacent? Was it not the job of Hayy and Asal to find some way first to teach Salaman's scholars and then to teach the public, so that they can understand their religion correctly?

 Is it not still our job today to find a way to finish that job, at the very least to help today's Muslims to be unitary individuals, who feel comfortable in their contemporary skin and find that all knowledge, including cosmology, evolutionary biology, economics, philosophy, and all other areas to be helpful in understanding their religion, and to replace their superstitious fears with proper fear of Allah, the Eternal, Infinite, Essentially Existent?

ُإنما يخشى اللهَ من عباده العلماء

Then, and only then, can we claim rightfully to carry a useful message that we understand and can explain, rather than continue to be the donkeys carrying scriptures that we have become.