Ibn Tufayl on Knowledge from Experience and the Discovery of the Creator

Muhammad Ibn Tufayl (1116–85) was Muslim philosopher who lived what in is now southern Spain and served in the court of Yaqub Yusuf, the ruler of Granada. He left one major literary and philosophical work, the story of a baby, Hayy, who is brought up by deer and who creates human knowledge for himself through processes of reason and eventually comes to a conclusion, using his own reason alone, that a there must be a Creator or God.

Ibn Tufayl outlines a theory of knowledge that acknowledges the importance of empirical experience but argues that the most profound and ultimate source of knowledge can only come from the supreme being:

[T]here is an [uninhabited] island … situated [at the equator], where … Hayy Ibn Yokdan [lived]. Not far from this island there lay another island [which] … was then governed by a Prince of haughty, fierce, and jealous disposition: he had a sister graced with matchless beauty … [H]is near kinsman … married her clandestinely … [a]nd before long she was with child and delivered a son.

Being in fear lest the matter should be disclosed … she put him in a little ark and closed it firmly after having suckled the babe … [S]he carried it to the shore early in the night … She committed the little ark with the child into the sea, and the waters … carried it in the same night to the shore of [the] other island …

Now it came to pass that the nails of the ark and its joints became loosened by the violence of the waves. The child feeling hungry, began to cry bitterly, seeking relief and moving about in the ark. Fortunately it so happened that its cry was heard by a roe [deer] that was wandering about in search of her fawn …

When she heard the cry, she at first took it to be the cry of her fawn; so she followed it quickly up, until she came to the ark. She at once started to break it open with her hoofs, and, aided by the struggling child within, she at last forced a board covering the upper part of the ark. Whereupon, beholding the dear, she took pity on him, and being moved with tender affection towards him, she suckled him. Thus she fully satisfied him with milk, and, while he was weak and helpless, did come and guard him …

[T]he infant developed and grew, being nourished by the roe’s milk, until he was two years old. By this time he began to walk by degrees and grow his fourteenth. He always followed the roe, who guarded him with most tender affection, and led him into places where there grew trees full of fruit, and fed him with ripe and sweet fruits …

She suckled the babe whenever he pleased. When he thirsted for water, she led him thereto; when the beams of the sun were in any way troublesome to him, she shaded him. When he suffered from the cold, she cherished and warmed him. And when the night approached, she brought him home to his former abode and covered him with her own body and partly with feathers … [T]hey were always accompanied by a herd of deer that lay together with them …

In this way the boy keeping company with them also learned their voice, which he imitated so exactly that scarcely any difference could be perceived between them. But of all the voices he imitated, he made most use of the deer’s when they cried out for help or called their fellow-deer …

In the meanwhile he took a careful view of all the beasts. He saw them covered with wool, hair, and different kinds of plumes: he beheld their great swiftness and strength and the weapons they were armed with for protection and defence viz horns, teeth, hoofs spurs, nails … Then he viewed himself and found he was naked, destitute of weapons, slow and weak …

Moreover, he observed that his fellow-fawns began to have little horns which they had not had at first; and while they were at first weak, and unable to ran far, yet in progress of time grew to be … active in their movements. But none of all this he perceived to befall himself … he could not make out what should be the reason thereof.

Thereupon he, having by this time grown to be a boy of seven, he decided to put forth his own efforts and to help himself. He … broke off the bough of a tree … stripping off the twigs, and then smoothed the middle parts … Thus armed, he began to attack … the wild beasts … assaulting the weaker and defending himself against the stronger. In this way he came to understand to some degree his own strength, and found out that his head by far excelled theirs as he had been enabled … to provide himself with a weapon … to defend himself …

Amongst other experiments … he tried to prove its strength, he flung therein certain fishes … as the smell came to his nose, the smell whetted his appetite so that he ventured to taste of them; and when he found it agreeable … he began to get used to the eating of fish and flesh. Then he applied himself to fishing and hunting those creatures that are specially fit to feed on, until he became a great expert I those sports.

By the time he had attained to the … twenty-first year of his age, he had found out many things which were of great use to him for the conveniences of life. He made himself clothes and shoes of the skins of wild beasts after he had dissected them for use. He made himself thread of their hair … and other plants that could be easily parted asunder and drawn into threads.

The art of building he was taught by the observations he made upon the swallows’ nests. He built himself a room to … rest therein, and also a store-house and pantry … He guarded it with a door made of canes twisted together to prevent any of the beast from getting in … He also got hold of certain birds of prey … and others … he bred up, and fed upon their eggs and chickens. He also took … the horns of wild bulls, which he fastened upon the strongest canes … thus by the help of fire and sharp edged stones he so fitted them that they served him as spears …

He recognised that the heavens and all the stars contained therein were bodies, because, they are extended according to the three dimensions: length, breadth, and thickness. Then he began to ask himself whether their extension was infinite, whether they extended to endless length and breadth, or whether they were circumscribed by any bounds and terminated by certain limits … [S]oon, owing to the power of his reflection and the penetration of his thought, he perceived that the idea of an infinite body was absurdity, impossibility, a notion quite unintelligible …

Now, whereas it appeared to him that the whole world was only one Substance which stood in need of a voluntary Agent, and that its various parts seemed to him but one thing, in like manner as the bodies of the lower world which is subject to generation and corruption, he took a broad view of the whole world, and debated within himself whether it existed in time after it had been, and came to be out of nothing, or whether it was a thing that had existed from eternity and never wanted a beginning.

He then reasoned within himself: if the world be produced anew, it must needs have a producer or creator; and so, why did this creator create the world now and not before? Was it because some motive supervened which it had not before? But there was nothing besides him, the Creator. Was it owing to same change in his own nature? If so, what has caused this change? Thus he did not cease to consider these things within himself for some years, and to ponder over its different bearings; and a great many arguments offered themselves on both sides …

And he perceived that, if he supposed the world to be created in time, and to have had an existence after non-existence, it would necessarily follow therefrom that the world could not come forth into existence by its own power, but required some agent to produce it; but this agent could not be perceived by any of the senses … The world, therefore must necessarily have a creator that has not a bodily substance; and as the creator is, indeed, without such a bodily substance, it is quite impossible for us to apprehend him by any of our senses; for we perceive nothing by the help of the five senses but bodies or such qualities as adhere to bodies …

Thus far he had advanced in his knowledge … when he was thirty-five years old.


Ibn Tufayl, Muhammad. c.1170 (1907). The Awakening of the Soul. London: The Orient Press. pp. 29–37, 41–42, 47, 50–52, 58. || WorldCat


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