Alive and Awake: The First and Greatest Novel

by Oussama Hamza

The First and Greatest Novel

Ibn Tufayl’s (d. 1185) Hay Ibn Yaqdhan (Alive, son of Awake) is the first and greatest novel ever written. Its influence in the European continent extends to the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant. Other influences include Edward Pococke, John Locke, David Hume, George Berkeley, Karl Marx, William Molyneux, Gottfried Leibniz, Melchisédech Thévenot, John Wallis, Christiaan Huygens, George Keith, Robert Barclay, the Quakers, Samuel Hartlib and Voltaire. The story is said to have heralded the Scientific Revolution and European Enlightenment.

However, Hay’s story has an even greater significance to its native tradition. The story of Hay is perhaps the greatest exegesis of the Qur’an ever written and elucidation of Abrahamic humanism or ‘Adamism.’ Indeed, Hay’s story bears many similarities to Abraham’s in the Islamic canon, which present Abraham as the original philosophus autodidacticus. It is also no coincidence that Ibn Tufayl is of Abrahamic ancestry, being from the illustrious tribe of Qays.

Failed Attempts to Interpret the Story Through the Lens of Secular Philosophy

Given its tremendous impact on modern literature and philosophy, many scholars have tried to interpret Hay through the lens of secular philosophy—particularly European philosophy—or by drawing comparisons thereto. However, the story of Hay frustrates any attempt to understand it through such a lens or comparisons. 

Writers outside of the Abrahamic tradition who try to understand Hay through secular Western philosophy get pretty much everything wrong about the story and its author. As mentioned previously, the story bears a striking resemblance to Abraham’s in the Islamic canon. The beginning of the story harkens to Adam’s creation, and the dissection of the doe parallels Abraham’s dissection of the birds (Qur’an 2:260).

Hay is often interpreted from a secular European philosophical lens as the story of the progress of reason when it is in fact the story of the limits of reason and its ultimate fulfillment. Hay becomes the living presence of God on his island, looking after all its creatures, even its plants, while he is basically invisible to them.

Hay’s is an amazing and unique story from start to finish with powerful images one can never erase from one’s mind and that will leave a thinker thinking for years afterward. The following subsections will provide a synopsis of the story and briefly discuss some of its most memorable instances.


Hay’s story begins with two stories concerning how he came on his desert island. One story is a romance where his mother sets him adrift in a basket. Another is how he was spontaneously generated on the island. Either way, Hay ends up alone on the island where a doe adopts him.

When the doe dies, Hay dissects her to understand what happened to her and find a way to fix her. He realizes something essential has left her and seeks the nature of this essence in his environment. Hay thus learns about nature, achieving greater knowledge of heaven than astronomers. He realizes this essence pervades everything including him, which brings him to contemplation and self-realization (enlightenment).

While Hay is in this state, a scholar named Absal lands on the island, seeking to lead a life of contemplation. He meets Hay. They share knowledge and Absal realizes Hay’s intuitive knowledge is superior to the knowledge he was taught. Absal insists that Hay return with him to teach the people. They do so; however, the people do not understand the teachings of Hay. While the king encourages Absal and Hay to stay, they decide to return to the island.

The following paragraphs detail some key events in the narrative and their significance.

The Mysterious Beginning

Hay’s story starts powerfully with a dual narrative. One is a romance where his mother sends him off on in a basket on a river like Moses, so that he ends up alone on a desert island. The other is the ‘scientific’ story of his spontaneous generation, perhaps on some paradise island in India. The stories are two different interpretations of a mysterious beginning. Both are speculative and either way, Hay is from dust.

The Dissection of the Doe

Hay is raised on the island by a doe. She dies eventually and Hay cannot understand what happened. Here follows one of the most powerful, vivid and marking images of the story. Hay dissects the doe.

He does this innocently, seeing she’s rotting. He wants to find what is broken inside her—more specifically, what has left her—in a desperate attempt to fix her. (Ibn Tufayl was one of the early proponents of dissection in medicine.)

Hay comes to the astonishing realization that nothing is missing. Except for some heat, which inspires his fascination with fire, the ‘machinery’ is all there. What is missing is something intangible, which is the spirit of the doe he remembers.

The Cave (the Middle)

Hay gradually realizes his spirit is able to connect to other beings like the doe, including plants and animals. Hay forbids himself from eating meat, takes care not to walk on the plants of the island and dwells in a cave where he spends an increasing amount of time in blissful meditation, achieving greater levels of spiritual awareness. The heavens fascinate Hay, so much that he achieves greater knowledge of its bodies and their motions than the greatest astronomers.

Another of the most powerful images in the story occurs when Ibn Tufayl says Hay secluded himself in the cave one day and saw everything: God, the angels, heaven and hell. How could he know—let alone see—all these things when they are formal theological doctrines he was never taught? This mysterious image will leave a thinker thinking for years afterward.

One will further notice two parallels with the stories of Adam and Abraham, and the parable of the Cave (symbolizing death and enlightenment) which occurs in the middle of the Qur’an. Under the Adamic covenant, Adam was not allowed to eat the flesh of animals, which became a dispensation after the Deluge, under the covenant of Noah. The Prophet similarly said that blood (meat) has an addictive quality like wine and should be avoided (Malik 49:1710). Like Hay, Abraham was raised in a cave and achieved enlightenment through contemplation of the heavens (Qur’an 6:75-79).

Hay leads a blissful life of contemplation on the island. He is invisible from his cave and becomes a force of nature that keeps the island in perfect harmony. This is the contrary of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave where the seeker of enlightenment goes out of the cave (rather than into it) and then returns to illuminate those in it.

The Encounter With Absal

A serendipitous disruption occurs when another seeker of enlightenment, a scholar and friend of the king’s (like Ibn Tufayl) called Absal, comes to Hay’s island, looking to seclude himself and be free from the trammels of civilization. He meets Hay and instantly connects with him spiritually. Absal teaches Hay the ways of civilization, including language, and realizes his knowledge is inferior to Hay’s intuitions. He therefore asks Hay to go back with him to society to share his enlightenment with others.

They do so, but most people are ill-disposed to the teachings of Hay, which cause them confusion and doubt. Hay and Absal realize their place is on the island. Hay concludes that the teachings of the sages and prophets are good to guide the people, and they must follow them to find their happiness. Despite the king’s entreating them to stay, Absal and Hay resolve to return to the island.

The Mysterious Ending

The story ends most powerfully and shortly. Hay and Absal return to the island forever, and Absal almost reaches Hay’s level of enlightenment.

Conclusion: How the Western Story Would Go

There is no parallel in this story with anything secular European philosophy has ever speculated. It is an Abrahamic narrative through and through. Like Abraham, Hay is at the time superior and a stranger and outcast to idolatrous (materialist) civilization. He is an island to himself, contrary to Kant’s dictum “No man is an island.” Hay is a paragon of spiritualism and individuality, which Ibn Tufayl holds to be superior to materialism and herd instinct.

Everything about Hay’s story is contrary to secular European philosophy. Hay’s dissection of the doe and conclusion the body isn’t her. His view on the inferiority but appropriateness of civilization and organized religion to society. Hay’s mysterious observations of the symbols of organized religion. The irrelevance of Hay’s origin and its dual interpretation. Hay’s and Absal’s return to the island, and the fact even the great scholar and man of politics, Absal, almost—but never actually—attains Hay’s condition. All of these things are counter to the narrative arc the story would have followed had it been written by any of the philosophers mentioned at the introduction.

The ‘Western’ story would have gone more or less exactly like that of Robinson Crusoe, which is a calque of the premise of Hay written almost five centuries later (and the first novel in English). Hay, like Robinson, would have originally come from civilization, dominated the island, enslaved Absal (an Indian), converted him to Islam and given him a silly name like Friday. Upon his return to civilization, he would make himself a great career with the king, then bring civilization to his island and turn his cave into a castle. The difference between the two stories is such that Robinson builds himself a shack and enclosure to breed chickens, whereas Hay dwells in a cave and doesn’t eat animals or even step on plants. The ‘uncivilized’ Hay teaches the ‘civilized’ Absal, not the opposite.

It bears mentioning in conclusion that the presence of Absal, and his encouraging Hay to teach the people and share his enlightenment is crucial to emphasize this is not a selfish and antisocial story, but a deeply altruistic and pro-social one.

All of this recalls the introduction: that Hay is the first, best and most influential novel ever written. Like Absal, seekers of enlightenment would be most fortunate if they could only almost reach Hay’s level of enlightenment.


Oussama Hamza completed a bachelors degree in philosophy and a masters in the history and philosophy of science at the University of New Brunswick, Canada. He also has law degrees in common and civil law at the University of Ottawa. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on The Law and Theory of Scientific Evidence in Canada.