§3. they say, that there lay, not far from this our Island, another Great Island very fertile and well peopled; which was then govern'd by a Prince of a Proud and Jealous Disposition: he had a Sister of exquisite Beauty, which he confin'd and restrain'd from Marriage, because he could not match her to one suitable to her quality. He had a near Relation whose Name was Yokdhân, that courted this Princess, and Married her privately, according to the Rites of Matrimony then in use among them; it was not long before she prov'd with Child, and was brought to Bed of a Son; and being afraid that it should be discovered, she took him in the Evening, and when she had Suckled him she put him into a little Ark which she closed up fast, and so Conveys him to the Sea shore, with some of her Servants and Friends as she could trust; and there with an Heart equally affected with Love and Fear, she takes her last leave of him...
§98. They say that there was an Island not far from that where Hai Ebn Yokdhan was born (no matter according to which of those two different Accounts they give of his Birth) into which one of those good Sects, which had some one of the ancient Prophets (of pious Memory) for its Author, had retir'd. A Sect which us'd to discourse of all things in Nature, by way of Parable and Similitude, and by that means represent the Images of them to the Imagination, and fix the Impressions of them in Men's Minds, as is customary in such Discourses as are made to the Vulgar. This Sect so spread it self in this Island, and prevail'd and grew so eminent, that at last the King not only embrac'd it himself, but oblig'd his Subjects to do so too.'--Ibn Tufayl The Improvement of HUMAN REASON, Exhibited in the LIFE of Hai Ebn Yokdhan [also known as Philosophus Autodidactus], translated by Simon Ockley (1708).
Regular readers know, I think of Ibn Tufayl's book as one of the great gems of the history of philosophy with great thought experiments, a beautiful account of humanity's place in the order of things, and a serious reflection on the tensions between a philosophical life and living in society. It's also a book that invites a lover of riddles to try to unravel the many little mysteries lodged in the book. (Ibn Tufayl closes the book with a reminder that it contains "hidden Knowledge." §120) Today's post may be a garden path, and evidence for the kind of scholarly chase that Umberto Eco ridiculed so well in Foucault's Pendulum (and lovingly described in The Name of the Rose). But here goes; it presupposes, alas, some knowledge of the narrative.
Ibn Tufayl's text mentions three kinds of kingship. I have quoted the pertinent passages of two of these in passing. The first kind of kingship is tyranny. The sister of this tyrant, Hayy's mom (in the version of his origins that emphasizes ordinary birth--in the other (recall) he is generated spontaneously), is not allowed to marry. The underlying politics are barely disguised: the tyrant wishes to use his sister for his dynastic ambitions. In addition we can infer that he clearly lacks off-spring, and so his sister's progeny are a danger to his throne. I call him a tyrant because his court his characterized by fear. It is also characterized (and this is even more speculative) by political faction because Hayy's mom is said to have friends she can trust. (In the context of a tyranny the personal is, to adapt a famous slogan, political.)*
The second kind of kingship is mentioned very briefly, but it is, in the terms of Islamic political philosophy, a democratic king, that is, one whose rule is grounded in the opinion of the people. This king adapts to their changing views on religion, and once he is confident that the majority is one his side he is willing to use force to convert the rest of his population.
I am assuming that this democratic king is the same king under which Absâl and Salâman grow up together. (That's not entirely clear because it could also be a king who lived longer in the past; I think not because it is explicitly said that Absâl and Salâman meet with the religious sect, and the wording implies that they do so before it is state religion.) So, if this is correct, than prior to establishing a state religion, this king permitted religious diversity (and again, this fits with calling it a democracy--see Al-Farabi.) In addition, he allowed freedom of movement, in particular, the right to exit. That this is so is established by the fact that Absâl is allowed to leave the island undisturbed. That this is significant, is made clear by the fact that when Salaman becomes ruler, he thinks a right to withdrawal is explicitly un-lawful.**
The third king is Salaman. He is explicitly one of the three characters we are instructed to focus on by the narrator/Ibn Tufayl in his introduction. The name is significant of cause because it echoes King Solomon, the Biblical king who is also venerated in Islam, (in New Atlantis, Bacon uses (recall) a similar device) and recalls a famous companion of Muhammad. We are not told how he gains power. We are given some information that he rules in his own image: he is disinterested in further religious innovation and he focuses on the literal meaning of Scriptures, showing a marked lack of intellectual curiosity. He himself follows the religious rites strictly (§99). He is outgoing, and sees society being in society as a means to (useful) self-disciplining (§100). He has a clear dislike of pluralism -- and this is the cause of his falling out with one-time friend, Absal-- and this makes him intolerant.++
It's not entirely clear how to evaluate Salaman. From the perspective of political order, he is a very successful king: his subjects echo his attitudes and they are obedient. They reject abstract and mystical knowledge, sticking to material world and sensory evidence. This is not a society that will produce great innovations in knowledge and science. Moreover, his people are described as small-minded, committed to acquisitiveness and show little regard for the (possibility of) the afterlife (§115-116). These are observant, but not godly people, slaves to their appetites.
I want to close with a reflection. The book naturally raises the question what role a (mystic) philosophy can have in society. Hayy's and Absal's return to exile is dramatic. In so doing the book also clearly demonstrates the political limits of theoretical knowledge absent understanding of political rhetoric and the ways one can rule through the effective use of symbols (Al-Farabi calls this 'religion'; see also here.) The means of the "true religion," which is the one that forces the conversion of the second king, succeed where Hayy's methods of preaching fail (see the quote from §98 above). The truth is not self-vindicating among those not made receptive toward it.
But the question that Ibn Tufayl pursues is more subtle. In Deliverance from Error (a text mentioned by Ibn Tufayl at the start of his book), Al-Ghazali had grandly and self-confidently rejected a form of inherited religious, servile conformism un-grounded in inquiry. And after some time in self-imposed exile and contemplation of Sufi mysteries, he re-entered society in order to teach again (and call people to God's way). One way to understand Ibn Tufayl is to see in him the suggestion that religion is a tool for strict conformism, which generates political order and stability. If one values such stability, then, perhaps, the costs (no science, knowledge, etc.) may be a price worth paying. But, perhaps, the more remarkable observation lurking here -- and this is very much in the spirit of Al-Ghazali -- is that such conformist religious practice, focused on rule-following and obedience, is also fundamentally hollow when it is not a means toward further spiritual development and the only end it serves is political stability.
*In this account Hayy is off-spring of royal blood (both his mom and his dad, who is explicitly said to be related to the ruler, are royalty). His life is in mortal danger so he is cast out to fate.
+This has obvious resonances with the way Christianity was adopted as state religion in the Roman empire, although the details differ significantly.
**What Salaman rejects is a subtle matter; it's possible all he rejects is a withdrawal from society, but in practice that means no right to exit.
++Ibn Tufayl presents their falling out in neutral terms, not assigning blame. But we are explicitly told that only Salaman dislikes plurality of opinions.