Son of the Gazelle: Mystical Tale from Al-Andalus

Just imagine, thought little Hayy, ‘that I could fly like a bird and go higher than the stars: would I hit something with my nose at some point? Or would the universe continue ad infinitum?’

Just an immersion son of the gazelle, a just-published children’s book filled with accessible thoughts. The book is an adaptation of the tale from the twelfth century Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Arabic for ‘the living son of the awake’. It is about a boy who lives alone on an island. With a gazelle posing as a mother and a tortoise as a friend, the curious boy grows up to become a philosopher and mystic.

The author of the Arabic tale is the scientist-philosopher Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Tufayl (c. 1110-1185). He lived in Al-Andalus, in the southern part of present-day Spain, which was then ruled by Muslim monarchs. The story Hayy ibn Yaqzan has recently been retranslated by the philosophers Kamel Essabane and Sabine Wassenberg. Broadly speaking, you can say that Essabane kept an eye on the content and the beautiful sentences came from Wassenberg’s pen. They also switched roles.

The thoughts about the boy Hayy are further drawn out because the original story was ‘very dry’, says Wassenberg. “We wanted to make history accessible. Hayy’s experiences are a little more dressed up, and his questions now follow more logically from what he experiences.’

IN Gazelle’s son It is striking how systematically and investigatively the story is built up. Is it characteristic of Ibn Tufayl?

Essabane: ‘Logical thinking is characteristic of the Islamic philosophers of Al-Andalus. Natural science also fell under philosophy at that time. Besides being a writer, Ibn Tufayl was also a doctor. He gets Hayy to research how a body works. The boy cuts open the breast of the mother gazelle and examines the heart. Dissection of dead bodies already took place in Al-Andalus.’

In the eighth century, the Muslim Arabs and Amazigh (often called the Moors) conquered most of what is now Spain and Portugal. They called this area Al-Andalus. After about eight hundred years, Christian kingdoms drove out the Moors, culminating in the fall of Granada in 1492. That event completed what is known in Europe as the Reconquista (“reconquest”). The period of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula is known as a relatively peaceful time, where science and literature flourished and Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted peacefully.

Moroccan Dutch often mention Al-Andalus. Why?

Essabane: ‘The Muslim community is very interested in this period of history because Al-Andalus and Morocco used to be one cultural area. In the time of Ibn Tufayl, Al-Andalus was ruled from Marrakesh. After the Reconquista, Muslims and Jews who did not want to convert to Christianity were expelled. Many ended up in Morocco and took their culture with them. Traces of this civilization are still there, Andalusian music, elaborate mosaic patterns. The great church in Seville used to be a mosque and is very similar to the smaller mosque in Marrakesh. There is now a generation of Muslims born and raised in Europe. The idea that in the past – for eight hundred years – there were also European Muslims with a flourishing civilization appeals to them.’

Gazelle’s son is intended for children. The original narrative is not. Why did you choose a children’s book?

Wassenberg: ‘We both work in education. We believe that more emphasis should be placed on Islamic literature in schools. It would be a nice gesture towards Muslim children if we also discussed something that is highly valued in Islamic culture.’

“It is important for children with a migration background to hear stories from the countries of their ancestors,” says Essabane. “Just as it is good for them to have role models who look like them and have more or less the same background. It is also important for women that there are female writers. It’s a small recognition.’

IN Gazelle’s son Hayy, now a grown man, temporarily leaves the island. He arrives in the city where he meets a group of scholars. He notes that they mainly ‘send’. They tell about rules and wisdom from their religion, but do not ask big questions and keep silent about the Mystery. “Do you think,” Hayy asks in the story, “that only by following the rules will you get to God?”

Could such a progressive history also become a reality in the Muslim world today?

Essabane: ‘Of course the Muslim world is very diverse, isn’t it? Of course, there are people who find Ibn Tufayl too open and liberal. He was ahead of his time. In the book, the main character comes into contact with the revealed religion, which has many similarities to Islam – the word Islam is not used. The beauty of the book is that he takes note of it but does not convert to that religion. He actually shows that you can come to God in another way.
The book is much appreciated, it is on the reading list in high schools in Morocco. There are Arabic and Turkish cartoons of the story. It is very well known in the Islamic world.’

The early scientific way of writing is similar to Aristotle’s method. Were they familiar with the work of the ancient Greeks in Al-Andalus?

Essabane: ‘Yes, Andalusian scientists studied the work of Greek antiquity. The writings were translated into Arabic. An experience in a cave plays a big part in the story.’

“In Greek philosophy there is also such a story with Plato, but Hayy ibn Yaqzan is also just a universal story’, breaks in Wassenberg. “It may also have arisen without studying Greek texts. It is archetypal. A boy is born on an island, looks around and asks certain questions.’

Gazelle’s son reminds me of Jungle Book about Mowgli, who grows up alone in the desert. And also to the famous novel Robinson Crusoe about a castaway who washes up on a deserted island. Were these Western stories inspired by Islamic narrative?

Essabane: ‘The authors do not refer to the story, so I cannot substantiate it. Hayy ibn Yaqzan was a bestseller in the seventeenth century, long before jungle book, and Robinson Crusoe was written. It had been translated into Latin, then into English and into Dutch. The story was popular in intellectual circles. They may have read it or heard of it, but the similarities can also be coincidental’.

Finally, the writers will also bring something up themselves: To what extent Gazelle’s son suitable for dogmatic parents. It contains challenging questions: Where do people come from? Is there a first beginning of the world or not? Is there a god or not, and to what extent is that god involved in the world?

The book encourages children to think independently. It can actually scare conservative Islamic parents,’ says Essabane.
‘We also wanted to reach people with an atheistic faith. We have come up with a trick for that,’ says Wassenberg. “We are not talking about God, but about the mystery.” Only later does Hayy hear from the scholars that they invented the word God for the mystery. He is so doubtful and afraid that he wants to lock the mystery in a box with the word God. In the original, Ibn Tufayl uses the terms ‘necessary existence’ and ‘necessary existence’. By the way, we use a capital M with the word Mysterium, which again has a slightly religious feel’.

Essabane: ‘We tried to make it a safe story for both sides. For parents who want to reflect with their children but are afraid that they will deviate from their faith, it helps that Hayy comes up with answers that are close to traditional beliefs. We have accommodated atheists with religious stress by barely using the word God. And not to mention ‘The Necessary Existence’, as in the original. The word Mysterium is probably more appreciated by them.’

Gazelle’s sonSabine Wassenberg and Kamel Essabane
ISBN 9789083167398, Publisher De Meent

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