Avicenna's "Recital of the Living son of the Watchful" (Hayy ibn Yaqzan)
From Corbin Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, pp.137-50.
In the Name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful!
Praise be unto God the Lord of all the worlds!
1 YOUR PERSISTENCE, my brothers, in demanding that I set forth the Recital of Hayy ibn Yaqzán [the Living son of the Watchful] for you has finally triumphed over my stubborn determination not to do so; it has untied the bond of my firm resolve to defer and delay. Thus I have found myself ready to come to your aid. May we look to God for help and support!
2 ONCE WHEN I HAD taken up residence in my city, I chanced to go out with my companions to one of the pleasure places that lie about the same city. Now, as we were coming and going, making a circle, suddenly in the distance appeared a Sage. He was beautiful; his person shone with a divine glory. Certainly he had tasted of years; long duration had passed over him. Yet there was seen in him only the freshness proper to young men; no weakness bowed his bearing, no fault injured the grace of his stature. In short, no sign of old age was to be found in him, save the imposing gravity of old Sages.
3 WHEN I HAD SEEN this Sage, I felt a desire to converse with him. From my inmost depths arose a need to become intimate with him and to have familiar access to him. So, with my companions, I went in his direction. When we had approached, he took the initiative; he wished us peace and honored us with his salutation. Then, smiling, he addressed us in words that were sweet to our hearts.
4 MANY WORDS were exchanged between us, until at last the conversation led us to such a point that I questioned him about everything to do with his person, and sought to learn from him what his mode of life and profession were, and even his name and lineage and country. Then he said to me: "My name is Vivens; my lineage, filius Vigilantis; as to my country, it is the Celestial Jerusalem [lit., the "Most Holy Dwelling," al-Bait al-Muqaddas]. My profession is to be forever journeying, to travel about the universe so that I may know all its conditions. My face is turned toward my father, and my father is Vigilans. From him I have learned all science, he has given me the keys to every kind of knowledge. He has shown me the roads to follow to the extreme confines of the universe, so that since my journey embraces the whole circle of it, it is as if all the horizons of all climes were brought together before me."
5 OUR CONVERSATION continued without interruption. I questioned him concerning the difficult sciences. I learned from him how to solve their obscurities, until finally, from transition to transition, we came to the science of physiognomy. I observed in him such penetration and sagacity in that science that I was filled with admiration; for it was he who took the initiative when we came to physiognomy and the various facts that have to do with-it. He said to me: "The science of physiognomy is among the sciences the profit from which is paid cash down and whose benefit is immediate, for it reveals to thee what every man conceals of his own nature, so that thou canst proportion thine attitude of freedom or reserve toward each man, and make it befit the situation.
6 "IN THEE, physiognomy reveals at once the most excellent of creatural types and a mixture of clay and of inanimate natures that receive every impression. It shows thee to be such that, to whichever side thou art drawn, to that side thou goest. When thou art held upon the right road and art called to it, thou becomest upright and pure. But if a deceiver seduce thee into the road of error, thou dost submit to be led astray. These companions who are about thee and never leave thee are evil companions. It is to be feared that they will seduce thee and that thou wilt remain captive in their bonds, unless the divine safekeeping reach thee and preserve thee from their malice.
7 "THAT COMPANION who walks ever before thee, exhorting thee, is a liar, a frivolous babbler, who beautifies what is false, forges fictions; he brings thee information without thy bidding and without thy having questioned him; he mingles false and true therein, he sullies truth with error, even though, in spite of all, he is thy secret eye and thy illuminator. It is through his channel that news reaches thee of what is foreign to thy neighborhood, absent from the place where thou art. It is laid upon thee to separate the good money from among all the counterfeit coins, to glean what is true among the lies, to free what is right from the matrix of errors, since thou canst not wholly do without him. It may happen that sometimes divine aid will lead thee by the hand and rescue thee from the straying that leads nowhere, and that sometimes thou wilt remain in perplexity and stupor; and sometimes it may happen that false testimony will seduce thee.
"As for the companion on thy right, he is greatly violent; when he is roused by anger, no advice can restrain him; to treat him courteously nowise lessens his excitement. He is like a fire catching on dead wood, like a torrent dashing down from a height, like a drunken camel, like a lioness whose cub has been killed.
"Lastly, that companion on thy left is a sloven, a glutton, a lecher; nothing can fill his belly but the earth; nothing satisfies his appetite but mud and clay. He licks, tastes, devours, covets. He is like a pig that has been starved and then turned loose among refuse. And it is to these evil companions, O wretch, that thou hast been bound. There is no way for thee to get loose from them save by an expatriation that will take thee to a country whose soil may not be trodden by such as they. But because the hour of that expatriation is not yet come, and thou canst not yet reach that country, because thou canst not break with them and there is no refuge for thee where they cannot come at thee, so act that thou shalt have the upper hand of them and that thine authority shall be greater than theirs. Let them not seize thine own rein, suffer them not to put the halter upon thee, but overcome them by acting toward them in the fashion of an experienced master; lead them by forcing them to remain in the right path, for each time that thou showest thy strength, it is thou who subduest them, no longer they who subdue thee; it is thou who mountest them, no longer they who make thee their mount.
8 "AS FOR STRATAGEMS and effectual means to which thou canst have recourse in respect to these companions, there is one that consists in subduing the slack and gluttonous companion by the help of the one who is violent and malicious, and in forcing the former to retreat. Conversely, another way will be gradually to moderate the passion of the intolerable angry one by the seduction of the gentle and caressing companion, until he is completely pacified. As for the third companion, the fine talker skilled in fictions, beware of trusting him, of relying on his words, unless it befall that he bring thee some weighty testimony from God. In that case, yes, rely upon his words, receive what he tells thee. Beware, that is, of systematically suspecting all his words, turning a deaf ear to the news he brings thee, even though he mingle true with false therein, for, in it all, there cannot but be something to be received and investigated, something whose truth it is worth while to realize."
When he had thus described these companions to me, I found myself very ready to receive what he had taught me and to recognize that his words were true. Submitting my companions to trial and setting myself to observe them, [I found that] experience confirmed what I had been told of them. And now I am as much occupied with curing them as with submitting to them. Sometimes it is I who have the upper hand of them, sometimes they are stronger than I am. God grant that I may live on terms of good neighborhood with these companions until the time comes when I shall at last part from them!
9 THEN I ASKED the Sage to guide me on the road of the journey, to show me how to set out on a journey such as he himself was making. I addressed him in the fashion of a man who burned to do so, who had the greatest desire for it. He answered me: "Thou, and all those whose condition is like thine—you cannot set out on the journey that I am making. It is forbidden you; the road is closed to you all, unless thy fortunate destiny should aid thee, for thy part, to separate from these companions. But now the hour for that separation is not yet come: there is a time set for it, which thou canst not anticipate. For the present, then, thou must rest content with a journey interrupted by halts and inactivity; now thou wilt be on the road, now thou wilt frequent these companions. Each time that thou goest alone, pursuing thy journey with perfect ardor, I walk with thee, and thou art separated from them. Each time that thou sighest after them, thou turnest back toward them, and thou art separated from me; so shall it be until the moment comes when thou shalt break with them wholly."
10 FINALLY, the conversation led me to question him concerning each of the climes to which he had traveled, all those that were included in his knowledge and of which he was fully informed. He said to me: "The circumscriptions of the earth are threefold: one is intermediate between the Orient and the Occident. It is the best known; much information concerning it has reached thee and has been rightly understood. Notices even of the marvelous things contained in that clime have reached thee. But there are two other strange circumscriptions: one beyond the Occident, the other beyond the Orient. For each of them, there is a barrier preventing access from this world to that other circumscription, for no one can reach there or force a passage save the Elect among the mass of men, those who have gained a strength that does not originally belong to man by right of nature.
11 "WHAT AIDS in gaining this strength is to immerse oneself in the spring of water that flows near the permanent Spring of Life. When the pilgrim has been guided on the road to that spring, and then purifies himself in it and drinks of that sweet-tasting water, a new strength arises in his limbs, making him able to cross vast deserts. The deserts seem to roll up before him. He does not sink in the waters of the ocean; he climbs Mount Qaf without difficulty, and its guards cannot fling him down into the abysses of hell."
12 WE ASKED HIM to explain that spring to us more fully. He said: "Thou hast heard of the Darkness that forever reigns about the pole. Each year the rising sun shines upon it at a fixed time. He who confronts that Darkness and does not hesitate to plunge into it for fear of difficulties will come to a vast space, boundless and filled with light. The first thing he sees is a living spring whose waters spread like a river over the barzakh. Whoever bathes in that spring becomes so light that he can walk on water, can climb the highest peaks without weariness, until finally he comes to one of the two circumscriptions by which this world is intersected."
13 THEN I BEGGED HIM: "Teach me what the circumscription of the Occident is, for the Occident is nearer to our cities." He said to me: "At the uttermost edge of the Occident there is a vast sea, which in the Book of God is called the Hot (and Muddy) Sea. It is in those parts that the sun sets. The streams that fall into that sea come from an uninhabited country whose vastness none can circumscribe. No inhabitant peoples it; save for strangers who arrive there unexpectedly, coming from other regions. Perpetual Darkness reigns in that country. Those who emigrate there obtain a flash of light each time that the sun sinks to its setting. Its soil is a desert of salt. Each time that people settle there and begin to cultivate it, it refuses; it expels them, and others come in their stead. Would any grow a crop there? It is scattered. Is a building raised there? It crumbles. Among those people there is perpetual quarreling or, rather, mortal battle. Any group that is strongest seizes the homes and goods of the others and forces them to emigrate. They try to settle; but in their turn they reap only loss and harm. Such is their behavior. They never cease from it.
14 "ALL KINDS of animals and plants appear in that country; but when they settle there, feed on its grass, and drink its water, suddenly they are covered by outsides strange to their Form. A human being will be seen there, for example, covered by the hide of a quadruped, while thick vegetation grows on him. And so it is with other species. And that clime is a place of devastation, a desert of salt, filled with troubles, wars, quarrels, tumults; there joy and beauty are but borrowed from a distant place.
15 "BETWEEN THAT CLIME and yours there are others. However, beyond this clime of yours, beginning at the region in which the Pillars of the Heavens are set, there is a clime that is like yours in several ways. In the first place, it is a desert plain; it too is peopled only by strangers come from distant places. Another similarity is that that clime borrows its light from a foreign source, though it is nearer to the Window of Light than the climes we have described hitherto. In addition, that clime serves as foundation for the heavens, just as the preceding clime serves as the seat for this earth, is its permanent base. On the other hand, the inhabitants who people that other clime are sedentaries there in perpetuity. Among the strangers who have come there and settled, there is no war; they do not seize each others' homes and goods by force. Each group has its fixed domain, into which no other comes to inflict violence upon it.
16 "IN RELATION to you, the nearest inhabited country of that clime is a region whose people are very small in stature and swift in their movements. Their cities are nine in number.
"After that region comes a kingdom whose inhabitants are even smaller in stature than the former, while their gait is slower. They passionately love the arts of the writer, the sciences of the stars, theurgy, magic; they have a taste for subtle occupations and deep works. Their cities number ten.
"After that region comes a kingdom whose inhabitants are extremely beautiful and charming; they love gaiety and festivities; they are free from care; they have a refined taste for musical instruments, and know many kinds of them. A woman reigns over them as sovereign. A natural disposition inclines them to the good and the beautiful; when they hear of evil and ugliness, they are seized with disgust. Their cities number nine.
"Next comes a kingdom whose inhabitants are very tall in stature and extremely fair of face. The characteristic of their nature is that they are highly beneficial for whatever is at a distance, whereas their immediate neighborhood is calamitous. Their cities number five.
"Next comes a kingdom in which are settled people who bring destruction
to the earth; they love to wound, kill, mutilate, make examples, for their diversion and amusement. Over them reigns a red personage always inclined to hurt, to kill, to strike. Sometimes, as the narrators of their chronicles report, he is seduced by the fair-faced queen whom we just mentioned and who inspires him with passionate love. Their cities number eight.
"After their country comes a vast kingdom whose inhabitants are endowed to the utmost with temperance, justice, wisdom, and piety, and bestow all necessary good on all parts of the universe. They maintain a compassionate friendship toward those who are near to them as toward those who are far from them; they extend their goodness to him who recognizes it as to him who knows it not. They are of extraordinary beauty and brightness. Their cities number eight.
"After that comes a country inhabited by a people whose thoughts are abstruse and inclined to evil. However, if they tend to goodness, they go to its utmost extreme. If they attack a troop, they do not lightly fling themselves upon it, but proceed in the fashion of a seducer full of wiles; they do not hurry over what they do, and do not refuse to wait for long periods. Their cities number eight.
"Next comes an immense kingdom, with great scattered countries. Its inhabitants are numerous. They are solitaries; they do not live in cities. Their abode is a desert plain where nothing grows. It is divided into twelve regions, which contain twenty-eight stations. No group goes up to occupy the station of another except when the group preceding it has withdrawn from its dwelling; then it hastens to replace it. All the migrants expatriated in the kingdoms that we have described hitherto travel about this kingdom and perform their evolutions there.
"Marching with it is a kingdom of which no one has descried or reached the boundaries down to this day. It contains neither city nor town. No one who is visible to the eyes of the body can find refuge there. Its inhabitants are the spiritual Angels. No human being can reach it nor dwell there. From it the divine Imperative and Destiny descend upon all those who occupy the degrees below. Beyond it there is no earth that is inhabited. In short, these two climes, to which the heavens and the earth are respectively joined, are on the left side of the universe, that which is the Occident.
17 "NOW, when thou proceedest toward the Orient, there first appears to thee a clime in which there is no inhabitant: neither human beings nor plants nor minerals. It is a vast desert, a flooding sea, imprisoned winds, a raging fire. Having crossed it, thou wilt come to a clime where thou wilt find immovable mountains, streams of living water, blowing winds, clouds that drop heavy rain. There thou wilt find native gold, silver, precious or base minerals of all kinds, but thou wilt find nothing that grows. Crossing it leads thee to a clime filled with the things already mentioned, but in which thou wilt also find all kinds of vegetation, plants and fruit trees and other trees, giving fruits with stones or seeds, but thou wilt find there no animal that whines or peeps. Leaving this clime in its turn, thou wilt enter another where thou wilt find all that was mentioned before, but also living creatures of every species not endowed with the logos, those that swim, those that crawl, those that walk, those that fly beating their wings and gliding, those that engender, and those that hatch, but no human beings are there. Thou wilt escape from it into this world that is yours, and thou knowest already through sight and hearing what it contains.
18 "THEN, cutting straight across toward the Orient, thou wilt come upon the sun rising between the two troops [lit., the two "horns"] of the Demon. For the Demon has two troops: one that flies, another that plods. The troop that plods contains two tribes: a tribe that has the ferocity of beasts of prey, while the other has the bestiality of quadrupeds. Between the two there is perpetual war, and both dwell in the left side of the Orient. As for the demons who fly, their quarters are in the right side of the Orient. They are not all of the same constitution. Far from it, for one would say that each individual among them has his particular constitution, different from every other, so that some of them are constituted of two natures, others of three, others of four, as a flying man would be or a viper with a boar's head. Some of them too are but a half, others but a fragment of a nature, like an individual who should be only one half of a human being, or the palm of a hand, or a single foot, or any other corresponding part of an animal. One would almost think that the composite figures that painters represent come from this clime!
"The authority that governs the affairs of this clime has laid out five great roads there for the courier. It has made these roads so many fortified bulwarks for its kingdom, and has stationed men-at-arms upon them. If inhabitants of this world present themselves, the men-at-arms take them prisoners. They inspect all the baggage that the prisoners bring with them, then they deliver them to a Guardian who is in authority over the five men-at-arms and who stands watching at the threshold of that clime. The information that the captives bring and that is to be sent on is put into a letter on which a seal is placed, without the Guardian's knowing what the letter contains. Now, the duty that lies upon the Guardian is to send the letter on to a certain Treasurer, who will present it to the King. It is this same Treasurer who takes charge of the prisoners; as for their effects, he delivers them to another Treasurer for safekeeping. And each time that they take prisoners some troop from your world, whether of human beings, or of animals, or of other creatures, those creatures proliferate, whether by a happy mixture in which their forms are preserved or by engendering only abortions.
19 "SOMETIMES A GROUP from one of these two troops of demons sets out for your clime; there they surprise human beings, they insinuate themselves into their inmost hearts with their breath. As for the plodding tribe that resembles beasts of prey, it lies in wait for the moment when someone will do a man the slightest wrong. Then it stirs him up, shows him the worst actions in a fair light, such as killing, mutilating, ruining, inflicting suffering. It nourishes hatred in the secrecy of his heart; it urges him to oppress and destroy. As for the second of the two plodding tribes, it never leaves off talking secretly to a man, beautifying sins, unworthy acts, and scoundrelly behavior; it inspires him to desire them, gives him a taste for them; riding the mount of obstinacy, it persists until it has succeeded in swaying him. As for the flying troop, it leads a man to declare that everything he does not see with his bodily eyes is false; it persuades him that it is excellent to adore what is only the work of nature or made by men; it suggests to his heart that after this earthly life there is no birth into another world, nor consequences for the good and the evil, and finally that there is no being who reigns eternally in the celestial kingdom.
2O "SEVERING THEMSELVES from these two demoniac troops, there are, however, some groups who haunt the frontiers of a certain clime lying next after that inhabited by the terrestrial angels. Letting themselves be guided by these angels, they find the straight road; thus they depart from the aberrancy of the demons and choose the road of the spiritual Angels. When these daimons mingle with men it is neither to corrupt nor to misguide them; on the contrary, they beneficently help them to become pure. These are the 'fairies' or 'genii' [peri], those who in Arabic are called jinn and hinn.
21 "HE WHO SUCCEEDS in leaving this clime enters the climes of the Angels, among which the one that marches with the earth is a clime in which the terrestrial angels dwell. These angels form two groups. One occupies the right side: they are the angels who know and order. Opposite them, a group occupies the left side: they are the angels who obey and act. Sometimes these two groups of angels descend to the climes of men and genii, sometimes they mount to heaven. It is said that among their number are the two angels to whom the human being is entrusted, those who are called 'Guardians and Noble Scribes'—one to the right, the other to the left. He who is to the right belongs to the angels who order; to him it falls to dictate. He who is to the left belongs to the angels who act; to him it falls to write.
22 "HE WHO IS TAUGHT a certain road leading out of this clime and who is helped to accomplish this exodus, such a one will find an egress to what is beyond the celestial spheres. Then, in a fugitive glimpse, he descries the posterity of the Primordial Creation, over whom rules as king the One, the Obeyed.
"There, the first delimitation is inhabited by intimates of that sublime King; they ever assiduously pursue the work that brings them near to their King. They are a most pure people, who respond to no solicitation of gluttony, lust, violence, jealousy, or sloth. The mission laid upon them is to attend to the preservation of the ramparts of that empire, and it is there that they abide. Hence they live in cities; they occupy lofty castles and magnificent buildings, whose material was kneaded with such care that the result is a compound that in no wise resembles the clay of your clime. Those buildings are more solid than diamond and jacinth, than all things that require the longest time to wear away. Long life has been bestowed upon that people; they are long, a very long term. Their rule of life consists in maintaining the ramparts in obedience to the order given them.
"Above them is a people that has more intimate dealings with the King and that is unceasingly bound to His service. They are not humiliated by having to fill this office; their state is preserved against all attack, nor do they change their occupation. They were chosen to be intimates, and they have received the power of contemplating the highest palace and stationing themselves all about it. It has been granted them to contemplate the face of the King in unbroken continuity. They have received as adornment the sweetness of a subtle grace in their nature, goodness and penetrating wisdom in their thoughts, the privilege of being the final term to which all knowledge refers. They have been endowed with a shining aspect, a beauty that sets the beholder trembling with admiration, a stature that has attained its perfection. For each of them, a limit has been set that belongs to him alone, a fixed rank, a divinely ordained degree, to which no other contests his right and in which he has no associate, for all the others either are above him or each respectively finds sweetness in his lower rank. Among them there is one whose rank is nearer to the King, and he is their 'father,' and they are his children and grandchildren. It is through him that the King's word and order emanate to them. And among other marvels pertaining to their condition is this: never does the course of time expose their nature to the marks and witherings of age and decrepitude. Far from it, he among them who is their 'father,' though the oldest in
duration, is thereby all the more abounding in vigor, and his face has all the more of the beauty of youth. They all live in the desert; they have no need of dwelling places or shelter.
23 "AMONG THEM ALL the King is the most withdrawn into that solitude. Whoever connects Him with an origin errs. Whoever claims to pay Him praise that is proportionate to Him is an idle babbler. For the King escapes the power of the clever to bestow qualifications, just as here too all comparisons fail of their end. Let none, then, be so bold as to compare Him to anything whatsoever. He has no members that divide Him: He is all a face by His beauty, all a hand by His generosity. And His beauty obliterates the vestiges of all other beauty. His generosity debases the worth of all other generosity. When one of those who surround His immensity undertakes to meditate on Him, his eye blinks with stupor and he comes away dazzled. Indeed, his eyes are almost ravished from him, even before he has turned them upon Him. It would seem that His beauty is the veil of His beauty, that His Manifestation is the cause of His Occultation, that His Epiphany is the cause of His Hiddenness. Even so, it is by veiling itself a little that the sun can be the better contemplated; when, on the contrary, the heliophany sheds all the violence of its brightness, the sun is denied to the eyes, and that is why its light is the veil of its light. In truth, the King manifests His beauty on the horizon of those who are His; toward them He is not niggardly of His vision; those who are deprived of contemplating Him are so because of the wretched state of their faculties. He is mild and merciful. His generosity overflows. His goodness is immense. His gifts overwhelm; vast is His court, universal His favor. Whoever perceives a trace of His beauty fixes his contemplation upon it forever; never again, even for the twinkling of an eye, does he let himself be distracted from it.
24 "SOMETIMES certain solitaries among men emigrate toward Him. So much sweetness does He give them to experience that they bow under the weight of His graces. He makes them conscious of the wretchedness of the advantages of your terrestrial clime. And when they return from His palace, they return laden with mystical gifts."
25 THEN THE SAGE HAYY IBN YAQZAN said to me: "Were it not that in conversing with thee I approach that King by the very fact that I incite thy awakening, I should have to perform duties toward Him that would take me [away] from thee. Now, if thou wilt, follow me, come with me toward Him. Peace."
No power and no strength is there save in God the High, the Mighty!