Belief in God — that is the foundation of any religion, the single factor separating the adherent from the atheist. But for many of us, belief doesn’t come so easily. In the modern era, we’re accustomed to seeking the truth for ourselves, using verified methods of empirical study and examination. By contrast, organized religion is founded on the unquestioned authority of scriptures, which we are told to accept without too much speculation. So what should we do when the teachings of a religion interfere with the conclusions of our rational faculties?
The story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the feral child raised on a tropical island and nursed by a doe, is an answer to this question. In it, the rational subject is reexamined; he is no longer a threat to religion, but rather, becomes one of its greatest advocates. We might understand the story as a thought experiment. What would a rational person, free of any societal imprint and using only his innate capacity for reason and introspection, come to think about himself, the universe, and God?
The Muslim philosopher Ibn Tufayl, who narrates the tale, concludes that such a person would arrive at the perfect religion: the authentic spiritual core that underlies all other faiths. In the end, when Hayy’s solitude is broken by an encounter with a Muslim, he has no problem accepting the tenets of Islam and taking the shahada, the testimony of faith. We find, then, that Hayy has arrived independently at the truths which otherwise require the intervention of an established culture and tradition.
In that way, Hayy ibn Yaqzan encourages personal empowerment of the deepest kind. The religious person is always caught between two poles: the beliefs given to him by society, and the beliefs he uncovers for himself. Hayy’s story, though fictitious, is a statement that if we are dedicated and well-meaning enough, we might come to discover religious truths for ourselves, without the need for organized religion. And — if we’re up for the task — we might even read the story as an invitation to do so.