The Story of Layla and Majnun
Category: Islam
5:12 h
Majnun Layla (Arabic: مجنون ليلى‎ Majnūn Laylā, 'Layla's Mad Lover'; Persian: لیلی و مجنون‎ Leyli o Majnun) is an old story of Arabic origin, about the 7th-century Najdi Bedouin poet Qays ibn al-Mullawah and his ladylove Layla bint Mahdi (or Layla al-Aamiriya). "The Layla-Majnun theme passed from Arabic to Persian, Turkish, and Indian languages", most famously through the narrative poem composed in 584/1188 by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, as the third part of his Khamsa. It is a popular poem praising their love story.

The Story of Layla and Majnun

Sheik Nizami

Translated from the Persian and Edited by
Dr. R. Gelpke

How the Story Began

Once there lived among the Bedouin in Arabia a great lord, a Sayyid, who ruled over the Banu Amir. No other country flourished like his and Zephyr carried the sweet scent of his glory to the farthest horizons. Success and merit made him a Sultan of the Arabs and his wealth equalled that of Korah.

He had a kind heart for the poor and for them his purse was always open. To strangers he was a generous host and in all his enterprises he succeeded as if good luck were part of him, as the tone is part of the fruit — or so it appeared to be.

Yet, though respected like a caliph, to himself he seemed like a candle, slowly consuming itself without ever spreading quite enough light. The heart of this great man was eaten by one secret sorrow; he, who otherwise possessed everything he desired, had no son.

He had remained childless. What did glory, power and wealth mean to him, if one day they would slip from his hands, without an heir to receive them? Was the com fated to wither, did the branch have to die? If the cypress tree fell, where would the pheasant build his nest? Where would he find happiness? Where shade and refuge?

He only is truly alive, who in his son’s memory survives his own death.

Thus the noble man brooded and, the older he grew, the greater became his desire. Yet for many years his alms and prayers were in vain. The full moon which he so eagerly awaited never rose in his sky and the jasmin seed which he sowed would not germinate.

Still the Sayyid was not content to bow to his fate. For the sake of one wish yet unfulfilled he thought but little of everything else that heaven had granted him. That is how humans are made! If prayers remain unanswered, do we ever reflect that it may be for our good? We feel sure that we know our needs, yet the future is veiled from our eyes. The thread of our fate ends outside the visible world and what today we mistake for a padlock, keeping us out, we may tomorrow find to be the key that lets us in.

Much, of course, can happen in the meantime. Our hero desired the jewel he did not possess, as the oyster nourishes its pearl, so he prayed and clamoured until in the end God fulfilled his wish.

He was given a boy, who looked like the smile of a pomegranate, like a rose whose petals have opened overnight, like a diamond which transforms the darkness of the world into sheer light.

Delighted, the happy father opened wide the door of his treasury. Everyone was to share his happiness and the great event was celebrated with shouts of joy and words of blessing.

The child was committed to the care of a nurse, so that under her watchful eye he should grow big and strong. So he did, and every drop of milk he drank was turned in his body into a token of faithfulness, every bite he ate became in his heart a morsel of tenderness. Each line of indigo, drawn on his face to protect him against the Evil Eye, worked magic in his soul.

All this, however, remained a secret, hidden from every eye.

Two weeks after his birth the child already looked like the moon after fourteen days and his parents gave him the name of Qays.

A year went by and the boy’s beauty grew to perfection. As a ray of light penetrates the water, so the jewel of love shone through the veil of his body.

Playful and joyful, he grew year by year — a carefully protected flower in the happy childhood.

When he was seven years old, the violet-coloured down of his first beard began to shimmer on his tulip cheeks and when he had reached his first decennium people told the story of his beauty like a fairy tale. Whoever saw him — if only from afar — called upon heaven to bless him.

Qays and Layla Meet

Now the father sent the boy to school. He entrusted him to a learned man to whom distinguished Arabs took their children, so that he should teach them everything of use in this world. Instead of playing, they were now to study in earnest and if they went a little in fear of the strict master, there was no harm in that.

Soon Qays was one of the best pupils. He easily mastered the arts of reading and writing and when he talked it was as if his tongue was scattering pearls. It was a delight to listen to him. But then something happened which no one had foreseen. Listen! Among his fellow pupils were girls. Just like the boys, they came from noble families of various tribes. One day a beautiful little girl joined the group — a jewel such as one sees but seldom. She was as slender as a cypress tree. Her eyes, like those of a gazelle, could have pierced a thousand hearts with a single unexpected glance, yes, with one flicker of her eyelashes she could have slain a whole world.

To look at, she was like an Arabian moon, yet when it came to stealing hearts, she was a Persian page. Under the dark shadow of her hair, her face was a lamp, or rather a torch, with ravens weaving their wings around it. And who would have thought that such overwhelming sweetness could flow from so small a mouth. Is it possible, then, to break whole armies with one small grain of sugar? She really did not need rouge; even the milk she drank turned into the colour of roses on her lips and cheeks; and she was equipped with lustrous eyes and a mole on her cheek even when her mother brought her into the world.

The name of this miracle of creation was Layla. Does not ‘Layl’ mean ‘night’ in Arabic? And dark as the night was the colour of her hair.

Whose heart would not have filled with longing at the sight of this girl? But young Qays felt even more. He was drowned in the ocean of love before he knew that there was such a thing. He had already given his heart to Layla before he understood what he was giving away. . . . And Layla? She fared no better. A fire had been lit in both — and each reflected the other.

What could they have done against it? A bearer had come and filled their cups to the brim. They drank what he poured out for them. They were children and did not realize what they were drinking; no wonder they became drunk. He who is drunk for the first time, becomes deeply drunk indeed. And heavily falls he who has never had a fall before.

Together they had inhaled the scent of a flower, its name unknown, its magic great. . . . As yet no one had noticed, so they went on drinking their wine and enjoying the sweet scent. They drank by day and dreamed by night, and the more they drank the deeper they became immersed in each other. Their eyes became blind and their ears deaf to the school and the world. They had found each other:

While all their friends were toiling at their books
These two were trying other ways of learning.
Reading love’s grammar in each other’s looks.
Glances to them were marks which they were earning.
Their minds were freed from spelling by love’s spell,
Thy practised, writing notes full of caress;
The others learned to count — while thy could tell,
That nothing ever counts but tenderness.

Layla and Qays at schoolLayla and Qays at school

The Lovers are Separated

How happy this first flowering of love for Qays and Layla! But can such happiness last? Was not a shadow already falling over their radiance — even if the children did not notice it? What did they know about the ways and the laws of this world? They did not count hours or days, until suddenly disaster struck.

Just as Joseph came out of his pit, so the sun, a golden orange, ascends every morning from the hem of the horizon like a precious toy in the sky; yet every evening, exhausted and worn out by the day’s labour, it sinks back towards the west into the deep well. So Layla also shone forth in her morning. Every day she grew more beautiful. Not only Qays, also his companions at school became aware of it. Openly or secretly they began to stare at her; and if they caught only a glimpse of her chin, shaped like a lemon with little dimples, they felt like ripe pomegranates, full of juice, ready to burst with desire.

Was not Qays bound to notice? Certainly — and for the first time a bitter taste mingled with the sweet scent of his love. He was no longer alone with Layla. A small crack appeared in his blind happiness, he had a foreboding of what was to come; but it was too late.

While the lovers turned their backs on the world, drinking the wine of oblivion and enjoying their paradise, the eyes of the world turned towards them. Did the others understand what they saw? Could they decipher the secret code of signs and glances? How could they fail? But they understood in their own petty way, driven by curiosity, spurred by jealousy and spite and pleasure over other people’s discomfiture! And how easy the lovers made it for their enemies to set their traps.

‘What, you have not heard?’ they sneered. And from mouth to mouth it was whispered, from ear to ear, from tent to tent.

When wagging tongues abused what was so fair,
Their eyes and lips could now no longer shield —
Caught by the gossip in the square —
The tender secret which each glance revealed.

Hard is the awakening for people so deeply intoxicated by their dreams. Now Layla and Qays began to notice the pointing fingers, to hear the reproaches, the derision, the whisperings behind their backs, to see strangers’ eyes, watching, spying, following.

Suddenly they realized their blindness. Why had they never noticed the hunters and their weapons? Now they tried to mend the torn veil, to protect their naked love from the world, to hide their longing for each other, to tame their glances and to seal their lips.

They sought to be cautious and patient, but what use? Like the musk-deer, love, betrayed by its scent, cannot hide; like the sun, it penetrates clouds. Caution and patience are no chains for a lover already chained a thousand-fold by the tresses of his beloved. Qays’ soul was a mirror for Layla’s beauty — how could he remain silent about all he saw in it? How could he avert his glance from the fountain-head of his life?

He tried, but his heart was no longer at one with his reason. If reason asked him to avoid his love, his heart fell ill with longing for her. Away from her, Qays found no peace, yet searching her out was to imperil both.

Was there a way out? The youth could not see any, and his heart suddenly lost its balance, like a beast of burden, which stumbles and falls when the load on its back suddenly breaks loose. But those who never stumble nor fall, looked on and said, ‘He is a majnun, a madman.’

Soon everyone knew and the more people saw and heard of him, the madder he appeared. But he did nothing to pacify those who reproached him. On the contrary, he walked among them, praising Layla’s beauty — like a sleepwalker recalling a dream in the middle of the day. Who would do such a thing?

Disaster swiftly took its course. Too many hounds were chasing the stag, tongues hanging from their ravening mouths, barking and growling, panting and jeering.

It became too much for Layla’s people. Was not the girl’s honour also that of her family? More, that of her whole tribe? Was it right that this mad fellow, this Qays of the Banu Amir, should play around with her until her name became a laughing-stock?

From now on Layla’s parents kept their daughter at home. They guarded her carefully and saw to it that Qays had no chance to meet her. They kept the new moon hidden from the fool; the way to the pastures was now blocked for the young gazelle. What could Layla do against it?

She had to hide the sadness of her heart. Only when she was alone did she drop the curtain and shed lonely tears.

Qays becomes Majnun

The separation from his beloved robbed the youth of his home and if Layla wept secretly, he openly displayed his unhappiness for everyone to see.

He appeared now here, now there. He wandered about in the small alleys between the tents and in the bazaar where the merchants and artisans have their stalls. He walked aimlessly, driven only by his aching heart, without heeding the staring eyes; tears springing from under his eyelashes like wild mountain streams. All the time he sang melancholy songs such as lovers are wont to sing in their misery. . . .

When he passed by, people around him shouted: ‘Look, the Madman, Majnun is coming. . . Majnun!’

The reins had slipped from the rider’s hand. His innermost being was revealed like the heart of a split fruit. He had not only lost his beloved, but also himself. Everyone saw in his face the reflection of the fire scorching his heart, saw the blood running from his wound. He was suffering because of his beloved, but she remained far away. The longer it lasted, the more Qays became Majnun. Burning like a candle, he did not sleep at night and, while he searched for a remedy to cure soul and body, both were filled with deadly pain. Each day, at dusk, the ghosts of his vain hopes chased him out into the desert, barefoot and bareheaded.

Then strange things began to happen. Majnun had been separated from Layla, yet his longing made him the slave of his imprisoned Mistress. A madman he became — but at the same time a poet, the harp of his love and of his pain.

At night, when everyone was asleep, he secretly stole to the tent of his beloved. Sometimes two or three friends who had suffered the torments of love like him, accompanied him on his wanderings, but mostly he was alone, reciting his poems. Swift as the north wind he flew along, kissed Layla’s threshold like a shadow and returned before the new day dawned.

How hard it was to return! It seemed to take a year. On his way to her he ran fast, like water pouring into a trough. On the way back he crawled, as if he had to make his way through a hundred crevasses thick with thorn-bushes. If fate had allowed him happiness, he would never have returned home, where he now felt a stranger. His heart had suffered shipwreck, drifting helplessly in a boundless ocean; there seeemd no end to the fury of the gale. He hardly listened to what people were saying; he no longer cared. Only when he heard Layla’s name did he take notice. When they talked about other things, his ears and lips were sealed.

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