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"Majnun and Layla" in the East and the West

Ferial J. Ghazoul

In an encounter through dialogue two cultures do not merge and blend; each keeps its uniqueness and open integrity, but both are enriched. (Mikhail Bakhtin)

The love story of two seventh-century Bedouins in Arabia, known as Majnun and Layla, has migrated to the Muslim World and to Europe partly through written texts and partly through oral transmission. As the story of this unrequited love moved east and west, it acquired different shades of meaning–from the mystic overtones in Iran and India to the courtly romance in Europe and the Mediterranean world. The idea of Divine love and the idea of Romantic love seem to be exemplified equally in the story of Majnun, the lover who waxed lyrical about his beloved Layla and was driven to madness and death because of his unrequited passion.

Khamsa of Nizami; Majnun at Mecca, unknown folio detail, Timurid Dynasty 1445-46, Istanbul, Topkapi Museum H.781

How did such a story gain this widespread dissemination? What is so special about its theme or structure that turned it into a work of world literature? To start with, it was not a fixed story but a series of anecdotes about genuinely historical figures in post-Islamic Najd in Northern Arabia. With time this narrative mosaic developed into a legend, adding imaginative details and colorful episodes. Given its segmented form and spontaneous growth in the hands of storytellers, it took different variants and was narrated in several versions. This protean quality of the narrative made it ideal for appropriation by different cultures in various epochs. The flexibility of the narrative allowed the drama of the story to surface without imposing a strict textual structure. Even in the Arabic tradition and in literary history, there are many variants of the story of Majnun and Layla, but the basic outline remains the same.

Critics generally agree that Majnun is the poet, Qays ibn al-Mulawwah from the Banu ‘Amir tribe, who lived in the second half of the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula. He came to be known as Majnun (Madman) of Layla because he was madly in love with her and wrote the most moving poetry expressing his devotion to his one and only beloved. His love was of such intensity that it drove him to insanity. He roamed the desert, befriended the animals, recited his amorous poetry, and subsisted on very little. Emaciated and distraught, this lovelorn character and his passionate verse spread in Arabia and beyond. Other poets who were equally in love but did not dare speak openly of their love, called their beloved Layla and attributed the poetry to Majnun. Furthermore, many rawis–oral transmitters of poetry and tribal history–were tempted to forge ghazal verses (love poetry) on the same lines of Majnun and attribute it to him in front of an ever-demanding audience. Thus, what was genuinely uttered by this iconic poet is difficult to distinguish from what was attributed to him by other poets and rawis. But there have been textual critics who collected his divan, based on isnad (chain of reliable authorities) at an early period. Whatever the degree of authenticity of such collections is, passionate and faithful love became synonymous with Majnun and the beautiful and desired beloved with Layla.

Page from Leyla and Majnun, Majnun recognized by Leyla's dog, Musée du Louvre, inv. MAO 713, Erich Lessing/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

Apart from lending itself to creative adaptations and imaginative details, the story of MajnunLayla itself combines three intersecting universal motifs: Love, Madness, and Poetry. Majnun’s love was characterized by absolute servility to the beloved and thus lent itself for interpretation or appropriation as mystic love for the divine. The unfulfilled desires of Majnun to unite with his beloved gave the legend a tragic tone. Lamenting the impossibility of attaining one’s intimate dreams appealed to romantics. The eventual reunion of Majnun and Layla in death evokes both irony and sublimation. Universal concerns and existential dilemmas are embedded in the story that turns it into an archetype no matter how it is modified in different places and epochs.

In the original story as narrated in Arabic sources of Majnun Layla, Qays meets his cousin Layla when they were children herding their parents’ flocks. Another variant attributes the inaccessibility of the beloved to tribal hostility between the kin of Qays and those of Layla. But in both variants, there is mutual and intense love binding Majnun to Layla from first sight. While Layla prudently kept her love a secret, following tribal customs, Qays articulated his longing in verse that was heard, admired, and cited all over Arabia. Layla’s father did not consent to the marriage as Qays had made public his love, going against conventions and by doing so shaming Layla’s family. To add to the insult—as construed by Layla’s father—Qays has become mad and thus worthless. Although tribal culture welcomes kin marriages, it shuns the public display of the name of the young woman by her lover. Even the rich dowry the father of Qays offered did not make a difference. Heart-broken, Majnun’s madness was intensified with this rejection and he shunned the company of human beings and wandered in the wilderness. Seeing a gazelle in the snare of a hunter he would offer him what he wanted to free the prey as the animal’s eyes looked like Layla’s. Majnun’s father took him on a pilgrimage in the hope that he will be cured from his folly, but while visiting al-Kaaba sanctuary in Mecca Majnun asked God to increase his love for Layla. Nawfal, a noble friend of Qays, tried to convince Layla’s father that love is ennobling and tried to persuade him to relent, first by gifts and then by threats, but the stubborn patriarch would not give in. Eventually, he married his daughter despite her wishes to another man, thinking that this wedlock will end the passions of both. However, Layla though married did not allow her husband to consummate the marriage. The unrelenting love and misery of both continued, with friends as go betweens passing on letters of longing.

Chroniclers and literary historians documented as best they could the tragic story of Majnun Layla. Many adaptations of the legend are based on the Arabic sources. It is noteworthy to point out that in pre-Islamic Arabia, in the period known as Jahiliyya, love poetry was not a genre by itself. The pre-Islamic mu‘alaqa (ode) opened with tashbib (an erotic prologue), but the poem went on to present other themes such as valor in war, journeys in the desert, loss of kin, etc. In post-Islamic Arabia, in the eighth and ninth centuries love poetry proliferated and became a dominant trend. Some of it, composed in the cities with an urban flare, was licentious and boastful. But the poetry of tribes in the Arabian desert such as the tribe of ‘Udhra expressed devotion in love and selflessness in passion, so much so that such ghazal came to be known as ‘Udhri poetry even when a poet like Qays was not from the tribe of ‘Udhra. Many of these poets came to be affiliated to their beloveds rather than being called by the father and family name. So Layla’s name was attached to Qays/Majnun, just as Buthaina was attached to the poet Jamil (known as Jamil Buthaina) and ‘Azza to Kuthair (known as Kuthair ‘Azza). But none of these poets developed a legend as powerful as that of Majnun Layla.

Album of Paintings and Calligraphy Lovers Laila and Majnun, India, 1780, Los Angeles County Museum of Art M.76.113

The earliest extant account of the story of Majnun Layla was reported in the ninth century by Ibn Qutaiba (828-889) in his book, Kitab al-Shi‘r wal-Shu‘ara [The Book of Poetry and Poets]. The section related to Majnun Layla has been translated into English by Khairallah (Madness, pp. 135-143). Another and a more elaborate variant of the story of Majnun Layla is narrated by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (897-967) in his book, Kitab al-Aghani [The Book of Songs] and it was translated to French by Miquel and Kemp (pp. 211-256). Al-Walibi, a rather enigmatic figure who is difficult to anchor historically, collected the poetry of Majnun Layla. The story became an exemplary narrative of intoxication with love even though Majnun was not the only poet but one of a trend of poets.

As the story moved from its original setting in the desert to more urban locations, it changed in details but not in the general outline. Qays meets Layla at school in the version composed by the Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209) who succeeded in turning the story of Layli-u-Majnun from a series of anecdotes interspersed with poetry to a romance with an organic plot. Jami (1414-1492), influended by Nizami and like him reversing the title of the story to become Layla and Majnun, gave Layla a Sufi connotation and associated her with divine beauty. Thus Majnun’s longing for Layla is presented as allegorical of man’s yearning for God. Jami’s intimates this in the unfolding of the narrative when he depicts the insane gestures and ravings of Majnun as that of a dancing dervish; his peaceful associations with wild animals as a monastic existence in the desert; and finally in the conclusion of the work Jami addresses his own son and explains the Sufi inner meaning of the story. Other authors before and after Jami also adapted the legend to their worldview such as the Indian Amir Khusrow Dehlawi (1253-1325) and the Azerbaijani Ottoman Fuzuli (1483-1556), again inclined to redirect the story towards divine love. This identification of the beloved with the divine is akin to the way Dante elevated his worldly Beatrice into a holy figure in his Divine Comedy.

In Andalusia and Sicily where the Arabs were present for several centuries, such love poetry imbued with devotion and servility to the beloved came to be dominant in the new form of poetry called muwashshahat, Hispano-Arabicverse that was both popular and sung with kharjas (refrains), lamenting the pain of love. Other form of love poetry circulated in medieval Spain using colloquial Arabic, Hebrew, and Romance languages. There is a literary kinship between this love poetry and that of the Provençal poets of southern France and the Italian poets associated with the scuolasiciliana. Specialists have shown the close similarities between troubadour poetry and Mezarabic poetry and specifically the common refrains. It is the spirit of Majnun’s love that was distilled in Andalusian ghazal and by extension in courtly love; but here one can invoke inspiration, not adaptation.

Majnun in the Wilderness, 1600, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MIA85.80

The story of Majnun Layla is likely to have traveled to Europe as well via merchants, crusaders, and pilgrims since Europe and the Muslim World were intertwined. Many critics, as early as the mid sixteenth century, saw echoes of this Arabic love poetry into the lyrics of provençal troubadours—the poet-musicians of southern France—who flourished in the twelfth century. In fact, the term trobador is explained, by some philologists, as derived from the Arabic word tarab (rapture associated with music or rhythms). Courtly love of the troubadours emerged as something new in medieval Europe. While there are social and sociological reasons for the popularity of this love poetry, the Arabic model was probably a factor and a model in developing it. The amorous poetry of the troubadours that idealized an inaccessible beloved as Majnun idealized Layla was very dear to Dante. He too idealized his beloved Beatrice in his Divine Comedy and endowed her with holiness making her his guide in Paradiso just as Jami later associated Layla with the divine.

Jean-Pierre Guinhut sees the influence of Majnun Layla on a variety of canonical works in European literature: Gottfried von Strassburg’s romance Tristan, the medieval narrative Aucassin et Nicolette, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet–arguing that courtly love was influenced by Oriental literature, and this love in turn influenced these works. While it is impossible to establish such claims there are certain motifs that show parallelism if not direct kinship between the legend of Majnun and these European works.

The courtly love in of Tristan and Isolde revolves around an interdicted passion with its tragic finale. It is about the love of the Cornish knight who went to bring the Irish Isolde as bride for his royal uncle, Marc; but instead the two fell madly in love. The romance of Tristan and Isolde has many variants but all of them foreground an impossible and passionate love. While it is difficult to document a direct relationship between Tristan and Majnun, Middle Eastern and European critics have seen echoes of one into the other and considered them analogues, in terms of unrequited love if not settings. To add to the speculative connection, there are two twelfth-century Anglo-Norman versions of Tristan and Isolde known as Folie Tristan (identified as that of Oxford and Bern, after the location of the manuscripts). This narrative poem tells of Tristan’s return as a madman to Marc’s court, thus adding the motif of madness—albeit as a guise—to that of doomed love. While Majnun’s story is marked by hyperbole in depicting the passionate and tragic love, that of Tristan includes magic potions. It is likely that the romance of Tristan and Isolde was inspired by courtly love which in turn was inspired by Arabian love stories—of which Majunun Layla is a privileged example. Gottfried von Strassburg’s German Tristan (early thirteenth century) owes—as the author admits–its outline to the courtly romance of Thomas of Britain, entitled Tristan (late twelfth century). However, Gottfried’s Tristan resembles a minstrel rather than a knight, thus has more affinity with Majnun. Just as Jami joins the two lovers in death where Layla asks to be buried next to Majnun so they will be united forever, in some versions of the romance Tristan and Isolde, two trees grew intertwined on the joint grave of the two lovers and could not be separated.

Khamsa of Nizami; Laila and Majnun in school, folio 106a detail, Timurid Dynasty, 1476, stanbul, Topkapi Museum, H.761

The author of Aucassin et Nicolette is anonymous; the work exhibits some unique features which makes it difficult to classify. It is called a cantefable (sung story) as it is made up of verse (set to music) and prose. This thirteenth-century short tale is not a typical romance: it has been viewed by some critics as exhibiting features of courtly love as it is the story of two lovers pining for each other; but others see it as a parody of courtly love. What is interesting in it is how race and class dimensions separate the lovers. Aucassin is the son of a French Count and Nicolette is a Saracen slave. Her Arab identity and captivity make her unsuitable for Aucassin from the point of view of his father the Count. The patriarch imprisons her in a tower and when Aucassin does not give up his love for her he is also imprisoned. She manages to escape and Aucassin is released. After a series of strange and comic adventures, they end up happily together and she turns out to be of noble ancestry, after all. While the ending is not the usual doomed one, the Arabian element is embodied in the heroine. The theme of patriarchal impediment to love, like that of Majnun Layla, is elaborated but eventually overcome.

The sources of the canonical work, Romeo and Juliet (1599),have been studied thoroughly and it is known that Shakespeare dramatized the narrative poem of Arthur Brooke, The TragicallHistorye of Romeus and Juliet (1562). But it is also known that Brooke’s poem was based on Boisteau’s translation of another work entitled, “Romeus and Juliet” in his Histoire de Deux Amans (1559). Further tracing will bring us to 1530 when Luigi da Porto published Historianovellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti, in turn based on other sources which overlap with TheDecameron. As Boccaccio’s collection of tales with a frame story has the imprint of the Arabian Nights—which includes among others tales of lovers like Majnun and Layla—the tracing pattern leads us to the exemplary Arabian lovers. However, the point is not to dismiss or to establish beyond doubt historical influences and literary sources, but to assert the interlacement of literature and culture between two regions of the world. The story of Majnun Layla, the star-crossed lovers and the problem of patriarchal objections to their union is present as well in Romeo and Juliet, the story of another due nobiliamanti (two noble lovers). Majnun Layla and similar stories from the Orient have changed the literary sensibility of Europe thus contributing to creating works that are analogues to the Arabian lovers rather than a rewriting of their story.

The model of an adoring lover often associated with Majnun Layla and ‘Udhri poets–known for their chaste and unwavering love for an inaccessible beloved–took the shape of courtly love in Europe where the poet-lover sang of his passion to the grand Lady of the feudal estate without expecting union. The troubadours in the courts of France popularized such poetry at a time when elements of Arabic poetics were widespread in medieval Spain and southern Europe. The love for the high-ranking Lady took a quasi-religious tone without dismissing the erotic motif; the class difference posed a barrier to consummation and poetry became a sublimation of a desire. Similarly, the literary sociologist, Tahar Labib, saw in the ‘Udhri poetry a symptom of political marginalization and denial of power to the tribes in Arabia in the early centuries of Islam. The haughty beloved in courtly love developed over time into an aloof and even at times cruel figure vis-à-vis the beloved. So instead of the Arabic original story where the patriarchal authority deprives the lovers from uniting or as in the Renaissance tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, where the enmity of families poses a barrier; in the nineteenth century the inaccessibility of the beloved is attributed to the woman herself and thus the development of the motif of labelle dame sans merci or the femme fatale as in Mérimée’s Carmen.

The exact impact of Majnun Layla on medieval and Renaissance European literature can only be guessed as it is a matter of speculation based on analogy and likely oral transmission given the proximity and interaction of the Arab-Islamic civilization and Euro-Christian civilization at those times. However, in more recent times, critics have been able to document the scholarly interest in the legend of MajnunLayla in Europe which culminated in several creative works, notably Louis Aragon, Le Fou d’Elsa (1963) and André Miquel, Laylâ, ma raison (1984).

Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi; Layla Visiting Majnun in the Desert, Safavid period (1501-1722), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1913 (13.160.3)

In 1797, Isaac D’Israeli published Mejnun and Leila: The Arabian Petrarch andLaura, based on Islamic sources but it is also his own creative version of the romance. This English adaptation mixing prose with poetry–as the legend often does when narrated in medieval Arabic literature—was translated to German in 1802. In 1805, Jami’s Layli-u-Majnun was translated into French and later into German (based on the French) in 1808. Goethe admired the legend and probably identified with it. He referred to himself as Medschnun (Germanized transcription of Majnun). His epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) possesses literary kinship to Majnun Layla and not only by invoking the letter exchange between Majnun and Layla. Henrich Heine uses the legend of Majnun Layla in his dramatic work Almansor published in 1821. Parts of Nizami’s Layli-u-Majnun was translated into English verse by James Atkinson in 1836. Jami’s Layli-u-Majnun was translated into German verse in 1890 by von Schack. In the twentieth century, there is a plethora of scholarly works and creative works and translations of Majnun Layla, including the translation of André Miquel, L’amour poème, anthologie deMajnûn (1984).

There have been a number of adaptations of the legend in Arabic drama and poetry including by Egyptian poets, Ahmad Shawqi (1916) and Salah Abdul-Sabur (1970), by Iraqi poetess, ‘Atika al-Khazraji (1954), and by Bahraini poet, Qassim Haddad (1996), which the Iraqi painter Dia Al-Azzawi illustrated. It was also adapted by the Egyptian poet, Salah Jahin as an operetta with music by Muhammad Nuh (1982).

The figures of Majnun and Layla were represented in miniatures and in paintings all over western and central Asia and many of these art works are found today in Western museums. Folk artists also presented the lovers and their agonizing passions. Music and dance have also played their part in diffusing the work. An operatic work based on Majnun Layla was composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov and performed in Azerbaijan in 1908. A Malay film based on Majnun Layla was produced by Bombay Chemical Co. in 1933. Eric Clapton composed a love song entitled “Layla” in 1970. Alan Hovehaness composed in 1973 “The Majnun Symphony”; Dutch composer, Rokos de Groot, composed two musical work, Majnun’s Lament and Layla and Majnun; Taieb Louhichi directed a Tunisian film based on Miquel’s Laylâ, ma raison in 1989. In 2007, a ballet based on Qasim Haddad’s Akhbar Majnun Layla was performed in Bahrain. Indian cinema has produced several films adapting Majnun Layla.

Majnun Layla is truly a generative and traveling legend that lends itself to adaptation in different cultural settings—a story for all seasons and for all people. The unwavering love and intense devotion coupled with transgression of norms and reason turn Majnun Layla into a drama of the human condition caught between noble dreams and earthly impediments.


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