Layla and Majnun

BOOK: Layla and Majnun
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To Mahshid, with love


by Eric Clapton

What will you do when you get lonely

No one waiting by your side?

You’ve been running and hiding much too long;

You know it’s just your foolish pride.

Layla, got me on my knees. Layla

I’m begging, darling, please. Layla

Darling, won’t you ease my worried mind?

Tried to give you consolation;

Your old man had let you down.

Like a fool, I fell in love with you;

You turned my whole world upside down.


Make the best of the situation

Before I finally go insane.

Please don’t say we’ll never find a way

Tell me all my love’s in vain.


ore has been written about love than about any other area of human experience. Since we first began to commit our ideas and feelings to paper, writers the world over have waxed lyrical about the joys of love, and about the sorrows of love unrequited.

Arguably the most popular story in the Islamic world is
Layla and Majnun
. For well over a thousand years, versions of this tragic tale have appeared in prose, poetry and song in almost every language in the Islamic Near East, yet it is Nizami’s epic poem which still serves as the basis for all others.  

The Persian poet Nizami was commissioned to write
Layla and Majnun
by the Caucasian ruler, Shirvanshah, in AD1188. In his original preface to the poem, Nizami explains that a messenger from Shirvanshah arrived and gave him a letter written in the King’s own hand. Extolling Nizami as ‘the universal magician of eloquence’, Shirvanshah asked the poet to write a romantic epic based on a simple Arab folk-tale:
the age-old tale of Majnun, the ‘love-mad’ poet, and Layla, the celebrated desert beauty.

Since the dawn of Islam some five hundred years before, the legend of Layla and Majnun had been a popular theme of the love songs, sonnets and odes of the Bedouins in Arabia. Majnun was associated with a real-life character, Qays ibn al-Mulawwah, who probably lived in the second half of the seventh century AD in the desert of Najd in the Arabian peninsula. By Nizami’s time there were many variations on the Majnun theme circulating throughout the region, and no doubt Shirvanshah approached Nizami with a view to the creation of something ‘special’.

Initially, Nizami was loathe to accept the commission, as he felt the story offered ‘neither gardens nor royal pageants nor festivities, neither streams nor wines nor happiness’, all of which are staples of classical Persian poetry. But eventually, at his son’s insistence, he relented. Less than four months later, Nizami’s
Layla and Majnun
, which comprises in the original some 8,000 lines of verse, was completed.

In writing
Layla and Majnun
, there is little doubt that Nizami uses all the material — both written and oral — that was available to him. He preserved the Bedouin atmosphere of the original tale while at the same time placing the story into the far more civilised Persian world of his time, embellishing the tale with the rich colours and imagery of his own native language and literary tradition.

Nizami did indeed create something special for his patron, Shirvanshah. This striking originality lies in his
masterful psychological portrayal of the complexity of human emotions when faced with ‘love that knows no laws’. The lightness of heart that falling in love can bring; the thrill of mutual affection; the sorrows of separation; the pains of doubt and jealousy; the bitterness of love betrayed; the grief that comes with loss — Nizami maps the whole of the mysterious world of love, leaving no region uncharted. His language may be the language of twelfth-century Persia, but his theme is one which transcends all barriers of time and space.


Dr Colin Paul Turner,
Durham University

Only man can know the pain of having something he does not need, while needing something he does not have …



n Arabia of old there once lived such a man — a great Lord, a Sayyid, who ruled over the tribe known as the Banu Amir. No other dominion matched his in prosperity and success, and his prowess as a leader of men was acknowledged throughout the land. To the poor, he was generosity itself — the doors of his vast treasury were always open, the strings of his purse always untied. And his hospitality towards strangers was legendary. Yet, although he was loved by his people and enjoyed the kind of respect usually reserved for sultans and caliphs, he saw his own situation in a different light. To his own mind, he resembled a candle, slowly consuming itself without spreading enough light for others. One great and
sorrow gnawed away at his heart, blackening his days — the Sayyid had no son.   

What importance do wealth and power have when one is childless? What do glory and prestige matter if there is no one to carry on the family name? And what purpose is there in a life that remains untouched by the happiness brought by children? Thus did the old man ponder these questions, and the more he thought about it, the greater was his sorrow. His prayers came to nothing, the alms he spent were all in vain; he awaited a full moon that would not rise, a rose-garden that would not flower. Yet never did he give up hope.

This one burning desire had scorched his soul to the extent that he forgot everything else. For the sake of the one thing his heart craved, but did not possess, he ignored the manifold bounties that God had granted him — his health, his wealth, his dominions. Is that not,
after all, the way a man’s mind works? When goals are not reached and prayers not answered, do we ever stop to think that God’s apparent silence may be for our own good? We are convinced that we know our own needs, it is true. But needs are often confused with wants, and those things that are wanted — but not needed — are sometimes the cause of our downfall. Of course, if we could tell what the future holds for us, this confusion would never arise. But the future is veiled from our eyes; the threads of each man’s fate extends well beyond the boundaries of the visible world. Where they lead we cannot see. Who can say that today’s key will not be tomorrow’s lock, or today’s lock not tomorrow’s key?

And so the Sayyid prayed and fasted and gave alms until, just as he was about to admit defeat, God granted his wish. He was given a boy, a beautiful child like a rosebud freshly opened, like a diamond whose brilliance changes night into day. To celebrate his birth, the Sayyid unlocked the doors of his treasury and scattered gold as though it were sand. Everyone was to share in his joy, and the wondrous event was celebrated with much festivity throughout the land.

The child was placed in the caring, tender hands of a wet-nurse, who suckled him and saw to it that he grew big and strong and healthy. And so he did. Fourteen days after his birth, the boy already resembled the full moon in all its splendour, scattering light upon the earth and enriching the vision of all who cast eyes on him. On the fifteenth day, his parents gave him the name of Kais. Yet all of this was done in secret, hidden
from others so as to ward off the Evil Eye.

A year passed, and the boy’s beauty blossomed into perfection. A happy, playful child, he bloomed year by year — a carefully tended flower in the happy
of childhood. By the end of his seventh year, the first fine down of approaching adulthood began to shine like a violet sheath on his tulip-red cheeks. Whoever caught sight of him, even from a distance, would call down God’s blessings upon him, and by the time the first decade of his life was over, the people told stories of his beauty as though they were recounting fairy tales.

indful of the boy’s need for education, the Sayyid placed his son under the tutorship of a renowned scholar, a sage to whom all Arabs of noble descent entrusted their children so that they might acquire wisdom and the skills needed for desert life. No matter that these children often feared their teacher, for now was the time to put away their toys and take up their books in earnest.

Kais was diligent and enthusiastic. Before long, he had outshone his peers in every subject, proving to be the best pupil his teacher had ever taught. In reading and writing, in particular, he excelled; when he spoke, be it in debate or simple conversation, his tongue scattered pearls of wisdom, and it was a delight to listen to him.

But then something quite unexpected happened.
Kais’ fellow pupils were, like him, mostly from noble families of different tribes, and they included several young girls. One day a new girl joined the class, a girl of such dazzling beauty that Kais, along with every other boy in the class, was smitten instantly.

The girl’s name was Layla, from the Arabic ‘layl’, which means ‘night’. In keeping with her name, her hair was indeed as dark as night itself, while beneath the shadow of her hair, her face shone out like a radiant beacon of beauty. Her eyes were dark and deep and lustrous, like the eyes of a gazelle, and with one flutter of her eyelashes she could have reduced the whole world to ruins. Her tiny mouth opened only to say the sweetest things, and when others responded — either with words or smiles — she would blush, bringing blood-red roses into bloom on her milk-white cheeks.

The iciest of hearts would have melted at the very sight of this miracle of creation, but the young Kais felt more passionately about the newcomer than any of his peers. He was drowning in a sea of love before he even knew what love was. He had given his heart to the girl before he had even realised what it was that he was giving away. Layla, for her part, fared no better, for she, too, had fallen. A fire had been lit in both their hearts, one reflecting the other. And what could they do to ward off the flames? Nothing. They were children, and children accept what comes to them with little question. Love was a wine-bearer who had filled their cups to the brim, and they drank whatever he poured for them. And in due course they became intoxicated, not realising the power of the wine. The first intoxication is always the
most severe. The first fall is always the hardest. The first cut is always the deepest.

And so it went on, until they were both too far gone to turn back, entranced by a magic power whose source they did not recognise, whose magic was too great for them to fight. They drank deeply from the cup of love both night and day, and the more they drank, the deeper they became immersed in each other. Their eyes became blind and their ears became deaf to the school and the world beyond the classroom. Both Kais and Layla had lost themselves … and found each other.

BOOK: Layla and Majnun
6.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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