Nizami’s Iconic and Tragic Persian Love Story Of Layla and Majnun
Young lovers, meddling parents, and separation may be the theme, but Romeo and Juliet isn’t the story. This is the tragic Persian love story of Layla and Majnun, two lovers who’s separation did not temper their love, devotion, infatuation or obsession.
Lord Byron, however, did once refer to the story of Layla and Majnun as the Eastern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. While an apt comparison in content, this is also a misleading statement since it infers to readers that “Layla and Majnun” was written after “Romeo and Juliet” in a mocking fashion, which is not the case. Like “Romeo and Juliet,” though, the idea behind the story had been around for some time before William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) and Persia’s Nizami Ganjavi (1141 – 1209) made their respective stories iconic pieces of literary history.
A little known fact is that the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” was actually based on an Italian tale called “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet” which was written by Arthur Brooke in 1562 . This Italian tale was around long before Shakespeare expanded and developed it to become the iconic story of “Romeo and Juliet” that readers know today. Naturally, after Shakespeare’s work, there have also been numerous re-telling and adaptions of this version of the story as well.
The Influence Of The Nizami Persian Love Story Of Layla and Majnun
Nizami’s 12th century poetic composition of “Layla and Majnun” is a similar case to “Romeo and Juliet,” both before and after. Nezami’s narrative influenced a number of allusions and references in the subsequent centuries, such as Amir Khusraw Dehlawi’s 1299 “Majnun and Laili,” Abd al-Rahman Jami’s 1485 “Laili and Majnun,” and a number of films. Layla’s and Majnun’s story has been reinterpreted via many languages and throughout many poems, plays, paintings, songs, and musical compositions. The latest of which is a 70 minute long musical and dance production by director and choreographer Mark Morris.
Philosophical anecdotes surrounding the love story have illustrated a number of mystic concepts from Nezami’s work. Examples would be “the meaning of life”, “love madness”, “self sacrifice”, “annihilation” and so forth.
In Persia, poets Rudaki and Baba Taher mention the lovers in their 9th century works, but the concept of the story had already been known as far back as fifth century Arabic literature. It might’ve been a long standing anecdotal legend before Persia’s Nizami Ganjavi made his unique composition. But Nizami was the first person to vividly and extensively developed the plot and characters. His work also drew from existing Udhrite love poetry and epics like the 11th century “ Vamiq u ‘Adhra.”
Nonetheless, the main concept of previous works had only loosely connected and barely developed the these concepts. Albeit, they also focused on the same erotic abandon, unfulfilled longing, and passionate displays of love and devotion that Nizami, who also penned the tragic Persian love story Of Shirin and Khosrow, carried forward in his poetic masterpiece.
To many readers, Nizami’s addition reshaped the legends of Majnun. Nizami’s Majnun was transformed from a crudely described romantic fool, in a setting with a barely scratched surface, into the detailed quintessential tale of an idealized love story.
Nizami’s Tragic Persian Love Story Of Layla And Majnun
The story starts as the Banu ‘Amir tribe’s (for centuries after the rise of Islam, the ancient Banu Amir tribes, who originated in the southwest / central part of Arabia, dominated the area) young Qays ibn al-Mulawwah falls deeply in love with Layla bint Sa‘d, a classmate of his at maktab. As they age, Layla’s and Qays’ love develops and expounds to heights not acceptable by society.
Layla’s love is a quiet profession of feelings. In stark contrast, Qays is without filter as he very publicly, incessantly and obsessively announces his passions, in elegiac lyrics, for all to hear. He thus his spectators give him the nickname “Majnun”, which means “a crazy person” or a person who is possessed.
Majnun continues his public poetic love professions and rants on Layla’s beauty. His behavior which alarms Layla’s parents who worry about her honor, her good standing within the tribe as well as her reputation. Ultimately Layla’s parents decide there’s no recourse but to separate the two young lovers permanently.
Majnun and his father ask Layla’s father for his blessing for Majnun to marry Layla. Not wanting the scandal of his daughter marrying someone the tribe that has been referred to as a madman, her father refused immediately. Instead, Layla’s father promised her hand in marriage to a more “suitable” older man from a nearby village. This older man, Ibn Salam, is someone who Layla neither knew and naturally never loved.
Meanwhile, Majnun is overcome with rejection and grief. He abandoned his home, family, and Layla’s physical presence to roam the wilderness in solitude. He bonds with beasts / wildlife animals and continues to write obsessively about his love for Layla. While on this self imposed exile, Majnun lives a miserable and ascetic life while his existence and being are tied to Layla’s essence.
Majnun’s parents would leave food for him in hopes that he would return. but he didn’t.
In a final effort to save his son, Majnun’s father lured him to Ka’ba, a holy Muslim site. His hope was to cure his son of his obsessive love for the now married Layla. Sadly, his plot didn’t work as Majnun, took the time to plead with Allah to make him a hundred times more obsessed with Layla and their love. Passers by describe Majnun as a mute who’s been driven mad by a broken heart.
Layla, meanwhile, is a loyal and obedient daughter. Her marriage to Ibn Salam takes place as her father demands. Ibn is wealthy and shallow, making it further impossible for Layla to ever love anyone aside Majnun. She never consummates her marriage to Ibn, but she does remain a faithful, albeit completely chaste, wife. Ibn eventually dies of rejection, his own grief and disillusionment.
After Majnun’s parents pass away, Layla repeatedly asks a man claiming to have seen Majnun to tell him of his parent’s passing. Her hope was, that upon hearing of his parents death, he would return.
The man find and delivers the news to Majnun. As a result, he retreats further into depression, regret and grief. Instead of returning, Majnun vows to live his remaining time isolated in the desert.
Throughout the story, Majnun is offered many opportunities to speak with Layla. He refuses any contact, including intimacy, as he comes to believe that their love transcends physical sensuality, selfish intent and lust. In this, he views it to be the ‘perfect’ love. It’s this concept of harsh environment and ascetic lifestyle, combined with a steadfast devotion to ideal love, that readers have often compared to the rejection of earthly pleasures by Muslim mystics.
As the story draws to a close, Layla’s husband is now dead and her unwavering love for Majnun has never ceased. She allows herself hope that she could finally reunite with him and fulfill their love. Tradition, however, requires Layla to grieve for her dead husband in complete solitude for two long years.
The demand of tradition atop the previous separation from Majnun was too much for Layla to shoulder. A broken heart sickened Layla and caused her to give up on her life and hope for any future of it. As a result of her broken heart, Layla dies alone, never reuniting with her beloved Majnun.
When Majnun hears of Layla’s death, he travels to her graveside and sprawls across her grave. Having lost the only purpose for his existence, Majnun wept himself to death right there on her grave. His hope is that they could be reunited and fulfill their love in the afterlife.
Majnun And Layla: A Profound Legacy
The Nizami Ganjavi story of Majnun and Layla, just like Romeo and Juliet, has certainly left a profound legacy upon literature. The multilayered, rich, complex text of Nezami’s romance can be considered as much of a mystical reading as it is an enthralling love story poem for the ages.