Source: The Story of Layla and Majnun, by Nizami. Trans. R. Gelpke. Omega Publications, 256 Darrow Road, New Lebanon, NY 12125. Phone: 800-443-7107 or 518 794-8181. ISBN #0-930872-52-5.
Begin by reading the first two pages of the “Postscript” which begins on p. 200, where it is made clear that there are many retellings of this tragic love story. Nizami’s is perhaps the most famous (even immortalized in two songs by Eric Clapton: “Layla” and “I Am Yours”). One theory of how it evolved is that there were a number of poems in Arabic in which a poet named “Qays” complained of frustrated love for his Layla. By gleaning various details from these poems, a legend was gradually built up which imagined their story. Nizami, writing in Persian rather than Arabic, long after the legend had reached its definitive form, rendered it into an ornate romance (a long narrative of love or adventure). The original is in verse, though our translator has rendered into prose. If the writing seems rather more dense and elaborate that a modern novel, remember that this is not a novel, but a long poem.
The setting, even then, was exotic. Nizami was writing for a sophisticated urban audience in one of the richest and most sophisticated empires in the world, about a long-ago imaginary past of nomadic Arab life. But both Nizami’s and Qays’ cultures had in common that men and women were rigidly separated, marriages were arranged, and love played a much larger role in fantasy than in real life. One of your tasks is to analyze how a love story functions in a culture which discourages real-life love affairs.
A Bedouin is a nomad. A zephyr is a wind. What is the one thing lacking to make the Sayyid happy? Remember how important this is when you read the rest of the story. “Corn” here, as in all British translations, is not maize, which was unknown in Europe until after Columbus, but wheat or other cereal grains. Note how Nizami’s technique employs piling metaphor on metaphor. This sort of writing is often compared to Islamic art, elaborate patterns entirely covering the surface of the decorated object. Great delight is taken in the ingenuity with which these metaphors are crafted, and there is no imperative to “get on with” the story. “Qays” means “moon.” It used to be believed that gemstones actually emitted light rather than merely reflecting it. “Decennium”=tenth year.
What metaphors suggest that a woman’s beauty can be dangerous? What is the meaning of Layla’s name, and how does it relate to Qays’? The Qur’an strictly forbids the drinking of wine, but metaphors of intoxication are commonplace in Arabic and Persian verse, particularly in Sufi poetry. What attitudes toward “first love” seem to be conveyed here? Note how their love becomes a kind of “homework” in the final poem.
For the story of Joseph and the pit, see Genesis 37. Whereas a love like this would be considered a cute “crush” in our culture, in their culture Qays and Layla are falling into a scandalous madness. What metaphor is used for Qays’ being bound to Layla? Why does Layla’s family sequester her? What is Layla’s reaction?
Note that even as a young boy Qays/Majnun sings to console himself. How does his behavior compare with Layla’s? Does this mean that he loves her more than she loves him? Keep asking yourself these questions throughout the story. What are the main symptoms of Majnun’s lovesickness? In Medieval Persian and European thought alike, lovesickness was a disease, clinically described in medical textbooks. The tradition that links madness and poetic inspiration goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. The “Evil Eye” is a curse. Much Muslim literature reflects deep beliefs in fate.
Note how the chapter opens with the day “getting dressed.” What do the two lovers see in each others’ faces? Note the musical metaphors. Why are candles and torches appropriate metaphors here? The “whirling dervishes” are Sufi mystics whose whirling dance propels them into a state of religious ecstasy. What does the last line of the chapter mean: “He escaped from Layla in order to find her.”
A “ghazel” is a traditional song form, either secular or sacred. It spread with Persian culture to North India and is still widely popular. What effects of Qays’ madness does the narrator seem especially concerned about? What is the objection of Layla’s father to Majnun? What does it suggest about the relationship between love and marriage in this culture? How is his objection ironic?
Majnun’s dramatic rending of his garments and the repeated references to him as naked are meant to be extreme: Islamic culture strongly disapproves of nakedness, and it is never depicted in art, unlike the Greek/Roman/European tradition. How does Majnun proclaim his rejection of all human authority? What are the two opposing kinds of reactions that other people have to him? The Book of Life records all living souls: so what does it mean that Majnun’s name has been as if torn out of the Book? The bulk of this chapter is Majnun’s statement of ultimate separation from the rest of humanity. According to Nizami, what is the difference between true and false love? In what sense is Majnun’s love still alive?
The Kaaba in Mecca (spelled “Caaba” here) is the most sacred site in Islam. This ancient shrine was reputedly constructed by Abraham, cleansed of its idols by Muhammad, and is the goal of pilgrimage ( hajj ) of every pious Muslim. What does Majnun pray for when he is at the Kaaba? His reaction would have been seen as not merely rebellious but wildly blasphemous.
Why do the members of Layla’s tribe want Majnun punished?
Name one of the significant ways in which Majnun’s father urges him to heal himself. Parsley was supposed to have medicinal effects.
The exaggerated terms in which Majnun addresses his father are not meant to be blasphemous. Such exaggeration was a traditional form of respect, and the strength of Majnun’s passion can be measured by the strength of his resistance to this man whom he respects so highly. How does he use the concept of fate to argue with his father? The fable that Majnun tells resembles the famous Aesop fable of the fox and the crow, but it is only loosely connected to the boy. How does he explain what the fable means to him?
What ambiguous reaction do people have to Majnun? What effect do his poems have on his audience?
Note the violent, predatory metaphors attached to Layla at the beginning of this chapter. What attitudes do they seem to reflect? How do you think a society holding such attitudes would be liable to treat young women? Is Layla blamed for the harm she does? How is her reaction to their love different from Majnun’s? In what way does she suffer more than he? How does Layla hear constantly of Majnun’s love for her? How does their unhappiness cause happiness?
How are the nature images in the second paragraph rather unusual? What quality do they have in common? In Islamic thought Paradise is literally a garden. Why is Layla so hurt by the poem she overhears? How is Layla’s relationship with her mother similar to that of Majnun to his father? How is it different?
What is Ibn Salam’s one fatal flaw? “Inshallah”=if God is willing. Pious Muslims make no statement about the future without adding this expression to remind themselves that all is in God’s hands.
Note that Majnun’s belief that he can convey his poems to his beloved is not entirely wrong, though he is mistaken about the means. Majnun thoughtlessly commits even the sin of drinking wine in his absorption with thoughts of Layla. How does Nawfal try to heal Majnun? What causes him to be so fanatically devoted to this cause?
Note how Majnun treats all those who care the most about him.
Why is it insulting to call someone a glass bottle? The metaphor of wine as blood is a common one, especially in the Hebrew Bible. Think of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Why doesn’t Majnun join the fighting?
Note that although Majnun will not draw his real sword, he is free with “the sword of his tongue.”
What finally tires the combatants? Why would her father rather let Layla be killed than married to Majnun? What is Nawfal’s response? It doesn’t really seem to match with his previous actions. How has he changed in his attitude toward Majnun?
Note that all of Majnun’s metaphors have to do with being offered hope of winning Layla and then failing to do so. It is not so much the failure he blames Nawfal for as the hope.
Earlier it was said that Majnun had become alienated from hunting. Now we see how this change has developed. What effect does this episode seem designed to have upon the reader’s attitude toward Majnun?
Why does Majnun identify with the stag? The poem in this chapter was set to music (from this translation) by Eric Clapton in the song “I Am Yours,” on the album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The theme is a familiar one: “Every little breeze/seems to whisper ‘Louise’.” Explain the two final similes in the last sentence.
Friday is the holiest day of the week in Islam, when preaching as well as praying is done at the mosque. Note the dramatic crescendo of images of blackness.
Insane people were often kept in chains and beaten in the Middle Ages, both East and West, under the impression that the demons possessing them might be forced to flee if they were treated badly enough. How does Majnun turn his chains into a metaphor when he is crying out to Layla?
Is Layla a coward for not speaking out to her father? Explain. Go-betweens are routinely used to negotiate marriages in cultures where arranged weddings are standard. Muslims believe that Jesus could raise the dead, though they reject the Christian belief that he is the son of God. He is merely one of the greatest of the prophets. Note the boundaries of “the world” from which riches can be fetched: Byzantium to the west, China to the east; Europe is over the horizon. What does the final paragraph tell us about the values of these people? Note that Layla literally has no say in her marriage.
That a man would marry a woman without her consent should not be surprising: many cultures expect couples to marry without even speaking to each other beforehand. How does Ibn Salam’s reaction to Layla reveal unusual sensitivity? Note that in this romance there are no villains: everyone is motivated by deeply-held beliefs and feelings. Why do you think Layla can defy Ibn Salam in private although she could not reject him in public?
The wicked stranger uses the standard clichéd image of womanly unfaithfulness shared by Medieval cultures both East and West. The idea that women are more driven by desire than men is a standard feature of this image. This was directly contradicted during the Victorian age when it came to be believed that men were much more sexual than women. How do you think the earlier idea arose, and what effects would it have had on the treatment of women? It is suggested in the opening of this chapter that this figure may be a demon rather than a human. What evidence is there to support this idea?
What does the last line of his poem mean: “Yours, if I die, will be the blood that flows”?
Note that although racial prejudice is somewhat milder in the Islamic world, where many of Believers are dark-skinned, nevertheless, black is still used as a symbol of evil, just as in the West. Note that Islamic propriety does not allow even the mad Majnun to go completely naked. Why does his father call Majnun “soul of your father”? What do you think of his advice to Majnun?
Does Majnun’s reaction to his father’s death soften our reaction to his treatment of him? Explain.
Why does Majnun throw away the part of the scrap of paper with Layla’s name written on it?
What amazing influence does Majnun exercise over the animals that surround him in the wilderness? How does it influence your feelings about Majnun?
This chapter represents a typical narrative technique from traditional Islamic World literature: the story within a story. What is the lesson that the king is taught in this story?
In both the Christian and Islamic worlds, knowledge of and belief in astrology was widespread, though both Christian and Islamic theologians were often hostile to it. Belief in fate is widespread in Islam, but the planets are not to be worshipped as gods, as Majnun is doing.
Majnun learns the lesson of a good Muslim that the stars can grant nothing. Note the strong emphasis on God’s omnipotence, insisted on even more strongly in Islam than in Christianity. Majnun’s dream expresses God’s blessing and the wisdom he has gained.
Layla’s speech as reported by the old man makes clear the distinction between her situation and Majnun’s. Explain.
The king of whom Layla speaks is, of course, God. A pious Muslim will always begin a letter with praise for God, and this is an particularly elaborate example. The cucumber referred to is globe-shaped. The tearing of clothes is an ancient and widespread act of ritual mourning. Note that it is taken for granted that one can be a great poet without writing. This is essentially an oral culture.
In what way do Majnun’s praises of Layla resemble her praises of him? A “bosquet” is a small wood. What is his reaction to her letter? Is he being fair to her?
Although Majnun is described in this chapter as being stark naked, all illustrations of the romance show him wearing a loincloth. “Naked” often has a loose meaning in Islamic texts; women lacking a veil and with arms bared are commonly referred to as “naked” even today. It is difficult to know exactly what Nizami imagined, but clearly Majnun has been reduced to an almost inhuman level. Salim’s name means “sound” in the sense of “healthy.” What is the lesson taught by the “Story of the Shah and the Dervish”?
Although not all slaves in the Islamic world were black, and most Muslim blacks were not slaves, the stereotype of black slavery existed and turns up repeatedly in passages such as this. When Layla and Majnun communicate with each other they emphasize the brevity to life to console themselves; but here Majnun’s mother uses the same point to different ends. What is she arguing? How does Majnun defend himself against his mother’s pleas? What effect does her death have on your feelings about Majnun?
Is Nizami’s little sermon on the brevity of life at the end of this chapter related to earlier passages on the same theme? How?
How does Layla react to Majnun’s apology? Note that she at last breaks with her long-standing passivity.
Note that the consummation of their love is achieved through song rather than any physical gesture. Muslims believe that delicious, non-intoxicating wine will be served the Faithful in paradise.
What draws Salam to Majnun?
Halwa (or “halva” is made of ground sesame seed and sugar). Why does Majnun reject the food that Salam offers him? To a certain degree Majnun is a model, the archetype of the lover; but he is also an object lesson, a warning. Be prepared to discuss the ambiguity of his role.
“Islam” means “submission,” i. e. submission to the will of God. The opening of this chapter contains very traditional Islamic wisdom. How does Layla react to Ibn Salam’s death?
Medieval people believed that frustrated love-longing could lead eventually to death. The image of a woman being married to her grave is a common one from ancient Greek times forward.
Why do people avoid Layla’s grave?
Note that Majnun’s penultimate words are addressed to God, but his ultimate words are addressed to Layla.
What is the “pearl” that has vanished from the “white shell”? In what way could this be said to be an at least partially happy ending?
More study guides for Love in the Arts:
- Chinese and Japanese Love Poetry
- Kalidasa: Sakuntala
- Egyptian Love Poetry from the New Kingdom
- The Song of Songs
- Diane Ackerman: A Natural History of Love
- Classical Love Poems
- Ovid’s Loves, The Art of Love & The Remedies for Love
- Classic English Love Poems
- Marie de France: Lays
- Mystical Love Poetry
- Medieval Love Songs
- Renaissance Love Songs
- Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet
- Madame de Lafayette: The Princess of Clèves
- Verdi: La Traviata
- Bernstein: West Side Story
- Modern Women’s Love Poetry
- Illustrated Version of Cole Porter’s You’re the Top
Last revised 11/2/02