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Layli and Madjnun
In Persian Literature

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The poems of Madjnun and tales of his love Layli, also became part of the Persian literary tradition, where they were used in various ways. Lines of poetry referring to the plight of Madjnun occur quite frequently in Persian prose works.

In 1188 AD Nezami of Gandja versified the story of Layli and Madjnun in about ten thousand lines, and in mathnawi ["masnavi"; meaning couplets] form as part of the set of stories known as the "Khamsa" [the five tomes of poetical works]. In the introduction to his poem he states that he accepted the assignment with some hesitation. At first he doubted whether this tale of madness and wanderings through the wilderness would be suitable for the royal court. He adapted the disconnected stories to fit the requirements of a Persian romance. They were joined together into a coherent narrative which describes the development of a frantic love affair from the scene of the first meeting of the two lovers till the death of Madjnun at the grave of Layli.

In some respects, the Bedouin setting of the original has been changed under the influence of urban conditions more familiar to the poet and his audience. A brief description of Nezami's "Layli and Madjnun" is given below:

The young lovers become acquainted at maktab [traditional school] and fall desperately in love. Madjnun (Qays) is so besotted with love for Layli that he can not conceal his emotions. He begins to write poetry describing his love for her, and recites his poems to every passer-by.

Madjnun's father tries to ask for Layli's hand on his son's behalf, but Layli's father refuses as he believes that Madjnun is a madman who is destroying his daughter's reputation by his open declarations of love on every street corner. Madjnun's father then takes him on a pilgrimage, but he can not forget Layli and his madness intensifies.

Layli and Madjnun in school

"Layli and Madjnun in school"
Persian Miniature, Herat Style
( 15th - 16th Century )

In the mean time, Layli is unable to leave her house, as Madjnun's poems have made her the subject of people's gossip. Layli's father is intent on keeping them apart at all cost. A man by the name of Ebn-e Salaam asks Layli's father for her hand in marriage, but is told that she is too young and he should come again in a few years' time.

Madjnun leaves everything and heads for the wilderness living a miserable life. No one can console him, not even the generous Nawfal, who in Nezami's version is a prince in the Iranian style rather than an Arab official. Nawfal tries to give Madjnun advice, but when he does not succeed he is so saddened by his plight that he even goes to war with Layli's clan, demanding that Layli and Madjnun should be united. However, even when Layli's clan is defeated, her father refuses to allow his daughter to marry Madjnun. He says that Madjnun has destroyed his daughter's reputation, ["...not a wind passes without uttering my daughter's name..."] and he would rather kill her than give her to him. Nawfal realises that he can not pursue the matter any longer, and Madjnun leaves once again.

Time passes, and with Nawfal no longer appearing as a threat, Layli has many suitors. Ebn-e Salaam uses the opportunity and returns to ask for Layli's hand, and this time he is successful. They are married and he takes Layli to his own home. Madjnun is devastated when he hears the news and sinks further within himself refusing to return home to his family.

Madjnun's father dies of a broken heart. Madjnun had been his only son, and he had loved him dearly.
Madjnun is torn apart with the news of his father's death and heads back to the wilderness living among the wild animals.

Although Layli is married, she has not forgotten Madjnun, and her love for him is as strong as before. She sends a letter to Madjnun trying to console him after his father's death. She also explains that her husband knows she does not love him and she will always remain faithful to Madjnun.

Madjnun watching the battle of Nawfal with Layli's Clan

"Madjnun watching the Battle of
Nawfal with Layli's Clan"
Persian Miniature, Herat Style

Shortly after, Madjnun's mother also dies and Layli sends him a message through an old man who has met him on his wanderings, to come and visit her. Madjnun returns, and the lover's see each other once more. However, Layli's husband has always loved her, and knowing that he can never win her love, falls ill and dies. Tradition demands that a widow must remain in her house for two years and not see any one in that period. Layli can not bear the thought of living without Madjnun any longer and consumed with sorrow, she dies. When Madjun hears the news of Layli's death, his world comes to an end. He visits her grave, weeps desperately and dies.

Several features mark this new adaptation of the romance. Specimens of nature poetry were used to emphasise, symbolically, important points in the development of the plot: a description of a palm bush in spring where Layli sits in the flower of her youth; of the night at the moment of Madjnun's deepest despair; of autumn at the time of Layli's death. Much attention is given to Madjnun's role as a poet. In several places, ghazals [ode or sonnet] are quoted in the text, which in metre and rhyme are adjusted to the prosodic characteristics of the mathnawi. It is quite evident that, to Nizami, the subject matter was not least interesting because of its emblematic possibilities. His poem is, therefore, a didactic work as well as a narrative. The former quality is noticeable in the frequent asides containing reflections on such themes as asceticism, the vanity of this world, death and, of course, love in its various aspects, including its transformation into mystical love.

This version of Layli and Madjnun was the starting point of a long series of imitations, which were written in almost any language of the area where the cultural influence of Persian literature made itself felt. No more than a few of these imitations can be regarded as valuable literary works in their own right and have apparently enjoyed the interest of a wide public over a long period. One of the first among them was the Madjnun and Layli of Amir Khusrow Dehlavi written in 1299 AD as part of a complete imitation of the Khamsa. The poem by Jami completed in 1484, almost exhausts the contents of the original source, and is closer to the Arabic tradition.

Contemporaries of Jami were his nephew Hatifi and Maktabi of Shiraz. The former's poem was a particular favourite with the Ottoman poets and was translated into Turkish. The Layli and Madjnun of the latter continued to be read till recent times and was printed repeatedly in Iran and India. However, Nezami's version still remains the most famous and the most quoted.


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