In every heart, there is an inclination to love her.
Her tresses are like the night, and her name is Laylā.Ḥakīm Neẓāmī Ganğavī
In Arabia of the late 7th century, among the political turmoil, the conquests, the renovation of religion, and the new idea of the Arab People, it stands one story, out of times, as only the archetypical stories can do, the one sang by Qays Ibn Mu’āḏ or Ibn al-Mulawwaḥ, best known as Mağnūn Laylā. Wandering among the dunes of the desert, he sings love poems for his beloved, Laylā bint Sa’d. He brings to our minds rather images from Pre-Islamic Arabia and from the famous poems of the Ğahiliyya, the Mu’allaqāt, than the images of the urban poetry that would be famous in the following ages of Islām. Ibn Qutaība considered his Qasidas as among the most beautiful ones, while Ibn al-‘Arabī considered Mağnūn poems as ”refined poetry”.
The firsts accounts of the story are reported by Arab poet Ibn Qutaība (828-889) in his “Kitāb al-ši’rwa l-šu’arā’”, then elaborated in a complete version in the 10th century by Abū al-Farağ Al-Iṣfahānī (897 967), a famous writer from Baġdād, in his book “Kitāb al-‘Aġānī”. There is also another Arab source, the “Dīwān Mağnūn Laylā” by Abū Bakr Al-Wālibī, during the 11th and 12th centuries, written just before the complete narration of this love story, the one by Neẓāmī Ganğavī (1188). All these different versions report with some changes and additions are the same narrative core about the love between Qays and Laylā. Their love starts most of the time when they are children, herding sheep together or at school, as the more urban version of Neẓāmī tells us.
In the wave of passion, their love inebriates them and their hearts are overwhelmed by its force. When this became too evident, when the poems that Qays was singing for her became known and her name was found in them, everybody started talking about their love. It became a shameful thing, as the most beautiful love became the way of their damnation.
The veil of their love was torn apart. From that moment, they were not allowed anymore to see each other and the Laylā’s family banished Qays. Qays, who then could just steal glances at Laylā, was brought to madness, his love was burning him inside out and he could not resist, then he became crazy in love with Laylā, he became Mağnūn Laylā. He started wandering around singing poems for Laylā, crying and spending his nights in front of Laylā’s house, kissing the doorstep.
Laylā was forced by her family to marry another man, Ibn al-Salām. Mağnūn thought that she had betrayed him but a letter from Laylā revealed to him the secret love that she still kept for him. This hidden passion could not be endured forever and her pain brought Laylā to death. When Mağnūn discovered her death, he died as well, lying on Laylā’s tomb, with these last verses glorifying their love:
This story may be read as the one of a very traditional love, but under the surface, we can find a deeper level of reading, this poem conveying a different message. The first aspect that we should look at, is the paradigmatic dimension of this story, which made possible for it to survive for so long, to be reproduced in so many versions, to be so popular, while keeping its first meaning.
Behind the surface of the story, we find the idea of a clash between the individual and the society, exemplified in this case through a love story, used as the plan of opposition between these two elements. The fact that the characters, especially Mağnūn, were not clearly identifiable in history and the fact that we are not sure of their existence makes the idea of an archetypical figure even stronger. Everybody can identify himself with this story, and try to find a comparison of his situation. Therefore, the opposition between the individual dimension and the social one articulate itself in this story about the love between Qays and Laylā.
The problem in the poem is not the love between the two, but the fact that it was discovered. From this discovery, their love became a problem. It is the judgment of other people, who started talking about it, that brought to the prohibition of it. So not the fact itself, but the social perception of it.
The prohibition of this love is the reason of Qays’s madness, and his pain caused by the separation from his beloved one is seen as madness from other people, who started calling him Mağnūn.
This moral condemnation of love by society came from the breaking of social conventions. Qays, in his poems for Laylā, mentioned her name without using a pseudonym, contrary to the tradition in those times. So the problem is about the expression of the love between the two, which did not follow conventional ways. The unconventional way this love was expressed is the central problem.
What Laylā and Mağnūn taught us, in the end, is the difficulty of loving in our own way, but still the importance of doing it, since the characters stayed truthful to their ideas, even if it made them suffer. Their example is not teaching us what we should love or the way we should love but is teaching us the freedom of love.
By Pietro Menghini
A. R. Gibb, J. H. Kramers, E. Lévi-Provençal, J. Schacht (Edited by), The Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden E.J. Brill, 1986