Long Before Shakespeare’s Doomed Youngsters, There Were Majnun and Layla

Born in the Arabian desert and raised in the courts of Persia, the tale narrates an obsessive and even dangerous love story that has gripped readers worldwide for centuries

Long Before Shakespeare’s Doomed Youngsters, There Were Majnun and Layla
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Listen to this story


In the words of Graydon Carter, “History is nothing if not an epic tale of missed opportunities.”

Take the 12 publishers who said “No, thanks” to J.K. Rowling after she offered them the first book in a series that later brought so much wealth that it barely missed hatching an actual golden egg. Or consider the British government official who passed up Thomas Edison’s lightbulb, mocking it as “unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.” Think of Hannibal’s lack of siege engines sufficient to assault Rome during the Second Punic War, a blunder that reversed his staggering victories up to that point. Or recall how journalists and German politicians in the 1920s waved away Adolf Hitler as a clownish robot, one whose vitriol about the Jews they thought was just verbal bluster.

One of history’s chances could have slipped by the 12th-century Persian poet Jamal al-Din Nezami, if not for his upstart teenage son Muhammad. Nezami was asked by Shirvanshah Akhsetan, king of what is today Azerbaijan, to do a Persian rewrite of an Arab legend: the romance of Majnun and Layla. The plot is simple enough. A young Bedouin man named Qays falls in love with his kinswoman Layla, but Layla’s father has pledged her to another man. The effect on Qays is devastating. He despairs of everything but his passion for Layla, finally losing his mind despite all efforts to revive him — hence his sobriquet Majnun, “driven mad by love.” He flees his tribal home and roams the mountains, saluting the local wildlife:

I said, Dove in the thicket! Why do you cry?

A parting from friends? A rude lover’s sigh?

Here is the Islamic world’s classic love story, the “Romeo and Juliet of the East,” as Lord Byron wrote in a footnote to “The Bride of Abydos.” Unfortunately, Nezami couldn’t have predicted the tale’s bright future. What he saw instead was little more than a soppy, sun-bleached Arab peasant. Compared with the glorious Iranian emperors of the “Shahnama,” that is, the great Persian “Book of Kings,” this Arab backwater romance had the volume turned way down.

Good thing, then, that teenagers sometimes get their words right. According to legend — we know very little of Nezami’s life — the poet’s 14-year-old son Muhammad begged him to reconsider. “Wherever love stories are told,” Muhammad said, “this one will only add more savor.” Whether it was his son’s advice or Nezami’s own fear of offending the king, something worked on the poet’s mind. He repented and wrote “Layli and Majnun,” now the best-known version of the romance, doing all of us lovesick readers a favor by launching the story to fame.

That is, to fame in the Islamic world, at least. Why don’t Westerners know Majnun and Layla better, especially since their legend predates Romeo and Juliet’s by a thousand years? Where did the story come from before Nezami, and where did it go after? Is it a cautionary tale, a psychotherapist’s case study, a sexist male fantasy or a model for would-be lovers? Above all, will newcomers to Majnun and Layla be like Nezami, missing one of history’s happy chances? Or will they be like his son Muhammad, seeing the story for the sparkling gem it is?

Sometime before the eighth century, the caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan summoned one of his court poets, Artat ibn Suhayya. 

“Will you be writing any poetry today?” asked the caliph. 

“My God, how can I?” Artat replied. “I don’t feel bittersweet, I’m not angry, I’m not drinking, and I don’t feel longing for anything. Poetry can flow only from one of these four states.” 

In a similar vein, someone asked the eighth-century love poet Kuthayyir, “Who is the greatest Arab poet?” 

Kuthayyir replied by mentioning a few good pre-Islamic men: “Imru al-Qays, when he follows his passion; Zuhayr, when he feels longing; al-Nabigha, when he senses fear; and al-Asha, when he drinks wine.” 

These stories, adapted from a translation by the Dutch Arabist Geert Jan van Gelder, reveal something that needs no explanation. For as long as people have felt love, they have felt the need to sing of love. And, as long as they’ve felt the need to sing of love, they have struggled to put that feeling into words.

Truly, love songs ancient and modern speak as much of how language fails to capture one’s passion as of the passion itself. Hence why one poet listed above by Kuthayyir, the wayfaring Imru al-Qays, who swore he would not rest until he had avenged his father’s murder, took such hard lumps from his friends. After insisting they stop and weep at his lover’s old stomping grounds, recalling a lost time in all its grainy tangibility, he has his mates say, in the translation of Desmond O’Grady, “Don’t break for heartbreak. Stick tough.” “Later, alone,” the poet confides in the reader, “I howled my eyes out at the dark. What’s left to lean together with, longing against, when life’s outlines get swept away?” These are strong emotions, but Imru al-Qays cuts no sentimental “Man of Feeling” in the vein of Henry Mackenzie: He brags about bedding women young and old, wed and unwed, mothers and daughters.

Whether as unchaste as this, starting Arabic poems with talk of love seems to be as old as Arabic poetry itself. Such openings are called “nasib” (“romantic prelude”) and poets kept at them long after they stopped having actual trysts in the desert. The great Baghdadi court poet al-Mutanabbi used amorous words symbolically about his patrons, most of all Sayf al-Dawlah, whom he pictured as a passionate beloved: a sort of ninth-century Arabian bromance. Meanwhile, Sufi mystics like the Iberian Ibn Arabi sang of the deity as a lover out of reach, but who in fact is part of the poet himself.

Still a third — and, as it relates to Majnun and Layla, more relevant — fate of the nasib is what Arabic literary history calls “udhri” love. Never published as a separate poem, the romantic opening of a poem in the late seventh century broke away like a cloven embryo and formed its own genre: “ghazal” (“amorous talk”). Set in the desert rather than the city and named for the eastern Arabian Udhra tribe to which some of the poets belonged, the udhri brand of ghazal is chaste or “courtly” love, at least in its usual pattern. The two lovers fall hard while in their youth but never touch each other. Their passion grows until there’s room for nothing else. They just sit staring at one another, singing and weeping. Finally, when pre-Islamic lovers like Imru al-Qays would have given up, udhri paramours stay true until death and beyond. The Umayyad era (661-750) love poet Jamil swears to his lover, Buthayna, that his “soul bird” will follow her “soul bird” among the graves after they die (which they will do simultaneously, of course).

Some Umayyad poets do fit this mold, like Jamil or Urwa ibn Hizam. But others don’t, like Kuthayyir, whose love lyrics end up being quite sensual. “Touch the sand, which once touched her skin,” Kuthayyir says to his comrades, pondering his lover’s body in a way that — one assumes — is not wholly chaste. In such cases, the image of “platonic” love is back-projected from the early Abbasid era (750-950). It was then that Arabic writers drew a sharp, if arbitrary, line between udhri love, being pastoral and celibate, and “umari” love, comprising an urban, erotic style named for the poet Umar ibn Abi al-Rabia. With this breach, there came a mythology of chaste udhri lovers as heroes. These are Islam’s “martyrs to love,” who, as the medievalist Mia Irene Gerhardt put it, prove “the heroism not of action, but of sentiment.” Their dogged fidelity stoked the fires of legend, and authors decorated their scanty Umayyad sources with new details. Those authors even set the tales to music, guaranteeing they would pass from one generation to the next, even as the stories inched further and further from reality.

In this setting, out of the desert and much later than the events themselves, the romance of Majnun and Layla bloomed into a full mythology. The earliest Arabic sources for the story date from this era. They don’t give an unbroken plotline but instead discrete scenes and episodes that once traveled by word of mouth. The 10th-century “Booklist” of Ibn al-Nadim says a certain Abu Bakr al-Walibi amassed what he could of Majnun’s poetry, then published it in a collection sometime in the eighth century. If Majnun actually did speak those verses, by the time al-Walibi got to them they were fully clothed in the romantic fervor of a later time.

This is how Majnun and Layla looked when Nezami came to them. Other than rewriting the tale in Persian, Nezami braided its disjointed strands into a sturdy whole. He took the story out of the desert and plopped it into the courts of Iran. In his version, the lad Qays meets Layli — Nezami pronounces Layla as “Layli” since the final Arabic vowel “ah” is written with the same shape as the long vowel “ee” — at school rather than a women’s desert soiree. The lavish wedding gifts offered by Ibn Salam, who rivals Majnun for the love of Layli, are right at home in a Persian palace but not a Bedouin campsite. Nezami also injected new characters and gave them life: the bighearted Prince Nawfal, who consoles Majnun but gets so upset on his behalf that he goes to war with Layli’s clan, or the pair of lovers Zayn and Zaynab, whose passion reflects that of Majnun and Layli. Even the writing style changed under Nezami, who took simple, declarative Arabic and crammed it full of metaphors: “Tell me I’ll see my longed-for ruby shine,” says Majnun of Layla, in the English of scholar Dick Davis, “freed from the darkness of her stony mine / Tell me the pale moon will break free at last / From the fell dragon that has held her fast.”

But most of all, Nezami took the story’s radically chaste love and made it supernatural. Majnun is so charmed by the idea of Layli that when her husband, Ibn Salam, dies from a strange disease, thus freeing her to marry Majnun, Majnun refuses the real Layli and chooses her ideal form. For her part, Layli too seems unmoved to make love with Majnun. Instead, “with a hundred gestures she caressed him” as the two sit in a humble tent and, like the poem insists, exchange kisses that are 100% lust-free. Readers could be excused for thinking this scene, if not sexual, is at least quite sensual. Again, in Davis’ English:

She fashioned from the ringlets of her hair

A garment for her silent slave to wear …

While for a baldric she clung close and pressed

Her pliant arm across his naked chest,

So tightly clasping him that seeing them

You’d say they were two roses on one stem …

Two candles melt into a single bowl

And so become one body and one soul.

Still, most Middle Easterners understand Nezami’s “Layli and Majnun” as chaste and unspoiled. More than that, they see it as a mystical symbol of the soul’s fixation, and finally union, with the divine. Did Nezami rework this Arabian tale as a Sufi allegory? This seems to be the case when Nezami has Majnun say things like, “Since I am you, why should two forms appear / And who’s to be the judge of who is here?” 

Some critics, like the Czech scholar Jan Rypka, don’t see this as Sufism, since the first half of Nezami’s text lacks such “we are one” statements but instead is a psychological study of passion and its neurotic grade. Yet whether or not the story is Sufi, one can’t ignore its ethereal love or the Islamic tinge that Nezami stirred into it.

In contrast to the spiritual, even mystical shape that Middle Easterners see in “Layli and Majnun,” Westerners often get hung up on its mental world. Even the nickname Majnun, “the lover who went mad,” conjures a host of Islamic texts about love-madness, or, as we might say today, lovesickness. The ninth-century linguist al-Asmai quotes a Bedouin who compared “excessive love” — “ishq” in Arabic — to “the latent fire in a flint, which when struck produces fire, which fire remains hidden as long as it is left alone.” In his poetry anthology “The Book of the Flower,” the 10th-century legal scholar Ibn Dawud al-Isfahani quotes Greek thinkers who see ishq as a kind of brain disease. Islamic medical texts link this malady to a second one, melancholia, or “excess of black bile,” whose signs include “all fears and despondencies, if they last a long time,” in the words of Hippocrates, writing in the fourth century BCE.

Another Muslim jurist, the 11th-century scholar Ibn Hazm, tells of how rival emotions flow into each other in his treatise on the art of love and lovemaking, “The Neck Ring of the Dove.” Here’s what he says in the section “Outward Signs of Love,” in the English of A.J. Arberry:

Opposites are of course likes, in reality; when things reach the limit of contrariety, and stand at the furthest bounds of divergence, they come to resemble one another. Thus, when ice is pressed a long time in the hand, it finally produces the same effect as fire. We find that extreme joy and extreme sorrow kill equally; excessive and violent laughter sends tears coursing from the eyes. Similarly with lovers: when they love each other with an equal ardor, and their mutual affection is intensely strong, they will turn against one another without any valid reason, each purposely contradicting the other in whatever they may say; they quarrel violently over the smallest things, each picking up every word that the other lets fall and willfully misinterpreting it. All these devices are aimed at testing and proving what each is seeking in the other.

With such strong emotions, triggered as they are by a fanciful — unrealistic? — notion of love, some might see Majnun as objectifying Layla. After all, he falls not for a woman but, especially in Nezami’s version, the image of a woman. One couldn’t fault readers for thinking of Pygmalion, the ancient Greek sculptor who falls for the ivory statue of a woman he himself made. He’s so smitten that he grows disgusted with actual women. He begs the goddess Aphrodite for a bride who is “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” In response, Aphrodite breathes life into the statue, who, at least in Ovid’s telling, bears Pygmalion a daughter, Paphos, for whom the city in modern-day Cyprus is named.

Is Majnun just another Pygmalion? A toxic man who thrives on his own fantasies and makes women his lust-toys? The story invites this reading, but that’s because it doesn’t try to be realistic. It glorifies the ideal, including the ideal man or woman, waving an impossible banner of love to rally behind. Instead of feats of strength or battlefield victories, again in the words of Gerhardt, “[the lover’s] very capacity for moral and physical suffering implies a quaint courage of its own, less spectacular, but no less impressive than the enterprising hero’s tireless energy.” This sounds like the noble suffering of Christian mystics such as Francois de Paris, the French Catholic deacon who took no food at all during Lent — he finally died from what amounted to self-starvation — and gave himself smallpox to mar his famously handsome face. “He was a practitioner of heroic asceticism,” writes the Princeton professor John V. Fleming. And if his piety seems over the top, it was no less moving to his disciples, who took him as a saint and claimed to be healed by his power from beyond the grave.

So too have Majnun and Layla, with their heroic if extreme love pangs, won themselves a devoted following. Nezami’s version took them everywhere that Persian acted as the language of prestige. The big names of classical Persian literature, like Amir Khusrau in the 13th century and Jami in the 15th century, reworked the story, sending it along into Kurdish, Pashto, Turkish, Urdu and just about every other language in the Islamic world. The 20th-century Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi wrote a play based on the story and, in the 1860s, Indian theater companies put on verse drama retellings, echoing the Abbasid taste for the tale set to music. 

The trend even went to Europe, as shown by William Reeve’s opera “Kais, or Love in the Deserts.” Indeed, for a while, the West took its own place among Majnun and Layla’s disciples, with Romantic-era writers like Byron and Isaac D’Israeli falling as hard for Layla as did Majnun. Looking to modern times, many rock-and-roll fans will know Eric Clapton’s song “Layla,” inspired by Nezami’s version of the story and born of Clapton’s obsession with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his best friend and Beatles guitarist George Harrison. And still the music plays on, with a Turkish comedy series, “Leyla ile Mecnun,” and a 2021 Indonesian Netflix film, “Layla Majnun,” that switches up the gender roles: A female scholar named Layla falls for an admirer of her work, Samir, but chafes against the bonds of her arranged marriage.

Now, like Nezami, will the West rediscover Majnun and Layla after some good-faith prodding? Is there room for their story next to that other hopeless couple, Romeo and Juliet? Maybe Shakespeare’s shadow is too long for that. And maybe we have lost our taste for the kind of love that eats everything in its path. “Healthy boundaries” is today’s watch phrase, and for good reason. But on the other hand, maybe old-fashioned self-sacrifice — freely chosen, never imposed — still carries some weight if it lets us step outside ourselves. “Love will undo the tangled knot of being,” says Zayd, the mirror image of Majnun in Nezami’s retelling. “Love saves us from the whirlpool of self-seeing.”

This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy