Laylâ and Majnûn is the best-known love story of the Middle East, and for the Sufi is an allegory of mystical love. Sufis are lovers of God, wayfarers travelling through the desert of the world, making the journey from separation back to union with God. For these mystics the relationship with God is that of lover and Beloved, and it is the longing for their Beloved that turns them away from the world, drawing them deeper and deeper into the mystery of the heart. These lovers of God have made Laylâ and Majnûn their own story, full of symbols and images of this great love affair of the soul, a love affair as mad, dangerous and destructive as that experienced by the young man Qays, whose love for Laylâ changes his name to Majnûn, the mad one.
Laylâ is the beloved, Majnûn the lover, and his story is that of the seeker consumed by longing, burnt by love. In Nizami's version, written at the end of the twelfth century, their relationship is rich in Sufi symbolism—as when Majnûn, driven by the pain of separation, creeps to Laylâ's tent:
All the radiance of this morning was Laylâ, yet a candle was burning in front of her, consuming itself with desire. She was the most beautiful garden and Majnûn was a torch of longing. She planted the rose bush; he watered it with his tears.
.... Laylâ could bewitch with one glance from beneath her dark hair, Majnûn was her slave and a dervish dancing before her. Laylâ held in her hand the glass of wine scented with musk. Majnûn had not touched the wine, yet he was drunk with its sweet smell.(1)
The candle held against the light of the sun is a Sufi image of the light of the lover before the radiance of God. Majnûn is the lover, consuming himself like a candle in the fire of his own longing, and his beloved holds in her hand the wine of love whose very scent intoxicates him. For the Sufi wine is a symbol of a divine love that is both intoxicating and addictive. Just one sip of the wine of divine love and one will give away everything for another sip. This wine is the most dangerous substance in creation, which is why the Sufi says, "Keep away, keep away, from the lane of Love."
The glass of wine offered by Laylâ, that wine that belongs to the heart and was made "before the creation of the vine," is the Beloved's gift that makes the lover, like Majnûn, "a slave and a dervish." Sufis are often known as the slaves of God—they belong only to their Beloved. They are the bondsmen of love.
This love is the greatest secret of creation, a substance within the heart that, when awakened by the glance of the Beloved, begins the mystical transformation of the lover, a transformation that finally reveals the secret of union, that lover and Beloved are one. This is the journey that Majnûn is drawn to make, helpless in the hands of love. Even the sweet smell of this intoxicating substance is enough to make him drunk.
Qays and Laylâ begin with the innocence of childhood sweethearts, but only too soon they are separated, and the pain of separation turns Qays into Majnûn. The pain of separation—that we are separate from God, the lover separate from the Beloved—is at the very foundation of mystical life. Rûmî begins the Mathnawî with the cry of the reed torn from the reed bed, a cry that is echoed in the plaintive wail of the reed flute played by the dervish:
Listen to the reed how it tells a tale, complaining of separations,
Saying, "Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed, my lament has caused man and woman to moan.
It is only to a bosom torn by severance that I can unfold the pain of love-desire.
Everyone who is left far from his source wishes back the time when he was united with it."(2)
Anyone who has entered the lane of love, who has been awakened to this love affair, has felt this pain within the heart. Nothing is more painful than the primal sorrow of separation, this cry of the soul. It is said that Sufism was "at first heartache, only later it became something to speak about." And the ninth-century Sufi, Râbi'a of Basra, who is attributed as introducing the theme of divine love into early Islamic mysticism, described how this heartfelt grief can only be healed by divine union:
The source of my grief and loneliness is deep in my breast.
This is a disease no doctor can cure.
Only union with the Friend can cure it.(3)
All lovers know this pain that tears apart the very fabric of one's being, the longing that makes one bleed tears of love. And this longing is infinitely precious because it draws one directly back to God. To quote the ninth-century Sufi Bâyezîd Bistâmî:
If the eight Paradises were opened in my hut, and the rule of both worlds were given in my hands, I would not give for them that single sigh which rises at morning-time from the depth of my soul in remembering my longing for Him.(4)
Majnûn has become the slave of love and a prisoner of longing. His longing, this divine sickness of the soul, has begun its work of breaking him free from the chains of normal existence, from the conditioned life of the ego:
O who can cure my sickness? An outcast I have become. Family and home where are they? No path leads back to them and none to my beloved. Broken are my name, my reputation, like a glass smashed on a rock; broken is the drum which once spread the good news, and my ears now hear only the drumbeat of separation.(5)
Longing is the feminine side of love, the cup waiting to be filled. It is so potent because it bypasses the mind and the ego and speaks directly to the heart. It does not allow argument, but like a magnet pulls us homeward, away from our attachments, our identity, our self. This why the lover prays for the longing to increase. The prayer of Ibn 'Arabî was "Oh Lord, nourish me not with love but with the desire for love."(6) Majnûn cries the same prayer when he is with his father at the Holy Kaaba in Mecca:
They tell me: "Crush the desire for Laylâ in your heart!" But I implore thee, oh my God, let it grow even stronger…My life shall be sacrificed for her beauty, my blood shall be spilled freely for her, and though I burn for her painfully, like a candle, none of my days shall ever be free of this pain. Let me love, oh my God, love for love's sake, and make my love a hundred times as great as it was and is!(7)
This is the path of love that has chosen Majnûn, that has made him appear mad in the eyes of the world but become a figure of mystical love in the tradition of the Sufis.(8)
As an ideal of lovers Majnûn is seen by the Sufis as embodying many of the qualities of the lover. His very madness images how, in the words of 'Attâr, "When love comes reason disappears. Reason cannot live with the folly of love."(9)
Love for God makes the wayfarer mad in the eyes of the world. We seek an invisible Beloved and would give away everything, every possession, our reputation, even our sense of self, for this crazy passion of the soul. We become one-pointed, like Majnûn, wanting nothing but another glimpse of our Beloved. And one of the qualities of the lover is to stay true to the beloved, whatever diversion or attraction is offered:
A king has Majnûn summoned and presents him with a number of beautiful girls in the hope that when he sees them, he'll forget his insane love for Laylâ. Majnûn doesn't deign to look upon the girls, and says: "Love stands upright in my soul with a drawn sword in its hand and threatens to kill me if I cast a glance at anyone but Laylâ."(10)
Another quality of mystical love is that the object of our love, our Beloved, becomes an inner reality that lives within our heart and soul. Eventually Majnûn no longer seeks the outer Laylâ, because the inner Laylâ within his heart is his real desire. He has created an image of Laylâ within himself and focused his attention on this object of his imagination. Many lovers create an image of their beloved that consumes their attention, but they still long for the outer, physical person of the one they love. But for the Sufi, as for Majnun, it is the image of the Beloved within our heart that is our sole focus.
Sufis have also developed the use of the imagination as a means of making the transition from the outer world of the senses to the inner world of the soul; Ibn 'Arabî speaks of the imagination as a bridge between the world of visibility ('âlam al-shahâdat) and the world of Mystery ('âlam al-ghayb). Through the faculty of active or creative imagination we can have access to an intermediary, symbolic world that is a stepping stone to the reality of the soul.(11) The use of the imagination in this way makes perceptible the symbolic essence of a material form, as it exists in the world of Mystery. The inner, ideal Laylâ is no fantasy, but an inner reality that nourishes Majnûn.
Through meditating on the image of the Beloved the lover is nourished from within, from a deeper and more lasting reality than the transient outer world of forms. The reality of the soul comes into the consciousness of the lover, speaking of the deeper mystery that exists within the heart. What might appear as a subjective state of imagining is actually a way to access the objective reality of love in its true sense. Through the image of the beloved, love grows within the heart. In the words of Rûmî:
A lover is a marvelous thing, for he receives strength, grows and gains vitality from the Image of his Beloved. Why is this surprising? The image of Laylâ gave constant strength to Majnûn and became his food. When the image of a derivative beloved possesses the potency and effective power to strengthen the lover, why do you wonder that the True Beloved's Image should bestow strength upon the lover, both in his outward form and in the Unseen world?(12)
Love itself, rather than any external object of love, is the desire of the lover. And through the image of Laylâ Majnûn has begun to access a deeper, more overwhelming truth of love—that this love is not limited to a single form. The inner Laylâ consumes Majnûn's attention to such a degree that finally he seeks and finds her everywhere, until all that exists for him is Laylâ. The tenth-century Sufi Sarrâj describes this state:
When the innermost soul and heart of the one in love is completely overwhelmed by thought of the person he's in love with, he describes all his situations with the characteristics of the beloved. As was the case with Majnûn of the Banû 'Âmir: if he looked at the wild animals, he would say "Laylâ", if he looked at the people, he would say: "Laylâ", and if anyone asked him: "What's your name and how are you?" he would say "Laylâ."(13)
For the mystic this intense inner identification with the Beloved becomes a state in which the Beloved is seen everywhere in the inner and outer worlds, until finally one reaches the stage in which "Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God."(14)
Paradoxically, the intense focus on the image of the Beloved and the power of this love mean that the lover is initially unable to endure the actual presence of the Beloved. Part of the process of the Sufi path is to make us strong enough to bear the beauty, the light and power, of our Beloved. Until then, like Majnûn, we cannot suffer to be in the presence of Laylâ, as Ahmad Ghâzzalî relates in a story about the lovers:
The people of Majnûn's tribe came together and said to Laylâ's people: "This man will be destroyed out of love. What harm would it do if he were allowed to see Laylâ once?" They answered: "We've nothing against this, but Majnûn himself doesn't have the strength to endure seeing her." They brought Majnûn and lifted the curtain over the door of Laylâ's tent. One could still scarcely make out Laylâ's shadow, when Majnûn, true to his name (the madman), collapsed by the door. They said, "It's just as we told you. He doesn't have the strength to see her."(15)
In fact one of the important reasons to have a teacher on the Sufi path is to lead one gradually, step by step, from the darkness of the nafs, the ego and the lower self, into the dazzling light of divine presence. For one who is unprepared, exposure to too much spiritual light can be overwhelming and very destructive to the fragile consciousness of the ego that enables one to live in the outer world. 'Attâr, describing Majnûn's inability to bear even the sight of Laylâ's tent, explains:
Only someone accustomed to the light of beauty is able to endure it. Thus the diver first accustoms his child to the water until, being used to swimming and diving, it's capable of seeking pearls. The women in Egypt, who weren't used to the sight of Joseph, cut their hands with the knife for peeling oranges when they suddenly saw him. And they forgot to eat and drink for forty days. Zulaykha didn't fall into such a state because she'd grown accustomed to the sight of Joseph.(16)
The spiritual world of divine presence is so different from the limited world of our everyday consciousness—it is full of unlimited love and light which the ego can find difficult to grasp or understand. The mind can be made crazy by the infusion of this energy. It is enough that one sip of the wine of divine love opens the lover to this inner reality, intoxicating and confusing. This is why the Sufi speaks of states of bewilderment, or the "valley of astonishment," that arise when one is exposed to a spiritual reality one has no way of understanding.
In the hands of a spiritual master the wayfarer is gradually trained to be present in a world of light without becoming completely mad. We are given the inner container that we need in order to live in both worlds, the inner world of the spirit and the outer world of forms. Even then on the path there are times of intense spiritual bewilderment, an immersion in states of unity or non-existence that the mind cannot comprehend. 'Attâr describes such a state:
He who has achieved unity forgets all and forgets himself. If he is asked: "Are you or are you not? Have you or have you not the feeling of existence? Are you in the middle or on the border? Are you mortal or immortal?" he will reply with certainty: "I know nothing, I understand nothing, I am unaware of myself. I am in love, but with whom I do not know. My heart is at the same time both full and empty of love."(17)
It can take many years on the path to learn to bear such states, to be able to live in a state of inner nearness or unity and at the same time fulfill our duties in the world, with our family and job. That is why at the beginning, as it was with Majnûn, it is easier to stay with the image of our Beloved than to directly experience the divine presence. In one passage from the story, Majnûn faints when he merely glimpses Laylâ's shadow—he cannot bear even the reflection of her presence.
The inner image and the path itself lead us gradually along; love draws us slowly from separation back to union. More and more the feeling of love consumes us. So many tears we cry, so many nights we are kept awake with longing. So many days we feel, like Majnûn, helpless, desolate, abandoned by love. The joys, pleasures and attachments of the outer world fall away, and we walk the same desert that Majnûn trod, crying like him, "I have sold my life for love's sake."(18)
In our suffering we can forget that these are the ancient stages of the path, the signs of the journey of the heart. We know only an impossible desire for a love that has been awakened within us. This love is the fire that destroys us, that burns away the ego and all sense of our self. This is the traditional path of fanâ, the annihilation of the ego through the power of love. The Sufi knows this dark side of love. Love may be sweet and tender, intoxicating and blissful. But it is also painful and cruel, cutting away the attachments that bind us to this world and veil us from our Beloved. As Rûmî writes:
"The Beloved is so sweet, so sweet," they repeat;
I show them the scars where His polo-stick thrashed me.
"The Beloved is terrible, a maniac," they wail;
I show them my eyes, melting in His tender passion.(19)
Majnûn knows mainly the cruelty of love, the longing that drives him into the desert of desolation, that makes him lose his family, his father, even his own name. Interestingly the name Laylâ means the dark one, which in the culture of the Middle East suggests that she is not even beautiful, but could also allude to this dark side of love, the love that annihilates the lover.
Majnûn, consumed by love, ceases to exist. He becomes so absorbed by the object of his love that the lover and the beloved become one. In such a state there is no longer any separation: "If you knew what it means to be a lover, you would realize that one only has to scratch him and out falls the beloved."(20) Rich with his love, Majnun cares for nothing else. In the wilderness he lives on roots, grass and fruit, and having died to himself is afraid of nothing. The wild beasts sense his unusual power, and, rather than attack him, befriend him. They forget their hunger and become tame and friendly. The fox, the wild ass, the lion, the wolf and the panther travel with him and are his companions, watching over him when he sleeps. Majnûn's love transforms the wildest animals, suggesting that within the lover the deepest, wildest instinctual forces are transformed through the power of love. These instinctual energies are not tamed by force or will power, as in the path of the ascetic, but by love itself.
Majnun cares only for love. He speaks his love poems to the wind; others hear them and he attains fame as a poet. But to those who have not experienced it the words cannot convey the real depth of longing in Majnun's heart. A young, romantic poet who comes to visit him mistakes it for the youthful passion of romance. For Sufis, as for Majnun, there is no comparison: romantic feelings, while they can point us towards love, are like the moth that, seeing a lamp from afar, tries to describe the quality of fire—only the moth that has flown into the fire and been burnt to ashes knows its real nature. Majnun, speaking from the pure, annihilating fire of his love, makes this distinction very clear:
Who do you think I am? A drunkard? A love-sick fool, a slave of my senses, made senseless by desire? Understand: I have risen above all that, I am the King of Love in majesty. My soul is purified from the darkness of lust, my longing purged of low desire, my mind free from shame. I have broken the teeming bazaar of the senses in my body. Love is the essence of my being. Love is fire and I am wood burnt by the flame. Love has moved in and adorned the house, my self tied up its bundle and left. You imagine that you see me, but I no longer exist: what remains is the beloved...(21)
The power of love works within the heart, consuming everything that separates us from God. When Rûmî summed up his whole life in the phrase "I burnt, and burnt, and burnt,"(22) he was not speaking in poetic metaphor; he was describing the actual inner experience of someone who has made this journey of love.
For the Sufi love is a fire that burns away the impurities of our lower nature, our desires and finally all sense of a separate, individual ego self. On the altar of the heart the lover sacrifices everything: all qualities that belong to the ego are consumed. That is why the Sufi says, "Nothing is possible in love without death." This is the death of the ego, our individual ego consciousness, which separates us from our Beloved—and so for the lover this ego has to be killed, consumed by love. The path of love is the ancient tradition that uses the power of love to destroy the ego self, as expressed by the hadîth "to die before you die." What remains when all else has been burnt away is the Beloved.
Majnûn describes the truth that is at the heart of the mystical journey: the love that destroys the ego self is the love that reveals the eternal presence of the Beloved within one's heart. The illusion of separation is burnt away and the reality of union remains. When the ego is gone the Beloved is present. From the very beginning of the journey the lover knows that it is the "I" that separates us from God, as in the words of the prince of lovers, al-Hallâj,
Between you and me there lingers an "It is I" which torments me
Ah! lift this "It is I" from between us both!(23)
But to remove this "I" is the most painful and difficult process, the work of a lifetime of love. This is the process of fanâ, annihilation, that leads to baqâ, abiding in God. The Sufi poets have described this as a burning away of the veils that separate us from God, from the primal union that exists within the heart. This union of lover and Beloved is what all wayfarers long for, as expressed in the verses, which although anonymous, are attributed at times to both al-Hallâj and Majnûn:
I'm he whom I love, and he whom I love is I. We're two souls which have taken up residence in one body. If you see me you see him, and if you see him you see us.(24)
The path of love is a journey from the ego with its illusion of separation, to the truth of divine oneness, the complete identification with the Beloved. This can be seen as heretical, and some Sufis like al-Hallâj have been persecuted at the hands of the orthodoxy.(25) But this quality of divine love is the cornerstone of Sufism. Sufis have been referred to as "the people of the secret" because they know and live this secret of divine unity.
Love is a divine energy within the heart, and although it may initially be projected onto an outer figure, its mystical potency is to permeate the whole human being and reveal the complete presence of the Beloved. The words of Rûmî echo the experience of Majnûn:
Love has come and it flows like blood beneath my skin, through my veins.
It has emptied me of my self and filled me with the Beloved.
The Beloved has penetrated every cell of my body.
Of myself there remains only a name, everything else is Him.(26)
Rûmî's journey began when he met his beloved Shams, the wandering dervish who set fire to his heart with divine love. For Rûmî Shams was the sun that lighted his life. But then one night Shams disappeared, never to return, possibly murdered by Rûmî's younger son. Plunged into desolation with the loss of the "Sun of Truth," Rûmî searched everywhere for Shams, until at last he "found him in himself, radiant like the moon."(27) In outer separation he discovered the inner oneness of lover and beloved:
Although we are far from him in the flesh—without body or soul, we are both one and the same light—you can see him if you like or you can see me. I am him, he is me, O seeker! Why do I say me or him, when he is myself and I am he? Yes, all is him and I am contained in him.(28)
From the terrible pain of this separation was finally born this inner union as he found Shams within his own heart. Inwardly united with Shams, the theology professor became love's poet.
This is the same journey Majnûn makes, from separation back to union. His poems emerged from love's desolation, and this pure pain revealed the mystical secret of love's oneness: lover and beloved are one. Love's fire has conquered and consumed the ego. The outer form of the lover may remain, but inwardly the beloved is the only reality: "You imagine that you see me, but I no longer exist: what remains is the beloved."
Laylâ and Majnûn is a story about a pair of star-crossed lovers, whose unfulfilled love has tragic consequences. Laylâ dies young of a broken heart, and Majnûn spends the last days of his life at Laylâ's tomb, weeping, mourning the loss of her, until finally he is buried at Laylâ's side.(29) But the Sufis have infused this story with the symbolism of the mystical journey back to God. Sufism is a love affair with God in which the glance of the Beloved awakens the longing of the heart, the primal pain of separation. Majnûn, whose heart is awakened by Laylâ, has become the mystical lover crying tears of separation from his beloved. Every wayfarer is like Majnûn, whose tears draw him into the desert, where love transforms him. Love burns away all sense of separation, finally revealing the truth that lover and Beloved are one. This oneness with the Beloved is traditionally the secret of the Sufis, these wayfarers of the heart's tears. They know the cry of the heart and experience the death of the ego that awakens the lover into the presence of the Beloved—the mystery of merging where all separation dissolves and there is only God.
(8) Qushayri writes: "Someone saw Majnûn of the Banû 'Amir in a dream and asked him: "What has God the sublime done with you?" He said: "He has forgiven me and made me the ideal for lovers." Quoted by Helmut Ritter in The Ocean of the Soul , trans. John O'Kane (Boston: Handbook of Oriental Studies, 2003), p. 384.
(10) 'Attâr, Helmut Ritter, The Ocean of the Soul, p. 389. In his Tadkkirat-al-Auliya (Memorial of the Saints) 'Attâr (or now thought to be a later author than 'Attâr), tells a story of the ninth-century Sufi Dhû'l Nûn, who, when trying to heal the grief within his heart, is confronted by the jealousy that God has over His lovers:
I was wandering in the mountains when I observed a party of afflicted folk gathered together.
"What befell you?" I asked.
"There is a devotee living in a cell here," they answered. "Once every year he comes out and breathes on these people and they are all healed. Then he returns to his cell, and does not emerge again until the following year."
I waited patiently until he came out. I beheld a man pale of cheek, wasted and with sunken eyes. The awe of him caused me to tremble. He looked upon the multitude with compassion. Then he raised his eyes to heaven, and breathed several times upon the afflicted ones. All were healed.
As he was about to retire to his cell, I seized his skirt. "For the love of God," I cried. "You have healed the outward sickness; pray heal the inward sickness."
"Dhû -l-Nûn," he said, gazing at me, "Take your hand from me. The Friend is watching from the zenith of might and majesty. If He sees you clutching to another than He, He will abandon you to that person, and that person to you, and you will each perish at the other's hand."
So saying, he withdrew into his cell.
('Attâr, Muslim Saints and Mystics, trans. A.J. Arberry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 93-4)
(13) Quoted by Ritter, The Ocean of the Soul, p. 421. The lover who sees the name of the beloved all around is imaged in another famous love story, Yusuf and Zulaikha, which the Sufis also use as an allegory of divine love. Like Majnun's, Zulaikha's path is total absorption in her beloved Yusuf. Rûmî describes how she loves him so much that everything is he:
Zuleika let everything be the name of Joseph, from celery seed
to aloes-wood. She loved him so much, she concealed his name
in many different phrases, the inner meanings
known only to her. When she said, The wax is softening
near the fire, she meant, My love is wanting me.
Or if she said, Look the moon is up, or The willow has new leaves,
or The branches are trembling, or The coriander seeds
have caught fire, or The roses are opening,
or The king is in a good mood today, or Isn't that lucky,
or The furniture needs dusting, or
The water carrier is here, or It's almost daylight, or
These vegetables are perfect, or The bread needs more salt,
or The clouds seem to be moving against the wind,
or My head hurts, or My headache's better,
anything she praises, it's Joseph's touch she means,
any complaint, it's his being away.
When she's hungry, it's for him. Thirsty, his name is a sherbet.
Cold, he's a fur. This is what the Friend can do
when one is in such love. Sensual people use the holy names
often, but they don't work for them.
The miracle Jesus did by being the name of God,
Zuleika felt in the name of Joseph.
(Trans. John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Open Secret Putney, Vermont: Threshold Books, 1984, p. 82.)
I would love to kiss you
The price of this kissing is your life
Now my love is running toward my life shouting
What a bargain, let's buy it.
(Trans. Kabir Helminski, The Rumi Collection, Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998, pp. xx-xxi.)
(25) Traditionally Al-Hallâj was crucified because of his heretical statements, such as "I am he whom I love." Even his friend Shibli said at the time of his execution, "God gave you access to one of His secrets, but because you made it public He made you taste the blade" (Quoted by Massignon, Volume 1, p. 610). One of the first Sufis to openly proclaim the mystical truth of divine oneness he was known as "love's martyr" after he was crucified in Baghdad in 922. However, Massignon argues that the real reason for his execution was political not spiritual.
(29) There is a final chapter of Nizami's version (not translated by Gelpke) in which a secondary character, Zayd, is granted a vision in which he sees the couple together in heaven, where they live happily ever after.