Many love stories have been told throughout history. The strength of love enables one to fight deadly enemies, accomplish unbearable tasks, and unite with the beloved. They all have common points: two people fall in love and beat all odds to be married (being happy). An outside source (family members or relatives), an enemy, or an awkward social situation usually keeps them apart. Cinderella was poor and unnoticed, Sleeping Beauty was poisoned by a witch, and Romeo and Juliet's families were eternal enemies.
Regardless of the modern mockery of these foolish lovers, one can find a deeper meaning in some of these stories. The mystic interpretation of Leyla and Mejnun, a well-known seventh-century Arab love tale, brings a different shade to the unforgettable theme: love. This story is quite original. As usual, they fall in love, are separated by their families, and continue to love each other. There is even a happy ending. The originality comes from the Sufi (mystical) interpretation of this love, a love that transforms love for a person into love for the Divine.
Many interpretations and versions of this story have come from Arab, Persian, and Turkish poets. The Turkish poet Fuzuli writes: Leyla and Qays (later called Mejnun) meet in childhood at school. As they grow up, their love becomes obvious. Leyla's father forbids her to attend school and see Qays, for their obvious love is a very inconvenient situation in Bedouin culture. Leyla's father rejects Qays when the latter's father seeks permission for his son to marry Leyla. Overcome by grief, Qays goes mad. Nicknamed Mejnun (the obsessed, mad one), he leaves home and roams the desert.
His father takes him on a pilgrimage to the Kabah, hoping for a cure. Mejnun does not pray for a cure, but for his love to so increase that he will mention his beloved until the end of time:
Wherever in the world Thou findest pain,
To that sweet pain my aching heart enchain,
And banish from me every show of sense,
And closely bind me to a love intense,
For Leyla let me burn in fiercest fire,
That Thou in her I see is my desire.(1)
His wish was granted, and his love grew. He returned to the desert, leaving his family and worldly pleasure. Sympathizers brought him food and clothes; others scolded his uncontrollable passion. He was considered a madman and unfit for this world. Surely there were other women he could marry. What was this burning desire that only ceased in the cold desert night's caress? People said:
This flame which is the reboiling
of the affections cometh from fire of
youth. When youth departeth from man
that boil of fire cooleth down.(2)
I am His majesty the Emperor of Love.
I have not been ashamed of lust.
became immune to the lechery provoked by
terrestrial flatterings by means of a bath of purity.
I have freed myself from the impurity of my lust.
I have destroyed the market of the passions.(3)
Mejnun's love was neither worldly nor the passion of youthful excitement; rather, it was something far deeper-an existing emotion waiting for a spark. Kindled by Leyla, this love was now out of control:
Love for thee cannot be removed from the heart;
this mystery cannot ever be revealed to anyone.
This mystery came into my body with my mother's milk
and it will go out again with my soul.
I feed on love; if love dies, I die too.
My nature hath been brought up on love;
my destiny must only be love.(4)
This great ability to love was not to perish in lifelong separation, but rather to flourish, for it was placed in him for a reason: Mejnun's love was also seen as a preparation for Divine love. Earthly beauty is like a curtain which hides Divine beauty, whose brilliance could not be borne by the human eye. By practising earthly love, man prepares himself for the divine. According to the Persian mystic Aynulqudat, executed at Hamadan in 1132, Providence wanted Mejnun to practise with the love of Leyla in order to dedicate him later to Divine Love, as if he were a steed destined for a king and first ridden by others until he was tamed and trained.(5)
In that vast empty desert, Mejnun thinks only of love's meaning and why it was given to humanity. He scorns people, unworthy of true love:
Love which is not eternal
is a toy of youthful lechery.
Love is that which doth not diminish,
which goeth back not one step
as long as it lasteth.
This love is not amusing fantasy
destined to disappear for ever.(6)
Love is a mystery. Many have said what it is not or should not be, but it is harder to say what it is, for its source is unknown. Sufis are those who try to understand the source of love. Gulen illuminates this mystery of love:
Ashq (passion or intense, ecstatic love), which the spirit feels without the intervention of free will, cannot be controlled by the person so affected, for its real source is God, Who loves Himself in a way special to His Sacred Essence and is essentially different from the love felt by the created for the created or the Creator. This sacred, essential love of God for Himself, including His Attributes and Names, is the reason why he created the world. It is also this love that manifests itself in human beings as love of God, as the most essential center of humanity's relationship with God.(7)
Mejnun lost himself in Leyla and no longer existed as Mejnun. Roaming the desert, a realm as vast as the human heart and mind, he reflected on life, love, and separation. He found meaning in his grief:
I treated my passion for Leyla with Leyla as a drunkard treats himself with wine.(8)
This deep, mysterious love was a frequent topic in mystic circles. Mejnun was given as an example to Sufis who desired to feel true love. Sibli (1861-1945) proclaimed in a sermon: O people! This Mejnun of the Banu Amir! If one should ask him about Layla (Leyla) he would say: I am Layla!' He for Layla (spiritual) would abstain himself from Layla (physical) in order to remain forever in her presence. This made him abstract from every idea except Layla, and he saw everything only for Layla. On another occasion Sibli said: Like Mejnun of the Banu Amir who when he beheld the wild animals said: Layla' and when he beheld the mountains said: Layla' and when he beheld men said: Layla.' In fact when he was asked his name and how he was, he replied: Layla'.(9)
Here, one sees that Mejnun's love for Leyla has been transformed into another kind of love. It has grown higher and rooted deeper than any worldly love could:
Whoever am I? And what is my name?
How do they recognize me
if not as thy shadow?
I reckon myself as nothing,
for I come from nothing and remain nothing.
The greatest barrier to true love is the self (ego). To be one with the beloved, the lover must sacrifice himself or herself. In most fairy tales, this sacrifice is symbolized by a hero facing a fire-breathing dragon or performing a dangerous task for the beloved. The hero risks his or her life to please or reach the beloved. Defeating one's ego is just as difficult. Once people acquire control over the ego (passions), they may continue on the path toward true love. Mejnun reached the level of understanding, which Sufis call the state of knowing God. The Sufi understanding of true love is based on the Islamic tradition: [God said:] I was a hidden treasure. I willed to be known.
According to Stoddart: God can only be known, however, when the human ego, which instinctively regards itself as a self-sufficient centre”a kind of divinity' in addition to the Divinity”is extinguished before the infinitude of God, in accordance with the words: There is no divinity but God.' This does not mean that the immortal essence of the soul has to be annihilated; what must be dissolved is that mental morass, compounded of ego-determined passions and imaginings, the constant tendency of which is to restrict consciousness to the level of ephemeral appearances. When this veil' of selfishness is lifted from the Spirit which is hidden underneath”the Spirit which sees through to the essences of things”then for the first time things are seen as they really are. God is seen in His all-embracing Presence, and the creature as a pure possibility contained in the Divine Being.(10)
Desert dwellers accepted Mejnun, and he roamed with deer and wild birds. He no longer looked or acted like a normal human being. According to one version, once he came upon a deer caught in a hunter's trap. He released it, saying that he did so only because it reminded him of Leyla. The deer is loved for it reminds one of the beloved's attributes, just as all beauty in the world is loved because it reflects the All Beautiful One. Mejnun felt sympathy for the deer because he could see Leyla's image in it. The deer carried signs that reminded him of Leyla. Everything around him, all that was material and created, had no significance in its own right. They could not be loved if that urge to love was not planted in Mejnun's heart.
One day Leyla comes across Mejnun in the desert. She bursts into tears and offers him her love. In one version, Mejnun's gives a short and stunning answer, when she says: It is I, Leyla! He looks at her blankly and asks: Who is Leyla? This is the peak of the story.
Mejnun, named so after his heart-breaking experience of being without Leyla, has now reached a higher level of love and can no longer recognize the one who he once thought he could not live without:
To talk of being I or being you is out of place here.
In our faith there is no Duality.
Here I am. The other is but a beautiful portrait.
Here you are. The other is dust.(11)
In Nizami's version, this stunning last meeting shows Mejnun's condition as an ascetic:
Since the love for thee is fixed in me,
what is the use of thy image?
Since the love for thee appeared,
it is well that thy face should disappear.(12)
According to one reading, he had repeated Leyla so much that the words came out as Mevla (Creator). The joyous love felt by Sufis is fed constantly by the beloved's brilliant reflections, which they witness night and day. They see life in another way, and those who do not see what they see surely may consider them mejnun.
Let us complete our words with the words of this wise, madman:
What use to me is a mortal Leyla?
I need a Leyla who will stay alive.
Behold, you see why I have broken with the world saying: Leyla, Leyla!
I shall break with Leyla too,
and then only the Lord remains.(13)
- Sofi Huri (trans.), Leyla and Mecnun by Fuzuli (London: Gresham Press, 1970), 191.
- Ibid., 68.
- Ibid., 62.
- Ibid., 68.
- Gulen, M. Fethullah, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism (Virginia: The Fountain, 2000).
- Huri, Leyla and Mecnun, 55.
- Ibid., 61.
- William Stoddart, Sufism (New York: Paragon, 1986), 45.
- Huri, Leyla and Mecnun, 72.
- Ibid., 71.
- Ibid., 63.