Leyla and Mejnun

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Leyla and Mejnun

by Fuzuli


A Turkish reworking of a traditional Arab love story in verse, set in the northern Arabian Peninsula in the legendary past; composed in 1535–36; published in English in 1970.


Kays, the son of a rich chieftain, falls in love with Leyla, and his infatuation leads to gossip that prompts her family to remove her from school When Leyla marries another man, Kays becomes the madman Mejnun.

Events in History at the Time of the Story

The Story in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Story Was Written

For More Information

The son of a clerical family, Muhammad ibn Sulayman (d. 1556) was born in Iraq c. 1480, probably near the Shfite holy city of Karbala. His pen name, Fuzuli, aptly describes his literary career. A Turkish derivation of the Arabic fuduli, the term fuzuli paradoxically denotes either “presumption” or “virtue.” Fuzuli hoped to grow wealthy and win renown through his poetry, but he was never appointed to the lucrative position of court poet, despite his “countless invocations” and eulogies to “rulers… begging for help and favors” (Bombaci in Fuzuli, p. 13). He followed the well-trodden path of medieval intellectuals—bureaucrats, who sought artistic achievement along with the comforts of patronage. However, in the end, Fuzulfs efforts earned him only a modest pension. Although he pandered to his clients’ tastes, Fuzuli maintained the highest of artistic standards, and one can discern a sophisticated perspective on esoteric matters in his works. His compositions blend Turkish, Arabic, and Persian elements with grace and virtuosity and reveal a high level of erudition in the Islamic and rational sciences. In 1534, when the Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent occupied Baghdad and ushered in a period of sectarian tolerance, Fuzuli briskly switched his allegiance from the Safavids. He toned down his own Shfite tendencies to accommodate the sensitivities of the new regime, whose members belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam. In his greatest work, a verse rendition of the Arab story Leyla and Mejnun, Fuzuli complains that “his deeds have not been recompensed and that fate was protecting the dishonest and humiliating those like himself who were faithful and honest” (Bombaci in Fuzuli, p. 17). He thus identifies with Mejnun, the protagonist of the tragic love story, who wanders the desert a madman after society rejects his expressions of love for Leyla. Despite his frustrations, Mejnun produces fine poetry that the people not only appreciate but even recite.

Events in History at the Time of the Story

Madness and the malady of love

From early Abbasid times (750–1258), Muslim philosophers, theologians, doctors, and astrologers portrayed obsessive romantic feelings as a possible cause of madness. Therefore, they instructed members of the public to avoid undue attachments. Although the Quran has little to say about romantic love, it contains numerous verses that delineate the legal relationship between men and women and it admonishes believers to mistrust their carnal instincts in this regard: “God desires to turn towards you, but those who follow their lusts desire you to swerve away mightily; God desires to lighten things for you, for man was created a weakling” (Surah 4, lines 41–5).

Nonetheless, conceptions of romantic love (ishq) and divine love (illahiyah) frequently overlapped, both among the common people and scholars. Many thinkers characterized the believer’s devotion to God, and vice versa, as a bond of overwhelming power. Sufis, or Muslim mystics, based their rituals on the intense relationship between the believer and God. If properly channeled, any form of earthly love, or for that matter, the senses’ awareness of physical beauty, was a natural metaphor for the essential bond between God and the believer. In this sense, passionate but chaste romantic feelings could have an “ennobling power” (Dols, p. 314). Sufi poets invoked imagery to link earthly and divine love, imagery that non-Muslim Europeans drew on for their own explorations of chivalry and courtly love.

Romantic love taken to excess, however, was viewed as a moral lapse with grave consequences. Obsession with another to the exclusion of all other interests implied that the lover had replaced God with the false idol of the beloved. The lover’s neglect of God led to madness, because in the Muslim theological understanding, the universe makes no sense without a central divine presence. The forlorn lover feels isolated, suffers intense melancholy, and exhibits a willingness to transgress social norms. Romantic love is thus not only a religious but also a psychological matter.

This conclusion, which grew out of the debate over Sufism, had important consequences for Muslim social science and medicine. Opponents of the Sufis contended that Sufi beliefs and practices led the faithful into idolatry and permissiveness. In reply, Sufi sympathizers pointed to “poetry… stories, pious traditions, and maxims” that illustrated cases where profane love enhanced awareness of the divine presence (Dols, p. 314). Ideologues from both sides reworked age-old love stories to support their views. Medical studies on love then consulted these stories.

Muslim doctors who treated the symptoms of love sickness generally followed the tenets of ancient Greek medicine. The malady was thought to stem from the disillusionment of the soul, which, the belief was, resided in the brain, the heart, and the liver. Among the symptoms were losses of appetite, creativity, and memory when the beloved departed. To diagnose the condition, doctors took a reading of the pulse. To treat the malady, they prescribed a permanent separation from the beloved.

Islam and the natural environment

As Mejnun dissolves into madness, he forsakes all social intercourse in favor of an ascetic’s life of isolation in the desert. He establishes a special rapport with the creatures there, which console and protect him. In the story, as the space and time in which God immutably shaped the world and its objects, the wilderness reflects divine intent in its purity. Against this backdrop, Mejnun perfects the image of his beloved in his mind, and likens his love for Leyla to a more overpowering and essential bond, the reciprocal adoration of God and the believer.

Mejnun’s flight to the desert is a skillful manipulation of the historical and evolving Islamic concepts of nature. The Quran teaches that the environment works in full concert with divine intent. Nature fulfills the beneficent aim to sustain all living creatures. God had appointed Adam and Hawwa (Eve), his “equal half,” as the vice regents of Earth (Nomanul Haq, p. 147). As part of a primordial covenant (mithaq), human beings promise to praise God and uphold the measure (qadr) and balance (nizam) of the Earth.

Whereas the Quran encourages stewardship of nature, anecdotes of the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, collectively known as the traditions (hadiths), stipulate no such obligation. Although these traditions passed through a sophisticated process of authentication during their compilations in the ninth century, they inevitably reflected the attitudes of their transmitters. Incorporated into law (fiqh), the traditions performed a practical function—to supplement the rather modest social prescriptions of the Quran. They addressed human needs and relegated nature to a secondary role. Rather than worry about cosmic balance, jurists concerned themselves with how to exploit natural resources as a proprietary matter.

Given the conflicting view of nature from the Quran and the traditions, Muslims developed a complex view of nature. On the one hand, in keeping with the Quran, the environment was seen as a pure reflection of God’s will. Creatures of the world held a privileged and sublime relationship to the divine that was inscrutable to human reason. On the other hand, in keeping with the traditions, the natural world was seen as subordinate to human needs. Accordingly, jurists designated land as either fruitful or wasted (mawat)’, humanity could tamper with nature in a unilateral manner. This second view reinforced popular conceptions of the wilderness as a hostile and antithetical domain.

Therefore, Mejnun’s choice to wander the desert distinguishes him as atypical. In one sense, he is a romantic hero reminiscent of past prophets, such as Adam, who communed more directly with God and nature. In another sense, he is a transgressor of norms, who comes to disdain society’s mandates when they obstruct his expression of love for Leyla. These dynamic contradictory readings animate the protagonist because they reflect a historical tension inherent to Islamic considerations of nature.

The pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca and the Kabah Stone Sanctuary

In Leyla and Mejnun the king, beside himself about how to cure his son, resolves to help by performing a holy ritual—he makes a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Islamic faith requires every able-bodied Muslim with adequate financial resources to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muslims believe that the pilgrimage reinvigorates one’s faith.

Mecca, located in the interior of west-central Saudi Arabia, is the holiest city of Islam and the focus of ritual prayers. It was here that the Prophet Muhammad established Islam as the triumphant seat of the monotheistic faith. In a sequence of ritual acts over the course of three days synchronized with the holy calendar, the pilgrim recommits his or her faith to God. In theory pilgrims express their devotion as individuals, but in practice the event brings together thousands of believers as a community.

The holy center of Mecca is the Ka bah Stone Sanctuary and the monuments around it. The pilgrimage begins and ends with circumambulation and prayer around the sanctuary. The word kabah means cube in Arabic. Indeed, in the center of a large portico-lined sanctuary Qiaram), there is a cubical blue-gray stone structure. Inside the structure lies “a blackish stone of either lava or basalt” (Peters, p. 9). The stone is covered from view on all sides by a tapestry of black brocade. When Muhammad returned triumphantly from his exile in Medina, he instructed his followers to smash the pagan idols surrounding the sanctuary and rededicate it to the one God Allah. The Ka‘bah shrine, in the eyes of Muslims, is therefore a dual symbol: it reminds believers both that Muhammad was the culmination of the Abrahamic line of prophets, who taught belief in a single god, and that Islam triumphed over paganism.

Around the Ka bah Sanctuary, there are other potent symbols of the importance of monotheistic faith. Near the sanctuary a domed shrine called the Station of Abraham marks the place where the biblical Abraham is said to have stepped and left impressions in the stone. Also near the Kabah is the well of the Zamzam spring, where Abraham’s son Ishmael reportedly found water to quench his thirst. Such monuments connect one of the first and most important prophets, Abraham, to Muhammad, and underscore that Mecca has long been a focal point of revelation and divine interest.

Muslims understand that the pilgrimage, incumbent on every able-bodied believer, provides an opportunity to reaffirm the faith. Upon completion of the hajj, the pilgrim is expected to return to the community and to behave with greater moral probity. The believer expects his or her pilgrimage, as an act that God not only sanctions but also enjoins, to merit spiritual blessings if conducted properly and in good faith. In Fuzuli’s story, the king believes that by sending his son on pilgrimage, God will reward Mejnun for piety and intercede to detach him from his ruinous obsession with Leyla.

The marginality of Bedouin culture after Islam

Although Fuzuli adds to his version elements that reflect the conditions of sixteenth-century Iraq, Leyla and Mejnun hearkens to a lost Bedouin past, when the nomads of Arabia ruled the desert. According to the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet, the Bedouin nomads of Arabia had played an ambiguous role in the initial Islamic expansion. They provided military recruits essential to the advancement of the first empire, but their desire to maintain tribal affiliations violated a central tenet of the Muslim faith. Many refused to surrender their tribal identities to become full-fledged members of the new community. In the story, the king’s paramount concern for his son is for him to recover his senses so that he can take up his birthright, leadership of the tribe, upon his father’s death. He persists in this desire even after he meets Mejnun in the desert for the last time and realizes that his son is on a virtuous spiritual journey.

Ironically, the Bedouins’ contributions to the conquests of the great sedentary civilizations of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, only curtailed their influence in the larger Muslim community. The notables of Mecca and Medina who led the conquests did not wish to alienate their new non-Muslim subject population, so they adopted administrative structures that they already found in the different areas in place. They also tried to curb the customary Bedouin raids against the northern borders of the Arabian Desert. After the Prophet Muhammad died, the Bedouins rebelled, whereupon Abu Bakr, the first caliph, or successor to the Prophet, refused to grant them tax concessions. The enmity ensued. In 633, Abu Bakr defeated the Bedouins in the Battle of al-Aqraba.

The first caliphs settled the Bedouin troops that fought in the north into quarters separate from the indigenous populations to preserve them as “an elite military caste” (Lapidus, p. 34). Nevertheless, a rift soon emerged between the newly settled Bedouins and those Arabs who continued to practice nomadism. The urbanizing Bedouins grew wealthy from booty and tax revenues, and adopted the cultural accoutrements of the civilizations under their control. Soon enough, the settled Arabs no longer needed the Bedouins as military advance troops. There were enough new converts to fill the ranks of the army. Under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750), the Bedouins witnessed the full subordination of their “ancient, pagan, and nomadic” culture to the values of the multi-ethnic, interregional Muslim community (Khan, p. 77).

In early versions of the Leyla and Mejnun story, one can detect nostalgia for a lost Bedouin way of life from the protagonists’ struggles with the community. Kays’s very membership in the Banu Amir tribe brings to mind the Quranic episode in which the Prophet Muhammad stipulates that a certain Banu Amir chieftain should not participate in the Muslim leadership after his death (Khan, p. 81). Kays’s choice of the medium of poetry suggests an idyllic, heroic Bedouin past; ultimately he abandons his birth community and sheds what he perceives to be superficial, conformist, and alien values.

The Story in Focus

Plot summary

Leyla and Mejnun begins in the household of a great Arab chieftain. Although famous throughout Iraq for his boldness and virtue, the chieftain is unhappy, because none of his wives have given birth to a son (Fuzuli, Leyla and Mejnun, p. 152). He fears that his failure to produce an heir will lead to gossip that undermines his authority and tarnishes the family name, so he prays for deliverance. God answers his prayers, and the household welcomes a son, Kays, into the world. The infant quickly proves to be a mixed blessing. He cries incessantly, and no one can comfort him. One day while walking in the street, his nurse meets an attractive young woman who opens her arms to the crying infant. Dazed by her beauty, Kays falls silent. The young woman becomes the child’s caretaker.

As the years pass, Kays grows into a handsome youth. He meets Leyla at school and becomes enamored with her dark eyes, pearly teeth, and flushed cheeks. Kays flirts with Leyla and she reciprocates. Gradually the two fall in love:

These two, tall, fair as jasmine, straight and
  slender as a dart
Were bound and tied, the one to other, firmly
  fast by loving art.
Drinking deep the wing of pleasure, drinking
  deeply of desire,
Drowned in unity of sadness, all engulfed in
  passions fire.
          (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 158)

In the classroom, Kays disguises his attempts to get Leyla’s attention. He leaves his notebook on his desk after class for Leyla to return to him and asks her to help him write out his lessons.

Despite this care, “wicked tongues” wag about the budding romance, and Leyla’s mother rebukes her for being indiscreet and forward (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 160). She removes Leyla from school and sequesters her at home. Leyla denies her mother’s allegations, but she cultivates her love for Kays in secret. Meanwhile, Kays is adversely affected by the separation. He becomes obsessed with the image of Leyla in his mind, loses interest in school, and falls into the “blackest discontent” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 167).

Rumors spread that Kays is descending into madness. He takes the name Mejnun, or Madman, to confirm his devotion to Leyla. As in his infancy, the intervention of friends and family cannot dissuade Mejnun from his desire for beauty. He starts to wander the countryside aimlessly. He sings of his undying love for Leyla in plaintive verse and serenades the mountains, trees, and animals of the desert. The people who encounter him disseminate his fine verse, and his reputation as an accomplished poet begins to grow.

One day Mejnun happens upon Leyla’s entourage as it picnics in the spring meadows. Mejnun approaches, picks up a lute (saz), and sings of his love for Leyla. So overcome are both he and Leyla that they slip into unconsciousness. When Mejnun wakes, he finds that Leyla’s companions have taken her away. He rends his garments and cries tears of blood. From that point on, he vows to forsake all ties to humanity. He asks his human companions to leave him and to bring word to his father of his despair.

The chieftain is inconsolable at the news. He strikes out in search of Mejnun, finds him lying in the desert, and begs him to return to his senses. When Mejnun refuses, the chieftain has to deceive him into returning home. He lies and says that Leyla is staying as a guest with the family. Upon their return home, the chieftain attempts to relieve his son’s affliction in several ways. First, he goes to Leyla’s father to arrange a marriage. Leyla’s father refuses on the grounds that he cannot marry his daughter to a man who is “bereft of sense” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 188). Second, the chieftain consults “a thousand skilled physicians,” who prescribe for his son elixirs (sherbet) and visits to saints’ tombs, but to no avail (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 190). Third, he organizes a pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) in the hope that God will “supplication grant” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 191). But Mejnun prays only for God to strengthen his love for Leyla.

No remedy abates his ailment, so Mejnun retreats once more into the desert to keep company with the mountains and animals, and he composes verse to express his anguished love. In a familiar trope of Middle Eastern folklore, he rescues a gazelle from a hunter’s snare. He sees in the animal’s eyes his own plight and the face of his beloved. Next Mejnun frees a pigeon from a cage and offers its captor a pearl in compensation. The creatures become his devotees, and he gains extraordinary power to communicate with the natural world.

Meanwhile, Leyla continues to mourn her separation from Mejnun. She likewise sees reflections of her grief in the natural world. She identifies with the moth that cannot resist the candle’s flame and falls to its death. The moon’s phases represent to her the changing fortunes of love, and she bids the moon to find her sun. She begs the wind and the clouds to find Mejnun and tell him to return. They deliver the message, as well as Mejnun’s reply. He “grieves a hundredfold more” than Leyla (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 214).

This answer torments Leyla. She covers herself with garments, anklets, and pearls to conceal her grief. Her heavy raiment arouses the curiosity of a young nobleman named Ibni Salam, who crosses her path while hunting with falcons. Attracted, Ibni Salam sends an old man to arrange a marriage. Her family agrees—the young nobleman is a good prospect; he offers “gems and money” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 217).

Before Ibni Salam marries Leyla, Mejnun befriends another nobleman, who proposes to reunite him with Leyla by force. Nevfel, the noble, from a powerful Turkish tribe, learns of Mejnun’s troubles after hearing a recitation of his verse. He searches for the love-struck poet, discovering him surrounded by the beasts of the desert, which Nevfel disperses with his sword. He writes a letter to Leyla’s family, asking for compliance with his wish to wed her to Mejnun, but they refuse. So Nevfel gathers his tribesmen, and they besiege the camp of Leyla’s clansmen. Mejnun recognizes that Nevfel’s army is fighting on his behalf but nevertheless roots for Leyla’s tribe because they fight for his beloved. When the battle turns against him, Nevfel heeds the calls of his soldiers to retreat for the day, knowing that “Mejnun was of God divinely favored” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 224). However, Nevel’s forces regroup and win the battle on the second day. When he learns of Ibni Salam’s engagement to Leyla, he decides to respect the customs of the Arabs.

The battle brings Mejnun within sight of Leyla, but he cannot cross the battle lines to meet her without creating a stir. So, to move into her camp, he wraps himself in chains and disguises himself as a mendicant beggar. Leyla pities the beggar and relates several verses of lamentation. Mejnun responds by “snapping into fragments all his chains” and sallying away “again in lonely solitude” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 232). Later, he finds another pretext to visit Leyla. He binds his eyes and masquerades as a blind man who begs for alms.

Although Leyla has no desire to marry Ibni Salam, she has little choice but to abide by her family’s wishes. To quell the reproaches of her kinsmen and the gossip of the community, she adorns herself “with sweet embellishment and cunning art” worthy of the occasion (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 239). On the wedding night, Leyla informs Ibni Salam that she loves not him but Mejnun. Ibni Salam agrees to forestall the consummation of the marriage. He clings to the vain hope that Leyla in time will forget Mejnun and grow to love him.

Mejnun learns of the marriage from his friend Zayd. He immediately begins to question Leyla’s fidelity, indifferent to the social pressures on her. At this point, he grows so disillusioned with Leyla that his desire for her is transformed. He no longer craves her as a corporeal being but desires instead the ideal of love that she has become to him. Years of isolation have distilled this image in his mind: “Now I, myself, with but an image left, / Can find contentment sweet in its regard” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 246). In fact, he convinces himself that Ibni Salam has married but a shadow of the true Leyla.

No longer concerned with Leyla’s body but her soul, Mejnun sends his friend Zayd to reprimand her. Zayd poses as a magician and insinuates himself into Ibni Salam’s camp by proposing to cure Leyla of her love sickness. He offers a letter from Mejnun to Leyla as an amulet. Leyla reads the letter and writes a response in verse: “Thou know-est well that I am but the jewel/within the market, haggled for by all” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 251). She swears that she has remained chaste and vows her steadfast devotion to Mejnun.

The chieftain seeks out his son in the wilderness one final time. At first, since Mejnun’s every thought is fixated on the image of Leyla, he does not even recognize his father. Mejnun demands news of his beloved. The chieftain begs his son to assume his birthright and give up the passions of youth. Although Mejnun concedes the wisdom of his father’s advice, he tells him that he is no longer the Kays of old in any way: “For, though we [Leyla and Mejnun] own two bodies, yet the soul/is one and jointly owned, between us now/Duality is merged in a single state: No soul is mine but hers, and hers is mine” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 262). The chieftain realizes the futility of his efforts. His last request of his son is to mourn his father’s passing. A hunter who witnesses the chieftain’s lonely death in the desert chastises Mejnun for not mourning his father’s demise. Afterwards Mejnun goes to his father’s tomb and grieves.

As the years pass, Ibni Salam grows weak from his unrequited love for Leyla: “His longing sadness and bitter grief/Soon worked on Ibni Salam’s cypress frame/Till bent like a rattan, thin and quickly bent, / he dwindled in despair” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 282). His death gives Leyla a new reason to lament life’s frustrations. Upon learning of Ibni Salam’s death, Mejnun feels no satisfaction. He in fact identifies with Ibni Salam as another poor wretch who has loved an “idol pure” to no avail (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 284).

The death of Ibni Salam frees Leyla to find Mejnun, but she hesitates at the prospect of a reunion. She has lived a chaste life into old age and does not know whether the fires of passion burn within her any longer. As she ponders this question, she falls unconscious, and her camel wanders from her caravan. She wakens to find herself alone in the desert night. As she searches for her caravan, she strays into the lands where Mejnun roams and encounters her beloved.

Leyla fails to recognized Mejnun at first, so worn by age and exposure has he grown. To prove his identity, Mejnun recites his now famous verses to her. Just as Leyla does not recognize Mejnun, Mejnun does not recognize Leyla at first. Once the two identify each other, Leyla approaches Mejnun:

My heart is vowed to union with thee While all my soul was ever thine in trust…. If deep in love thou art, know me thy love. Come, dwell with me in rapture of desire, And for a fleeting moment be my mate.

(Leyla and Mejnun, p. 302)

Mejnun rejects the advance. His love for Leyla is now solely platonic: “Thy image only, pure without flaw, / Gives more and fiercer heat than may consume/My feebleness; yet may I not resume/My fiercely burning passion, but withstand/The guerdon of the sweetly proferred hand” (Leyla and Mejnun, p. 304). He asks Leyla to join him in separation from worldly desires. Leyla accepts the wisdom of Mejnun’s words. In like manner, he has become her idol and image of perfect love. Their physical closeness is shortlived, however. The caravan driver returns to retrieve Leyla and the two lovers pass their final days apart. When Leyla dies, Mejnun comes to mourn at her tomb and perishes of grief. He is laid to rest beside her; only in death are the two finally reunited.

The story as an allegory of Sufi love

Sufism is the principal branch of Islamic mystical thought. Although its theosophy is complex, Sufism’s basic contention is that signs of God’s presence saturate the material world. All creatures are aware of this presence, but reason cannot fathom the meanings behind the signs, since God works in incomprehensible ways. While separation makes the believer anxious for reunion with the creator, only death can put an end to the lover’s suffering. The believer’s sole recourse to the paradox that happiness in life comes only with death is the denial of the world and of the senses. Sufis accomplish this through a variety of rituals and disciplines.

Sufism developed many metaphors to characterize the bond between the believer and God. One of the primary metaphors is love. God loves creation, creation loves God, and life is but a striving for a reunion between the two. In Fuzuli’s Leyla and Mejnun, the suffering of the two lovers transforms their mutual adoration into a purely metaphysical bond. Although Leyla and Mejnun’s first youthful impulses are for physical intimacy, their forced separation allows them to comprehend love as an emanation of the soul.

Fuzuli was not the first writer to portray the story of Leyla and Mejnun as an allegory of Sufi love between a mystic and the divine, but his work stands out as the masterpiece of the genre. Mejnun is the mystic who first witnesses beauty in the physical world through Leyla, but comes to understand that his love for her is only part of the greater beauty behind God’s creation. The true object of his desire is God. His pursuit of union with Leyla is therefore his pursuit of reunion with God.

The text is replete with Sufi motifs that help convey the sense of a higher purpose. For example, Mejnun frequently terms Leyla “the moon.” The moon was a Sufi symbol, because its light is a reflection of the sun. The moon is the beloved, and the sun represents the lover. Mejnun also refers to Leyla as his pearl, from which the Sufis extract a symbol for inner beauty. The pearl is a node of perfection within the viscera and shell of the clam. Moreover, Fuzuli uses narrative techniques that warm the reader to the transfigurations that follow. As Leyla and Mejnun reach new insights, Fuzuli retreats from the narrative and allows the characters to assert their realizations in their own words. In this way, the main characters can demonstrate their mastery of mystical concepts of love without interference from the narrator.

In effect, the Sufi dimension of the story ennobles Fuzulf s protagonists. There is a lofty purpose to their separation, which in the end Mejnun himself helps effect by rejecting the opportunity to make love with Leyla. Her initial instinct is to consummate her love for Mejnun physically, but Mejnun rejects this as gratuitous and unworthy of Leyla’s virtue:

Still seek no union with her, for the wife Divorced, and lover wed, brings strife. Abandon now this path nonsensical, Recall the name of God so mystical… Duality is merged in single state: No soul of mine but hers, and hers is mine… If she is glad, the gladness is my share; If she repines, the sorrow clouds my days.

(Leyla and Mejnun, pp. 260–2)

In the end, the two perish miserable but triumphant, having rejected the world and all its pleasures in order to enter the afterlife chaste and unadulterated.

Sources and literary context

The romance of Leyla and Mejnun is one of a corpus of Arabic Udhri love stories, stories in verse whose poets frequently came from the Banu Udhrah tribe. The stories typically involve transgression of the tribal code about contact between the sexes by a lover’s making public his passion for his beloved, offending both the tribe and the beloved’s family. The result is a ban on future contact with his beloved that turns him into a tormented, obsessed shadow of a man and her into an ideal. In Arabic letters, the most renowned example is the story of Leyla and Mejnun (in Arabic, Layla and Majnun), as told by Qays ibn al-Mulawwah (d. 688). The source of the story itself is of uncertain provenance. Some hold that Kays Ibn Mullawah, the young man who becomes Mejnun, was a real member of the Banu Amir Tribe. Other sources suggest that an anonymous young Umayyad, who loved a woman he could not marry, created Kays as a semi autobiographical character. Still others argue that Kays is a wholly invented character.


Many Muslim poets intended their verse not only to be read, but also to be set to music Fictional poet-heroes frequently propagated their verse through songs as well As they journeyed through the countryside or wilderness to fulfill their quests, they wrote and sang poetry to mark their experiences. One of the most common instruments that itinerant minstreis took up was the lute-type saz.With a pear-shaped resonator and a long neck, the saz has between six and twelve strings distributed over three parallel ridges or fret courses (Picken, p, 217). When Mejnun encounters Leyla as she picnics with her entourage, he picks up a saz and begins to sing a mournful melody: “Two strings on a single saz, they played a moaning melody” (Leyla and Mejnun, p, 173). Of course the two strings that “played a moaning melody” are Leyla and Mejnun.

Once Leyla and Mejnun passed into lore, its transmitters added, expunged, and altered verse as they saw fit. When Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (d. 967) included the story in his tenth-century compilation of the Udhri corpus, the Kitab al-aghani (Book of Songs), he acknowledged that the original Udhri story had been lost. Recording all the discrepancies he found in oral traditions, he evaluated each interpretation (Khan, pp. 1–13). The transmission of oral and written texts was subject to a constant process of deviation, omission, addition, and revision. Therefore, each retelling entailed a revision that reflected the inclinations of the compiler.

By Fuzuli’s day, in the early sixteenth century, the story had already passed into legend as the quintessential Bedouin romance. Many other literary masters, including the great twelfth-century Persian poet Nizami, had already produced masterful renditions of this and other Arabic love stories (see Nizami’s Khusraw and Shirin, also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times).Neither Fuzuli’s decision to write in Turkish nor his efforts to portray Mej nun’s life as an allegory of Sufi love were entirely new; his rendition, however, attained a unique blend of eloquence and levity. He employs a vocabulary heavy in Persian and Arabic loan words, but appends Turkish suffixes to them when it suits the meter (hizaj) and uses many words of Turkish origin. As Bombaci points out, Fuzuli’s use of a heavily Persianized and Arabicized vocabulary conforms to an Ottoman Turkish literary convention that ensured his works broad dissemination “in Anatolia, in Azerbaijan, and in Central Asia,” all predominantly Turkish-speaking areas (Bombaci, p. 86). Modern Anatolian Turkish is quite different from classical Ottoman Turkish in this regard.

Events in History at the Time the Story Was Written

Süleyman the Great and the Ottoman conquest of Iraq

A powerful Turkish tribe figures into Fuzuli’s rendition of Leyla and Mejnun. The reconfiguration of Nevfel as a noble Turkish warrior is clearly an innovation because the earlier versions of Leyla and Mejnun antedate by several centuries any significant Turkish presence in the Middle East. Fuzuli most likely added this Turkish element as part of his bid to ingratiate himself with the new Ottoman authorities in Baghdad. Fuzuli hoped that his Leyla and Mejnun would be a tour de force that would impress the Ottomans into becoming his patrons. Therefore, the writing of Fuzuli’s version of the story cannot be separated from the Ottoman conquest of Iraq.

Süleyman I’s (1494–1566) involvement in Iraq stemmed from events during the reign of his father, Sultan Selim I (ruled 1512–20). Selim, during his days as a royal prince, served as governor for the eastern Black Sea port and Silk Route entrepot of Trabzon. His position made him well aware of the threat the nascent Shiite Safavid Empire of Persia posed to the Ottoman eastern frontier. The Safavid shahs fomented resistance to the Ottoman Empire’s taxes and “the expropriation of pious bequests” among the heterodox populations of eastern Anatolia (Clot, p. 87). Selim defeated the Safavids at the Battle of Chaldiran on August 23, 1514, then concentrated the rest of his reign on subjugating Egypt under Mamluk rule. His son Suleyman became the next Ottoman sultan.

The pretext for the Ottomans to invade Iraq in 1533 was the “treasonable behaviour” of the Lord of Bitlis Sherif Khan and the assassination of the Safavid governor of Baghdad, who had switched allegiance to the sultan (Clot, p. 90). The Ottomans had directed their initial campaign against the Persian heartland, but bad weather, insufficient provisioning, and the light cavalry of Shah Tahmasp forced the army to cross the Zagros Mountains into Iraq. There the Ottomans met little resistance, and Suleyman marched triumphantly into Baghdad on December 4, 1534.

The conquest of Baghdad was a milestone for the Ottoman regime for a number of reasons. Until the Mongol sack of the city in 1258, the city had been the residence of the Abbasid caliphs since its foundation by al-Mansur in 762. With its capture, the Ottomans extended their dominion over all the historical seats of the caliphate in the central Islamic lands. The addition of Iraq stabilized the border with the Safavids. The Ottomans would control the region for the next 400 years. Highly sensitive to the turmoil and sectarian strife of the previous decades, Suleyman rebuilt the infrastructure of Iraq and installed a new provincial administrative regime.

Reception and impact

During his lifetime, Fuzuli’s poetic accomplishments appear not to have provided him with opportunities to attain wealth or advance his career, but his verse reached a wide audience nonetheless, from the palaces of Istanbul to the villages of Iraq and Anatolia (Tanpinar, p. 160). In the centuries following his death, Leyla and Mejnun was “admired and imitated” for the style of his writing and the philosophical considerations behind his metaphoric language of love (Bombaci, p. 11). Fuzuli’s works in general proved that Turkish could be treated as a literary language. Also he significantly influenced later Turkish writers, who emulated his Turkish usages and adopted his attitude toward the story. Individuals ranging from near contemporaries such as Baki (1526–1600) and Nabi (1642–1712) to Abdulhak Hamid (1852–1937), a major Ottoman writer of the Tanzimat (a period of Ottoman modernization in the nineteenth century), found inspiration in Fuzulf s work. Later his ideas resurfaced in the modern Republic of Turkey. Throughout the ages his Leyla and Mejnun has remained a prime example of how popular and mystical Islamic concepts of love intersected in Muslim literature.

—John K. Bragg

For More Information

Bombaci, Alessio. Introduction to Leyla and Mejnun, by Muhammad ibn Suleyman Fuzali. Trans. Elizabeth Davies. London: Allen and Unwin, 1970.

Clot, Andre. Suleiman the Magnificent: the Man, the

Life, His Epoch.London: Saki Books, 1992.

Denny, Frederick M. An Introduction to Islam.New York: Macmillan, 1994.

Dols, Michael W. Majnun: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Fuzuli, Muhammad ibn Suleyman. Leyla and Mejnun.Trans. Sofi Huri. London: Allen and Unwin, 1970.

Haywood, J. A. “Madjnun Lay la.” Encyclopedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition, version 1.1. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2001.

Karahan, Abdalkadir. “Fuduli.” Encyclopedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition, version 1.1. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2001.

Khan, Ruqayya Yasmine. “Sexuality and Secrecy in the Medieval Romance of Madjnun Layla.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1997.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of the Islamic Peoples. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Nizami Ganjavi. The Story of Layla and Majnun. Trans. R. Gelpke. Oxford: Cassirer, 1966.

Nomanul Haq, S. “Islam and Ecology: Toward Retrieval and Reconstruction.” Daedalus 130, no. 4 (fall 2001): 141–77.

Peters, F. E. The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places.Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Picken, Laurence. Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey.London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Tanpinar, Ahmet Hamdi. Edebiyat uzerine makaleler.Istanbul: Dergah Yayinlari, 1977.