The Parable of Majnun and Layli

By Jack McLean

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #36
London School of Economics: London, England
July 13–15, 2001
(see list of papers from #36)

    The story of Layli (Layla) and Majnun is the classic love tale of the Middle East which is also prized by Sufi mystics as a profound spiritual allegory of the soul's search for and ultimate union with God. The Persian poet Nizami collected a number of folk versions of this originally Bedouin tale from the North Arabic tribe of Amir in western Saudi Arabia (7th century CE) and shaped them into a single narrative of more than 4,000 stanzas which has been compared for its beauty and depth to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

    This love story is to be understood, inter alia, as a parable, a short story whose moral is explicitly stated by Bahá'u'llah in his commentary. It is noteworthy in this regard that the story does not take place, as one might expect, in the Valley of Love, but in the Valley of Knowledge.

    In the perspective of philosophical theology, this paper examines Bahá'u'llah's adaptation in The Seven Valleys (Haft vadi) of Rumi's story entitled "the unworthy lover" at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth Daftar in the Mathnavi (Nicholson's translation). While this story amounts to only three paragraphs, and is followed by two paragraphs of commentary, it contains much in a small compass.

    While The Seven Valleys, The Four Valleys (Chahar vadi) and Bahá'u'llah's other mystical writings can be comparatively analysed with the criteria of scholarly works of mysticism in mind, and particularly, but not exclusively, those of the Sufis, as a mysticism of search and union, or a mysticism of knowledge, the story of Layli and Majnun, as a tale of lost love refound, is conveyed in terms of "ordinary" mundane consciousness. In this sense, this love story contains purely literary or prosaic as well as mystical elements. It also firmly anchors the element of narrative theology within mystical literature or theology itself.

    Upon analysis, we find that this parable exhibits not only classical features but is also singularly modern since it contains strong psychological existential elements that are unsparing in their realism.

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