The story of Layla and Majnun, written one thousand years before Romeo and Juliet, has been repeatedly compared to William Shakespeares play because of the tragic love and death of the main characters in each tale. Considered one of the most popular love stories written in the Sufi tradition, the narrative, Layla and Majnun, has experienced many adaptations and translations throughout the years. Author, Nizami Ganjavi, a Persian Sufi, has been referred to as the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature and turned the folktale into a poem. Nizami's poem has been referred to as a "Sufi Romeo and Juliet" by many readers. Although the tragic love and death of the main characters is a common theme between the two tales, the differences in writing styles and character development make Nizami's poem more enjoyable to read.
The setting of Layla and Majnun is the Arabian Desert in the Middle East. The male character named Qays was born to the greatest chieftan of the Banu Amir tribe, also known as sayyid, who was a very rich man. Layla was also the daughter of a chieftan almost as powerful as sayyid. The two quickly fell in love but were not allowed to be together because Layla's father knew that Qay's obsession with his daughter had made him a madman, or Majnun, as he was nicknamed. Layla's father heard that Majnun was yelling Layla's name out loud and took her out of school and confined her to a tent in a desert camp. Majnun became heartbroken and created love songs and poems about Layla that he would sing when he would roam the desert. Majnun spent most of his time in the desert while his father tried several times to cure his heartbreak, including a failed pilgrimage to Mecca. Majnun cried, "I pray to You, let me not be cured of love, but let my passion grow! Take what is left of my life and give it to Layla's, yet let me never demand from her so much as a single hair! Let me love for loves sake, and make my love a hundred times greater as it is this very day" (Reader, 204).
Majnun often drew a crowd of people who would listen to his love songs and who would copy them down. Layla became more beautiful and more love sick as time went on. She also sang love songs that became popular among people and her songs would reach Majnun who in return would create a new song for Layla. While Majnun lived in the desert he became good friends with the animals. Nazami's detailed description said:
"First the lion, then the very stag that he had saved, and then the antelope, and the wolf, and the fox; the wild ass joined their company, and the hare, and the timid gazelle. Majnun ruled over them all; a king was he, the cave was his court. All around him were rocks and thorns and burning sand. No place on earth was more desolate than this, yet Majnun called it paradise, for he lived in peace with all his friends. Among the animals there was perfect harmony; the lion lay with the lamb, the wolf chased not the hare; the gazelle went undisturbed before the fox." (Reader, 212)
Layla married Ibn Salam but neither of them was happy in the marriage. Layla slowly became sick, weak, and heartbroken and then she died. Majnun stayed at Layla's grave for a month while the animals guarded him. He wept and grew weak and asked God to release him from his earthly form and bring him to Layla's side. Majnun's prayer was answered and he died and was buried next to Layla's grave. The two deaths led to much grieving in both Layla's and Majnun's camp and their love story is still told today.
"Sufism is essentially the Path of Love, and the seeker is the lover in search of the Eternal Beloved. When the lover and the Beloved unite all that remains is Love. All that remains is the One, all that there is, is the Real" (Amat-un-Nur, 1). Majnun is definitely on the Path of Love, which leads him to Layla. In the end Majnun becomes one after asking God to release him from his earthly form and bring him to Layla's side. Just as Majnun acts in the poem, "A person in love does not care about his comfort or sleep and is day and night only occupied in the contemplation of the Beloved" (Amat-un-Nur, 1). Majnun no longer cares about himself once he sees Layla and he spends the rest of his life obsessed with Layla. Majnun is definitely displaying Sufism and is similar to the quote, "Sufis seek extinction of the self, that is to die to the world and to subsist only in God" (Reader, 217). Majnun's devotion to Layla and his display of love for Layla is similar to his love for God. Sufism is also obvious in Majnun since he is constantly roaming and singing, just as this quote describes; "Sufis are often called "whirling dervishes, for their use of song and dance to induce spiritual states" (Reader, 217).
The passion and tragic death of Romeo and Juliet is very similar to that of Layla and Majnun. The story is made up of two noble feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, who live in Verona, Italy. Romeo, who is a Montague, is originally in love with a girl and goes to a masquerade with his cousin Benvolio at the Capulet's villa in hopes of seeing the girl there. The Capulet family plans for their daughter, Juliet, to become married to a man named Paris.
Not knowing at first that Juliet is a Capulet, Romeo instantly falls in love with Juliet during the masquerade. After the party, Romeo wanders into the garden near Juliet's window and they call out to each other and exchange vows. Romeo confesses his love to his friend Friar Lawrence, who agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet at once. Members of the Capulet family, who are outraged that Romeo and his friends showed up at their masquerade, challenge them to a duel and a member of each feuding family is killed. Romeo is banished from Verona for the murder and must leave for Mantua. Romeo and Juliet meet for the last time and Romeo leaves for Mantua. Juliet learns she is to marry Paris in a few days and goes to Friar Lawrence for help. They plan for her to drink a potion that will make her appear dead so she will be placed in the family crypt and Romeo will sneak back for her. The wedding is earlier than expected so Juliet carries out drinking the potion and Romeo never receives the letter describing the plan. He learns of her death and goes to the crypt where he first kills Paris and then drinks the poison and dies next to Juliet. Juliet awakens and sees Romeo dead so she kisses his lips hoping the poison will kill her. It fails so she stabs herself through the heart with a dagger and dies on Romeo's body. The Capulets and Montagues find the bodies of their children and agree to end the feud.
The stories are similar in that the lovers are kept from one another by their parents and ultimately die in the end. It seems that they can't live without each other. When Romeo sees Juliet for the first time at the masquerade and when Majnun sees Layla for the first time they know that they are destined for each other. Layla becomes weaker and Majnun becomes crazier the longer they are without each other. Layla seems to die of a broken heart which causes Majnun to return to her grave and stay until he too dies so that he can be with Layla. Juliet can't stand being without Romeo when he is exiled so she and Friar Lawrence devise a plan to get them back together. Similar to Majnun, Romeo comes back to visit the tomb where Juliet is and dies. When Juliet wakes up and sees Romeo dead she can't live without him so she kills herself to be with him.
The stories are also similar in their family disagreements. While Majnun and Layla's families aren't exactly friends, they did not feud to the point that the Capulet's and Montague's did. Layla's father did refuse to let her marry Majnun and arranged for her to marry Ibn Salam. Similarly, Juliet was set up to marry Paris, even though she was in love with Romeo. Majnun's father even goes to Layla's camp and asks Layla's father to let the two marry. The stories' similarities continue with the help of a trusted friend. Majnun's friend, Nowfal, gathers an army to fight against Layla's father in order to help Majnun get Layla.
One of the major differences for me is the presentation of the two stories. The tragic, dramatic play format of Romeo and Juliet was dialogue only and does not allow the reader to get a true sense of some of the details that were conveyed in the narrative style of Majnun and Layla. Because a play is intended to be performed by actors who personalize their lines and may inspire their audience with their acting, simply reading the story was rather dull. The narrative story, on the other hand, was much more entertaining and created vivid descriptions of both characters and scenery. Early in the poem Nazami vibrantly described the beauty of Layla: "She was as slender as a cypress tree and as graceful as a bird; her skin was as white as milk, her cheeks and lips were red as roses, and she had the darting black eyes of a gazelle. But even darker than her eyes was her raven hair; her hair was more lustrous than the sky at midnight, and indeed she was called Layla, or Night" (Reader, 200). As Majnun travelled throughout the desert, he looked into the gentle eyes of a gazelle caught in a trap and recalled the soft, black eyes of Layla. At one point, Majnun was found in the desert, "in a desolate gorge, writhing like a snake, moaning and sighing, and rising and falling upon the rocks" (Reader, 204). A visualization of the desert was created with the words, "â€¦stones and thorn-bushes and miles of sand." Nazami's tale is full of descriptions that also give the tale alternate meetings (how Majnun's love for Layla is like his love for God) that are similar to the mystic poetry of other Sufi writers.
Many notable Sufi authors have guided numerous people throughout the world in their search to attain Sufi knowledge. Some notable Sufi authors include: Sheikh Saadi, Hakim Jami, Mohamed El-Ghazali, Omar Khayyam, Farid ud-Din Attar and Jalaludin Rumi. Considered both an influential Sufi author as well as a popular Persian poet, Rumi uses his writings to spread Sufi beliefs. In one of Rumi's poems he states, "The Sufi opens his hands to the universe and gives away each instant, free. Unlike someone who begs on the street for money to survive, a dervish begs to give you his life" (Reader, 224). In Layla and Majnun, both characters desperately want to be together to the extent that Majnun begs God to let him die in order to become one. In another one of Rumi's poems, he states, "When your love reaches the core, earth-heavals and bright irruptions spew in the air. The universe becomes one spiritual thing, that simple, love mixing with the spirit" (Reader, 223). He is saying that once someone is completely in love, everything becomes one and becomes closer to God. This poem connects to Majnun and how his extreme love makes him one with both Layla and God
After comparing the two tales of Romeo and Juliet and Layla and Majnun, it is easy to conclude that they share several similarities.Â Both the tales have main characters that are madly in love with each other and ultimately die to be together in the end.Â The story of Layla and Majnun is more unique since it is full of rich descriptions and the play of Romeo and Juliet offers more dialogue but less description. The Sufi meaning of the Layla and Majnun tale is that love is the never ending quest to find God. By loving Layla with such intensity, Majnun was actually loving God as well. Majnun wasn't necessarily aware of what was happening but his obsession of Layla kept him on course in his journey to God. Both Romeo and Juliet and Layla and Majnun are renowned love stories that share some common elements yet present a story in separate ways. According to Rumi, "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along" (Rumi quotes, 1).