The Drink and He Who Drinks It
Literary Analysis of Layla and Majnoon
What is a story? Is it not a not literary depiction of the heart’s internal desire? What makes a story so powerful that it resonates within the human psyche transcendent of race, culture, and religion? How is it possible for the love story of Layla and Majnun to have such a deep-rooted hold on the people of this physical reality? The world has been so caught up in the Newtonian mechanics of life, objectifying the physical reality for its value to practicality, that we have lost the understanding of the essence of creation itself.
Insofar as understanding the literary interpretation, one may be able to cherry-pick the lessons of the piece in order to apply them in the tangible. For what is understanding? Is it not the power of abstract thought? This essay shall attempt to defend the thesis that in order to understand the intrinsic meaning of the narrative poem Layla and Majnun written by Nizami Ganjavi and draw out its lessons, we must challenge our old process of thinking in order to understand the essence of creation- and its repercussions. Now, arguably, this is a loaded thesis. There are many facets within this perceived axiom of truth that require immediate attention. The first presupposition of this truth is that desire is at the root of creation. The second presupposition is that creation can either be constructive or destructive. The third presupposition is that words hold intrinsic meaning and in order to understand those meanings we must analyze them in the way they were initially intended to be perceived.
In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. That is what we are told in the fourth Gospel of the Holy Bible- the ultimate narrative love story. There is something incredibly powerful within the human psyche that resonates with the Holy Books as well- the Torah, Quran, and Bible. If the world were to view the teachings of the Holy Books through abstract and metaphorical lenses instead of trying to understand them to fit within a Newtonian worldview, it may better help us understand the proper way to read all works of art. Thus the first presupposition in the aforementioned must be viewed through this lens of understanding. Desire is at the core of creation. The full meaning of desire, as explained by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: is a wish, want, crave, covet- verb. means to have a longing for. Desire stresses the strength of feeling and often implies a strong intention or aim. The desire to start a new life wishes sometimes implies a general or transient longing, especially for the unattainable.
The narrative poem of Layla and Majnun vividly paints the mystical picture of the desire of the unattainable. The story follows the beaten path of Qays ibn al-Mullawah and his lady love Layla bint Mahdi. Qays and Layla fall in love with each other when they are young, but when they grow up Layla's father doesn't allow them to be together. The burning desire for the love of the one he wanted has been thwarted by Layla’s father thus making the love unattainable. This is the birth of desire as it was previously described. This in and of itself birthed the creation of Love and our understanding of Love. Qays and Layla were the original Romeo and Juliet- although the mysticism within the poem paints Love with a much wider brush.
The Layla-Majnun theme passed from Arabic to Persian, Turkish, and Indian languages, The majority of the Eastern hemisphere was ravaged by the interpretations of Love bound within this poem. The narrative swept through the hearts of all those who would listen- making it incredibly valuable from a psychological point of view. Each of the aforementioned regions in the world has its own history, peoples, cultures, and religions. This is a piece of artwork that was able to transcend these borders and tug on human heartstrings all the same. This essay would like to raise the fourth presupposition that the intrinsic themes of this narrative poem resonate with the masses because regardless of arbitrary social constructs, human psychology is all the same.
Thus, in order to make the argument that desire is the root of creation, it is imperative to do a cross-religious comparison of the John 1:1 to see if the particular theme reigns true across all borders. I shall quote a verse from the Holy Quran (45:23)
“Have you seen he who has taken as his god his [own] desire, and Allah has sent him astray due to knowledge and has set a seal upon his hearing and his heart and put over his vision a veil? So who will guide him after Allah ? Then will you not be reminded?”
This verse is incredibly significant in understanding the reason why Qays was given the epithet of Majnūn (مجنون "crazy", lit. "possessed by Jinn") by his companions after his Love was denied by Layla’s father. Jinn are supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology. Like humans, they are created with fitra, neither born as believers nor as unbelievers, but their attitude depends on whether they accept God's guidance. The companions of Qays believed that his Love for Layla was not the will of God, thus coined him “Majnun” which in and of itself is derived from the Islamic word meaning “possessed spirit”.
It comes to no surprise that this is a theme within both the title of the poem and throughout the poem- to be possessed by spirit. When viewing this through the theoretical psychological lens, Carl Jung greatly explained the concept of “jinn'' for the scientific world. Jung coined these possessions as innate “archetypes” in which he drew inspiration from various religious teachings and mythological story-like works of art. These are beliefs that are deeply ingrained within the collective human unconscious. These are narratives and belief patterns that also transcend borders and culture, which is how I drew that comparison.
Now that we have laid this theoretical groundwork, we can confidently make the assumption that the precipice of this poem is that Layla was loved by someone who did not desire the will of God but rather desired his own will. It was Layla’s father who denied the love of the two and in a metaphysical comparison, the “father” represents God within the Holy Trinity. We may also confidently draw this connection insofar as we are interpreting this piece abstractly and not literally.
The second presupposition within the axiom of the central thesis is that creation/desire can be either constructive (positive) or destructive (negative). The two verses that have been mentioned earlier in this essay, the Gospel of John (1:1) and the Quran (45:23) are the two juxtaposed stances on positive and negative outcomes of desire. Both verses from both Holy Books ultimately preach the same Law- that God’s Will be done. Desire is the longing for something unattainable. God within the Biblical worldview had the desire to create something out of nothing, which in and of itself is logically unattainable. Within the Quranic verse, God’s will is the only thing that will be done, and It explains what will happen if it is not.
It goes without saying that literary and creative art is an extension of the heart’s desire. This is a running theme throughout the ages and across cultures. Art in all its forms is a cryptic form of seeing the unconscious mind and all the “beings/jinn” that inhabit it. The poem about the love Majnun had for Layla can also be looked at in a pagan sense as well. Although alchemy is a dying science, a ritualistic manifestation of desire has been practiced for centuries throughout the world. It is important to note that throughout the story, Majnun was often seen writing in the sand with a stick and writing his Love for Layla via poems.
Because Christian history has distinct stages hinging on the Incarnation, and Islamic history hinges on the belief that jinn operates outside the Goodness of God, the term “pagan” drafts non-Christians into particular temporal relationships with Christianity and innately evil within the Muslim communities. This reason, alone, can help us better understand why the Abrahamic community during this time period believed Qays was a majnun or “possessed by the spirit of ego desire”. This is the third presupposition in its essence: in order to understand the actual themes are of this poem in a metacognitive way, we must understand how to interpret the meaning of the words themselves.
Words hold intrinsic meaning in their own right. There has been a running theme as of late within the socio-political realm that the majority of words are socially constructed and hold no basis within the realm of actual and ultimate truth. This essay would like to dispute that narrative through the comprehension of this literary art piece. To say that words hold no intrinsic power and that they were given power by whatever society deemed relevant washes away the influence these words held throughout history.
Layla and Majnun is a beautifully written, abstractly mesmerizing fictional work of absolute truth. If one were to simply understand the meaning of the names of the title of the poem, one could begin to understand the premise of the poem. “Layla” is a female name of Arabic origin that literally means "wine," "intoxication," "night," or "dark beauty." And Majnun, as earlier mentioned, means “one possessed by a spirit”. There are two definitions of the word spirit, and I believe both can be used to describe the effect that Layla (intoxication) had on Majnun (spirit):
the nonphysical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.
those qualities are regarded as forming the definitive or typical elements in the character of a person, nation, or group or in the thought and attitudes of a particular period.
At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned the beauty in the collective resonation of literary art that transcends culture and boundaries- which is how the story of Layla and Majnun was able to live and thrive throughout the test of time. I believe the core theme of this poem is not actually “virgin love” (which is the widely popular theme among similar Arab and Persian poets of their time) rather, the proclamation and testimony of those who love from their own desire as opposed to the will of Allah or God’s desire.
Layla is the spirit or intoxication, as deliberately expressed in her name, and Majnun is he who is possessed by a “spirit” which is the seat of his emotions or character- thus the epithet given to him by his community. The poem is more actually a cautionary tale than it is a tragic romantic tale. Art, especially literary art, in and of itself is meant to be open to interpretation. Poems are an extension of deep desire rooted in the heart, thus most will read and interpret its words as expressions rather than as valuable meaning. Insofar as one is able to dissect the literal meaning of the words and then decipher the abstract meaning of the literal, one can be able to begin an in-depth analysis of the central themes of the piece to apply in practical reality.