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Who is This Laylā Within Me?

Legends say the Asiatic Bittersweet Vine, or “the-killer-vine” as some may call it, gave its name to love (‘ishq) in the Arabic language per its nature. Recognized as the greatest threat to -otherwise- healthy trees, this vine steadily strangles its host and smothers it to death over time. This tragic demise is embodied by the dire romance of Laylâ and Majnûn, told by 12th century Persian poet Nizami, when his love for Laylâ earns Qays the name Majnûn (meaning crazy, possessed in Arabic), then takes his life as he weeps for his Beloved. The bittersweet tragedy underlying the tale has certainly gained it remarkable fame amongst the various versions of “virgin romance” across the globe, and its emphasis on pure love has led to its adoption by Sufism as an allegory of Divine Love.

In Sufi tradition, the relationship between a mystic and the Creator resembles that of a lover and Beloved— as mysticism alone can be defined as love of the Absolute:

“[...]for the power that separates true mysticism from mere asceticism is love: Divine Love that makes the seeker capable of bearing, even of enjoying, all the pains and afflictions God showers upon them [...] and carries the mystic’s heart to the Divine Presence, separating them, thus, from all that is created in time,”[1]

‘Like a falcon carrying away its prey,’ the love alluded to in this text serves the mystic as a means of transportation to teleport them into a deep state of ecstasy, where one reaches a higher state of consciousness illuminated by the Light of God. In this state of being, the Sufi becomes Majnūn, and loves, thinks, sees, hears or speaks of nothing but the Beloved, and in response, the Beloved “become[s] his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he grasps, and his leg with which he walks,”(Hadith).

12th century mystic and philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi further develops this idea of Unity within Sufism, as here, “the [Beloved] is conceived as the Being beyond all being, or even as the Not-Being, because it can not be described by any of the categories of finite thought; it is infinite, timeless, spaceless, the Absolute Existence, and the Only Reality.” Leylā and Majnūn closely resemble this understanding, as once Qays is separated from Laylā, the longing enrapturing him annihilates his identity in its entirety, and leaves nothing behind but a Majnūn that can no longer be separated from his Beloved: a Majnūn consumed by longing, a Majnūn that is no longer Qays, but the lover of Laylā. His individual self vanishes like a drop in a boundless ocean, or sand in a desert which shows itself in ever new sand dunes that hide its depths, or becomes the wood burning away in the fire of love.

Hallaj al-Mansūr of Sufism is an epitome of this annihilation from a mystical perspective with his best-known saying “Ana al-Haqq” (I am the Truth). Attracted to an ascetic lifestyle from an early age, Hallaj soon embraced Divine Intoxication, thus lost awareness of his identity and experienced Ultimate Unity in an exalted state. Though his claim of Union was admired by some and repressed by the majority -hence his execution- his love for God trumped the rest of his faculties, and his “amalgamation” with the Beloved forbid none to remain but the utters of his manifestation.

This intense feeling not only transcends all sense and logic, but also erases any other need or desire, and binds the lover to the essence of longing— “[as] when love comes, reason disappears, [since] reason can not live with the folly of love.”[2]

The pain of separation turns Majnūn into an ascetic and drives him out to the midst of wilderness in solitude. He has abandoned all but the desire to Unite with his Beloved: his reputation, his home, his money et al. Emaciated to his bones, he lethargically roams around with bloodshot eyes, crying out the name of Laylā. Adapted from the words of Author Wali Ahmedi, ‘Majnūn’s love for Laylā transcended all sensual contact with the Beloved and became free of selfish intentions, lust, and earthly desires.’ Laylā, in this case, is no longer the subject of Majnūn’s love, but a mere instrument for him in reaching True Love.

This is best understood when Majnūn rejects the opportunities to see Laylā. Multiple times throughout the narrative, either Majnūn is brought to the presence of his Beloved, or disheartened by the sound of his screams, she sets out to visit her longing lover. Albeit the truth in some interpretations for Majnūn’s grounds of refusal rooting from his ineptitude to even bear the sight of Laylā, prominent Ottoman Sufi and poet Esrefoglu Rumi alludes to a rather mystical cause with the following portrayal:

“Out of his passionate love for Laylā, Majnūn partakes in no other act than to repeat her name, and since he is in a state of trance, just like Hallaj, when asked his own name, he is only able to answer ‘Laylā.’ After a while, having heard of her lover's condition, she seeks to meet Majnūn— only to find desolate stares far from recognizing the Beloved he burns for.

‘It’s me Majnūn, Laylā,’ she says.

Indifferently, though looking at her, Majnūn stares past Laylā and responds,

‘Go away, the whole universe is Laylā to me, my heart is filled with Laylā… if you are the Laylā you say you are, then who is this Laylā within me?’”

Conforming to this perception, “Laylā” almost acts as another name for Allah, the Ultimate Beloved, in the simple tongue of Majnūn. Similar to how Daniel Abd al-Hayy Moore says in a stanza, “Sometimes I get tired of all this talk about God, and I just want to go sit under a tree… but then the tree starts talking to me about God, and again we find ourselves having the same conversation,” the universe Majnūn implies in his response clasps hands with this view, expressing the unaltered form of dhikr, Divine Remembrance, in its purest form. Illuminated by the constant cognizance of the Ultimate Sorcerer behind all creation, the Sufi, or Majnūn in this case, view everything from the perspective of their obtained-conscience, thus breaking the chains of “physical existence.” This is the process of fanâ, annihilation of the ego, that leads to baqâ, abiding in God— furthermore, it is what lifts the veil of ignorance for one to discover the Unity lying beneath the marvels of their heart; therefore, wherever he looks, the lover solely sees the face of his Beloved.

Laylā and Majnūn is a story of two lovers that are smothered by the vine of love. From a Sufi perspective however, the prominent symbolism laying out the mystical elements of the text reveal not a tragedy, but the ideal form of love in paving a path back to God. Though the Beloved appears to come in the form of Laylā in this narrative, she only awakens the heart of Majnūn, igniting his becoming of a mystic bleeding tears of separation in bewilderment.

[1] Schimmel, Annemarie “The Mystical Dimensions of Islam” [2] Ibn Ata’

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