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Layla and Majnun - A Love Story

"Layla and Majnun" is a famous tragic love story about the 7th-century Bedouin poet Qays ibn al-Mulawwah and his lover Layla bint Mahdi This story, which originated in the Arabian Peninsula has traveled across the world over the ages.

Manuscript form Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Qays ibn al-Mulawwah, also known as Majnun, was a poet who fell deeply in love with Layla. He became obsessed with her and was known for his intense and unrequited love.

Layla and Majnun, Iran, 16th century, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

 

This folio illustrates their meeting at the madrasa where they fall in love at first sight. Although the story takes place in Arabia, the architectural setting in this painting is quintessentially Persian.


"Layla and Majnun at School", Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami of Ganja, 1431–32 CE Manuscript form Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Layla was a beautiful and virtuous young woman from a noble family. She loved Qays but was forbidden from marrying him due to tribal and social customs. Manuscript, Layla and Majnun, written by Mir Bakharzi, Iran (Khorasan), 2nd half of the 16th century.


Manuscript, Layla and Majnun, written by Mir Bakharzi, Iran (Khorasan), 2nd half of the 16th century Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Despite Layla's love for Majnun, her father arranged her marriage to another man, leaving Majnun heartbroken.

Layla’s father gives her in marriage to Ibn Salam (IO British Library Islamic 384, f. 23r)

 

Following their separation, Majnun retreated to the wilderness, where he lived as a madman. He composed passionate poems about his love for Layla, which became renowned for their beauty & intensity.

Majnun in the wilderness, Folio from a manuscript of the Collected Works (Divan) of Sultan Ibrahim Mirza Aga Khan Museum

 

Layla, although married, remained faithful to Majnun and suffered deeply due to her unfulfilled love for him.

Manuscript, Layla and Majnun, written by Mir Bakharzi, Iran (Khorasan), 2nd half of the 16th century, Victoria & Albert Museum

 

The name "Majnun" translates to "possessed" or "madman" in Arabic, reflecting Qays' state of mind and his uncontrollable love for Layla.

Folio from a Layla and Majnun by Nizami (d.1209); recto: Shaykh Salim visits Majnun in the wilderness @NatAsianArt

 

The story of Layla and Majnun is often seen as a symbol of the power of love and the consequences of societal restrictions on expressing it.


Layla and Majnun at School, Page from a Manuscript of the Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami, Iran, Shiraz, 1517/A.H. 924 LACMA

 

Various versions of the story exist, including adaptations by Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi and the Indian poet Amir Khusrow. These adaptations added their own elements to the original story, further popularizing it.


Layla and Majnun as children at school (British Library IO Islamic 384, f. 7r)

 

The Layla-Majnun theme passed from Arabic to Persian, Turkish and Indian languages through the narrative poem composed in 1188/584 by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, as the third chunk of his Khamsa.

Illustrated Manuscript of Layla and Majnun by Hamdi, Ottoman, Harvard Art Museum

 

This is the famous poem praising their love tale. The romantic story of the lovers Majnun and Layla by Amir Khusrau. The calligrapher of this copy was Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi, probably in Herat, in 1506 (British Library IO Islamic 383).

The story of Layla & Majnun influenced some of the finest Persian, Mughal & Ottoman visual artists, illustrating manuscripts of the works.

Layla and Majnun, Turkey The John Rylands Library

 

Persian miniature paintings are particularly known for their portrayal of Layla and Majnun. These small-scale artworks are highly detailed and often depict scenes from the story, showcasing the characters' emotions and the landscape surrounding them.


Laila and Majnun at School, ca. 1570 @RISDMuseum

 

Manuscript paintings depicting Layla and Majnun often capture the emotional intensity of their love story. These paintings feature vibrant colors, intricate details, and expressive facial expressions to convey the depth of their feelings.


Layla and Majnun Ashmolean Museum

 

The story of Layla and Majnun has also been depicted in other forms of literature, including Sufi mystical texts. Their love is often interpreted metaphorically, representing the longing for spiritual union with the divine.

Majnun throws himself on Layla’s tomb (IO British Library Islamic 384, f. 48r)

 

Manuscript paintings of Layla and Majnun often depict scenes such as their first meeting, Majnun's longing for Layla, their separation, and Majnun's wandering in the wilderness, capturing the essence of their emotional journey.

Layla and Majnun, Turkey The John Rylands Library

 

The landscapes depicted in the manuscript paintings are often lush and vibrant, reflecting the beauty of nature and serving as a backdrop to Layla and Majnun's story. These landscapes can include gardens, rivers, mountains, and deserts.


The emaciated lover Majnun meets his beloved Layla, from a manuscript of the Khamsa ("Quintet") of Nizami (1141-1217)

 

Layla and Majnun's story has transcended cultural boundaries and is celebrated in various regions, including Persia (Iran), Arabia, and Central & South Asia. As a result, manuscript paintings and poetry on this theme can be found in different artistic traditions.


The tale of Layla and Majnun continues to resonate with audiences today, highlighting the enduring power of love, the pain of separation, and the limits imposed by society. The manuscript paintings and poetry associated with their story serve as a testament to the timeless nature of their love and its artistic expression.

Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami (d. 1209); verso: illustration

 

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