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Layla and Majnun
Nizami Ganjavi

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Love and madness. Nizami's Layla and Majnun captured the imagination of storytellers across the region. Succeeding generations reconfigured, reworked and translated the rendition into Turkish, Pashto, Urdu, Kurdish, Azerbaijani. Still, nearly a millennium after Nizami, his Persian version remains a popular and scholarly favorite. Producing the poem in rhyming couplets (masnawi), Nizami told a sustained tale, complicating the plot, deepening the characterization (with more attention to Layla than previous poets), and developing a rendition conducive to multiple meanings, beyond the surface level.
 
Majnun came to symbolize the perfect lover, the ideal mystic, the consummate poet. Let's not forget, though, that he was branded "mad." Then, as later, lovesickness was seen as a type of madness. Excessive love led to tragedy, warned storytellers. And Majnun typified excess. Obsessed with longing for Layla, he sang of her in public, an unacceptable display in his society and one that usurped a father's right to proclaim the romantic union of his child. The open display—Majnun's rapturous verses about Layla—brought shame and dishonor on her family and, given his madness, even more on his. A madman was not an entirely negative figure then. Such a man could be a recipient of supernatural wisdom, people believed, and, if a poet, might be able to perceive than ordinary men. But, from a social standpoint, not only was Majnun deranged by unbridled passion. He transgressed tribal practices by making that passion public (albeit in beautifully poetic terms, worth preserving).
 
Poetic and Islamic-Sufi traditions. Layla and Majnun lies in the tradition of the Udhri[1] ghazal, verse centered on a man who dedicates his life and poetry to one woman. Though the length varies, the ghazal is commonly five to seven couplets. Bedouin poets of the deserts of Northern Hijaz and Najd (west and central present-day Saudi Arabia) spun this kind of verse in the early Islamic period (seventh-ninth centuries). The poets were generally identified by the name of the woman they longed for (e.g., hence the moniker "Layla’s Madman"). Introduced into Iran in the 900s, the form developed greatly with input from Persian poets. Generally, the Udhri ghazal features a man who longs for union with a beloved female. She reciprocates his affection, but for societal reasons, the two cannot be together. So the lovers are bereft, left with a longing that devolves into illness, madness, suffering, even death. The poetic form largely influenced Nizami's development of Layla and Majnun.  
 
On the other hand, the poem also lends itself to later Islamic readings:
 
 
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[1] Named for the tribe—Banu 'Udhra—of one of the foremost poets of such verse—Jamil (Jamīl ibn 'Abd Allāh ibn Ma'mar al-'Udhrī, c. 701).
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