THIS IS THE legend of Layla and Majnun.
Once, a boy of exceeding beauty was born into the family of a noble Shaykh. He was named Kais, and as he matured it became obvious to all that he would one day become a source of great pride to his family and tribe. Even from a young age, his knowledge, his diligence, his learning, and his speech outshone that of all his peers. When he spoke, his tongue scattered pearls, and when he smiled, his cheeks were violet tulips awakening to the sun.
One day, Kais met a girl so lovely that he was instantly struck with a yearning he could not understand. Her name was Layla, meaning “night,” and like the night, she was both dark and luminous. Her eyes were those of a gazelle, her lips two moist rose petals.
Layla too felt an emotion for Kais she could not comprehend. The two children were drowning in love, though in their youth they knew not what love was. It was as though love were a wine-bearer, filling the cups of their hearts to the brim; they drank whatever was poured for them and grew drunk without understanding why.
Kais and Layla kept their feelings secret as they roamed the alleyways and passages of the city’s markets, close enough to steal a furtive glance and share a giggle, far enough not to arouse gossip. But a secret such as this cannot be contained, and a whisper is all it takes to topple a kingdom. “Kais and Layla are in love!” someone said on the street.
Layla’s tribe was furious. Her father removed her from school and banned her from leaving her tent; her brothers vowed to ensnare Kais if he ever came near. But one cannot keep the baying hound away from the new moon.
Separated from his beloved, Kais wandered from stall to stall, from tent to tent, as if in a trance. Everywhere he went he sang of Layla’s beauty, extolling her virtues to whoever crossed his path. The longer he went without seeing Layla, the more his love gave way to madness, so that soon people began pointing him out on the streets, saying “Here comes the madman! Here comes the majnun!”
Kais was mad, it is true. But what is madness? Is it to be consumed by the flames of love? Is the moth mad to immolate itself in the fires of its desire? If so, then yes, Kais was mad. Kais was Majnun.
Clad in rags and stripped of his sanity, Majnun left the city and wandered aimlessly through the mountains and wastelands of the Hijaz, composing mournful odes to his absent beloved. He was homeless and tribeless, an exile from the land of happiness. Good and evil, right and wrong, no longer had any meaning for him. He was a lover; he knew nothing but love. He abandoned reason and lived as an outcast in the desert, his hair filthy and matted, his clothes tattered.
In his madness, Majnun came to the Ka‘ba. Pushing through the crowd of pilgrims, he rushed at the sanctuary and hammered upon its doors, shouting, “O Lord, let my love grow! Let it blossom to perfection and endure. Let me drink from the wellspring of love until my thirst is quenched. Love is all I have, all I am, and all I ever want to be!”
The pilgrims were appalled. They watched as he fell to the ground, heaping dust on his head, cursing himself for the weakness of his passions.
Majnun’s actions shamed his family and tribe, but he himself knew no shame. When he heard of Layla’s arranged marriage to a man of untold wealth named Ibn Salam, Majnun lost all sense and reason. Tearing off his clothes, he crawled naked through the wilderness like an animal. He slept in ravines with the beasts of the desert, eating wild plants and drinking rainwater. He grew famous for his love. People from all over the land sought him out, sometimes sitting with him for hours as he spoke of his beloved Layla.
One day, while he was idly reciting his verses to a captive audience, a scrap of paper, borne by the wind, landed on his lap. On it were written two words: “Layla” and “Majnun.” As the crowd watched, Majnun tore the paper in half. The half on which was written “Layla” he crumpled into a ball and threw over his shoulder; the half with his own name he kept for himself.
“What does this mean?” someone asked.
“Do you not realize that one name is better than two?” Majnun replied. “If only you knew the reality of love, you would see that when you scratch a lover, you find his beloved.”
“But why throw away Layla’s name and not your own?” asked another.
Majnun glowered at the man. “The name is a shell and nothing more. It is what the shell hides that counts. I am the shell and Layla is the pearl; I am the veil and she is the face beneath it.”
The crowd, though they knew not the meaning of his words, were amazed by the sweetness of his tongue.
Meanwhile, trapped by the restrictions of her tribe and forced to marry a man she did not love, Layla was plunged into a lonely darkness. She suffered as deeply as Majnun but did not have his freedom. She too wanted to live with the beasts of the desert, to declare her love for Majnun from the tops of the mountains. But she was a prisoner in her own tent, and in her own heart. When one morning an old merchant passing by her tribe brought her news of Majnun, Layla felt like a reed swaying in the wind, hollow and weightless.
“Without your radiance,” the old man told her, “Majnun’s soul is like the ocean in a winter’s night, whipped up by a thousand storms. Like a man possessed, he roams the mountainside, screaming and shouting. And there is but one word on his lips: ‘Layla.”
“The blame is all mine,” Layla cried, flinging curses on herself. “I am the one who has set fire to my lover’s heart and reduced his being to ashes.” Desperate, she removed the jewels from her earrings and handed them to the old merchant. “These are for you. Now go to Majnun and bring him here. I only want to see him, to look upon his face for a little while, to bathe in the light of his countenance for but a moment.”
The old man agreed. For days he searched the desert for Majnun. When he finally found him, he relayed Layla’s message. “Could you not bring yourself to break your vows of separation from the world to look upon her tearful face, just for a second?” he pleaded.
“Little does anyone understand me,” Majnun thought. “Do they not realize that their idea of happiness is not mine? Do they not see that while it may be possible for them to have their wishes granted in this life, my longing is something else entirely, something that cannot be fulfilled while I remain in this transient world?”
But Majnun could not resist the opportunity to look upon the face of his beloved. Putting on a cloak, he followed the merchant to a palm grove and hid there while the old man left to fetch Layla.
As the merchant led her by the hand to the grove, to Majnun, Layla’s entire body trembled. When no more than twenty paces separated her from her lover, she froze. The old man tugged on her arm, but Layla could not move.
“Noble sir,” she pleaded, “this far but no farther. Even now I am like a burning candle; one step closer to the fire and I shall be consumed completely.”
The old man left her and went to Majnun. Pulling him out of the palm grove, he brought the boy—his face drained of color, his eyes glass—under the moonlight and pointed him toward Layla. Majnun stumbled forward. Light from the stars peeked through the tops of the palm trees. There was a movement in the darkness, and suddenly, under the dome of heaven, Layla and Majnun faced each other.
It was only a moment: a rush of blood to the cheeks. The two lovers stared at one another, drunk with the wine of love. Yet though they were now close enough to touch, they knew that such wine could be tasted only in paradise. A breath, a sigh, a stifled cry, and Majnun turned and ran from the grove back into the desert, vanishing like a shadow into the night.
Years passed. The leaves on the palm trees lost their color. The flowers shed their petals in mourning. As the countryside turned yellow and wan and the gardens slowly withered, so did Layla. The light in her eyes dimmed, and with her final breath she breathed her lover’s name.
When Majnun heard of the death of his beloved, he rushed back home and writhed in the dust of her grave. He lay down and pressed his body to the earth as though in prayer, but his parched lips could utter only one word: “Layla.” Finally, he was released from his pain and longing. His soul broke free and he was no more.
Some say Majnun’s body lay on top of Layla’s grave for months; others say years. No one dared approach, for the grave was guarded night and day by the beasts of the desert. Even the vultures that swooped above the tomb would not touch Majnun. Eventually, all that remained of him was dust and bones. Only then did the animals abandon their master to lope back into the wilderness.
After the animals had gone and the dust of Majnun was swept away by the wind, a new headstone was fashioned for Layla’s tomb. It read:
Two lovers lie in this one tomb
United forever in death’s dark womb.
Faithful in separation; true in love:
May one tent house them in heaven above.”
Excerpt From: Reza Aslan's "No god but God.”