The story of Laila and Majnun has been told in the East for thousands of years and has always exerted a great fascination, for it is not only a love-story, but a lesson in love. Not love as it is generally understood by man, but the love that rises above the earth and heavens.
A lad called Majnun from childhood had shown love in his nature, revealing to the eye of the seers the tragedy of his life. When Majnun was at school he became fond of Laila. In time the spark grew into a flame, and Majnun did not feel at rest if Laila was a little late in coming to school. With his book in his hand, he fixed his eyes on the entrance, which amused the scoffers and disturbed everybody there. The flame in time rose into a blaze and then Laila's heart became kindled by Majnun's love. Each looked at the other. She did not see anyone in the class but Majnun, nor did he see anyone save Laila. In reading from the book Majnun would read the name of Laila, in writing from dictation Laila would cover her slate with the name of Majnun. 'All else disappears when the thought of the beloved occupies the mind of the lover.'
Everyone in the school whispered to each other, pointing them out. The teachers were worried and wrote to the parents of both that the children were crazy and intensely fond of one another, and that there seemed no way to divert their attention from their love-affair which had stopped every possibility of their progress in study.
Laila's parents removed her at once, and kept a careful watch over her. In this way they took her away from Majnun, but who could take Majnun away from her heart? She had no thought but of Majnun. Majnun, without her, in his heart's unrest and grief, kept the whole school in a turmoil, until his parents were compelled to take him home, as there seemed to be nothing left for him in the school. Majnun's parents called physicians, soothsayers, healers, magicians, and poured money at their feet, asking them for some remedy to take away from the heart of Majnun the thought of Laila. But how could it be done? 'Even Luqman the great physician of the ancients, had no cure for the lovesick.'
No one has ever healed a patient of love. Friends came, relations came, well-wishers came, wise counselors came, and all tried their best to efface from his mind the thought of Laila, but all was in vain. Someone said to him, 'O Majnun, why do you sorrow at the separation from Laila? She is not beautiful. I can show you a thousand fairer and more charming maidens, and can let you choose your mate from among them.' Majnun answered, 'O, to see the beauty of Laila the eyes of Majnun are needed.'
When no remedy had been left untried, the parents of Majnun resolved to seek the refuge of the Kaba as their last resort. They took Majnun on the pilgrimage to Kabatullah. When they drew near to the Kaba a great crowd gathered to see them. The parents, each in turn, went and prayed to God, saying, 'O Lord, Thou art most merciful and compassionate, grant Thy favor to our only son, that the heart of Majnun may be released from the pain of the love of Laila.' Everybody there listened to this intently, and wonderingly awaited what Majnun had to say. Then Majnun was asked by his parents, 'Child, go and pray that the love of Laila may be taken away from your heart.' Majnun replied, 'Shall I meet my Laila if I pray?' They, with the greatest disappointment, said, 'Pray, child, whatever you like to pray.' He went there and said, 'I want my Laila,' and everyone present said, 'Amen.' 'The world echoes to the lover's call.'
When the parents had sought in every way to cure Majnun of his craze for Laila, in the end they thought the best way was to approach the parents of Laila, for this was the last hope of saving Majnun's life. They sent a message to Laila's parents, who were of another faith, saying, 'We have done all we can to take away from Majnun the thought of Laila, but so far we have not succeeded, nor is there any hope of success lift to us except one, that is your consent to their marriage.' They, in answer, said, 'Although it exposes us to the scorn of our people, still Laila seems never to forget the thought of Majnun for one single moment, and since we have taken her away from school she pines away every day. Therefore we should not mind giving Laila in marriage to Majnun, if only we were convinced that he is sane.'
On hearing this the parents of Majnun were much pleased and advised Majnun to behave sensibly, so that Laila's parents might have no cause to suspect him of being out of his mind. Majnun agreed to do everything his parents desired, if he could only meet his Laila. They went, according to the custom of the East, in procession to the house of the bride, where a special seat was made for the bridegroom, who was covered with garlands of flowers. But as they say in the East that the gods are against lovers, so destiny did not grant these perfect lovers the happiness of being together. The dog that used to accompany Laila to school happened to come into the room where they were sitting. As soon as Majnun's eyes fell on this dog his emotion broke out. He could not sit in the high seat and look at the dog. He ran to the dog and kissed its paws and put all the garlands of flowers on the neck of the dog. There was no sign of reverence or worship that Majnun did not show to this dog. 'The dust of the beloved's dwelling is the earth of Kaba to the lover.' This conduct plainly proved him insane. As love's language is gibberish to the loveless, so the action of Majnun was held by those present to be mere folly. They were all greatly disappointed, and Majnun was taken back home and Laila's parents refused their consent to the marriage.
This utter disappointment made Majnun's parents altogether hopeless, and they no longer kept watch over him, seeing that life and death to him were both the same, and this gave Majnun freedom to wander about the town in search of Laila, inquiring of everyone he met about Laila. By chance he met a letter-carrier who was carrying mail on the back of a camel, and when Majnun asked this man Laila's whereabouts, he said, 'Her parents have left this country and have gone to live a hundred miles from here.' Majnun begged him to give his message to Laila. He said, 'With pleasure.' But when Majnun began to tell the message the telling continued for a long, long time. 'The message of love has no end.'
The letter-carrier was partly amused and partly he sympathized with his earnestness. Although Majnun, walking with his camel, was company for him on his long journey, still, out of pity, he said, 'Now you have walked ten miles giving me your message, how long will it take me to deliver it to Laila? Now go your way, I will see to it.' Then Majnun turned back, but he had not gone a hundred yards before he returned to say, 'O kind friend, I have forgotten to tell you a few things that you might tell my Laila.' When he continued his message it carried him another ten miles on the way. The carrier said, 'For mercy's sake, go back. You have walked a long way. How shall I be able to remember all the message you have given me? Still, I will do my best. Now go back, you are far from home.' Majnun again went back a few yards and again remembered something to tell the message-bearer and went after him. In this way the whole journey was accomplished, and he himself arrived at the place to which he was sending the message.
The letter-carrier was astonished at this earnest love, and said to him, 'You have already arrived in the land where your Laila lives. Now stay in this ruined mosque. This is outside the town. If you go with me into the town they will torment you before you can reach Laila. The best thing is for you to rest here now, as you have walked so very far, and I will convey your message to Laila as soon as I can reach her.' 'Love's intoxication sees no time or space.'
Majnun listened to his advice and stayed there, and felt inclined to rest, but the idea that he was in the town where Laila dwelt made him wonder in which direction he should stretch out his legs. He thought of the north, south, east, and west, and thought to himself, 'If Laila were on this side it would be insolence on my part to stretch out my feet towards her. The best thing, then, would be to hang my feet by a rope from above, for surely she will not be there.' 'The lover's Kaba is the dwelling-place of the beloved.' He was thirsty, and could find no water except some rainwater that had collected in a disused tank.
When the letter-carrier entered the house of Laila's parents he saw Laila and said to her, 'I had to make a great effort to speak with you. Your lover Majnun, who is a lover without compare in all the world, gave me a message for you, and he continued to speak with me throughout the journey and has walked as far as this town with the camel.' She said, 'For heavens sake! Poor Majnun! I wonder what will become of him.' She asked her old nurse, 'What becomes of a person who has walked a hundred miles without a break?' The nurse said rashly, 'Such a person must die.' Laila said, 'Is there any remedy?' She said, 'He must drink some rainwater collected for a year past and from that water a snake must drink, and then his feet must be tied and he must be hung up in the air with his head down for a very long time. That might save his life.' Laila said, 'Oh, but how difficult it is to obtain!' God, who Himself is love, was the guide of Majnun, therefore everything came to Majnun as was best for him. 'Verily love is the healer of its own wounds.'
The next morning Laila put her food aside, and sent it secretly, by a maid whom she took into her confidence, with a message to tell Majnun that she longed to see him as much as he to see her, the difference being only of chains. As soon as she had and opportunity, she said, she would come at once.
The maid went to the ruined mosque, and saw two people sitting there, one who seemed self-absorbed, unaware of his surroundings, and the other a fat, robust man. She thought that Laila could not possibly love a person like this dreamy one whom she herself would not have cared to love. But in order to make sure, she asked which of them was named Majnun. The mind of Majnun was deeply sunk in his thought and far away from her words, but this man, who was out of work, was rather glad to see the dinner-basket in her hand, and said, 'For whom are you looking?' She said, 'I am asked to give this to Majnun. Are you Majnun?' He readily stretched out his hands to take the basket, and said, 'I am the one for whom you have brought it,' and spoke a word or two with her in jest, and she was delighted.
On the maid's return Laila asked, 'Did you give it to him?' She said, 'Yes, I did.' Laila then sent to Majnun every day the larger part of her meals, which was received every day by this man, who was very glad to have it while out of work. Laila one day asked her maid, 'You never tell me what he says and how he eats.' She said, 'He says that he sends very many thanks to you and he appreciates it very much, and he is a pleasant-spoken man. You must not worry for one moment. He is getting fatter every day.' Laila said, 'But my Majnun has never been fat, and has never had a tendency to become fat, and he is too deep in his thought to say pleasant things to anyone. He is too sad to speak.' Laila at once suspected that the dinner might have been handed to the wrong person. She said, 'Is anybody else there?' The maid said, 'Yes, there is another person sitting there also, but he seems to be beside himself. He never notices who comes or who goes, nor does he hear a word said by anybody there. He cannot possibly be the man that you love.' Laila said, 'I think he must be the man. Alas, if you have all this time given the food to the wrong person! Well, to make sure, today take on the plate a knife instead of food and say to that one whom you gave the food, 'For Laila a few drops of your blood are needed, to cure her of an illness.''
When the maid next went to the mosque the man as usual came most eagerly to take his meal, and seeing the knife was surprised. The maid told him that a few drops of his blood were needed to cure Laila. He said, 'No, certainly I am not Majnun. There is Majnun. Ask him for it.' The maid foolishly went to him and said to him aloud, 'Laila wants a few drops of your blood to cure her.' Majnun most readily took the knife in his hand and said, 'How fortunate am I that my blood may be of some use to my Laila. This is nothing, even if my life were to become a sacrifice for her cure, I would consider myself most fortunate to give it.' 'Whatever the lover did for the beloved, it could never be too much.' He gashed his arm in several places, but the starvation of months had left no blood, nothing but skin and bone. When a great many places had been cut hardly one drop of blood came out. He said, 'That is what is left. You may take that.' 'Love means pain, but the lover alone is above all pain.'
Majnun's coming to the town soon became known, and when Laila's parents knew of it they thought, 'Surly Laila will go out of her mind if she ever sees Majnun.' Therefore they resolved to leave the town for some time, thinking that Majnun would make his way home when he found that Laila was not there. Before leaving the place Laila sent a message to Majnun to say, 'We are leaving this town for a while, and I am most unhappy that I have not been able to meet you. The only chance of our meeting is that we should meet on the way, if you will go on before and wait for me in the Sahara.'
Majnun started most happily to go to the Sahara, with great hope of once more seeing his Laila. When the caravan arrived in the desert and halted there for a while, the mind of Laila's parents became a little relieved, and they saw Laila also a little happier for the change, as they thought, not knowing the true reason.
Laila went for a walk in the Sahara with her maid, and suddenly came upon Majnun, whose eyes had been fixed for long, long time on the way by which she was to come. She came and said, 'Majnun, I am here.' There remained no power in the tongue of Majnun to express his joy. He held her hands and pressed them to his breast, and said, 'Laila, you will not leave me any more?' She said, 'Majnun, I have been able to come for one moment. If I stay any longer my people will seek for me and your life will not be safe.' Majnun said, 'I do not care for life. You are my life, O stay, do not leave me any more.' Laila said, 'Majnun, be sensible and believe me. I will surely come back.' Majnun let go her hands and said, 'Surely I believe you.' So Laila left Majnun, with heavy heart, and Majnun, who had so long lived on his own flesh and blood, could no more stand erect, but fell backward against the trunk of a tree, which propped him up, and he remained there, living only on hope.
Years passed and this half-dead body of Majnun was exposed to all things, cold and heat and rain, frost and storm. The hands that were holding the branches became branches themselves, his body became a part of the tree. Laila was as unhappy as before on her travels, and the parents lost hope of her life. She was living only in one hope, that she might once fulfill her promise given to Majnun at the moment of parting, saying, 'I will come back.' She wondered if he were alive or dead, or had gone away or whether the animals in the Sahara had carried him off.
When they returned their caravan halted in the same place, and Laila's heart became full of joy and sorrow, of cheerfulness and gloom, of hope and fear. As she was looking for the place where she had left Majnun she met a woodcutter, who said to her, 'Oh, don't go that way. There is some ghost there.' Laila said, 'What is it like?' He said, 'It is a tree and at the same time man, and as I struck a branch of this tree with my hatchet I heard him say in a deep sigh, 'O Laila.' '
Hearing this moved Laila beyond description. She said she would go, and drawing near the tree she saw Majnun turned almost into the tree. Flesh and blood had already wasted, and the skin and bone that remained, by contact with the tree, had become like its branches. Laila called him aloud, 'Majnun!' He answered, 'Laila!' She said, 'I am here as I promised, O Majnun.' He answered, 'I am Laila.' She said, 'Majnun, come to your senses. I am Laila. Look at me.' Majnun said, 'Are you Laila? Then I am not,' and he was dead. Laila, seeing this perfection in love, could not live a single moment more. She at the same time cried the name of Majnun and fell down and died.
The beloved is all in all, the lover only veils him.
The beloved is all that lives, the lover a dead thing.
Jalaluddin Rumi, Mathnawi I, 30