Lord Byron described the Persian story of Laylá (Laylī) and Majnūn as the 'Romeo and Juliet of the East'. Majnūn, which means 'possessed by spirits' or 'crazy', was the name given to the semi-legendary seventh-century Arab poet Qays ibn Mulawwaḥ when he reputedly became mad with love for Laylá, his cousin. In Persian accounts, the hopeless lovers meet as schoolchildren and fall deeply in love; however, they are forbidden to marry. Grief-stricken, Majnūn retreats to the desert, wild animals his only companions. Laylá, in time, is married to a nobleman, but she remains devoted to Majnūn, making several thwarted attempts to meet him. Eventually she dies of a broken heart, and her obsessed beloved follows her to her grave, dying as he mourns at her tomb.
The late 12th-century poet Niẓāmī wrote the best-known version of this tragic story, describing himself in the prelude as 'the mirror of the unseen' and offering the work for spiritual contemplation. He included the tale in his Khamsah (Quintet), after which it was much copied and incorporated on many levels into later poets' work, both in Iran and in the wider Persianate sphere, especially Mughal India. Epitomising the notion that earthly love could, and probably should, lead to spiritual enlightenment, the story had long-lasting and universal appeal.
Manuscript of Niẓāmī's Khamsah or Quintet copied in 1549. In some versions of the story, Laylá tries to arrange a rendezvous with her crazed beloved, Majnūn. Such meetings prove unsuccessful, usually because Majnūn faints when he sees her. In this illustration, an old woman brings Majnūn to Laylá's tent. The figure of an old woman who arranges meetings between illicit lovers is a stock character in both medieval Persian and European literature. (MS. Pers. c. 42 , fol. 131a)
Leaf from a disbound manuscript of Jāmī's Haft Awrang or Seven Thrones, copied in 1570. When grief-stricken Majnūn retreats to the wilderness after being forbidden to marry Laylá he tears off his clothes, pours dust on his head, calls out Laylá's name and refuses to eat. Wild animals are his only companions, and, like King Solomon, he is said to be always surrounded by them. For Sufis, Majnūn became the holy madman, a symbol of devotion on the spiritual path of seeking annihilation in the Divine. (MS. Elliott 149, fol. 252r)