Kais & Layla: Understanding Sufism Through a Love Story
One upon a time, there was an Arab boy, named Kais, of both great intelligence and stunning beauty. He lived in a village far into the desert dunes of Arabia and was a source of great pride for his family, which hails from the tradition of tribal nobility. In his village, he was like the sun rising upon a dark alley. He possessed impressive wit and articulate speech. He was pride; he was inspiration; he was hope.
One day he came upon a beautiful girl named Layla, meaning ‘night’ in Arabic. She was also from a noble family but belonging to a competing tribe. The first time they looked upon each other, it was like the miracle of a shining sun in the middle of a moonless night. They fell in love immediately and vowed to keep their love secret. However, their love for each other was so intense that very soon murmurs filled the air revealing their secret to the world.
Layla’s family who held Kais’ tribe in contempt were furious upon hearing the news. They forbade her from leaving her tent and threatened to kill Kais if he ever were to approach Layla or come near her tent. Separated from his beloved, Kais felt as though he was deprived of the food, water, and air that nourish his soul. He walked helplessly through the village reciting poetry about Layla’s beauty. ‘Kais is mad (Majnun in Arabic)’, the villagers said. He was now cast out of his family and tribe for he no longer represented the hope and pride he once inspired.
Soon after, Kais drifted into the desert dunes looking for answers from the compassionate and merciful force up above. He searched for love where answers are true and final beyond the cruelty of this physical world. He traversed the desert and leaned upon the Ka’aba (in Mecca) shouting amid dismayed pilgrims: “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.”
Although many believed him to be Majnun (mad), a few still believed in his wisdom and sought him out in the desert for inspiration. They admired his love for Layla. One night, as he recited poetry to a few captive onlookers, a piece of paper born by the wind landed on his lap. It read: ‘Kais and Layla’. To the surprise of his audience, he tore the paper in half, throwing out the part bearing Layla’s name and neatly folding the part carrying his name for safe-keeping.
Shocked, a man shouted: “Kais, you are indeed a madman. What is the meaning of what you have just done?” To which Kais replied: “If only you knew the reality of love, you would see that when you scratch a lover, you find his beloved”
The man persisted: “But why throw away Layla’s name and not your own?”
Kais answered: “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.”
Some time later, Layla was forced by her family to marry another man while Kais continued to live among wild beasts in the desert. She too longed for the desert for it is there that her love was stranded. She too suffered greatly, but she suffered in silence.
Once, a merchant told Layla that he could take her to see her beloved if only for a brief moment. He told her that without her, the soul of her beloved was like the ocean in a winter’s night, whipped up by a thousand storms. She cried that it was she who has set his heart on fire and reduced his being to ashes. She, then, urged the merchant to find Kais and arrange for her to look upon his face even if it were for a brief moment.
The Merchant raced to find Kais in the desert where he found him several weeks later. He told him that he should now break his vow of separation from the physical world if only for a moment so at to see his beloved. Kais could only shake his head and say: “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 can not be fulfilled while I remain in this transient world.”
Even as these words came streaming from his very core, he could not resist the opportunity to catch a brief sight of his beloved Layla. He accepted to accompany the merchant to a palm grove where he would be reunited with Layla. But when they were but a short distance from each other, neither could contain themselves. Layla pleaded with the merchant that she could not get any closer for she was like a burning candle that would be consumed completely if it were to get any closer to the fire. Kais, unable to contain the violent shaking of his inner soul, ran back into the desert vanishing like a shadow in a moonless night.
A few years later, Layla’s light dimmed amid her silent suffering and she finally took her last breath as she murmured the name of her beloved. When Kais learned of her death, he raced back to his native village and threw his body over her grave. He lay there motionless while the wild beasts of the desert watched over him and his beloved. No one dared approach them until Kais’ body decayed into dust and bones. It was only then that the animals guarding the grave returned into the empty desert.
On the grave was inscribed:
Two lovers lie in this tomb
United forever in death’s dark womb.
Faithful in separation; true in love:
May one tent house them in heaven above.
This story, which was written 1,000 years before William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and is also known as the ‘Story of Layla and Majnun’ is one of the greatest stories told in the Sufi tradition. The narrative above is my own adaptation of selected readings (including Reza Aslan's recent adaptation) as well as an exercise in memory for I was told this story many years ago as a child.
Sufism is to Islam what Layla was to Kais: the pearl beneath the shell; the face underneath the veil. The Sufi tradition considers Islam to be a prelude to the attainment of spiritual unity with the creator beyond a physical and material world. In that, it bears striking similarities to eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, which use meditation and inner struggle to search for spiritual divinity.
I am also reminded by one of my favorite authors, Paolo Coelho, who in The Alchemist, recounts the story of a boy who comes upon a Sufi wise man in the desert. As they conversed about the meaning of life, the Sufi scholar offered the boy some wine. The boy then asked if wine were not prohibited by Islam, to which the Sufi man replied: It is not what enters a man’s mouth that is evil, but rather what comes out of it.
So is the underlying philosophy of the Sufi thought.