Friday, December 3, 2010

St. Francis and Majnun

            Whenever I picture St. Francis surrounded by animals, I mentally juxtapose him beside an image of Majnun, living as a hermit among animal allies. Majnun is from the 12th century Persian love poem, Layla and Majnun, by Nezami. This poem is associated with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, as Majnun’s journey and actions mirror a Sufi’s path to Allah. In the poem, Qays and Layla fall in love as children yet are not permitted to marry. Qays, in his obsession for Layla, becomes Majnun, meaning “madman,” and flees to the desert to contemplate Layla by chanting her name while imagining her visually. Layla is forced to marry another, yet remains chaste. The two write poetry together from a considerable distance but never make physical contact. After the death of Layla’s husband and there is nothing legally restraining Majnun from her, he is unable to return from the desert to marry his beloved. Layla lives in solitude, thinking about Majnun, and she soon grows weak and dies. When Majnun hears of her death, he goes to her grave to await his death so their bones may be buried together.           

Upon entering a hermetic life in the desert, Majnun is regularly interacting with wild animals. Plus, in nearly every artistic rendition I’ve encountered of Majnun in the desert he is easily identified as the figure surrounded by animals. One of Majnun’s first encounters in the desert involves trading his horse for two living gazelles trapped by a hunter. Soon after, Majnun trades all of his possessions to free a stag from a hunter. When Majnun can not return home to be at his dying father’s side as he fails to properly understand his father’s request that Majnun be there for his death, Majnun becomes permanently detached from the human world and animals on their freewill come to live with him in his cave. The animals live with him in harmony; they do not eat each other, they help Majnun search for vegetative foods, and sleep around Majnun (the animals basically use their bodies to construct a bed for him). Additionally, the wild animals protect Majnun. In Peter Chelkowski’s account of the poem in Mirror of the Invisible World, Majnun would spend hours looking at his animals and would say, “Now that I am among my friends, surely I am the happiest man of all!” When Majnun hears about the death of Layla, the wild animals accompany him to her grave and stand by while he died. The wild animals protect the body of Majnun until the proper relatives come to bury his bones with the bones of Layla.
            The animals are crucial in this poem to gauge Majnun’s progress along the mystical path, or tariqa, towards God and the truth, haqiqa. Majnun achieves this through the contemplation of Layla, which signifies a Sufi’s contemplation of God. This contemplation is done through zikr, the remembrance and recollection of Layla, or God in Sufism. Gradually, these contemplations through zikr intensify until they are like breathing, an unconscious, constant action. In some cases, animals become instruments of contemplation for Majnun. For example, Majnun speaks to and lauds a crow because its black feathers resembled Layla’s hair.

The poem was written relatively close in time to St. Francis’s life and in both cases, animals are the instruments to indicate the purity of the two men. Of course Majnun/Sufism and St. Francis do not line up all across the board, particularly in methodology. Although St. Francis had a more multivalent relationship with animals than Majnun, he does share Majnun’s affinity for accumulating a small animal following. Similarly to St. Francis as an Adam figure, Majnun’s integration into nature places him closer to a man unburdened of human desires and sin, much like the pre-Fall Adam. Yet Majnun takes it further than St. Francis as he sheds the human element to become closer to God, nearing fanaa, annihilation or breaking down to become part of God, or baqa, remaining in God. However, St. Francis’s ability to communicate his will to animals (once again, the tale of the snake fails well to fit into these categories) suggests a deeper connection to the animals. However, Majnun rejecting his humanity seems to oppose to St. Francis, who seems to be favored by animals because he is a particularly pure human. Even though Majnun and St. Francis are on opposite poles of the spectrum of humanity, this seems to be the animals’ magnetism to these holy men. The Sufism parallel helped me grasp Christian mysticism and animals’ attraction to St. Francis. Perhaps this is the case because the sufi vocabulary clarifies abstract, mystical notions.

(Pictures from Artstor)


  1. This is a really good comparison, one that hadn't occurred to me yet but made me smack myself while reading this that I hadn't thought of it already. Great job!

    I'll just add that Nizami is drawing from previous forms of the story (although it is his version that has received the most widespread praise and become the most famous—it is even the inspiration behind Eric Clapton's "Leila" and much of the song's lyrics are based on a translation of Nizami), the most important of which is attributed to Qays "Majnun" ibn al-Mulawwah, the supposed "Majnun" himself who composes this poem as part of his ordeal of suffering (see Seyed-Gohrab, Ali Asghar, Laylī and Majnūn: Love, Madness and Mystic Longing in Niẓāmī’s Epic Romance, (Leiden: Brill, 2003)). It's very much like Romeo and Juliet, with the same basic conflict of two lovers who come from warring tribes, but the important aspect for our purposes is that Majnun attempts to shed as much of his "humanness" from his body as possible: he refuses to eat meat, he tears off his clothes, he lives entirely with animals and spurns human contact, and he subjects his body to the harshest discipline. Keeping in mind that this is within a context of asceticism that is still in full force in the Near East, Majnun's utter rejection of all worldly comforts elevates him spiritually to the status of a saint, capable of performing miracles by the power and force of his grief. Like a moth drawn to the flame, Majnun's self-sacrifice and ultimate martyrdom to love becomes a standard trope in both courtly ("udhri") poetry and Islamic mysticism, and I think there are convincing indications that what we see in St. Francis and the emergence of courtly love in European literature is arising out of this same tradition of chaste, self-sacrificing, and sublimated love.

  2. Wonderful comparison! I had not heard of the story of Majnun and Layla myself; I am grateful to you for bringing it up. What occurs to me, reading what you and K Salib have said, is that Majnun is indeed showing us something very different from Francis: Francis' encounters with the animals only intensify his relationships with other human beings, while Majnun has the relationship that he does with the animals because he is so utterly removed from human contact. And yet, both Francis and Majnun seem to be caught up (as K Salib notes) in the imagery of human love (Francis marries Lady Poverty) as well as in the power of contemplation (Francis receives the stigmata after retreating to the mountain to spend time in contemplation and prayer). Your mention of Majnun's using animals to help think about Layla reminds me of the imagery in the Song of Songs where the bride and the bridegroom often compare each other to animals. The Song was an important source both for courtly and for mystical imagery during the Middle Ages and doubtless influence Francis' description of his encounters with both animals and God. There is clearly a dimension here of animal engagement that needs thinking about more!


  3. Hi you might like this poem of Majnun-and-Layla