Julie Scott Meisami



“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”: Depictions of Majnun in Persian Illustrated Manuscripts

The ill-fated love of the poet Qays ibn al-Mulawwah, known popularly as Majnun (“the madman,” “le fou d’amour”) for his cousin Layla (Layli) has been told in song and story from 7th-century Arabia until the present day, and has captured the imagination of writers, poets, composers, and illustrators. In the Persian literary tradition the story was retold in verse by Nizami Ganjavi around 1188–92. Nizami’s poem was subsequently emulated and reworked by such Persian poets as Amir Khusraw Dihlavi and Jami. Recensions of these poems were widely illustrated from the Timurid period onwards. In examining illustrations of Nizami’s version and of others, illustrated at different times, in different places, and by different artists, one feature stands out as remarkable: in the majority of the illustrations, Majnun is depicted as clothed in blue. Whether as a child, from the time that he falls in love with Layli, through his wanderings in the desert, until he receives news of Layli’s death and comes to mourn at her grave, he is shown as wearing blue shirts, a blue loincloth (in the desert), a blue cloth (on his pilgrimage to the Ka`ba), and predominantly blue garments in other scenes. Blue, as is well known, is the color of mourning; it is also (but not necessarily) associated with Sufism. This paper will suggest that there is a consistency in depictions of Majnun which transcends boundaries of time and place and which points to a specific iconography in treatments of Majnun.

JULIE SCOTT MEISAMI is a native of Berkeley, California. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1971. From 1971–1980 she taught English Literature and Comparative Literature in Tehran, Iran, chiefly at the University of Tehran, where she was instrumental in forming the MA program in Comparative Literature. After several years in California (1980–1985), where she taught courses in Comparative Literature and pursued independent research, in 1985 she was appointed University Lecturer in Persian at the University of Oxford, teaching courses in Persian and Arabic literature until her retirement in 2002. In 2002–2003 she held an Aga Khan Fellowship in Islamic Architecture at Harvard University, where she pursued her art history research. She currently lives in Point Richmond, California, where she continues her research on two major projects: depictions of Majnun in Persian illustrated manuscripts, and a re-evaluation of the so-called “Gazelle Mosaic” at Khirbat al-Mafjar. She is currently participating in a project to write a descriptive catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Her many publications include Medieval Persian Court Poetry, (Princeton University Press, 1987), Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature (co-edited with Paul Starkey, Routledge, 1998), Persian Historiography to the End of the Twelfth Century (Edinburgh University Press, 1999) and Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry: Orient Pearls (Routledge, 2003). Her translations include The Sea of Precious Virtues (Bar al-Fava’id), A Medieval Islamic Mirror for Princes (University of Utah Press, 1991) and Nizami, The Haft Paykar: A Medieval Persian Romance (Oxford University Press, 1995).

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