May 29 | The Eyes of Majnun (Fire in the Wineglass #7)

Today’s lesson explored the story of Majnun and Layla, which I’ve written about in a previous entry from my earlier Sufi journal. In that entry, I focused more on Majnun’s sense of unfulfilled longing as a metaphor which helped me to put a container around my grief at not being able to receive the Eucharist. Today, I want to focus more on the notion of what Omid-jaan called “the eyes of Majnun.”

The story we read involves a caliph (a pope-like figure who like the kings of the ancient world enjoyed an authority which combined earthly with spiritual power) who hears the stories and poetry of Majnun’s longing for Layla. Entranced, he imagines that Layla must be a most incredible beauty, and so instructs his officials to bring not just her but her entire village to stand before him. He figures all of them must be beautiful, and Layla must be exceptionally so.

The women of her community are finally brought before him, and he is puzzled to discover that all of the women are…well, ordinary; “not fabulous Fatimas,” Omid-jaan chuckles, “but average Aishas.”

Looking among them, he finds that not one stands out in particular, and so is forced to call out for Layla to step forward. He is even more astonished to see her step forward: again, while she isn’t ugly, she’s no striking beauty either.

“How can you be Layla?” he cries. “Majnun was mad for your beauty, but you look like a plain Jane to me!”

Omid-jaan grins as he explains, “In this tradition, you’ve gotta watch out, because the women talk back!”

And Layla does: “HUSH. I am Layla, but you are not Majnun.”

The lesson is that only when one allows oneself to become ‘mad’ or ‘love-crazed’ (the literal meaning of the name ‘Majnun’) will one truly see the Layla of the poetry, the dark exquisite beauty of the stories.

We are all of us called to have these eyes of Majnun – but not only for the world around us, but for ourselves. All too often, I myself will see and testify to the beauty in others. This friend is physically stunning and fit. That friend is more physically plain, but has a heart of true beauty and tenderness. This friend is endlessly creative and innovative. That friend is a warrior for justice.

I, on the other hand, am nothing.

And all the while, each friend may be looking at me and seeing beautiful things within me.

We must do our own work, combat our own goldsmiths, seek out our own healers, but also we need companions to be our mirrors, to help us on the way.

We also should never forget that our body, as downplayed or denigrated as it may be, is a friend to us on this journey. Omid-jaan said quite evocatively, “Every part of the body is a friend to you on the spiritual path.” Through spiritual work, he explains, Sufis claim that God may make use of your eyes, your ears, your hands, your feet.

St. Teresa of Avila knew this as well, penning the beautiful prayer, “Christ has no body now but yours.” As a 15th century Spanish mystic she, like her contemporary St. John of the Cross, may have integrated this wisdom from the spiritual communities and traditions around her.

Omid-jaan went on to talk about the nazar, or “the glance.” Many people know the word nazar as referring to “the evil eye,” or a negative glance that must be countered with folk magic. You may have seen the many blue-eyed talismans hung on trees or doorways in the Middle East and Central Asia. But this word is not meant to only refer to negative glances. Classical Islam sees it also as referring to positive glances, and indeed this is one of the most interesting practices I’ve encountered in Sufism: the long, lingering gaze offered between dervishes. The first couple of times it happens to you, it’s deeply arresting, even uncomfortable. We’re not accustomed to looking at one another for such long periods of time, and with such intimacy. This, though, is almost literally a practice seeking to embody the eyes of Majnun.

When I considered how I might look at the world with the eyes of Majnun, what that glance would look like, though, I didn’t think of those Sufi glances first. What I thought of was the way my husband looked at me when I walked down the aisle toward him in my wedding dress.

What struck me so much about that look was that I expected one thing and experienced another. Every couple has a shared language spoken and unspoken. My husband often gives me a certain look when he thinks I appear especially pretty: a look of delight and excitement that involves grinning with gleaming eyes and tucking his lower lip behind his teeth.

That’s what I expected to see as I came into his line of sight, but that’s not what I saw.

Instead, he looked almost shaken, on the verge of tears.

Photo by Miya Cancar.

This shifted my entire perspective on the wedding itself. He is not a religious person, while I am. I expected that for me the ritualized part of the day would hold more meaning than it would for him, and so I was prepared to see him look at me with the eyes of delight that he always gave me. What did the ritual matter if we were already so deeply connected?

This new look, a look that suggested he was deeply, deeply moved, suggested to me that the ritual did have meaning – that indeed, he was looking not at me, the person he had been partnered to for many years, but to someone who had taken on a new image: the image of a wife. Our shared universe had changed dramatically.

What if, I then thought, I looked at the universe the way he looked at me on that day – if I looked at it as not just “business as usual” but as the God-haunted Spirit-filled place it was? What if I looked into the eyes of each person – cruel and kind, evil and good, rich and poor, young and old – in a way that suggested that they were no longer simply beings passing me by, but creatures that had been suffused in light – in the Christian context, having been made holy in the awesome echo of Christ’s death and resurrection?

How could I ever go back to being angry or frustrated or disgusted with them?

Let me be clear, I think seeing the world with the eyes of Majnun is probably the work of a lifetime.

That moment of meeting my husband’s eyes and seeing that look was only one moment. I’ve actually never seen him look quite that way since.

But I’ve never forgotten it.

If my whole life is striving to see that, and I only see it at the very end, I still think that might be enough.

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