Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

Allison Kanner-Botan

University of Chicago


Masnavī Elaborations: The Fictionalization of Laylī o Majnūn

Nezāmī (d. 1209) is often credited with shifting the focus of the masnavī form from epic to romantic themes. Scholars such as Julie Meisami and Dick Davis classify Nezāmī’s masnavīs as medieval romances and thereby categorize them alongside Béroul’s Tristan or Aristo’s Orlando Furioso. While the broad category of romance is useful for comparative projects, it risks overlooking the role of masnavī as the dominant vehicle of narrative poetics in the medieval Persianate literary landscape. It is through their form, I argue, that Nezāmī’s masnavīs achieved a sense of a unified narrative that strove for fictionalized completion from the perspective of an omniscient narrator.

In this paper, I look to the literary history and aftermath of Nezāmī’s Laylī o Majnūn as a tangible way of examining how masnavī as a form transformed the way in which a story is told. I locate and compare the scene of Majnun’s life amongst wild animals of the desert in four successive versions of the story: Ibn Qutayba’s al-Shi‘r wal-Shu‘arā’, al-Iṣfahānī’s Kitāb al-Aghānī, Nezāmī’s Laylī o Majnūn, and Amīr Khusrow Dehlavī’s Majnūn o Leylī. I argue that unlike the earlier Arabic semi-historical accounts, Nezāmī’s masnavī tells the story from a linear, unified perspective whereby the narrator gains control over narrative time as well as omniscient access to character interiority. This shifted focus onto the narrator creates the conditions for the fictionalization of the narrative itself, thus making it ripe for subsequent narrators to inhabit the form to their own ends.


Allison Kanner is a PhD student in the Divinity School and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. She is interested in medieval romance literature, Islamic mysticism, and gender and sexuality studies. In her dissertation, she will compare Arabic and Persian versions of the legend of Layla and Majnun from the ninth through the twelfth centuries. Through such a comparison, Allison will point toward an evolving sense of narrative in romance literature from the medieval period, as well as the gender relations at play in each text.