This town of Layla: reflections of an interfaith pilgrimage across Pakistan

By Matt Pointon

The air was fragranced by rose petals and the accompaniment of cooing doves. I sat cross-legged, my back resting against ancient bricks and drank in the scene before me.

Nameless devotees were coming forward to the tomb, bowing, paying their respects, making silent petitions, and then moving on.

Only I and a few others remained, soaking it in, feeling the presence of the place, trying to comprehend.

And as I did, I prayed.

First, I rattled through the perfunctory prayers. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be. Then my mind stilled, emptied, as I tried to hear that still, small voice that once spoke to Elijah in a cave on Mt. Carmel.

What would God say to me today? What words did He have to convey? What was my lesson to be?

And then, unexpectedly, they formed on my lips.

Not what I anticipated, yet they came, over and over again, until I was chanting them like a mantra, and their syllables were cleansing my soul.

I pass by this town, the town of Layla

And I kiss this wall and that wall

It’s not love of the town that has enraptured my heart

But of the One who dwells within this town

The only question was, why these words? What did they mean?

I was in Pakistan on holiday. Well, my kind of holiday, which, unlike many people’s, involves neither beaches nor much relaxation but instead a smorgasbord of historical, political, and religious sites.

The Tomb of Hazrat Shah Rukn-e-Alam, Multan (Copyright: Matt Pointon, 2023).

Two days earlier, I had fulfilled a long-time ambition and visited Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak.

Nanak was the founder of Sikhism and is perhaps my favourite religious figure from a tradition other than my own. He is a man that all pilgrims should learn about because he was one of us.

He started his spiritual career by bathing in the River Beas near his home in Sultanpur. He then disappeared for three days and when he returned all he would say is: “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim“.

His message was that instead of manmade labels, we are all human – we are all disciples of God.

Shortly after this experience, he set off on the first of his five great Udasis or pilgrimages, travelling north, south, east and west to the holy sites of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Islam.

He visited Mecca and, according to some sources, perhaps Jerusalem and Rome too.

He wore a costume that was a synthesis of Muslim and Hindu dress and he embraced everyone, regardless of race, faith, caste or gender.

Like I said, he was one of us. You could imagine chatting to Nanak in an albergue in El Burgo Ranero or passing him on the Way near to Astorga whilst on the Camino de Santiago.

An early 19th century mural painting depicting Guru Nanak by Gurdwara Baba Atal (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Nanak though, did not appear out of nowhere. He was a product of two great spiritual traditions: the Hindu Bhakti movement and Sufism within Islam.

Both of these movements disregarded old certainties and preached a personal devotion and spirituality of love over convention and form. And it was these Sufis that I’d come to see in Pakistan.

Everywhere I went, I sought out their shrines and knelt by them, asking for guidance. Which is how I found myself sitting by the Tomb of Hazrat Shah Rukn-e-Alam in Multan.

Shah Rukn-e-Alam was a 13th century saint of the Suhrawardiyya order of Sufis. That much I knew. The question was: why was he telling me about the Town of Layla?

The words I knew already with great familiarity. They are a stanza of a poem by the great Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi.

The poem is the story of Layla and Qays, two lovers who were kept apart by a cruel world.

Qays wished to marry Layla, but her father refused. So, he retreated to the desert and became a hermit, composing poetry in her honour, and earning himself the nickname of “madman” (Majnun) from the locals.

Layla and Majnun are widely known across the Muslim world as being symbolic of tragic lovers, the eastern Romeo and Juliet as it were.

Azerbaijani folk art based on the Layla and Majnun poem by Nizami Ganjavi (CC BY 3.0).

Although I’d known of the story for years, it came into focus last year when I began my friendship with S. I describe this in my essay “The Lady with the Raven“.

When we ceased contact, I spoke to a friend about it and he said: “Oh Matt, you are like Majnun!”

I asked him what to do about it, and he suggested embracing being Majnun, going with it and seeing where it led me. I did as he suggested and what resulted was perhaps the greatest period of sustained creative output in my life.

By channelling the emotions and committing them to paper, I wrote poetry and stories that I did not think myself capable of.

The story of Layla and Majnun, two tragic lovers, seems at first to have little to do with faith and pilgrimage. But, as I travelled around Pakistan and recited the mantra at every shrine I visited, I realised that it very much concerns the spiritual seeker.

It is a story that can be read on two levels.

On the basic level, yes, it is a story of boy meets girl, society tells them they can’t be together and they waste away in separation yearning for one another, to be reunited only in death.

Yet on another level, I realised that this separation – which is the key to the whole tale – can also be taken to represent the separation between the ultimate lovers – God and man.

Sufis often refer to God as “The Beloved and aim to attain unity with Him (something which does not go down well with many mainstream Muslims who view such thoughts as highly blasphemous).

So, if I am Majnun, yearning for the one that I am separated from, then Layla is God (Him – or Her) – self, sitting in her tower. God is to be glimpsed from afar but impossible to get close too.

And yet we try. For that is what pilgrimage is all about.

We journey to get closer to God by exploring His world, meeting our fellow pilgrims and, most important of all, learning to understand ourselves a little better.

And when seen in that light, the words make sense with a clarity and beauty that is overwhelming:

I pass by this town, the town of Layla

And I kiss this wall and that wall

It’s not love of the town that has enraptured my heart

But of the One who dwells within this town

This town of Layla is the world, our world. It belongs to Layla because Layla is God. Layla created it and sustains it.

We pass by it because, it is through journeying that we can come closer to Her.

We kiss this wall and that wall, this tomb and that shrine, but why?

For love of the cold, unfeeling stones? Not at all. Instead, because of the One who dwells within.

The Tomb of Haji Syed Sakhi Sultan, Manghopir (Copyright: Matt Pointon, 2023).

Out there, by the shrines of a faith not my own, I learnt a valuable spiritual lesson. Pilgrimage is prayer and all travels can be a pilgrimage. If only we treat them as such.

So yes, plan your next Camino, take a trip to Lourdes, Walsingham, Rome or visit Jerusalem. There is value to all those things and they are beautiful.

But, next time you go into town to do some shopping, or attend a work meeting in a strange city, also become Majnun. Wander about that town. Kiss this wall and that wall.

Let your heart be enraptured, not of love for the town.

But of the One who dwells within that town.

The town of Layla.

About the author

Matt Pointon is a practising Anglican from Stoke-on-Trent. He has been interested in world religions and interfaith activities since 2000.

His passions are pilgrimage and writing.

He has travelled to holy sites from Jerusalem and Amritsar to Iona to Eihei-ji. In 2021, he completed the 500-mile Camino Frances and in April 2023 will be walking from Florence to Rome along the Way of St. Francis.

His particular interests are Celtic Christianity, Orthodox monasticism, early Islam, Sufism and the life of Guru Nanak.

His day job is working for the trade unions.

Featured image: The Tomb of Hazrat Shah Rukn-e-Alam, Multan (Image credit: Aa Dil).

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