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What the World Needs Now: Elif Shafak’s “The Forty Rules of Love”
Several days ago, the blazing sun of Texas’ summer leaving me drained, I decided to take a mid-afternoon nap. Power napping is not foreign to my life. There are many days where a quick 15 or 20-minute moment of rest becomes part of my day. Such naps~rests rejuvenate the body and mind for the remainder of the day. On this day, however, feeling particularly tired, I decided to simply lie down and rest until my body naturally decided it was ready to resume the day. So, 2 hours later I awoke, having clearly gone through at least one, if not two, REM cycles.
Across from the foot of my bed are several stacks of books. This is the “unread” pile, and consists of many books that I have purchased over the years based on their reviews, my interest in browsing at bookstores, or based on friends’ recommendations. I’ve always been of the accord one should buy a book if they feel called to it – even if it is not the ‘right’ time to read the book. The book will let you know when it is time, and this has happened to me on more than one occasion. A book that sat on my shelf for years finally spoke to me; the universe signaled it was time.
And so it was on this day, where, awakening from my nap rejuvenated I sat up in bed, my eyes immediately drawn to the book stacks across the foot of my bed. While most of the book titles blurred from my still waking eyes, I was drawn clearly to Elif Shafak’s (2010) The Forty Rules of Love. This book I bought last winter on recommendation of my dear friend and sister Aylin who, in responding to my question on some of the leading novelists from Turkey, mentioned Shafak’s name.
“There is no such thing as early or late in life. . .Everything happens at the right time” (p. 303). So articulates Aziz, one of the novel’s main characters, near the end of the novel. And so, it seems, it was the right time to read this novel.
The book’s cover (at least my edition) labels this “A book of Rumi.” Rumi, a 13th century poet, philosopher, scholar, and Sufi mystic, followed the religious tradition of Islam. Within The Forty Rules of Love, Shafak traces Rumi’s transformation from a scholar to a poet, largely structured around the relationship that developed between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, another mystic Sufi philosopher. It is Shams of Tabriz that teaches Rumi the “forty rules of love” which undergird the book title. This story comes in the form of a book within the book. Sweet Blasphemy, a fictitious novel by A. Z. Zahara, traces this storyline.
Ella, a middle aged woman returning to work as a book critic for a Boston publishing agency, is assigned to read the manuscript of Sweet Blasphemy. The novel is also about Ella’s transformation – from an unhappy and loveless wife and mother who has lost her ability to and belief in love, to a woman who is transformed by the story of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. Through correspondence with Aziz Z. Zahara, the author of Sweet Blasphemy, she reawakens to the power of love and its transformative power in balancing the cosmos.
The novel is structured through the voices of multiple characters – flipping back and forth between the story of Rumi and Shams, to the story of Ella and Aziz. There are particular narrative voices in the story of Rumi and Shams that become important in regards to larger thematic of the book – such as Desert Rose (a prostitute); Suleiman the Drunk; Kimya (Rumi’s female student) and Kerra (Rumi’s wife); Aladdin and Sultan Walad (Rumi’s sons); Baybars and Jackal Head (security guards and murderers).
There are moments where this structure works solidly – particularly in regards to the story of Rumi and Shams. Shafak’s aim with this narrative approach is to model some of the larger thematics of the novel – the interconnected nature of all beings and energies, the importance of situated perspectives – through the development of different characters.
However, if there is an arena in which the novel is somewhat underdeveloped, it lies in Shafak’s use of this approach in telling the story of Ella and Aziz. In this storyline, we only hear the perspectives of Ella and Aziz; other important characters in this plot line, such as Ella’s husband David, or her children Orly, Avid, and Jeanette, are presented only through Ella’s eyes. While the transformative nature of Ella and Aziz’s love is not lost on the reader, it felt at times forced and disjointed, and I wonder whether the novel might have been enhanced with the inclusion of different perspectives in this storyline. Despite this underdevelopment, the story of Ella and Aziz neatly parallels that of Rumi and Shams – not only in terms of love, but importantly, spiritual transformation.
Where the novel is highly developed is through the integration of strong thematic structures related to cosmic unity, spirituality, the role of suffering, and the journey we each take while walking on the earth. There are other themes upon which I will not touch, though they should be considered important to the novel’s overall structure and message: the danger of envy, gossip, and speculation, for example.
The Forty Rules of Love
Each of the forty rules of love appears throughout the novel in the form of various lessons; mostly, these lessons are delivered by Shams of Tabriz to various other characters throughout the novel (not just Rumi). While these are partially rooted in religious traditions of the Abrahamic religions, the book does not have an overly religious feel to it. Love is a sort of force that binds the cosmos together.
For those interested, I have 40 Rules of Love List as discussed in the novel. Reflecting on the rules is an intriguing intellectual~philosophical~spiritual exercise.
Interconnectedness; or, the Unity of Oneness
The book is divided into five sections, although the narrative plot is unbroken. These five sections are centered on the original five elements found in many classic religions and philosophies.
- Earth: The things that are solid, absorbed, and still
- Water: The things that are fluid, changing, and unpredictable
- Wind: The things that shift, evolve, and challenge
- Fire: The things that damage, devastate, and destroy
- Void: The things that are present through their absence
As a narrative device, splitting the plotline into these different sections works only minimally. The “void” section is perhaps most evident of the matching up between plot and section. The other sections are less convincing, but this may not be the point of the book being broken up.
Rather, Shafak uses this ancient trope to explain the thematic of all the cosmos being interconnected. This theme comes up in several ways, such as Shams offering insights into the problem of individuality in Western society: “there is no such thing as ‘them,’ just as there is no ‘I.’ All you need to do is keep in mind how everything and everyone in this universe is interconnected. We are not hundreds and thousands of different beings. We are all One” (p. 135).
This story of interconnectedness also permeates the many ways in which the novel highlights the importance of cosmic balance. What we might refer to as Yin and Yang. For example, the balancing of gender: “each and every one of us, including you and me, has both femininity and masculinity in us, in varying degrees and shades. Only when we learn to embrace both can we attain harmonious Oneness” (p. 198). Interestingly, Shams of Tabriz is described at several points throughout the novel in somewhat androgynous terms – a balance of the feminine and masculine.
There is also the unity of Time. In terms of narrative plot, the story of Rumi and Shams clearly parallels Ella and Aziz. However, part of the larger theme in the book centers on how Time is not linear – there is no past or future, only present. If the world works cyclically as always balanced, always in Oneness, then the storylines can continue throughout what we think of as narrative, linear time. The quest for Love and spiritual oneness is unending; it is simply part of the connected nature of all beings.
Spirituality and Religious Tolerance
A major theme of the novel is the difference between spirituality and religion. There is a very clear message of religious tolerance. This comes up in many ways.
For example, Rumi is married to his wife Kenna, a former Christian. This comes up several times in the book as potentially problematic, even though Rumi’s wife has converted to Islam. In one particularly moving scene, Kenna is preparing bread and, daydreaming, molds the dough into the shape of Mary. Shams of Tabriz walks in and, witnessing this scene, does not scold Kenna, but rather encourages her to continue valuing the relationship she has with Mary in her heart.
Ella is Jewish; Aziz is “spiritual.” There are references to Christianity throughout the book, including stories of Moses. The underlying exploration has to do with one’s relationship to God, and whether this is best achieved through spiritual connection or religious fundamentalism. In a particularly poignant scene in the novel, Shams confronts a Sheik Muslim cleric, declaring that simply because one follows the rules as ascribed by religious authorities does not make one connected to God; rather, one’s ability to build a personal relationship to God through self-purification appears more important.
There is, by the end of the novel, the very clear point that if one comes to understand Love, then organized religions wash away. Rumi’s poem is evidence of this:
“Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or zen. Not any religion or cultural system. I am not of the East, nor of the West. . . .My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless.” (Rumi) (p. 183)
Scholar v. Mystic
At least part of this novel, and the debate regarding spirituality and religion, also stems from the tensions between religious scholars and mystics. Shams is considered a Sufi mystic – a wandering dervish – and his influence over Rumi is particularly contentious, according the novel. Part of this centers on Shams’ desire to turn Rumi from a simple scholar – one who studies texts and is able to deliver great lectures of the texts – to a poet. A poet, it is to be believed, has internalized the forty rules of love; they have moved beyond a surface level interrogation of religious text, to a lived and ontological experience. This is the difference between epistemology (scholars) and ontology (mystic).
En route from scholar to mystic, from religious zealot to Lover, one must learn to connect with all living beings. There is an implicit interrogation of the ways scholars, and even the wealthy, are removed from the masses, unable to relate to their daily lived struggles. One way to read the novel is as a treatise on social responsibility – Shams is partially reviled because of his relationship to social degenerates – the beggar; the drunk; the harlot. But these connections and relationships are what make Shams truly spiritual – truly connected to the Oneness of all humanity.
Part of Rumi’s spiritual training is to place himself into relationship with such people. If one can come to love those who are at the bottom of society, then one can be spiritually purified. The novel interrogates the theme of who is most spiritual – those with money, status, class, and reputation, or those who struggle with daily survival and temptation. This is a classic theme in literature and religion, and it is once again revisited here.
The Role of Women; and Sexuality
One theme that plays out subtly through the novel is the role of women in religion and spirituality. Rumi takes on a female student, Kimya. This character left me with more questions than answers by the end of the novel. I do not want to give away too much of the plot in this regard, but the questions seems to center on the role of sexuality in spiritual quests. If one embraces sexuality, does one destroy the possibility for spiritual enlightenment? If one gives up sexuality, does one begin the quest for spiritual fulfillment? These questions appear strongly connected to the female body in the novel – Kimya, Ella, Desert Rose – but also inform the supposedly male bodies, particularly Shams.
There is also the lingering question about the relationship between Rumi and Shams, which some might read as an erotic same-sex relationship. This is not my take on the novel. I do not believe that there is any sort of sexual relationship between the characters, and I do not read this as a queer novel in any regard. Rather, the novel is exploring the ways people can be spiritually connected – in Love – without the need for sex to enter the picture. In some ways, this relates back to the larger question: does sex destroy, disrupt, or make impossible spiritual connectivity? It is an intriguing question to ponder in relation to all the character unities in the novel.
So why this novel, now? The Forty Rules of Love appears important because of the ways it highlights the connections across space and time. We are living in scary, tumultuous times. The novel does not shy away from this fact, drawing parallels between the twenty-first and thirteenth century:
In many ways the twenty-first century is not that different from the thirteenth century. Both will be recorded in history as times of unprecedented religious clashes, cultural misunderstandings, and a general sense of insecurity and fear of the other. At times like these, the need for love is greater than ever. (p. 15)
Novels help us navigate the complexities of our personal and collective lives. The Forty Rules of Love is beckoning us to think about our relationships with our fellow human beings and ourselves. It is asking us to reconnect with our own spiritual journeys and remember our place in an interconnected cosmos. Most importantly, it reminds us about unity. We need to love one another and ourselves.
Shafak, E. (2010). The forty rules of love. New York, NY: Penguin Books.