Thought-provoking and sensational, The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak makes you question life, love and existence.
You are going to think I’m crazy, but there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Are you Shams?
Or is it the other way round? Is Shams you?
Shams is the person who was responsible for the transformation of Rumi from a local cleric to a world-famous poet and mystic.
Master Sameed used to say to me, “Even if there might be a Shams equivalent in some people, what matters is, where are the Rumis to see it?
I’ve been sitting on this book for almost six months now. Today, after ages, I picked it up again and finally got myself to write its review. Something that has been on my mind forever, but I never got the guts to do so. After all, this was the book that started it all. This was the book that pushed me to write more from and for my soul and less for any other reason. And I knew that no amount of words I pour into this review would do justice to the transformation it has kindled inside me. I won’t be able to do justice to this book. But here we are. Let’s try.
With this book, Elif Shafak takes us into the life of an ordinary housewife, Ella, who has almost everything going on for her. A husband, kids, a beautiful home where she can indulge into her hobbies, a social circle, a perfect life. Yet something feels missing to her, until she takes up a job at a publishing company where it’s upon her to review a book called Sweet Blasphemy by a new writer, Aziz Z. Zahara. From there on wards, reading this book is like being on a seesaw. We are sometimes reading Sweet Blasphemy with Ella and sometimes we are looking into Ella’s thoughts and life.
Most of this book, the parts where we are reading Sweet Blasphemy, is set in 13th century Konya. We see glimpses of the life of the great mystic and poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, and his strange, mystical and spiritual bond with the wandering dervish, Shams Tabriz. Parallel to this we see Ella defying all odds and falling in love with the writer of the book, Aziz. Now it may seem unconventional and entirely incorrect for a married woman to start a relationship with a man she hasn’t even met in real life, but what we see is a connection of intellects, a work of fate where everything else fizzles out and the only thing that makes sense is Ella and Aziz.
I feel that Ella and Aziz’s relationship is there only to add some salt to the otherwise bland soup that we are into when we are reading about Rumi and Shams. I mean, come to think of it, modern day readers aren’t entirely into Sufism unless there’s an element of romance somewhere. In fact, for our average reader, Sufism is a concept pretty hard to digest. So I guess, Ella’s story in parallel adds a nice touch of romanticism to keep the reader engrossed.
If you read this book, or any book, about the nature of the relationship between Rumi and Shams, you’d be like, dude? Gay couple? But you see, that’s where the problem in our thinking is. We see love as a straight line. We confine it to a pre-constructed notion that has been around for decades. We always think of love in the literal sense of the word. What these sufis and mystics maybe really meant by love was something or someone who brings you closer to the centre of it all. And the centre is really just God.
You see, for everything there is a zahir and a batin. Even for the Quran, we know that there is an exoteric (literal) meaning of its verses, and then there’s an esoteric, the hidden, the deeper meaning. It doesn’t mean that it contradicts the rules that religion has imposed on us, it just adds a layer to the interpretation. Something that you can only unfold as you engage in its message relentlessly. Something us ordinary humans, in our instagrammability, won’t be able to unravel. Something only the blessed and learned few would be able to reach.
This book, The Forty Rules of Love, is going to make you question yourself. It’s going to stimulate your mind and make you ponder over life and existence. Life is more than just a 9-5 daily grind. Our existence is beyond our accomplishments in this world. Our purpose is to worship and to love. Like the bond between the renowned scholar and the despised dervish, Rumi and Shams, you would someday stumble upon a love that is going to make you more humane, more sensitive, more selfless. A love without hopes and agenda. A bond that is there to only make you whole. A connection that goes beyond geography, time and even space. A love that, at the heart of it, makes you love the Creator and brings you closer to His message.
Rumi and Shams are all around us. They can be close confidants, trusted friends, a loving spouse, a dear parent. Their love is whole, their bond is unshakeable and permanent. It is devoid of worldly agendas. It only revels in loving the other. It loves even in separation.
And to really know Love, you must really know loss.
For me, this book has been a revelation and a mind-grappling read. I hope you enjoy it too.