Having literally just finished reading The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, my mind is racing to capture all the thoughts whizzing around in my head. This book has stirred me for many reasons, not least because it was recommended to me by a cherished friend (who always knows what sustenance feeds my mind) and for this reason it is one of those special reads that bears the sweeter fruits of deeper contemplation when the reading is prolonged through dialogue. But before I jump ahead of myself, an overview of the plot to start. The novel is centred around two parallel narratives: the contemporary setting is told from the detached viewpoint of Ella, an unhappy housewife living in Massachusetts who has recently taken on a role as a reviewer for a literary agency. The book she is given to review, we are told, is called “Sweet Blasphemy” by Aziz Zahara, and it is this very book that is the second narrative of the novel. Unlike the monoculus viewpoint in the first narrative, the second encompasses the voices of the major and minor characters alike in a patchwork story of a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who must fulfil his destiny of finding a companion (the illustrious Rumi) with whom he can both grow in love, as well as pass on his teachings to- the forty essential rules of Sufi love. It is the captivating story of pure love and spirituality in Sweet Blasphemy which is the catalyst for Ella’s ensuing relationship with Aziz and no doubt it is also its force which gets Ella–– as well as the reader –– to rethink the boundaries and spirit of love. The heartbreak that is often an inescapable process in obtaining wholesomeness is no less a part of both narratives and yet it is precisely the essential rebirth through loss that enriches the novel’s restorative quality, reminding us that life itself prepares us ‘to die before death’. The Forty rules of Love not only reshapes our perceptions of love, but is a testimony to its power, in Shafak’s very own words: ‘if we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough’. Reading this book with an open mind, I find it hard to see how one could not be absorbed into the multifaceted discovery of love. I say this with all sincerity that having read this book, I finished it a slightly different person to when I started it.
Now let me explain.
I have to admit, for me the book commenced to a rocky start with the first couple of chapters in the primary narrative not being as captivating as other books that I’ve read, and perhaps this is because Ella’s life is presented as a cliché of every miserable housewife: the perfect polished family, riddled with a cheating husband, an oppressed wife, and children’s concealed troubles. That said, it is worth sticking it through, as the narrative progresses the focus on the secondary narrative seems to seep into the primary one and bind the novel as a whole with the focal point now shifted to love and spirituality, embodied by the nucleus character of the book, Shams of Tabriz, a mystic Sufi. I have always been aware of orthodox Islam and Sufism’s complicated relationship, but have never read a book, which addresses it in such depth. And yet the book goes beyond just the confines of Islam, and explores the age long conflict between ‘the scholar and the mystic, between the mind and the heart’. It is these nominal divisions which Shafak probes in her book, reminding us that we shouldn’t get attached to any single school of thought but rather we should engage them in constant discourse. In the same respect, religious rules and prohibitions, undeniably crucial for all Abrahamic religions, should not become ‘unquestionable taboos‘. If anything the should make our minds more open to questioning and more hungry for understanding.
The scope of the book doesn’t just touch the religious and spiritual concerns, but indeed the underlying message of the book is applicable to all aspects of human life. We should always go beyond just surface understanding and instead of taking things for face value, to scrutinise them. We should question what our values really are and not just adopt prescribed ones mindlessly. Whether that’s in politics, the work place, or in our personal relationships, this book promotes being an active participant in all aspects of your life. Shams is as much our teacher as he is Rumi’s, providing us with the invaluable reminder that in the search of getting to know ourselves–– our true selves–– we must remember that it is not the responses that our outer eyes witness that matter, but what our inner eye perceives that holds weight.