“Have you noticed how God so often sends us books at just the right time?” – C.S. Lewis
‘The Forty Rules of Love’ is a novel which came to me at the perfect time in my life. Prior to reading this book there was little room for religion in my life. And the last thing that I expected was that a book – what’s more, a fictional book – would reinvigorate my belief in God.
But some stories have the ability to change our perspectives and indeed our very lives. ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ is the book that single-handedly changed mine.
Written by one of Turkey’s most accomplished authors, Elif Shafak, ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ is the story of Jalaluddin Rumi, the universally acclaimed 13thcentury poet, Islamic Scholar and Sufi mystic, through whose friendship with Shams of Tabriz, a wandering whirling dervish, we learn ‘the forty rules of love’.
In order to tell the story of Rumi and Shams, Shafak deftly weaves a story within a story – Rumi’s story is told through a book which is read by Ella, a middle-aged housewife from Massachusetts, who is, to be frank, painstakingly boring.
Ella is an unhappily married woman who, in a bid to break the monotony of her life decides to get a job working for a literary agency and is tasked with reading a book entitled ‘Sweet Blasphemy’, written by a first-time novelist, Aziz Zahara.
While Ella’s story is utterly mundane and one that I really could have done without, ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ on the other hand, was utterly captivating, thought-provoking and an absolute delight to read. It tells the tale of Rumi, a highly-esteemed and learned Muslim scholar who makes an unlikely friend in a maverick dervish who imparts on Rumi his wisdom by way of ‘the forty rules of love’. This ultimately results in Shams’ murder and Rumi’s heartbreak, leading to his birth as one of the most venerated (Sufi mystic) poets in the history of Islam.
Interestingly, the novel is told through multiple narratives and isn’t just limited to the perspectives of Shams and Rumi. Indeed, the tale is also told from the viewpoints of the people around them including a drunkard, a beggar outside of the mosque and a harlot who escapes the brothel to find God.
In other words, Shafak gives a voice to society’s castaways. And while these are characters who are met with the scorn and disgust of society, Shams knows better – “the Qur’an tells us each and every one of us was made in the best of moulds”. Accordingly, Shams treats even those deemed ‘the lowest’ in society, with kindness and love.
In my opinion, Shams embodies the essence of Islam and while the Sufi interpretation of Islam may be unorthodox, on the whole, it marries up with Islam being a religion of inclusion, tolerance and benevolence.
Islam is portrayed by Shafak as being a belief system that is welcoming and enriches our lives and the lives of those around us as opposed to belief being something that is self-righteous and judgemental. Ultimately, it is a way of life that encourages one to be a kind person who spreads peace, forgiveness, love and justice.
That’s what makes this book stand out – it will leave you ruminating on the beauty of a religion which is moderate and above all else, encourages tolerance and peace – a message that can be easily lost when one thinks of the negative discourse that is perpetuated about the religion of Islam in mainstream Western media today.
For someone like myself, who at the time of reading, was out of touch with religion, Shafak’s portrayal of Islam, from the lens of Sufism, was a welcome reminder that faith “isn’t reserved for the pious…for those who outwardly comply with what a Muslim ‘should’ look like”. Islam is an inclusive religion, open to all, at the core of which lies one’s personal relationship with God, to whom you are allowed to journey towards irrespective of the sins of your past.
Reading ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ encouraged me to conceptualise God in terms of love. This alone, made a world of difference on the way in which I viewed religion/spirituality and encouraged me to take two steps forward to embracing a faith that I had previously forgotten.
Shafak’s novel scored a 10/10 from me, with my only criticism of it being that Ella’s story was boring and the novel could have focused on Rumi’s story alone. That being said, there is no other novel that I hold in higher esteem – if there is any book that I’d recommend to any and everyone, without hesitation, it is without a doubt ‘The Forty Rules of Love’.
In particular, if you are the type of reader who enjoys books on spirituality or enjoyed Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’, this book is definitely for you.