Book review: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

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A poetic, thought provoking and a novel within a novel story by Elif Shafak unfolds two parallel narratives. One taking place in the twenty first century and the other set in the thirteenth century, where the Sufi poet and mystic Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the infamous wandering dervish known as Shams of Tabriz

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A rendering of Shams and Rumi at the tomb of Shams of Tabriz in Khoy, Iran

The novel starts with Ella Rubenstein, a forty years old and unhappily married women who takes up a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment is to read and report on Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by Aziz Zahara. Sweet Blasphemy contains the tale of Shams’s search for Rumi and the dervish’s role in transforming the successful but unhappy cleric into a committed mystic, passionate poet and advocate of love.

While reading Sweet Blasphemy, Ella is taken with Shams’s lessons or rules that talk about unity of all people and religions, and the presence of love in each and every one of us.

Shams believes in universal love and he lives by “forty rules of love”, which represent his principles concerning every aspect of life. They deal with love, tolerance, patience, and many other principles a man should follow in order to be happy and to reach inner peace and God’s love. He inspires Rumi to become the poet he was meant to be, one of the world’s most passionate and profound voices of wisdom. The story inspires Ella to eventually step out of a marriage that has become emotionally and spiritually stifling for her and embrace change.

The entire novel, Forty rules of love is very influential and magical. It is full of significant words, such as those in Ella and Aziz’s emails, in Rumi’s sermons and poems, as well as the “forty rules” of Shams. While exploring “forty rules of love”, readers can feel the real power of words, also making them to realize other aspects of life.

Rule 3 states, “You can study God through everything and everyone in the universe, because God is not confined in a mosque, synagogue or church. But if you are still in need of knowing where exactly His abode is, there is only one place to look for him: in the heart of a true lover.”

This rule unifies people, highlighting the fact that God is there for everyone. No matter where a person is, or to what religion he belongs, God is present inside every one of the believers and in their hearts. People should not look for God in mosques or churches, but inside their own hearts. Therefore, Sufism teaches people to look inside themselves, to purify their nafs from evil influences and to reach an ultimate state of peace of mind.

Furthermore through this novel we learn that Shams’s rules teach us to be always thankful and to be patient. People should be optimistic, because no matter whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the state of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, God will open up a new path only for you.

Rule 8: “Patience does not mean to passively endure. It means to be farsighted enough to trust the end result of a process. What does patience mean? It means to look at the thorn and see the rose, to look at the night and see the dawn. Impatience means to be so shortsighted as to not be able to see the outcome. The lovers of God never run out of patience, for they know that time is needed for the crescent moon to become full.”

These rules are not only related to Sufism or to the 13th century Islamic period, but they are principles that should be followed also in our modern life. This novel is timeless and definitely worth a read! It is a spiritual journey of love that acts as a reminder that it is never too late to change.

Rule 13: “Try not to resist changes which come your way.  Instead, let life live through you.  And do not worry that your life is turning upside down.  How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”


By Zahra Abbas

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