The Forty Rules of Love, Elif Shafak

Somewhere in my building, someone is listening to jazz. I can hear faint strains of a saxophone up at my apartment, with the smell of drying shrimps from the sea and the sharp rhythmic hammering of a stone-worker. Just another Sunday in the city where I live… the right time to reflect on this book which so emphasizes the importance of now-ness.

Shafak’s book, which I was earlier afraid to read because it sounded like a sappy romantic paperback, has been a pleasant surprise. It also helped me move forward and be comfortable with the many things that I do, that do not make sense. It seems, I am almost a sufi!

The book has narratives from the perspective of multiple characters- a writing tool that I wonder if all Turkish writers like to use. It reminded me distinctly of Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.

Unlike Pamuk though, this is a more linear tale, a less dense and more homely book. Pamuk would have woven Sufi thoughts in the erudite dialogues of his characters or explained an action with its underlying motifs of Sufism; Shafak on the other hand makes it a more easy concept. Perhaps if I were to read this again after a few years, I may find this book like a Jhumpa Lahiri–writers who write with a commercial purpose (in my opinion). With authors like Pamuk & Solzhenitsyn, I come back to again and again, drawn to a mulling rumination of their words. Their words are their thoughts.

Nevertheless, The Forty Rules Of Love is a pretty bejeweled book, probably because it makes Rumi and Shams Tabrizi so accessible for a first-time reader. The book is peppered with the rules of love, and this I believe is what made it such a good read for me- the discovery of a certain philosophy of diving into love, with no thought to the future.

Of-course, the Sufi Shams would have meant the divine love; but to me this holds true for every other meaning of the word as well. Do not question, immerse yourself in giving and receiving love “because love is the very essence and purpose of life“- love is the sweet blasphemy– the book within the book.

Very quickly then, Shafak’s tale starts in modern-day America: an aging housewife starts reviewing a book on Rumi & Shams. That book is written by a man that she will eventually fall in love with, because…love.

But more importantly, the book that she reviews introduces her (and us) to 13th century Turkey where a well-respected maulana meets a wandering dervish. Like the meeting of intergalactic objects, the dervish comes crashing into the maulana’s life, shakes the latter from his crystal-like reverie, smashes the walls of beautiful illusions, showing him love and compassion that exists beyond, that exists even in the thick of coagulating blood, tears and yellow pus. Thus…”Everything Shams did, he did for my perfection…he opened our doors to a prostitute and made us share our food with her. He sent me to the tavern and encouraged me to talk to drunks. Once he made me beg across from the mosque where I used to preach, forcing me to put myself in the shoes of a leper beggar. He cut me off first from my admirers, then from the ruling elite, bringing me in touch with common people.

Eventually, Rumi transformed from an academic, a scholar of Islamic studies, a maulvi to the liberated and lyrical poet “whatever you see as profitable, flee from it!/ drink poison and pour away the water of life!/Abandon security and stay in frightful places!/ Throw away reputation, become disgraced and shameless!

This brings me finally to the rules of love by Shams (as laid out by Shafak). These are liberally used all across the book, and it will make this too long an exercise to list all the rules. I can only direct interested readers to this blog where the writer has graciously put down all forty. Perhaps one day I will sit and read each of the rules and decode them for myself. Perhaps I am already doing this in my private journal, but it would be an interesting exercise–to follow the heart and not the mind.

Lastly, I am not sure how Shams himself put it but perhaps this link is something closer to his compilation

“The mind constricts; love unbinds.
The mind says, ‘Don’t let go or overflow.’
Love says, ‘Be free without formality.'”

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