The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak

This book comes highly recommended.
I had expected to walk out of Marine Parade Library without any books when this book popped out at me. For a book to catch my attention, it must not be in paperbacks, preferably have a Red heart on the NLB catagory sticker, or contain the word LOVE.
This book is written by ‘one of Turkey’s most acclaimed and outspoken novelist.’ Having been introduced to a Turkish author while I was in Istanbul, I found the country to have some of the best novelists and writers and this author is no exception.
This was a difficult book to read, not because it contain bombastic vocabulary or long sentences. It doesn’t, but I needed time after each chapter to reflect and re-read the messages I receive from it.
This book is a book-in-a-book. In it, a forty-year-old bored housewife in Boston, Ella, is reading a manuscript from a new author from Turkey as part of her job working for a literary agent. The title of the book is Sweet Blasphemy and it is written by a travelling photographer named Aziz. And so, the reader, together with Ella, is taken back to thirteen century Anatolia, to the adventure of a wandering dervish called Shams. Dervish

(dervish – a member of any of various Muslim ascetic orders, as the Sufis, some of which carry on ecstatic observances, such as energetic dancing and whirling or vociferous chanting or shouting.)

While the actual book is written in the third person, Sweet Blashemy is written in a first person account with each chapter bearing the name of the person who is narrating her/his experience encountering Shams.
Thirteen century Anatolia is a tubulant place, where the Mongols led by Genghis Khan had partitioned the Byzantine Empire. Christians fought Christians, Christians fought Muslims and Muslims fought Muslims. In this chaotic period, Shams, who does not dream but has visions instead, is travelling to a distant city to meet with his soulmate, Rumi, a respected scholar and preacher, whom he has met in his vision. On his journey, he meets the outcasts of society and help them regain their lost spirit and pride by teaching them about the Forty Rules of Love. There is the drunk, the prostitute (Harlot) and the beggar. But there are also those who think Shams is leading their respected scholar astray by his unconventional style and in the end, felt so threatened that they plan to kill him.
Reading Sweet Blashemy, one can’t help but feel that the author Shafak is trying to teach the Western world about real Islam, and how similar to other religions Islam is. ‘Religions are like rivers. They all flow into the same sea.‘ The Islam that is portrayed in the Muslim world today has the sole purpose of feeding the male ego, the Qur’an interpreted according to the individuals.
The book relates many examples through anecdotes and stories.
There is the Warrior, who feels it’s his duty to ensure that Muslims stick close to the rules, which includes no alcohol. (Reminds me of the recent news in Aceh where the woman are forced to change into sarongs.) But the book says ‘Religious rules and prohibitions are important, but they should not be turned into unquestionable taboos. Spiritual growth is about the totality of our consciousness, not about obsessing over particular aspects. God wants to be known, He wants us to know Him with every fibre of our being. That is why it is better to be watchful and sober than to be drunk and dizzy.’
When the Harlot, Desert Rose, is spotted in the mosque listening to Rumi preach and gets chased out by the men, Shams tells the men, ‘You go to the mosque but pay more attention to the people around you than to God? If you were the good believers you claim to be, you would not have noticed this woman even if she were naked.’
Shams tells the Harlot, ‘If you want to change the way others treat you, you should first change the way you treat yourself. Unless you learn to love yourself, fully and sincerely, there is no way you can be loved. Once you acheive that stage, however, be thankful for every thorn that others might throw at you. It’s a sign that you will soon be showered in roses. How can you blame others for disrespecting you when you think of yourself as unworthy of respect?’
Shams tells the Zealot, who thinks Shams is the Sheitan (Satan) in disguise that ‘One who thinks he has the answers is the most ignorant.’ The Zealot describes Sheitan- ‘Sheitan comes in many forms, in the form of gambler who invites us to gamble, a beautiful woman who seduces us…in the least expected form, like that of a wandering dervish.’ To which Shams tells him, ‘then we human beings have no reason to blame ourselves for our wrong doings. Whatever good happens we’ll attribute to God, and all the bad things in life we’ll simply attribute to Sheitan. In either way we’ll be exempt from all criticism and self examination.’
Meanwhile, Ella is facing problem with her teenage daughter and a husband who is having an affair. As Ella reads the book, she becomes intrigue by Aziz and starts an email correspondance with him, falling in love with him in the process as he guides her through her difficulty. She decides to leave her family for Aziz despite learning that they have no future together as he is suffering from terminal cancer but leaves anyway. She learns that ‘if there was anything worse in the eyes of society than a woman adandoning her husband for another man, it was a woman abandoning her future for the present moment.’
While this book is a work of fiction, I learn from the internet that Mawlana Jalaladdeen Rumi, or Rumi for short, is a spiritual master and poet of the late 13th century, and there is actually a whirling dervish dance group dedicated to him. (In the book, Rumi transformed into a poet after meeting Shams.)
The most famous and probably the most fruitful relationship in his development was with Shems-i Tebriz, whom he met in Konya at the suggestion of Ruknuddin Zarqubi. Modern historians may argue about who influenced whom in their long association but this is not profitable. What we know is that for a particular period of time, two skillful and acute spirits came together, and by sharing the divine bounties and gifts they received from their Lord, they reached peaks that most would not be able to reach easily on their own. To this day the place where the two first met in Konya is known as Marc’al Bahreyn, the meeting point of the two oceans. Through their spiritual cooperation, they enlightened those of their own age, and have also influenced all the centuries which followed.)
Reading this book as an agnostic, or non-believer, has enriched me spiritually. Aziz himself claimed that he is not religious, but spiritual. Am I too?
I shall copy all the forty rules in another blog. 

About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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4 Responses to The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak

  1. Nabueh says:

    There’s another Turkish you would love, Dr. Oz! He comes highly recommended by Oprah. By the way, Oprah, (and Martha Stewart) is not a typical American on the street. So no surprise if Martha or Oprah know very specific ingredient of S E Asia.

  2. Vicky says:

    You are absolutely right. I love Dr Oz! Too bad he is no longer on Oprah as he has his own show now which we don’t get here yet. BTW, Amanda is not your typical American either, right?

  3. nousha says:

    nice review. I have just finished reading the book , and loved it too. I also liked “The Bastard of Istanbul”, but not as much as the 40 rules of love

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