Book Review: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
I heard about ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ after it was mentioned by a number of people in the social media sphere. It was only after I received the book, and looked at the front cover (I had a different edition to the one pictured) did I realise that all the people talking about it online were hijabis, this realisation coupled by the cover I was looking at made me realise, this is a woman’s book. Reading the blurb only confirmed my suspicions, a story about a lonely housewife looking for love etc. Although I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t realise any of this beforehand I still decided to read it to find out what all the commotion was about. I was however a little apprehensive about what my fellow commuters on my daily journeys would have thought.
The story is essentially two-fold, the main storyline regards Ella, a lonely housewife in Massachusetts who starts reading a novel called ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ which forms the second storyline and involves a fictionalised account of the relationship between Mawlana Rumi and Shams-i-Tabriz. Through reading the novel she examines her life and reflects on the lack of love she has. She eventually develops a close relationship with the author who helps her to make a change to her life based on the Sufi tradition.
For myself personally I enjoyed the novel ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ contained within the main story itself. Although it is a fictional account, much of what happens in the story is based on many purported incidents between Rumi and Shams. It follows the transformation of Rumi from a traditional jurist into a spiritual master based upon Shams’s teachings. As the story progresses Shams reveals his forty rules of love to different characters along his way from Central Asia to Anatolia, and the story both begins and finishes with his murder. One point I would make, and it may be considered nit-picky, is that the author seems to imply there was a dichotomy between Sufism and traditional Islam, and I picked up a similar feeling from ‘My Name is Red‘, the only other Turkish novel I’ve read. While this may have been true in some periods of time and in some areas, it wasn’t so much after the impact of Imam al-Ghazali on Islamic scholarship, who is credited with bringing together both scholastic and spiritual dimensions of Islam. This effect would have been most apparent in Central Asia and present-day Turkey where the novel is set. Aside from that this side of the novel is a very good Sufi story and I enjoyed it. It made me reflect on myself in my current state and I took away some interesting lessons from it.
Now the other side of the novel is the story of Ella, unfortunately this part of the story was as I suspected a very female affair. Perhaps it was me as a man but I was unable to connect to Ella as a character, it’s difficult to determine why she’s so sad with her life when she keeps trying to cheer herself up by looking at the good things she has in life (minus the cheating husband which she doesn’t do anything about). To me it seemed the problem with the character was she was a boring human being with no self-esteem, as she admits herself when she reflects on her past. (Spoiler:) It further undermined the character when she decides to leave her family to be with Aziz, the author of Sweet Blasphemy, she has three children, two of which are teenagers and she gets up and leaves them simply because she doesn’t feel “love” in her life. Which to me made her seem shallow and self-centred, someone just looking for excitement at the expense of others. Ironically the novel finishes with the fortieth rule: “Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western“. Well if that were the case why didn’t she just stick with her mundane material Western love!(End spoiler). For someone such as myself who is keen on the spiritual dimensions of Islam, it bugs the hell out of me when the works of divine love, such as those of Rumi, are used to reflect on superficial worldly love. It reminded me of a very pertinent tweet I saw earlier this week:
While it may help certain individuals reflect on the works of Rumi within their own personal lives, it didn’t really work for me, and may be again that’s because I’m a man who can’t connect with a very feminine story, or it may be because I’m a traditionalist, I’m not entirely sure. I would have preferred the novel to have just been Sweet Blasphemy, but the author would have then risked writing a story that many readers would be unable to connect to, I can see Ella’s story acting as a bridge to Rumi, but it risks losing the appeal of certain readers such as me, but it may be that the author was looking for a story for women to connect to. God knows best.