Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

It is thirteenth century Anatolia. Maulana Jallal ud din Rumi is a noted Islamic scholar and pillar of aristocratic society in Konya.

He meets Shams of Tabriz a wandering dervish and his life is transformed forever.

The friendship ruins his great reputation, it challenges all he has learned and it creates a bitter rift in his family with one son cast out. But it frees  him to see a greater truth taught by a great teacher.

The transformation changes him from scholar to mystic poet who writes the famed Mathanawi comprising twenty five thousand mystic verses and  founds the order  of  Melawi Sufism.

Parallel to this runs the twenty first century story of Ella, ‘Liberal Democrat, non practicing Jew, mother of three, wife of twenty years”, and A A Zahra a modern day Sufi, a Scotsman who converts to Islam, “Sometime after Karim Jabbar and before Cat Stevens “.

Zahra has written a book on Shams of Tabriz which is sent to Ella to read for her book publishing firm.

They find a connection via e mail and through the Forty rules of love taught by Shams of Tabriz.

Shams preaches the Sufi doctrine of love and non attachment . A Sufi does not go to extremes, a Sufi knows attachment is unreal, for the Sufi the great jihad one must fight is the one with the ego.

There are references to the Nafs, lower levels that man must transcend to find God and the Al Nisa, the Al Fateh ,and Batini piercing of the surface to the inner mystic meaning of the Quran but the book is a look at universal love and spirituality and you don’t need to know the teachings of the Quran to understand the message of an inclusive religion based on love. Or human connections based on love.

For Ella that love unfolds when she throws away all sensible advise, a marriage and three kids to be with the man she loves for however brief a time she gets, a romantic love within which she glimpses the spiritual. Ella learns at the end of the book, “Love has no labels, no definitions.”

Rumi muses at the end after he has been parted from his beloved Shams “Love has taken away all my practises and habits. Instead it has filled me with poetry”

Elif Shafak writes in both English and Turkish and is established as an imporatnt and outspoken writer in her own country.

Her latest book Honour was published recently.

Shafak has an engaging style and the story of Rumi and Shams is seen through various narrators -the ones who love them as well as the ones whose lives are impacted by them as well as through their own narrative.

Dervishes are common in Konya we are told. Desert Rose one of the minor characters in the book walks through the market and recognises that there are Qalandaris, Calmis, Hydaris amongst the wandering dervishes.

Shefak has kept very much to the real incidents in the encounter between Rumi and Shams which are well known.

The first meeting where Shams challenges Rumi as he is on his horse returning from the mosque, Shams’ disappearance, his marriage with Keemya, the creation of the sema ( the whirling dance of the Sufis) perfected by Rumi after he hears the rhythm of gold beater Saladin’s stone on the gold are all part of history and lore.

But it is the interpretation by Zahra that gives it a modern universal take.

Initially I found the romance of Ella and Zahra a bit  predictable and in the  Richard Bach – Paul Coelho mode but then I dropped some preconceived notions and on a second reading it did not seem as intrusive as I had thought earlier.

Rumi is well known even today. And his poetry is quoted often in popular culture both East and West .

But Forty Rules …did get me reading more about Shams of Tabriz and I was fascinated to see how much material is available.

It also got me reading a little more about Bengal’s great tradition of wandering poets called Bauls who are supposed to be influenced or descended  from Iranian wandering Sufis called B’aals.

There is a female Baul singer I have heard Parvati Baul who dances and sings with such divine ecstasy it is impossible not to be touched.

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