The Forty Rules of Love – H3a Reading Group Review, 1 December 2010

The Forty Rules of Love
by Elif Şafak 

 Our discussion revealed:

  • A variety of emotions ranging from:   ‘did nothing for me spiritually’ to ‘I was deeply moved and it helped me to re-think the way I live my life’
  •  Mingling the story of Shams and Rumi with the 21 century tale was a device for explaining the teachings of Shams.   Some of the group felt they could have easily dispensed with Ella’s tale and that the novel really came alive through the account of Shams and Rumi. For some, the device felt a bit too contrived
  • In Turkish the title of the book is ‘Aşk’ signifying a particularly intense and deep form of love, that can apply  to religion and the love of God as much as it can to the love between individuals.  It contrasts with the “romantic” love that Ella disparages in the opening chapters of the novel
  • It came as a surprise to learn that Elif Şafak made up the forty rules.  In her own words she “developed these as she wrote the story” and she adds “I was deeply inspired by the teaching of Shams and the poetry of Rumi…. and also inspired by universal Sufism and universal mysticism, but the rest is the work of my imagination”
  • We learnt that the spread of Sufism has a strong Turkish connection and is especially associated with the Turkic poet and Sufi mystic Ahmet Yesevi*, (1093-1166).

(*He was born in Sayram, Kazakhstan, lived in Bukhara and died in Hazvret-e Turkistan.  He exerted a powerful influence on the development of mystical orders throughout the Turkic speaking world. A mausoleum (right) was later built on the site of his tomb Tamurlane the great. 

 Turkish scholar Hasan Basri Çantay noted that “It was a Selcuk king who brought Rumi, the great Sufi poet, to Konya; and it was in Selcuk times that Ahmad Yesevi, another great Sufi, lived and taught. The influence of those two remarkable teachers has continued to the present” (Source: Wikidpedia)

  • Many of us saw parallels in the two sets of characters in each story: Aziz is Shams (their physical descriptions are almost identical, for example); Ella is Rumi; David is Kerra.  But we also people mirroring  each other, people searching for their spiritual “other” – Sham’s was seeking his companion for example, Ella found hers in Aziz.  In the early part of the book, the author alludes to this timelessness of the characters.  “800 years on the spirits of Shams and Rumi are still alive, whirling amidst us somewhere”
  • We noted how strongly the transformation theme quoted on the cover of the book  –  “Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformations” – played out in the novel.   Almost everyone is transformed in some way:  Shams and Rumi are transformed by their meeting, of course;  and so too are those of  Aziz and Ella when their lives touch each other.   But it not only the major characters:  Hasan the Drunk, the prostitute Desert Rose,  Shams’s sad bride Kimya, the Novice Dervish in Tabriz – all are transformed
  • Many of the themes in the 40 Rules resonate in our lives here and now: the notions of Kadir and Kismet are as much alive in daily discourse today as they were in 13th century Konya;  the need for “submission”;  the need for “patience” are as relevant today as they ever were
  • The Sufi message of tolerance comes through very strongly:   Ella married inside her faith – Judaism;  Kerra converted to Islam.  Both have firm views on where religion figures in their lives and in the life of their contemporaries
  • Some saw parallels between the message of tolerance expounded in 13th century Konya and in and the pragmatic approach to inter-faith relationships in 20th Century Eskibahce   in the previous book we read (Birds without Wings).  Indeed some saw important messages for today’s world of religious discord
  • As a convert from Christianity, Keera found it hard to give up her belief in Mary – ‘…yet for me the idea that Jesus was not a son of God but a servant of God wasn’t that hard to believe.  What I found much harder to do was to abandon Mary…’.  In Birds with Wings there were many instances of ordinary people selectively adopting the customs and beliefs of each other’s religion
  •  The idea of tolerance comes across strongly  in the voice of Kerra: “Anatolia is made up of a mixture of religions, peoples, and cuisines.  If we can eat the same food, sing the same sad songs, believe in the same superstitions and dream the same dreams at night, why shouldn’t we be able to live together?  I have known Christian babies with Muslim names and Muslim babies fed by Christian milk mothers.  Ours is an ever-liquid world where everything flows and mixes.  If there is a frontier between Christianity and Islam, it has to be more flexible than scholars on both sides think it is
  • And again, on the subject of the possibility of inter-religious harmony:

“Because I am the wife of a famous scholar, people expect me to think highly of scholars, but the truth is, I don’t.  Scholars know a lot, that’s for sure, but is too much knowledge any good when it comes to matters of faith?  They always speak such big words that it is hard to follow what they are saying.  Muslim scholars criticise Christianity for accepting the Trinity, and Christian scholars criticise Islam for seeing the Qur’an as a perfect book.  They make it sound as if the two religious are a world apart.  But if you ask me, when it comes to the basics, ordinary Christians and ordinary Muslims have more in common with each other than with their own scholars.”

  • For some, Shames comments about the limited perceptions of God held by some who consider themselves good religious people, struck a chord:

“Pity the fool who thinks the boundaries of his mortal mind are the boundaries of God the Almighty.  Pity the ignorant who assume that can negotiate and settle debts with God.  Do such people think God is a grocer who attempts to weigh our virtues and our wrongdoings on two separate scales?  Is He a clerk meticulously writing down our sins in His accounting book so as to make us pay Him back someday?  Is this their notion of Oneness?”

  • A note of stylistic criticism concerned contemporary slang and clichés being foisted upon 13th century citizens of Konya.  Phrases like “A work in progess”, “Talking the talk, but walking the work”, “Go with the flow” “Bright-eyed bushy tailed”, and many more, jarred for some of the group.
  • But these quibbles apart, the group seemed to think that Forty Rules of Love was a worthwhile and informative read.


Terry Glaysher

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