Readers will find The Forty Rules of Love replete with sayings that seem to echo their wandering thoughts. These apparently simple words have profound connotations. This soul-stirring book talks about scholars (who deal with the mind) and mystics (who are concerned with the heart). The debates between the zealots and the sufis or dervishes, so very relevant and meaningful in today's confused and confusing world, make the book a godsend.
The 350-page novel swings back and forth - from the thirteenth to the twenty-first century. The link between these two eras is crafted skilfully by best-selling Turkish author, Elif Shafak.
In the 13th century, the central characters are Shams of Tabriz, a dervish, and Rumi, a Sufi scholar. Their friendship, "a union of two oceans", is the result of sharing the same quest, a quest for the divine truth, the ONE truth. In the present century is Ella Rubenstein, a Jewish mother of three teenaged children, living in Massachusetts. Her life, despite having everything it takes (or, at least, so we think), to be a happy, comfortable one, undergoes a sweeping transition - in a very unexpected way.
Ella, who is writing a report on a book on Sufism, Sweet Blasphemy, becomes very impressed with the writer, Aziz Z. Zahara. Over the days as they exchange emails and talk on the phone, she gradually falls in love with him. New colours begin entering her grey domain; and his story about divine love and true faith impacts her in a strong way. She learns about life, about relationships, and most importantly, about herself, while reading Aziz's book. She grows "wiser, calmer, more sensible".
The controversies surrounding not just Islam, but all Abrahamic religions, give rise to incisively-argued explanations in the sections of the book which are about the past. Modern-day infidelity, mother-children relationships, the craving for fulfilling love, are some of the issues dealt with in the chapters covering the present. Each chapter lays bare the thoughts of one or other character, thus letting us understand what they are all feeling.
The differences between religiosity and spirituality have been elucidated and, whether we agree with the beliefs written about, or not, we do end up pondering over them. We read a few pages, pause to ruminate, then eagerly continue reading. As we do so, we are also looking into our "self", our inner being: "Whosoever knows himself, knows the One".
Replying to a badly beaten-up drunk's question "But don't you Sufis ever doubt anything about Him?" Shams of Tabriz smiles a tired smile", and says "We do, and doubts are good. It means you are alive and searching".
The Forty Rules of Love is Eastern mysticism at its best. These rules are basically what all religions preach, but are expressed and interpreted differently; none of them sound preachy or soppy. They are eye-openers, delicate, subtle reminders of concepts or notions we are perhaps already acquainted with, but don't understand fully. Besides, as it is said, "Religions are like rivers: They all flow to the same sea".
It dawns on us that philosophers, saints, sufis, etc, are who or what they are because they are thinking, rational beings, but who also give a lot of importance to feelings and emotions - without harbouring any kind of bias or presumption.
The Forty Rules of Love is a handbook we can refer to, when in doubt about certain matters, or when in need of spiritual reassurance. That is not to say, that it can, in any way, whatsoever, be any kind of substitute for any religious book or writing.
Love, in its various forms, is the basis of the book. Love for the Creator is projected through love for fellow-humans, even if these humans are lepers, drunkards, harlots, etc. The many, interesting anecdotes cause the book to be even more readable.
Shafak has written about romantic love with as much ease and flair, as she has, about spiritual love. Ella's story tells us that love can be found in unlikely places, and at improbable times, and that it can prove to be deep and fulfilling. However, sorrow being an inevitable part of life, must also be accepted, for, as the maxim goes "Where there is love, there is bound to be heartache".
Nausheen Rahman, academic and critic, studied English literature at Dhaka University