The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
The Forty Rules of Love is a novel by Turkish author Elif Shafaq that explores Sufism and the teachings of Rumi through two parallel narratives – one set in contemporary times and the other in the thirteenth century.
The contemporary story follows Ella Rubinstein, an unhappy housewife in Massachusetts who works as a reader for a literary agency. He is given a manuscript to review titled Sweet Blasphemy, a novel based on the life of the famous Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi. As Ella reads the manuscript, she is captivated by its story of forbidden love and spiritual awakening.
The novel within the novel tells the story of Rumi’s meeting with Shams, a wandering dervish of Tabriz. Their meeting transforms the traditional religious scholar Rumi into a committed mystic and legendary poet known as Meulana (our guide). Rumi and Shams’ close association leads to criticism and jealousy, leading to Shams’ mysterious disappearance. Rumi copes with the pain of separation by composing his magnificent works of mystical poetry until he finally finds divine union.
As both narratives progress, Ella gradually identifies with the character of Alchemy, the friend and disciple of Shams and Rumi in the thirteenth century. She becomes deeply absorbed in the lessons imparted by his story, applying them to her troubled life. Ella is unhappy in her 20-year marriage to her husband David, feeling stifled and unfulfilled. Through her reading, she finds inspiration and courage to take control of her life.
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Some of the basic teachings revealed through the stories of Rumi and Shams include:
- Live an authentic life of self-discovery instead of conforming to others’ expectations.
- Listening to one’s inner voice and embracing life’s contradictions
- Expressing love openly and keeping an open heart despite the pain
- Experiencing union with the Beloved beyond the ego
- Accepting life’s ups and downs with patience and confidence
- Finding spiritual fulfillment through simplicity, compassion, and joy
As Ella continues to read, she becomes acquainted with Aziz Zahra, a Turkish immigrant and photographer living in Boston who is working on an illustration of the Sweet Blasphemy manuscript. Ella feels an immediate connection with Aziz through their mutual love of Rumi’s poetry and Sufi wisdom. Against her better judgment, she agrees to meet Aziz in person to discuss the manuscript. As their relationship grows, Ella struggles with her conflicting feelings, wondering if she has the courage to follow her heart.
Ultimately, through her growing bond with Aziz and immersion in Rumi’s teachings, Ella gains clarity about her life choices. The novel ends with Ella taking the decisive step to end her unhappy marriage and pursue her dreams of living a more authentic, spiritually fulfilling life devoted to love. She admits that it will be a difficult path, but one that promises true freedom and happiness.
The Forty Rules of Love poetically explores the universal power of Rumi’s message of love, tolerance and finding inner peace amidst life’s contradictions. Shafaq expertly explores two quests for meaning—Ella’s in contemporary America and Rumi’s in medieval Konya—showing how a commitment to spiritual growth can transform individuals and communities across time and cultures. . Through Ella and Shams’ process of self-discovery, the novel invites compassion to nurture one’s inner life and create a better world. With lyrical prose and memorable characters, The Forty Rules of Love is an inspiring story of spiritual awakening, friendship, unconditional love, and authentic living.