A novel within a novel, The Forty Rules of Love tells two parallel stories that mirror each other across two very different cultures and seven intervening centuries.
Forty-year-old Ella Rubenstein is an ordinary unhappy housewife with three children and an unfaithful husband, but her life begins to change dramatically when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agency. Her first assignment is a novel intriguingly titled Sweet Blasphemy, about the thirteenth-century poet Rumi and his beloved Sufi teacher Shams of Tabriz. The author is an unknown first-time novelist, Aziz Zahara, who lives in Turkey. Initially reluctant to take on a book about a time and place so different from her own, Ella soon finds herself captivated both by the novel and the man who wrote it, with whom she begins an e-mail flirtation. As she reads, she begins to question the many ways she has settled for a conventional life devoid of passion and real love.
At the center of the novel that Ella is reading is the remarkable, wandering, whirling dervish Shams of Tabriz, a mystic provocateur who challenges conventional wisdom and social and religious prejudice wherever he encounters it. He is searching for the spiritual companion he is destined to teach. His soul’s purpose is to transform his student, Rumi—a beloved but rather complacent, unmystical preacher—into one of the world’s great poets, the “voice of love.” Rumi is a willing student, but his family and community resent Shams deeply for upsetting their settled way of life. Rumi is admired, even revered in his community and Shams must lead him beyond the comforts of his respectable way of life, beyond the shallow satisfactions of the ego.
In essence, both Rumi and Ella, through their relationships with Shams and Aziz, are forced to question and then abandon the apparent safety and security of their lives for the uncertainty, ecstasy, and heartbreak of love. Neither Shams nor Aziz can offer anything like a promise of lasting happiness. What they can offer is a taste of mystical union, divine love, the deep harmony that arises when the false self—constructed to meet society’s demands for respectability—is shed and the true self emerges.
Along the way, Shams imparts the forty rules of love, essential Sufi wisdom that Shams both preaches and embodies. He repeatedly defies social and religious conventions, putting himself in danger and drawing down the scorn and wrath of the self-righteous, literal-minded moralists who surround him. He inspires Rumi to become the poet he was meant to be, one of the world’s most passionate and profound voices of wisdom. Similarly, Aziz—and his story of Rumi and Shams—inspires Ella to step out of a marriage that has become emotionally and spiritually stifling for her.
It is not an easy story that Elif Shafak tells, nor an entirely happy one. There are costs, she seems to say, to living an authentic life. But, as the novel shows, the costs of not living one are far greater.
Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1971. She is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read female writer in Turkey. Critics have hailed her as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary literature in both Turkish and English. She is also the author of the novel The Bastard of Istanbul and her memoir, Black Milk. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages. Married with two children, Elif divides her time between London and Istanbul.
Q. What prompted you to write a novel centered on the relationship between Rumi and his beloved teacher Shams of Tabriz? Has Rumi’s poetry always been important to you?
My starting point, as simple as it sounds, was the concept of love. I wanted to write a novel on love but from a spiritual angle. Once you make that your wish the path takes you to Rumi, the voice of love. His poetry and philosophy have always inspired me. His words speak to us across centuries, cultures. One can never finish reading him; it is an endless journey.
Q. Why did you decide to make The Forty Rules of Love such a polyphonic novel, using so many different narrators?
The truth of fiction is not a fixed thing. If anything, it is more fluid than solid. It changes depending on each person, each character. Literature, unlike daily politics, recognizes the significance of ambiguity, plurality, flexibility. Interestingly, this artistic approach is also in harmony with Sufi philosophy. Sufis, like artists, live in an ever-fluid world. They believe one should never be too sure of himself and they respect the amazing diversity in the universe. So it was very important to me to reflect that variety as I was writing my story.
Q. What kind of research did you do for the novel? How much imaginative license did you take with the historical facts?
When you write about historical figures you feel somewhat intimidated at the beginning. It is not like writing about imaginary characters. So to get the facts right, I did a lot of research. It is not a new subject to me. I wrote my master’s thesis on this subject and I have been working on it since my early twenties. So there was some background. However, after a period of intense reading and researching, I stopped doing that and solely concentrated in my story. I allowed the characters to guide me. In my experience the more we, as writers, try to control our characters, the more lifeless they become. By the same token, the less there is of the ego of the writer in the process of writing, the more alive the fictional characters and the more creative the story.
Q. What are the challenges of writing about such a well-known and revered figure like Rumi? Do you feel you succeeded remaining true to the historical Rumi while bringing him fully into the imaginative realm of your novel?
It was a big challenge, I must say. On the one hand I have huge respect for both Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. So it was important to me to hear their voices, to understand their legacy as best as I could. Yet on the other hand, I am a writer. I do not believe in heroes. In literature, there are no perfect heroes. Every person is a microcosm with many sides and conflicting aspects. So it was essential for me to see them as human beings, without putting them up on a pedestal.
Q. Did your perception of Rumi and of Shams change in the course of writing about them?
Writing this novel changed me perhaps in more ways than I can understand or explain. Every book changes us to a certain extent. Some books more so than others. They transform their readers, and they also transform their writers. This was one of those books for me. When I finished it I was not the same person I was at the beginning.
Q. Much of the novel concerns the position of women both in the medieval Islamic world and in contemporary Western society. What is your sense of how women are faring in the Middle East today compared to women in Western cultures?
We tend to think that as human beings we have made amazing progress throughout the centuries. And we like to think that the women in the West are emancipated whereas women in the East are oppressed all the time. I like to question these deeply embedded clichés and generalizations. It is true that we have made progress but in some other ways we are not as different from the people of the past as we like to think. Also there are so many things in common between the women in the East and the women in the West. Patriarchy is universal. It is not solely the problem of some women in some parts of the world. Basically, as I was writing this novel I wanted to connect people, places, stories—to show the connections, some obvious, some much more subtle.
Q. How would you explain the extraordinary popularity of Rumi in the West right now? What is it about his poetry—and his spirituality—that readers find so engaging?
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the voice of Rumi speaks to more and more people around the world today. His is the kind of spirituality that doesn’t exclude anyone, no matter what their class, skin, religion, and so on. It is a very inclusive, embracing, universal voice that puts love at its center. In Rumi’s perspective we are all connected. No one is excluded from that circle of love. In an age replete with cultural biases, dogmas, fundamentalisms of all sorts, and clashes, Rumi’s voice tells us something different, something much more essential and peaceful.
Q. What aspects of Sufism do you find most appealing and relevant to contemporary life? Do you have a sense that the mystical strands of Islam—represented by Shams of Tabriz in the novel—are beginning to balance out the more fundamentalist views—represented by the Zealot—in contemporary Islamic cultures?
Mysticism and poetry have always been important elements in Islamic cultures. This has been the case throughout the centuries. The Muslim world is not composed of a single color. And it is not static at all. It is a tapestry of multiple colors and patterns. Sufism is not an ancient, bygone heritage. It is a living, breathing philosophy of life. It is applicable to the modern day. It teaches us to look within and transform ourselves, to diminish our egos. There are more and more people, especially women, artists, musicians, and so on, who are deeply interested in this culture.
Q. Could you talk about your own spiritual practice and its relation to your creative work?
My interest in spirituality started when I was a college student. At the time it was a bit odd for me to feel such an attraction. I did not grow up in a spiritual environment. My upbringing was just the opposite, it was strictly secular. And I was a leftist, anarcho-pacifist, slightly nihilist, and feminist, and so on, and so were most of my friends, and there was no apparent reason for me to be interested in Sufism or anything like that. But I started reading about it. Not only Islamic mysticism but mysticisms of all kinds, because they are all reflections of the same universal quest for meaning and love. The more I read the more I unlearned. Unlearning is an essential part of learning, in my experience. We need to keep questioning our truths, our certainties, our dogmas, and ourselves. This kind of introspective thinking, to me, is healthier than criticizing other people all the time.
Q. How has The Forty Rules of Love been received in Turkey and throughout the Middle East? Has that reception differed significantly from how American readers have responded to the book?
It was amazing, and so moving. In Turkey the novel was an all time bestseller. There was such positive, warm feedback from readers, especially from women readers, of all ages, of all views. Often the same book was read by more than one person, by the mother, the daughters, the great-aunt, a distant cousin. The story reached different audiences. When the novel came out in Bulgaria, France, America, and Italy, I had similar reactions, and I still receive touching e-mails from readers around the world. When readers write to me they don’t solely analyze the novel, they also say what it meant for them. In other words they share their personal stories with me. And I find that very humbling, very inspiring.