An American housewife is transformed by an intriguing manuscript about the Sufi mystic poet Rumi
In this lyrical, exuberant follow-up to her 2007 novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak unfolds two tantalizing parallel narratives- one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century, when Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz-that together incarnate the poet’s timeless message of love.
Ella Rubenstein is forty years old and unhappily married when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment is to read and report on Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by a man named Aziz Zahara. Ella is mesmerized by his tale of Shams’s search for Rumi and the dervish’s role in transforming the successful but unhappy cleric into a committed mystic, passionate poet, and advocate of love. She is also taken with Shams’s lessons, or rules, that offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, and the presence of love in each and every one of us. As she reads on, she realizes that Rumi’s story mirrors her own and that Zahara-like Shams-has come to set her free.
THE FORTY RULES OF LOVE
The 13th century was a turbulent period in Anatolia, rife with religious clashes, political disputes and endless power struggles. In the West, the Crusaders, on their way to Jerusalem, occupied and sacked Constantinople, leading to the partition of the Byzantine Empire. In the East, highly disciplined Mongol armies swiftly expanded under the military genius of Genghis Khan. In between, different Turkish tribes fought among themselves while the Byzantines tried to recover their lost land, wealth and power. It was a time of unprecedented chaos when Christians fought Christians, Christians fought Muslims, and Muslims fought Muslims. Everywhere one turned, there was hostility and anguish, and an intense fear of what might happen next.
In the midst of this chaos lived a distinguished Islamic scholar, known as Jalal Al-Din Rumi. Nicknamed Mawlana -Our Master- by many, he had thousands of disciples and admirers from all over the region and beyond, and was regarded as a beacon to all Muslims.
In 1244, Rumi met Shams – a wandering dervish with unconventional ways and heretical proclamations. Their encounter altered both their lives. At the same time it marked the beginning of a solid, unique friendship that Sufis in the centuries to follow likened to the meeting of two oceans. By meeting this exceptional companion, Rumi was transformed from a mainstream cleric to a committed mystic, passionate poet, advocate of love and originator of the ecstatic dance of the whirling dervishes, daring to break free of all conventional rules.
In an age of deeply-embedded bigotries and clashes, he stood for a universal spirituality, opening his doors to people of all backgrounds. Rumi stood up for an inner-oriented jihad where the aim was to struggle against and ultimately prevail over one’s ego, nafs.
Not everyone welcomed these ideas, however, just as not everyone opens their hearts to love. The powerful spiritual bond between Shams and Rumi became the target of rumor, slander and attack. They were misunderstood, envied, vilified, and ultimately betrayed by those closest to them. Three years after they met, they were tragically separated.
But the story didn’t end there.
In truth, there never was an end. Almost eight hundred years later the spirits of Shams and Rumi are still alive today, whirling amid us somewhere…
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published 19 books,12 of which are novels. Her work has been translated into 55 languages. Her latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and RSL Ondaatje Prize; and chosen Blackwell’s Book of the Year. Her previous novel, The Forty Rules of Love was chosen by BBC among 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. Shafak has been conferred Doctor of Humane Letters by Bard College in 2021. Shafak holds a PhD in political science, and she has taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK, including St Anne’s College, Oxford University, where she is an honorary fellow.