It is a well-known belief that God speaks to His people through the strangest of things. You could be sitting quietly, minding your own business, and out of nowhere emerges a sign that seems to be God sent.
Or if you were me, you would have been walking around the airport bookshop, waiting for your delayed flight, and by sheer luck found a book peeking at you through the shelf. Generally, I don’t judge books by their covers, or their titles, but this one was different.
I fell in love with Elif Shafak’s ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ the moment I saw it. This was despite the fact that the name could have been confused as a how to guide to love. It sort of is, but not the kind you’d expect. Intrigued by the title and blurb, I purchased the book in a split second’s decision.
Strangely though, I did not read Shafak that year. Nor did I read her in the first few months of the following year. Being a workaholic, I thrive under pressure, but the reader in me is pretty slow. I try to find the right time for a book before reading it and despite me having bought the book, I didn’t feel ready for ‘The Forty Rules of Love’. Not yet. I let it gather dust on my shelf for over 15 months, promising myself to pick it up after I finished so and so book.
Typically, when you read a book that speaks to your soul, you wish you had read it earlier. Did I wish the same when I had finally devoured Shafak? No and here is why.
In late 2015, I saw a young female in my university’s parking lot; she was just another student in the milieu but in her hands she held ‘The Forty Rules of Love’. That’s when my curiosity about the book reached its crescendo, and I picked up my copy of the book as soon as I got home.
You may be waiting impatiently for a synopsis, and an explanation to why I feel compelled to rave about this book. I can provide you with the former, but the latter may be too intangible for words. Here is what I do know. Firstly, that I needed to read Shafak that particular year and not before, and secondly, that I will never forget this book.
‘The Forty Rules of Love’ is a book about Rumi and the Shams of Tabriz, Rumi’s most trusted and beloved companion. It is based on Shams’ famous rules of love. Although he spoke of a love so divine, that rare are the people who understand all of its layers and complexities. The book’s protagonist is Ella who, like me, discovers a book on Shams and Rumi by sheer luck. Fascinated by the story, she gets in touch with the author and through a series of letters falls in love with both the author and his words. The book speaks of passion, of God, and of every beautiful way God’s work can be praised.
Through a series of characters, including Rumi’s family, a leper and a harlot, we discover the many versions of God. This is akin to Hazrat Shah Niaz’s kalaam,
“Yaar ko humne ja-baja dekha, kahin zahir kahin chupa dekha, kahien woh baadshaah-e-takht nasheen, kahin kaasa liye gadaa dekha.”
He explains that God can be seen in everything, from a king on his throne to a beggar.
Shafak uses the magic of her words to spin a tale of mysticism, grace, hope, love, loyalty, betrayal and ultimately grief. Nevertheless, this is not what struck me about the book. What influenced me were the many ways she expanded on the teachings of Islam to get her point across to the reader. In addition, she portrayed for us a wonderful picture of both our religion and its teachings.
There are many kinds of love in this world, but the most pure form of love is the kind a person has for his Creator. Through a series of events spun with a touch of suspense, you would feel closer to God and His teachings. Through the friendship of Rumi and Shams, you would realise the true beauty of a real friendship.
“Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.”
Shafak challenges you through her words when Shams asks Rumi to purchase wine. She lets you experience the love for God when Rumi performs the dervish spin before an audience. Lastly, she pulls you into her book until you cannot speak without quoting parts of her book.
I was fortunate enough to start reading Shafak while I was going through a difficult part of my life. I seemed to have lost all passion for life, I could not find my spiritual self. Most importantly, I questioned everything, even my own faith. In a single night, everything changed. Mesmerised as I was by the story, I started to understand everything more clearly; life, my religion and my purpose in this life.
Every page and chapter helped me understand my life even more clearly. Rumi and Shams made me question everything I had ever learned. Through Rumi’s dervish act, I realised I did not possess a love as strong as Rumi’s. Through Shams’ bold words, I had an abyss opened within me; I was hungry for powerful words. Through the tragic end encountered by both Rumi and Ella, I tasted the delightful might of events that you think would not affect you but which, ultimately, change you the most.
As I sat there, late at night, with the book’s last page open on my lap, darkness surrounding my home and my heart, I realised we have been asking ourselves all the wrong questions. We do not need to question whom to pray to. We need to question how can we achieve an all-encompassing purity of heart to pray with such sentiment that we become an internal mirror of a spinning Rumi, oblivious to this world.