Although loved by what one might use a euphemism to call "Oprah Winfrey Followers,” Elif Shafak's The Forty Rules of Love was a severe disappointment. Anam Sufi explains why…
Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love immediately piqued my interest in its alleged allusion and references to the writings of Rumi. Before I get into my critique of the book, let me tell you something about Rumi.
Rumi, if you embarrassingly don’t already know, was a 13th century poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Lauded for his contributions to each of these roles, Rumi is especially cited as one of the greatest Eastern poets in history. His poetry was greatly inspired by his Sufi spiritual legacy and was accordingly informed by his dedication to the mystic tradition. Sufism, to keep it brief, is heavily rooted in the concept of having love for all things, believing that self-actualisation is achieved in attaining “oneness” with God. (Disclaimer: please note that the explanations of Sufism have been matters much contested owed to the alleged blasphemy that has been pinned on the tradition. I encourage everyone to explore the details of Sufism on their own to recognise the collective facets that comprise the tradition, as only then will you be able to fully comprehend the lyricism and beauty that accompanies what it means to follow the true Sufi path).
So back to the book in question: The Forty Rules of Love. Against the context of incorporating Rumi into a story about love and acceptance, I was very intrigued to read the book. Having said this, you can imagine my repulsion when I discovered how undeserving of a tribute the story turned out to be. Overly-emotional girls who’re freshly single might find it a soulful read, but let’s be honest, even a paper bag would be considered beautiful under those circumstances.
The book provides parallel love stories where one is set in modernity, between a Jewish-American housewife and a “modern” Sufi who lives in Amsterdam. The other is set against a historical background and presents the spiritual bond between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. While the union of both stories seems promising enough, the ultimate unfolding of events fell short of expectation. This was because I felt the relationship set in modernity seemed forced, kind of a like a regurgitation of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail. Having said this, the storyline following Rumi and Shams of Tabriz does merit adulation, as it was wrought with beautiful lines from Rumi’s vast collection of literary accomplishments, and it was also successful in keeping the reader engaged. However, what good is a book that is only half good?
The major theme of the novel was to highlight the universality and dynamism of love, especially arguing that what bonds mankind through time has been love. Again, it seems like a beautiful thought, but the final product just didn’t fulfill its potential.
Ultimately, I think what bothered me most about this book was the fact that the modern-day Sufi fell remarkably short of what constitutes the Sufi tradition. Judging by the wide extolling with which the book was received in the United States, it was very important for Shafak to instill her character with characteristics that would accurately reflect what Sufism is all about. To be bold, she failed to do so. Anyone with a fraction of knowledge on the true teachings and historical context of Sufism would be quick to realise that what’s presented to the reader is a weak attempt at wrapping Paulo Coelho in a shroud of Arab mysticism and passing him off as a “modern” Sufi living in Amsterdam. Having studied the tradition, I found that this failure on the part of the writer eclipsed much of whatever else the book had to offer.
In sum, I found this book to be a waste of time. The only good parts involved Rumi and his relationship with Shams of Tabriz, and this being the case, you’re better off investing your time in a book that edifies the life and works of Rumi himself.