I’m sure all of you have been intrigued by the widespread reception here in Egypt of the book: The 40 Rules of Love (قواعد العشق الأربعون), just like I did. Another reason for my intrigue was a friend’s comment after she had finished the book: “I wish I had a friend like Shams in my life,” and that was it. I wanted to discover whether this book is about love or friendship. I picked it up to find out who Shams and Rumi are and to discover the extent to which this novel is more about, history or romance.
Ella, the 40-year-old mother who is stuck in an unhappy marriage reads a book by an anonymous author, Aziz Zahra, that changes her life forever. She delves into the 13th-century world of a Sufi whirling Dervish/Darwish (درويش), Shams of Tabriz, and his 40 rules of spiritual love.
Shams’ journey to find a wise companion in this world transforms Ella’s perspective on life, and she unconsciously starts to search for her own companion. And when both reach their companions, there begins the transforming tale of Shams, Rumi, and Ella’s unexpected life choices.
The Turkish writer Elif Shafak gave me the impression that she wanted to fill the book with Sufi and spiritual symbolism. She started every chapter with the letter B, as a reflection of the Sufi belief that the secret of the Quran lies in the letter B (ب) of Bismillah-ilrrahman-ilrrahim.
She separated the book into parts titled: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and Void, respectively, with each title having a deeper meaning, and reflecting on the development of Ella and Shams’ journeys.
This novel introduced me to this religious mysticism, and it pushed me to do further research about the writer and Sufism. It also focused on the general aspects and the spiritual beliefs, and not only on Turkish Sufism.
The writer’s choice of Rumi eased the delivery of these beliefs; because of his universally recognized poetry and quotes. Shafak wrote the novel in English, not in Turkish, which directs it to a non-Turkish audience who may be unfamiliar with Sufism (like me!).
However, I would recommend reading it in Arabic because the language’s effect makes you experience the story in a different way; as if you were back in time and history, all while moving through ancient alleys. It makes you feel like you landed in a tale of Arabian nights.
Reading Shafak’s book is like seeing life from the lens of Sufi spirituality. It is as if she connects us directly with Ella, and with 13th-century Shams. It helps us understand ourselves and connect with the universe around us, as it is our road for salvation.
So, whether you expect intimate love between two lovers as I did when I first heard of the book, or if you are pursuing this book for Sufism and spiritual, transformative love; you shall meet both. Who knows, maybe by the end of your reading you will have created your own definition of love.
“This book changed my perspective on life,” is the recurrent feedback I got! If you read the book, let us know what your experience with Shams and Ella was like.