Elif Shafak’s writings are characterized by their in-depth intellectual, spiritual, philosophical, and social dimensions. Her work addresses the issues of entanglement as well as fragmentation in world cultures and the relationship between different ethnicities, the position of minorities in mixed societies, and the conflict of generations and values.
Among her most famous novels are “The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi,” which was translated into 37 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, “Three Daughters of Eve,” “The Bastard of Istanbul,” “The Architect Apprentice,” “The Flea Palace,” “Black Milk,” and others—all of which have been translated into Arabic.
In her biographical novel, “Black Milk: On the Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity, and Motherhood,” she describes her personal experience after giving birth to her first child, the ordeal she went through, and the writer’s block that almost drove her crazy. She also reflects on the experiences of a number of female writers who went through the same experience, such as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Alice Walker, and others.
Elif Shafak wrote her most famous novel, “The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi,” using a complex and unique narrative technique. There is a tight and interesting synthesis between a lived present of fictional facts that occurred in the years 2008-2009 and a past relating to events taking place in the 13th century. It is a historical journey on the one hand and a geographical one on the other, as it transports the reader from Northampton to Alexandria, from Baghdad to Washington, Washington to Konya (in Turkey) and then again to Boston, Damascus, Kayseri, and other cities in the ancient and contemporary East.
The novel begins in the present, through Ella Rubinstein, the wife of a successful dentist, and her children. The family leads a sedentary and monotonous life in Northampton, Massachusetts.
For 40 years Ella Rubinstein’s life had consisted of still waters – a predictable sequence of habits, needs, and preferences. Though it was dull and ordinary in many ways, she had not found it tiresome. During the last 20 years, every wish she had, every person she befriended, and every decision she made was filtered through her marriage. However, after 20 years of marriage, she files for divorce. Love stormed Ella’s existence suddenly and violently, as if someone had thrown a stone in the pool of her still life.
Ella, who holds a degree in English literature, finds a job as a book critic at the age of 40. She reviews a Sufi novel, “Sweet Blasphemy,” about the life of the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, set in the 13th century. Rumi has the extraordinary ability, only available to a few scholars, to dive under the husk of religion and extract the eternal, universal Truth from its essence.
Rumi has the extraordinary ability to dive under the husk of religion and extract the eternal, universal Truth from its essence.
Although he has excelled in jurisprudence, philosophy, theology, and history, as well as being an eloquent orator, he is not satisfied with his inner self, as he feels something is missing in his life. In 1244, he meets Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish with strange behavior and heretical opinions.
Yet, the encounter between Rumi and Shams marked the beginning of a profound and unique friendship that Sufis in the centuries to follow likened to the “union of two oceans.” The pair call for a comprehensive global spirituality and the education and refinement of the soul and its transcendence. They draw a decisive and passionate distinction between “religiosity” and “spirituality,” which are not the same, and the gap between the two in their time was as deep and wide as it is now.
Today, as in the Middle Ages, there is a huge interest in spirituality. In the shadow of the chaos that reigns, “the world is a huge cauldron and something big is cooking in it. We don’t know what yet.”
Historical sources and facts drawn from Rumi and Shams’ biographies inform Shafak’s narrative as she recounts the mutual spiritual fascination shared by the two men. So much so that Rumi and Shams spent 40 days in Rumi’s library, in what can be described as an intellectual and spiritual “seclusion,” discussing each day one of the divine 40 rules of love, or rather, the 40 rules of personal freedom, which are the basic principles of the mystics in Islam.
Shafak distills the overriding meaning of her novel when she writes: ““It’s easy to love a perfect God, unblemished and infallible that He is. What is far more difficult is to love fellow human beings with all their imperfections and defects.” ― Elif Shafak, “The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi”
Central Excerpts from “The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi”
*Some of the rules have been abbreviated and are followed by this author’s interpretation of their meaning.
Rule 1: “How we see God, is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves.”
Is God “merciful” or a “mighty avenger”? Paulo Coelho says, “We forget that the world is a picture of what we want it to be.”
Rule 2: “The path to the truth is a labor of the heart, not of the head. Make your heart your primary guide, not your mind.”
Logic and knowledge are important, but they need to keep doors and windows open for intuition, inspiration, insight, and the unexpected.
Rule 3: “You can study God through everything and every person in this universe because God is not confined in a mosque, synagogue or church.”
God or the Divine Essence is manifested in His creatures, in man in particular.
Rule 4: “Intellect and love are made of different materials. Intellect ties people in knots but love dissolves all tangles.”
Thought is cautious and specific, while love is spontaneous and infinite, and from their mixing we reach what neither of them alone can reach.
Rule 5: “Most of the world’s problems stem from linguistic mistakes and simple misunderstandings. Do not ever take words at face value.”
What cannot be expressed in words can only be understood in silence. The less you talk, the faster you will mature.
Rule 6: “Loneliness and solitude are two different things, the latter is better for us, because it means being alone without feeling lonely.”
The common saying is, “Spend some time alone, unless you are not alone one day, you will never know.”
Rule 7: “Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighborhood of despair.”
Contentment is an infinite treasure for continuity, balance, and advancement.
Rule 8: “Patience does not mean to passively endure. Rather, it means that you should look at the end of the process.”
Impatience means being short-sighted and unable to see the result. For the crescent moon to become full, it needs time.
Rule 9: “Do not judge the way in which people communicate with God, for each person has his own way and his own prayers.”
Shams of Tabriz says: “We believe that God sees us from above, while He sees us from the inside, ceremonies and rituals are nothing but a pure human innovation.”
Rule 10: “No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within.”
“The real stage of discovery is not the search for new land … or for new sources … but is to look at things with different eyes,” says Marcel Proust .(1871-1920)
Rule 11: “The midwife knows that when there is no pain, the way for the baby cannot be opened and the mother cannot give birth.”
It is from the womb of suffering that happiness appears and things manifest through their opposites. According to the Chilean poet Neruda (1704-1973), there is no space wider than the space of pain.
Rule 12: “The quest for love changes us, there is no seeker among those who search for love who has not matured on the way.”
The Romanian poet Carolina Elica formulates this rule in two wonderful lines:
Oh, the grudge of those who cannot love!
Oh, love of those who never hate!
Rule 13: “There are more fake gurus and false teachers in this world than the number of stars in the visible universe. Do not confuse power-driven, self-centered people with true mentors.”
Do not seek the satisfaction from others for your actions at the expense of your true convictions, none of us has the right to judge the faith of others.
Rule 14: “Don’t worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come”?
The slogan here is: Do not be alarmed by an “ordeal,” as it may be “a reward.” Don’t be sad about a “misfortune,” it may be a “gift.”
Rule 15: “Every human being is a work in progress that is slowly but inexorably moving toward realization.”
Each one of us is an incomplete work of art, and we are all in a state of formation and becoming, so we do not need to hold man accountable or denounce his change of ideas or his moves between opinions and ideas.
Rule 16: “It is easy to love a perfect God, unblemished and infallible that He is. What is far more difficult is to love fellow human beings with all their imperfections and defects.”
Accept others as they are, they are human beings, not gods.
Rule 17: “Real filth is the one inside. The rest simply washes off.”
If you hate someone, you hate something inside of you that you find in him, as what is not inside of us does not bother us.
Rule 18: “The whole universe is contained within a single being – you. Everything you see around, including the things that you might not be fond of.”
Do not look for the devil outside yourself, for the devil is not a supernatural force that attacks you from the outside but an ordinary voice that emanates from within you.
Rule 19: “If you want to change the way others treat you, you should first change the way you treat yourself.”
How can a person blame others for not respecting him if he does not consider himself as worthy of respect?
Rule 20: “Fret not where the road will take. Instead concentrate on the first step. That is the hardest part.”
Don’t go with the flow, but be the flow, and if you want to, take control of yourself and go on the road.
Rule 21: “We are all created in His image, and yet we were each created different and unique.”
Do not be your own “lawyer,” and a “judge” for the mistakes of others.
Rule 22: “In everything we do, it is our hearts that makes the difference, not our outer appearance.”
Do not judge others by their appearance, open a third eye, the eye that sees the inner world.
Rule 23: “In this life, stay away from all kinds of extremes, for they will destroy your inner balance.”
Tolerance and moderation always keep us balanced.
Rule 24: “Remember it falls upon each of us to discover the divine spirit inside and live by it.”
Tell me, what is the size of your cup from which you draw the love of God? “The endless ocean,” says Shams.
Rule 25: “Hell lies in the here and now. So is heaven. Quit worrying about heaven, as they are both present inside this very moment. ”
Every time we love, we go up to heaven, and every time we hate or envy, we fall straight into the fire of hell.
Rule 26: “Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not be a gossip behind anyone’s back – not even a seemingly innocent remark!”
Because the words that come out of our mouths do not fade and will come back to us at some point.
Rule 27: “Whatever you speak, good or evil, will somehow come back to you.”
Rule 28: “The past is an interpretation. The future is an illusion. The world does not move through time as if it were a straight line proceeding from the past to the future. Instead time moves through us and within us in endless spiral.”
The present moment is all that was and all that will be. When we understand this fact, there will be nothing left to fear.
Rule 29: “Destiny does not mean that your life has been strictly predetermined. Therefore, to leave everything to fate and not actively contribute to the music of the universe is a sign of sheer ignorance.”
Rule 30: “The true Sufi is such that even when he is unjustly accused, attacked and condemned from all sides, he patiently endures, uttering not a single bad word about any of his critics.”
Rule 31: “If you want to strengthen your faith, you will need to soften inside. For your faith to be rock solid, your heart needs to be as soft as a feather.”
Love cannot be explained, yet it explains everything, and it can only be lived and experienced. Spiritual growth lies in our awareness, not in our apprehension.
Rule 32: “Nothing should stand between you and God. No imams, priests, rabbis or any other custodians of moral or religious leadership.”
Stay away from worshiping idols of all kinds because they distort your vision, and let God, and God alone, be your guide.
Rule 33: “Live your life as light and empty as the number zero.”
Wanting, scrambling, and compulsive hoarding weigh us down and pull us to the bottom.
Rule 34: “Those who surrender to the divine essence of life will live in unperturbed tranquility and peace even when the whole world goes through turbulence after turbulence.”
Rule 35: “In this world, it is not similarities or regularities that takes us a step forward, but blunt opposites.”
Faith is only a gradual process. Doubt is a positive thing. It means that you are alive and well and you are constantly searching for the truth.
Rule 36: “This world is erected upon the principle of reciprocity. Neither a drop of kindness nor a speck of evil will remain unreciprocated.”
In the Qur’an, there is an explicit verse that says: “Whoever does a drop of kindness will see it, and whoever does a speck of evil will see it” (Surat Al-Zalzalah, verses 7-8).
Rule 37: “God is a meticulous clock maker. So precise is His order that everything on earth happens in its own time, neither a minute late nor a minute early.”
The clock moves very precisely for everyone without exception, for each there is a time to love and a time to die.
Rule 38: “It is never too late to ask yourself, am I ready to change within?”
At every moment, with each new breath, one should be renewed and renewed again.
Rule 39: “While the parts change, the whole always remains the same, and in this way nothing remains unchanged, but nothing ever changes either, the names change, but the essence remains the same.”
It is God’s way of showing us the cycle of life and resurrection, that they are only stages that must be crossed and when we understand that we are able to accept difficult times.
Rule 40: “Life without love is of no account. Love has no labels and no definitions.
It is what it is, pure and simple.” “Learn to say goodbye” says Madonna’s song, and from the poems of Jalaluddin Al-Rumi, “To be free, is to be human!”
Elif Shafak’s Bio:
Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist, academic, and columnist, born in Strasbourg, France in 1971 to a philosopher father and diplomat mother.
She holds a master’s degree in Gender and Women’s Studies and a Ph.D. in Political Science. She writes in Turkish and English and has published 17 books, 11 of which are novels.
Shafak writes for a number of international newspapers, including The Guardian, Le Monde, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Time.
In addition to being a novelist and columnist, Shafak is also a political and social activist. She is frequently present in conferences, seminars, and meetings around the world, and is constantly on the move, between Istanbul, London, France, and the United States.
Elif Shafak, “The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi” (London: Tuwa Media and Publishing Limited, 2012, First edition).