Spirituality and Mythology

The forty rules of love

Thoughts on Elia Shafak's book

Too often we claim, jokingly or otherwise, that Life and all its various components – such as Love, Marriage, Parenthood – don’t come with a handbook. So when you see a book called The Forty Rules of Love, how can you not be intrigued? How can you not pick it up?

Of course you know that it won’t be akin to a school diary for students or a manual for your latest tech toy listing the Do’s and Don’ts. You know you have picked up a love story. And you hope that this one will be different, because, after all, you’ve read all the prototypes, right?

So what is this one about? Well…basically, another story of a lonely housewife who finds fulfilment.

Boring? What if the fulfilment she found came in the shape and form of another man – one who was not her husband?

Still clichéd? Too Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary?

Not so. In this one, our protagonist falls for a man of spirituality. Yes, yes, there’s The Thornbirds, but this is different, because the man in question is a Scottish Sufi. And there’s more. There’s Rumi. And Shams of Tabriz. And the 40 rules of love.

There are two parallel stories in this novel. The first one is about Ella Rubenstein, a Jewish housewife, married to a dentist; they have three teenage children and they live in a beautiful home. Sounds like the perfect suburban life. But thanks to Desperate Housewives we all know that suburbia isn’t necessarily all manicured lawns, picket fences and wisteria lanes. Ella is dissatisfied with her life; her husband indulges in affairs, and each of her children has their own mess. To relieve the tedium, Ella takes on part-time work as a reader for a literary agency.

spirituality and mythology

Sweet Blasphemy is a novel written by Aziz Zahara, sent to her by the agency and it is through the pages of this manuscript that the parallel plot-line unfolds; the story of a gifted, but unfulfilled theologian and scholar, named Rumi, and his meeting with the Sufi dervish, Shams of Tabriz, that sets Rumi on the path of Sufi mysticism and poetry.

Ella’s and Rumi’s emptiness are supposed to mirror one another’s, and into their lives come Aziz and Shams of Tabriz, respectively. Soft breezes blowing at first which soon gather momentum and speed, Aziz and Shams of Tabriz proceed to irrevocably change the lives of Ella and Rumi. The changes, however, do not come without sacrifice, loss and grief. And that is not surprising, for as Shams says, “…the old maxim still applies: Where there is love, there is bound to be heartache.”

“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.”

~Shams of Tabriz, “The Forty Rules of Love”

Something as vague, yet solid; light, yet deeply seated; bold, yet cautious; as love, does it, can it have rules?

Rules are for schools and governments, sports and elite clubs. There are rules for poetry and art too, but once we know those, we are encouraged to break them and forge our own creations. How can ‘Love’ have rules, besides the “thou shalt not covet another’s spouse”, and truthfully speaking, how many times has that one been beaten, broken and pounded into the mattress?

Whenever we hear the word ‘love’, what crosses our minds is the romantic stuff of Disney fairy tales, Mills & Boons, Hollywood rom-coms and Bollywood blockbusters.

But that is so limiting!

As Rumi says in this book, “Love cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Love cannot be explained, yet it explains all.”

And that is pretty much the premise of the book – the various kinds of love that are experienced, with these 40 rules serving as guidelines. There is spousal love, filial love, mystical love, young love.

Is the yearning of a lover for his beloved in any way comparable to the yearning of a seeker for his God? According to many mystics, yes; after all, the goal is the total surrender to the love that moves you, sans ego, sans regret, sans questioning and that love can be for the one you adore, whether lover or God.

“Our religion is the religion of love. And we are all connected in a chain of hearts. If and when one of the links is broken, another one is added elsewhere… Names change, they come and go, but the essence remains the same.”

~Rumi, “The Forty Rules of Love”

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