Figuring out the rules of love
March 09, 2020
Forty rules of love book review Ranjani Rao mystical

The Forty Rules Of Love

By Elif Shafak

Let us choose one another as companions!

Letus sit at each other’s feet!

Inwardly we have many harmonies – think not

That we are only what we see

                            An Eggshell Named Life

In an open-air hall in Konya in the thirteenth century, sema, the dance of the whirling dervishes is performed for the first time. To the sounds of the ney and the rebab, the dervishes spin, first slowly and then faster, their wide skirts opening up like lotus flowers. They point one hand up towards the sky and the other down to the earth, pledging to distribute every speck of love received from God to the people. 

Elif Shafak’s description of the spell this never-before-seen dance casts on the believers and skeptics in the audience transported me to the amphitheatre in Cappadocia where I had watched the same dance eight centuries later, mesmerized and moved by the peace that flowed from the confluence of perfect harmony between humans and nature, tangled in the sweet web of unconditional love.

Magic never gets old. Neither do love stories.

Not just one love story

The Forty Rules of Love is a love story. Make that two love stories. Juxtaposing a contemporary man-woman love story against the backdrop of an ancient tale of the bond between Rumi, the poet, and his Sufi master, Shams of Tabriz. 

Elif Shafak’s book is a fascinating and easy read, despite the oscillation between two stories separated by centuries and told through the voices of many narrators.

We first hear from Ella, the suburban housewife, and Aziz the elusive writer of a manuscript titled ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ that comes into Ella’s life as she contemplates turning forty within the predictable precincts of her comfortable life.

The prologue gives a hint of what expect –  

“If a stone hits a river, the river will treat it as yet another commotion in its already tumultuous course. Nothing unusual. Nothing unmanageable. If a stone hits a lake, however, the lake will never be the same again.” 

The book is divided into five parts, earth, water, wind, fire and the void, the elements that constitute the universe. Each chapter begins with the letter “B”, beginning in the summer of 2008 in America and moving back and forth between mid-thirteenth century Turkey and twenty-first century America.

The contemporary track that unfolds through the correspondence between Ella and Aziz is slow. The more urgent and expansive part of the book is the unfurling of the ancient story through a dozen voices including the primary players, Shams and Rumi but also a host of others including Rumi’s family, and a cast of disparate but interesting characters like Suleiman the Drunk, Desert Rose the Harlot and Hasan the Beggar.   

The forty rules aka The Basic Principles of the Itinerant Mystics of Islam, believed to be universal, dependable, and as invariable as the laws of nature, are scattered like gems, hidden in common conversations between Shams, Rumi, and the people who cross their path.

Through their unusual and unlikely association, respected scholar Rumi unlearns and relearns the ways of Sufism through Shams, who defies description. Rumi’s wife, children, and followers are amazed at the reverence that Rumi displays to Shams, finding Rumi’s transformation completely unfathomable.

For all its parables and philosophical leanings, the book is not preachy. Each short chapter moves the story forward in simple words in the unique voice of each character. The narrative flows smoothly, holding the reader in rapt attention.

It is difficult to get vested in what happens between Ella and Aziz because the story of Rumi and Shams is of far greater significance. Every minor character makes a major impression because each one of them is critical to complete the tale.

What is so special about forty

“Forty is a most beautiful age for men and women. In mystical thought, forty symbolises the ascent from one level to a higher one and spiritual awakening,” says Aziz to Ella. 

The number forty is significant in  many cultures whether it refers to 40 days of mourning upon death or the first 40 days after a baby’s birth. Instead of considering 40 as a time of getting old, it should be considered as an auspicious time, a time to receive a new lease and a new mission in life.

The forty rules themselves are spell-binding in their timeless beauty and relevance. 

Shafak’s writing is striking in its simplicity. While it is easy to get lost in the beauty of Rumi’s poetry and the truth of Shams, Shafak’s genius shines in the way she connects their words to the times we live in without the slightest bit of condescension, allowing the reader to have their epiphanies upon her carefully laid stage. 

Ella justifies her developing romance with Aziz, which restores some of her self-worth: 

“Cyberspace both magnified and mellowed offline behaviors, providing an opportunity to flirt without guilt and an adventure without risks. It was like nibbling on forbidden delicacies without having to worry about extra calories.”

Aziz, through the words of Shams, makes Ella question – Am I ready to change the life I am living? Am I ready to change within? 

Much of what happens in life is inexplicable. Even great philosophers and mystics rationalise the world through their lens. Whether it is fear that drives people, or love, destiny plays a part. In trying to get to the heart of this story, I turned the pages back and forth repeatedly, trying to understand the motivations of Ella, Aziz, Shams and Rumi but the only answer I was left with Rumi’s words –

Love cannot be explained. It can only be experienced.

Love cannot be explained, yet it explains all.

Like love, this book too has to be experienced, not simply read.

My opinion

Read only if ready to be transformed. 


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  1. Raja Setlur

    Reading your review, I am reminded of reviews I usually read in the New Yorker. Wish I could write like that! Going to read this book based on your review. The paragraph on Cyberspace is something I can personally relate to.
    Having spend over a week in Turkey and with Radhi’s fascination with whirling dervishes, I get a lot of what the story is about

    • Ranjani Rao

      Thanks Raja. You will enjoy the book, specially since you have visited Turkey. The dervishes are mesmerising! So is this book!

    • krithika

      Hi Ranjani, your piece on this book was so beautifully put. I dont usually find fiction that I like enough to finish, however this one had me glued to it. I forcefully paced myself through this book. I came to see if you had any other books that left an impact to transform such as this, if there is please do share?

      P.S I eneded up stumbling upon your other articles which is a treat to read as well 🙂

      • Ranjani Rao

        Glad you liked my review and other articles. I read a lot and try to write reviews along with my other writing. Do sign up for the newsletter so you can see what I have been reading and writing, including updates on my work-in-progress memoir 🙂



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