Two parallel narratives bound by love

“Different people construe love differently. A few call it the ultimate sacrifice and others, their sole purpose of life. But it comes with a heavy price,” writes Anantha.

In this novel, which runs in two parallel narratives across two different eras, seven centuries apart, Elif Shafak spins a beautiful tale to bring the past and the present together with one binding element: “love.”

This is the story of a genius with multiple talents, an Islamic scholar, a theologian, a Jurist and a mystic who made Sufism popular. An acclaimed poet and a guide to pilgrims on a spiritual quest, Rumi is one of the leading legends of the field of poetry.

As the proverb goes, “all is fair in love and war.” This adage stays constant irrespective of time and place. Love stories have dominated history across different ages and cultures. Looking at the stories of Helen of Troy, Romeo and Juliet, and Laila and Majhnu, it is a proven fact that as much as love hopes to unite two souls, it is also capable of bringing devastation and transformation. History bears evidence that the greatest love stories have met with tragic ends. Social norms have always been instrumental in driving the lovers apart and leaving them heartbroken. Unable to cope with the loss, some lovers die and some live on in a void, with an insatiable longing for their beloved. 

Rumi was one such victim of love. His loss made a poet out of him. When the words first flooded the paper, it was grief which poured out of his heart, and over a period of time, the words transformed into a balm to heal his soul.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, Penguin, 2009 (Source: Amazon)

In this beautiful lyrical package of words, Shafak presents the journey of Rumi from a local cleric to a world-renowned poet and a Sufi mystic. The reason behind this transformation was his love for his spiritual companion, Shams of Tabriz.  

The novel begins in the present era when a middle-aged American housewife, Ella Rubenstein, takes up a job as a reviewer at a literary agency. Though unhappy with her life, Ella is resigned to her fate until love knocks on her door and turns her world upside down.

Her first assignment is to review a novel titled Sweet Blasphemy by an unknown, first-time novelist, Aziz Zahara, who resides in Turkey. Though initially hesitant to read a book about a time and place so different from her own, she finds herself drawn into the novel which makes her question the very foundation upon which she laid the pillars of her faith and beliefs.

As one novel unfolds into another, we drift into thirteenth century Baghdad, into the world of Shams of Tabriz, a wandering, whirling Dervish, who is on a quest to find his spiritual companion. Shams is a mystic rebel who challenges the conventional doctrines and social norms which he feels the religion imposes on people. He is downright blasphemous and brutally confronts anything he finds contrary to his notions. He has an innate knack for either intriguing or irritating any person he meets with his eccentric conversations and idiosyncratic demeanor. Every man in Baghdad seeks Shams for a reason, right or wrong. But the one who Shams seeks is a revered teacher and a willing student: Rumi, the much admired Mawlana in Konya,  far away from Baghdad. When Shams comes to know about his spiritual companion, he heads to Konya, a bustling place suitable for travelers and merchants. 

Shams walks in like a storm and blocks Rumi’s way in the middle of the road. The moment they see each other, they know that they are about to step into a different realm, which speaks of one universal religion: love. They enter into a secluded relationship for months together, huddled in a room, exchanging ideas. Rumi alienates himself from his family and his followers. They are two pieces of a puzzle who were meant to come together, and when they do, their world is wholesome. They embrace love as their religion and give a new meaning to Sufism, the mystic dimension of Islam, introducing the practice of the Whirling Dervishes.

Shams teaches Rumi the Forty Rules of Love which are based on the ancient philosophy that love binds human beings together. The presence of love in our hearts will bury the chasm created by the social, cultural and religious segregation across the world.

Predictably, this does not go well with Rumi’s kith and kin. Blissfully unaware, Rumi and Shams break all conventional barriers a number of times, from providing refuge to a prostitute in their house, to visiting a tavern to buy wine and meet the drunkards. 

Shafak presents the story from multiple viewpoints. Each chapter is narrated by a different character.  There are the perspectives of a leper, a prostitute, a drunkard in a tavern, the assassin who eventually stabs Shams, the fanatic zealot who cannot tolerate Shams, a girl who falls in love with Shams fruitlessly only to lose her life, and the hot tempered son of Rumi who plays a vital role in Shams’s assassination. 

We also gather few notes about the social order and religious practices of Islam in the thirteenth century:

  • The dervishes were much respected in society. Anyone spreading wisdom was given a place and a bed in the home and well fed.
  • The downtrodden of the social order, the lepers and the prostitutes, lived in secluded places. They were given shelter and alms but had to live separately from the rest of the people.
  • The social order was stringent, but everyone had a right to become involved in religious debates.
  • Despite a conservative environment, women were given the right to education by few liberal thinkers, including the Mawlana.
  • When the new ideology of the whirling dervishes was presented, it was refuted by the zealots, but in general was accepted by the learned men.

There are certainly instances which are debatable in terms of morality in the relationship between Rumi and Shams. Many times, we do wonder if it was right on Rumi’s behalf to have alienated himself completely from his kith and kin the moment Shams entered his life. There is another episode when Shams flees Konya one night and Rumi’s adopted daughter Kimya, who incidentally loves Shams, is offered in marriage to him, primarily in order to hold him back. Shams agrees to marry her, but later refuses to show any interest in her, leaving her devastated and ultimately resulting in her death. Why did Shams agree to marry her if he had no interest in her? If love is the religion he professes, then was justice served to her love? 

The narrative switches back to the present, where Ella starts exchanging emails with Aziz and is intrigued by his philosophy of life. Slowly and steadily, she falls in love with him. The author’s deftness in bringing out multiple perspectives and drawing a parallel between the past and the present is remarkable. Shams’s purpose is to transform Rumi from a religious cleric to a “poet of love.” Rumi’s fate is tied to heartbreak, turning him into a poet. Aziz is in constant quest for his “Rumi” whom he eventually finds in Ella. As Rumi abandons his kith and kin for Shams, Ella leaves her family and home for Aziz.

Different people construe love differently. A few call it the ultimate sacrifice and others, their sole purpose of life. But it comes with a heavy price. Yet, as the old proverb goes “all is fair in love and war”. All we know is that the communion of Rumi and Shams produced a renowned poet and a Sufi mystic whose work is a healing force to all souls who seek solace! As for what Ella’s destiny has in store for her, it is hard to predict. She is out there on the streets, a wanderer, a dervish, seeking refuge in love.

Shafak skillfully weaves the two narratives together to point out that love faces the same challenges in every era, and all lovebirds sing the same song. The book also provides a very deep insight into the Sufi Order of life by summarizing the Forty Rules of Love by Shams Tabriz. What I liked most is that despite such profound content, you glide through the pages as you read. Very lyrical, very soothing, and yet Shafak manages to create a huge impact in the minds of the readers. 

We have read classic tales of love before, and will continue to encounter more in the future. But this love story rewards the readers with something  priceless: a lyrical twist to the language of Sufism and a message to embrace love as a universal religion, with thyself and with thy neighbours.

(L) The Forty Rules of Love; (R) Whirling Dervishes

Anantha is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.

Read more:

Looking up at the skies for answers

Engaging with history to make sense of the present

Love comes in different shades and colours; it is up to us which to choose



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