Monday, 16 June 2014

The lake will never be the same again

Review of Elif Shafak's The Forty Rules of Love

Between your fingers you hold a stone and throw it into flowing water… If a stone hits a river, the river will treat it as yet another commotion in its tumultuous course. Nothing unusual. Nothing unmanageable. If a stone hits a lake, however, the lake will never be the same again.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak will disturb your sense of Islam, your comfort zones, what you thought you understood about spirituality and your sense of self. After all, this was the mission that Shams of Tabriz had when he sought out the great Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi of Konya.

I grew up on the stories of Rumi from when I was a teenager and my late father would share with me what he had read about the founder of the whirling dervishes. It baffled me even then as to what the impact Shamsi Tabrizi had when he dumped Rumi’s book and manuscripts into the pond. Already then my mind developed an image of Shams as a sort of villain, a most unorthodox teacher, a disturber of the peace.

Why did Rumi have to go mad with yearning for Shams (assassinated by Rumi’s followers) before he could write his Mathnawi (perhaps his best work), I pondered? Why would someone go mad because another dies? Did he not have proper faith? Since my father passed I had my own arguments in defence of the sufi master. These questions drew me closer to the sufi path in my later years and nourished my own grasp of the quest for a better relationship with Allah.

Then along comes Elif Shafak with her take on the story and dumps most of my notions Rumi, the Whirling Dervishes, Shamsi Tabrizi, the tethering of the ego, understanding the Qur’an and my late father (Ebrahim Jacobs, may his grave be forever bathed in light), into the pond. 

A story within a story (actually: stories within a story), Shafak tells of how a housewife, Ella Rubinstein’s apparently tranquil existence is shattered when she is asked to evaluate a manuscript, Sweet Blasphemy. Shafak’s storytelling reminded me of a Rumi poem I had once read:

You are in love with me, I shall make you perplexed.
Do not build much, for I intend to have you in ruins.
If you build two hundred houses in a manner that the bees do;
I shall make you as homeless as a fly.
If you are the mount Qaf in stability.
I shall make you whirl like a millstone.

What Shafak has successfully done is take the ideas of Rumi and Shams, the twin suns of sufism, breathe new life into a story that has been retold so many times, and transposed it into a modern context for all lovers of the Sublime. The Forty Rules is an exquisite piece of tapestry, weaving together stories of a remorseful drunk, a prostitute who dresses up as a man, an arrogant Muslim scholar, a revengeful bitter son and a wife grappling with her love for Mary and her new found Islam.

Sufi mystics say the secret of the Qur’an lies
in the verse of Al-Fatiha,
And the secret of Al-Fatiha lies in
And the quintessence of Bismillah is the letter ba,
And there is a dot below that letter…

The dot underneath the B embodies the entire