Tuesday, May 17, 2016

61 Books: #27

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–26 are below this post.

27. Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi (2010) (5/17/16)
This book is in fact two books in one: the framing story is set in 2008 Massachusetts and involves an almost-40 unhappily married housewife and mother. She takes a job as a reader for a literary agent—and yes, that's where the embedded book comes in. It's a novel, written by a Scots Sufi, about a couple of the most famous Sufis of all time: the thirteenth-century poet Rumi and his muse, Shams of Tabriz.

The framing story is fine, if a bit hokey: unhappy housewife and Scots Sufi fall in love thanks to the miracle of email—though of course there's a twist at the end. But what I found especially fascinating was the embedded story, titled Sweet Blasphemy. It is told through various first-person viewpoints, including Rumi and Shams, but also Rumi's sons and wife, a drunkard, a beggar, a harlot, and a killer. Woven throughout are the "forty rules," conveying Sufi teachings. For example (chosen randomly):

"Intellect ties people in knots and risks nothing, but love dissolves all tangles and risks everything. Intellect is always cautious and advises, 'Beware too much ecstasy,' whereas love says, 'Oh, never mind! Take the plunge!' Intellect does not easily break down, whereas love can effortlessly reduce itself to rubble. But treasures are hidden among ruins. A broken heart hides treasures."

Or,

"In this world, it is not similarities or regularities that take us a step forward, but blunt opposites. And all the opposites in the universe are present within each and every one of us. Therefore the believer needs to meet the unbeliever residing within. and the nonbeliever should get to know the silent faithful in him. Until the day one reaches the stage of Insan-i Kamil, the perfect human being, faith is a gradual process and one that necessitates its seeming opposite: disbelief."

As I read, I kept looking things up, to learn more about Rumi, about wandering (and whirling) dervishes, and about Sufism generally, which experienced a flowering in the thirteenth century. The book provides an illuminating glimpse into that time and those beliefs.

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