Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sufism for the West? On Elif Shafak’s ‘Forty Rules of Love’

Sufism for the West
Turkish-British author Elif Shafak poses with her book ’10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ during the photo call for the authors shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction at Southbank Centre in London on October 13, 2019. Tolga AKMEN / AFP

Dana Hourany

Elif Shafak, a French-born Turkish novelist, published her international best-selling novel Forty Rules of Love in 2010. The book went on to sell millions of copies worldwide and was translated into 37 languages, making it an all-time best seller.

Two parallel storylines are narrated throughout the book, even though they are set in separate periods and feature different traditions. The first story follows Ella Rubenstein, a 40-year-old American housewife who leads a dull and sad existence with an unfaithful husband and three children. The second storyline begins when Ella receives the novel “Sweet Blasphemy” by author Azizi Zahara; Zahara’s book transports readers to the thirteenth-century Middle East to tell the story of Persian Sufi mystic and poet Jalal Al-Dine Rumi and his instructor Shams Tabrizi.

Ella is at the centre of the story, seeking to find a way out of her depressing and loveless middle-class existence. Her interest in Zahara is sparked by her exposure to Sufism through Rumi and Shams; shortly after, they begin exchanging emails, and their connection grows. While Shams goes out to relieve Muslim Scholar Rumi from the shackles of his restrictive social training, Zahara sets out to free Ella from the confines of her mundane life.

Despite the fact that the work has been out for 12 years, literary experts and scholars say that it has had a lasting impact on the MENA region’s Sufi literature landscape.

“Shafak knew how to structure the novel to attract audiences from around the globe. However, her biggest achievement, in my opinion, was luring people into the world of Sufism,” Ahmad Kamel, a Lebanese Sufi researcher, told Fanack.

Who is Elif Shafak?

 Turkey‘s arguably most famous female novelist Shafak was born in Strasbourg in 1971 to a philosopher father and a diplomat mother. However, when her parents separated, Shafak, only 5 years old at the time, moved to Turkey’s capital, Ankara to live with her mother.

The author spent her adult years traveling between the West, where she completed her education, and Turkey, where she became a professor.

In an interview with The Guardian, Shafak stated that she has never felt like an immigrant, instead describing herself as a nomad and traveller who has never settled in one place.

Her interest in Sufism began roughly 25 years ago, when she felt a magnetic pull toward Sufi poet Rumi, despite the fact that her family was neither spiritual nor religious.

The latter was the source of inspiration for Forty Rules of Love. The book, on the other hand, was an attempt to reconcile opposing notions such as past and present, East and West, spiritual and mundane.

“I wanted to show how the words of a poet and philosopher who lived in the 13th century can resonate with our modern lives in the 21st century,” Shafak told Goodreads.

Kamel, who is a Sufi himself, says that it was Shafak’s popularization of Sufism that made him open up about his spiritual beliefs to his conservative surroundings.

“Before the book came out, I would only discuss Sufism with a handful of people,” the researcher said. “But suddenly, everyone I knew had copies of the book, and questions about Rumi and his spiritual background became increasingly common amongst my peers.”

The book’s impact

Following Shafak’s successful release, Kamel, an ardent collector of Sufi literature, noted an increase in Sufi publications. More Sufi mystics and philosophers entered the Western literary market as a result, including Ibn Al-Araby, Ahmad Al-Ghazali, Ruzbihan Baqli, and Yusuf Al-Hallaj.

All of these figures appeared as main characters in books on the topic published between 2015 and 2018. Kamel, on the other hand, feels that Shafak made the proper choice in picking Rumi to be the key character who exposes Sufism to Western audiences.

“Rumi’s poetry was more light-hearted and accessible than that of other Sufi mystics. The information would have been too deep for the general reader if she had chosen a complex philosopher like Ibn Al-Araby or Al-Hallaj,” Kamel said.

In fact, BBC reported in 2014 that books on Rumi have sold millions of copies in the US, making him the most popular poet in the early 2010s.

This popularity, according to Kamel, did not mean all Western audiences were going to delve deeply into Sufism and its practices; some just enjoyed well-written poetry.

But not all scholars see eye to eye on the matter. Mohammad Al-Saghir, a Lebanese literary specialist and novelist, told Fanack that Shafak offered a watered-down version of Sufism intended for Western audiences.

Acknowledging the privilege

 The novel’s success, according to Al-Saghir, was aided by the lack of literary works on Sufism in the 2010s, particularly those by Middle Eastern authors.

“As it is, the novel is outstanding and valuable. It’s worth noting, however, that Shafak is more privileged than other Middle Eastern authors who lack her financial and educational resources,” he said.

The novel, according to the expert, did not do Sufism justice since it was simplistic and did not adequately portray Sufi figures; much of the plot was constructed rather than based on facts. In reality, Tabrizi appeared to be “suspiciously contemporary, like a Quran-reading Yoga teacher,” according to a review in The New Republic; the ancient Middle East was depicted as anachronistic “as if the only thing separating it from our own society is the absence of cars and telephones.”

Furthermore, Al-Saghir argues that Middle Eastern authors wishing to emulate Shafak are at a disadvantage due to the education system limiting their access to creative writing courses in the MENA region.

“The alternatives are either too expensive or unavailable. As a result, Middle Eastern authors have had a lot of difficulty reaching a larger audience, and many continue to rely on old literary practices that were successful in the 1960s and 1970s, but not so much anymore,” Al-Saghir told Fanack.

On the other hand, Karim El-Gammal, a Sufi Egyptian novelist, regards Shafak’s work as a motivating force that has encouraged him to express his love for Sufism via literature. Sufi literary works are important to El-Gammal because of how they depict Islam and the MENA region.

For once, he claims, Islam might well be regarded as something other than terrorism and extremism.

“This new image fills the void created by terrorist organizations like as IS and Al-Qaeda, as well as Western propaganda directed against the Middle East. It also allows our expats to reconnect with their roots, free from the stigma of Arab stereotypes,” El-Gammal told Fanack.

Regional authors, he contends, are necessary to portray people’s distinct spiritual experience and to broaden Sufism’s dimensions. “It is more than a collection of customs and rituals. Rather, it is a way of life in which one aspires to live a life of peace and tolerance.”

“Shafak was successful in demonstrating that Sufism is about love and acceptance. However, it is critical that authors continue to provide many versions of Sufism so that our legacy is preserved and our experiences are shared with the rest of the world,” El-Gammal said.

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