Read: 12 December, 2013
The Forty Rules of Love is a twofer, alternating between the stories of Ella (a housewife in her late 30s who comes to understand that the routine of her life has failed to make her happy) and Shams of Tabriz (a 13th century Sufi mystic).
Because the story has a lot to say about religion, (the titular rules being of a mystically divine nature, rather than the more mundane love between people), I wanted to discuss it in some more depth. Of course, that means spoilers. You’ve been warned. The spoiler-free version is this: I found the book somewhat shallow, which is fine except that it was posing as a book with depth. Worse yet, the ‘lessons’ of the book are what I would consider harmful – albeit in keeping with what I know of mysticism, and precisely the reason why I’ve never been a huge fan of mysticism.
For a book that is supposed to be entirely about love, the word is never defined. Shams talks about loving everyone, but that’s clearly a very different kind of love from the one that he feels for his friend Rumi.
Moving into more personal territory, Shams talks about wanting an equal companion (and specifically claims not to want a disciple). Yet what we find is the opposite. Shams brings everything to his relationship with Rumi, and Rumi is greatly changed by their friendship. Shams, on the other hand, doesn’t change at all. Their relationship is precisely that between a master and a disciple.
The same thing happens on the Ella/Aziz front. Ella becomes enamoured with an author and comes to him seeking guidances. Though Aziz is not famous (yet?), the relationship has all the markings of a fantasy between a fan and an artist. Ella wants from the relationship, and she takes. She takes the life lessons, she takes the status, she takes the pleasure of the “greater person” condescending to give her attention. But what does she give in return? She never really seems to understand Aziz, so what is Aziz getting from the relationship except for, maybe, the headiness of uninformed adoration?
In both relationships, one party (Aziz and Shams) is a Manic Pixie Dream Lover. He appears, he seems inhuman/superior, he transforms the person who loves him, and then he dies so that the transformed person can now be an adult rather than being trapped as a disciple forever. Shams and Aziz are nothing more than objects of epiphany for Rumi and Ella.
This is not love. Love is reciprocal. This is, at best, infatuation.
I found Shams to be something of a hypocrite. He chides a scholar by saying: “A man with many opinions but no questions! There’s something wrong with that” (p.256). Yet Shams himself begins the book complete with his 40 rules, and spends his entire time lecturing others for not knowing God in the correct way.
Worse yet, while he’s there arguing with the scholar and telling him that he’s doing religion wrong, he tells him that: “What we need is sincere self-examination. Not being on the watch for the faults of others” (p.257). If I want to be as generous as possible, Shams does occasionally start to act in one way and then stop himself (though this is always through the eyes of others, so we get no real evidence of internal conflict). Even so, though, he is certainly quick to criticise others.
There’s also some contradictions in the talk about destiny. The term is discussed, and Shams explained that “destiny doesn’t mean that your life has been strictly predetermined. Therefore, to leave everything to fate and to not actively contribute to the music of the universe is a sign of sheer ignorance” (p.221). That’s lovely, and the image that follows of a musical ensemble is quite nice, yet Shams himself walks out to his death. It is predetermined (Rumi dreams of it before he even meets Shams), and Shams does nothing to prevent it.
Further, Shams says: “God is a meticulous clockmaker. So precise is His order that everything on earth happens in its own time. Neither a minute late nor a minute early. And for everyone without exception, the clock works accurately. For each there is a time to love and a time to die” (p.333). This appears to be quite close to what people mean when they talk about destiny. I am unclear about the distinction that Shams is trying to make.
No offence intended to Oprah herself, but I’ve coined the term “Oprah-ism.” It refers to a form of superficial spirituality where ideas are presented as having great depth, but they are actually either common sense or meaningless platitudes.
We get this when Rumi says, in a lecture, that suffering brings us closer to God (p.107). Rightfully so, a beggar with leprosy in the crowd starts to wonder what a man like Rumi can possibly know about suffering (a belief that is still around and causes a great deal of harm).
It’s true that Shams later convinces Rumi to actually meet some plebs, not to mention all the character assassination he does so that Rumi loses a lot of the status he’d always had (yet Rumi is still wealthy, and wealth makes a huge difference). But Rumi never explicitly renounces his position that suffering brings us closer to God. In fact, a perfectly possible interpretation would be that his original stance was correct but that he, himself, had not suffered enough to be close to God (enter Shams to give him a few minor encounters).
In other words, the conclusion in the story is not that Rumi was wrong to advocate on behalf of suffering, but rather that Rumi himself had not benefited from a sufficient amount of suffering.
Shams also goes on about submission. He says that: “Submission does not mean being weak or passive. It leads to neither fatalism nor capitulation. Just the opposite. True power resides in submission – a power that comes from within. Those who submit to the divine essence of life will live in unperturbed tranquillity and peace even when the whole wide world goes through turbulence after turbulence” (p.292). As with the argument about suffering, this fixation on submission has led to much harm. As is, the rule applies quite easily to the master telling the slave that “no, no, you are the one with the power, because there’s power in submission!” This is a very real and present issue, as we see fundamentalist Christians telling women that they are the ones with the power if they dress conservatively, eschew education, and stay home having as many babies as possible.
Shams says that: “The midwife knows that when there is no pain, the way for the baby cannot be opened and the mother cannot give birth. Likewise, for a new Self to be born, hardship is necessary. Just as clay needs to go through intense heat to become strong, Love can only be perfected in pain” (p.86). I’m sure abusers would love to have this one in their arsenal. Come on, baby, you know I’m just beating you up for your own spiritual development!
The fact that Shams and Rumi tell people that suffering and submission are wonderful without ever telling people not to cause suffering or to enforce submission makes these philosophies perfect examples of what I mean by Oprah-ism.
Aziz tells Ella that “all religious wars were in essence a ‘linguistic problem'” (p.159). Shams agrees: “Most of the problems of the world stem from linguistic mistakes and simple misunderstandings” (p.66). I do agree with Shams that a lot of conflicts stem from misunderstandings. But Aziz’s statement is just naive.
I used to agree with it. That all religions are trying to know God and that they are just getting hung up on the little details. If believers would just stop arguing for a minute and actually listen – really listen – they’d discover that they’re all really on the same page. It’s the only way for people to believe that their version of religious Truth is right without being arrogant towards sincere believers who disagree.
While the idea certainly makes for more pleasant inter-faith dialogue, it simply is not true. There are real, and significant, differences between faiths. To gloss over, say, the centrality of redemptive sacrifice in Christianity so that the Christian and the Muslim can hang out together without hackles raised may make for good neighbours but it makes for terrible theology. To make Aziz’s idea work, you have to strip religious of so many of their tenants that what is left would be unrecognisable by most believers.
On a few occasions, a distinction is made between the heart and the head. Shams says: “The Path to the Truth is a labor of the heart, not of the head. Make your heart your primary guide! Not your mind. Meet, challenge, and ultimately prevail over your nafs [false ego] with your heart” (p.40). In another rule, he says: “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” (p.66).
So what does this even mean? The distinction between the heart and the head is clearly not literal, so it would seem that Shams is making a ’emotion versus intellect’ argument. Yet what does it mean to prevail over your nafs if not that you must master and control baser impulses? When Baybars beats up Desert Rose, is he not acting in rage? Isn’t that using his heart? If he used his head, he might have understood that Desert Rose was largely a victim of circumstance, trapped in a situation she has no desire to be in. To deny one’s power to reason and use logic sounds like an astoundingly bad idea. After all, wouldn’t we need our intellect to distinguish between those emotions that are laudable and those that are nafs-y?
Philosophy I liked
Any time you get a large enough splattering of spiritualisms, you’re bound to get a few good ones. Here’s a few that I liked:
Aziz tells Ella: “I know you like to cook. Did you know that Shams says the world is a huge cauldron and something big is cooking in it? We don’t know what yet. Everything we do, feel, or think is an ingredient in that mixture. We need to ask ourselves what we are adding to the cauldron” (p.146). It’s a nice image, and a good way to think of our place in the world.
One of Shams’s rules reads: “Nothing should stand between yourself and God. Not imams, priests, rabbis, or any other custodians of moral or religious leadership. Not spiritual masters, not even your faith. Believe in your values and your rules, but never lord them over others. If you keep breaking other people’s hearts, whatever religious duty you perform is not good. Stay away from all sorts of idolatry, for they will blur your vision. Let God and only God be your guide. Learn the Truth, my friend, but be careful not to make a fetish out of your truths” (p.246). Now, of course, Shams breaks Kimya’s heart (and Rumi’s, and Aladdin’s, and Kerra’s), but the sentiment is a good one.
Overall, it was an interesting book and I did enjoy reading it, but it was far too superficial a treatment of the subject to really provide any meaty food for thought. I also found much that was objectionable (Rumi forbidding his wife from reading his books, for example – though he does eventually decide that girls just as good students as boys, he never allows his wife entrance to his library. Married women are not to have intellectual interests, apparently).
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