The past decade and a half has seen a growing popularity of authors who write about the East, usually Muslim societies. These writers themselves live in the West, but have taken it upon themselves to explain the East and Islam to others in the West. With one bestseller following another, some writers have become celebrities across the world. These authors, who usually write and speak fluent English, are the West’s favourite story tellers of the Muslim world, but only if, they tell a story that matches the one found in old and recycled stereotypes of the East. The story that often will reduce the richness and diversity of an entire region, framed in the same, essentially disrespectful manner. For example, country x (Afghanistan, Iran or Turkey etc) is highly traditional, ultra-religious and the protagonist, a young boy or girl, is at odds with his or her religious society and upbringing and wants to break free. The theme, though often subtle, is that the way of life the individual seeks are essentially Western, and the ultra-traditional communities and their wider society needs major reforms, without which, life is unbearable. There are two possible worlds that exist one) religious doctrine and tradition (usually Islam) are holding back society, leading to unspoken injustice and tragedy (usually the poor women are reserved as victims) or two) the society is a highly exaggerated Orientalist imagining, where spirituality and mysticism still permeates modern urban cities.
The author will borrow certain Islamic traditions, philosophies and figures to suit a narrative and conveniently discard of the serious and the boring orthodox Islam that might come with the story. In any case, religion is bad at worst, or irrelevant at best – but the intrinsic egotistic desires of the individual that yearn for freedom are without doubt good and must not be questioned.
This phenomenon is nothing new. At least for the past two centuries, European Orientalists have been active participants in this practise. The mysterious East with its harems and magic carpets, the one thousand and one nights and the endless horizon of sand dunes has become a particular delicacy for the Western reader. Modern authorship from writers who themselves trace their roots to the East have simply continued the same reductionist model, though with varying degrees of success. Before Elif Shafak, the author of the imaginary ‘Forty Rules of Love’ came along, the famous British Orientalist Edward Fitzgerald had already introduced a very loose translation of poetry attributed to the Persian mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam. Khayyam was only received with open arms in Europe because his poetry was seen as ‘liberating’, liberating not only the poor English reader, who was tied down by puritan Christian doctrines of Europe, but also free of any serious Islamic influence that might have creeped up in Khayyams work. Later Coleman Barks and others would strip Islam from any and all works of Rumi, Hafez and Saadi.
Orientalist authors like Kipling and Conrad are long gone, and today’s reader is ever more aware of the old trappings of the past. Furthermore, never before in history have millions upon of Muslims called the West their home. With second, third and in some case fourth generation Muslims of immigrant ancestry, identifying themselves as quintessentially ‘Western’, there is a certain appetite and nostalgia to read something about their ancestral homelands, ideally from one of their ‘own’. This untapped demand has been met, quite successfully, by Elif Shafak, Khaled Hosseini and to a degree Orhan Pamuk. All three authors born in the East, but left the East to make the West their permanent home. With little to no fictional literature available in Western bookstores on what life is like in Afghanistan, India, Turkey or Iran, novels fictionalised in Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul or Delhi offer a rare insight into life, love and pain in a far away land. Though none of these authors pretend to write non-fiction, there are certain assumptions and liberties taken by the author and their publisher when a story set in a far away city is published. Yes, the story is fictional, but are the backdrops entirely imaginary? If actual religious or historical characters and events are used to set a story, can the reader really tell what is real and what is pure fabrication? I would argue not. An unaware reader who picks up a copy of the world best-seller ‘Kite-Runner’ with the name Khaled Hossein printed below at an airport bookstore, will almost certainly assume the author is genuine, qualified and the story no matter how fictional is based on real events.
Many such authors are not representatives of the land they write about. For example, Khaled Hosseini after the age of 9 left his homeland of Afghanistan for the West and never returned. His privilege upbringing afforded him the safety and comforts most Afghan’s know not. Then how qualified is Hosseini to tell a story about tribal-ethnic tensions, the social, political and human crisis under the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s or the pain and tragedy that befell the entire nation over the course of his books?
Though some would argue, and many do, that any voice is better than no voice. Let’s be clear, there are many native authors who either still live in the East and do continuously write fiction and non-fiction work about their homeland and many who have moved to the West, and chose to not play the Orientalist game of robbing their lands of its richness by playing the old and tired tunes of ‘there is nothing but pain, oppression and tragedy, and only escape to the West is a remedy’.
Elif Shafk (Forty Rules of Love)
Elif Shafak, the author ‘Forty Rules of Love’, ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ and ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’ has gained worldwide fame for her English novels that are framed in a pseudo spiritual/Sufi ‘Islamic’ cloak. Originally from Turkey, Shafak now lives in London. But the works of Elif Shafak are not without their many controversies.
When reviewing Shafak’s work, we must me mindful that unlike the critique that is often put-on poor translations of Eastern literature (Rumi or Hafez), there is no issue of translation with Shafak. She is one of the few ‘Eastern’ authors who writes directly in English (alongside Khaled Hosseini), though her work ironically enough is translated back into Eastern languages for local audiences to digest.
Shafak is a self-described atheist:
“I am not a religious person at all. But I am interested in spirituality and mysticism and inner-oriented spiritual journeys all around the world”
From the offset, Shafak distances herself from Islam immediately when interviewed by international publications or reporters, because to be even a ‘Cultural Muslim author’ carries baggage that is not only unnecessary but also harmful to book sales. Especially when is selling a ‘feel-good’ religion that has no set doctrine. Shafak is strategic and cherry-picked history, events and ideas from Turkey’s Islamic heritage (the Ottoman’s) that suits her stories, and thrown away the medium (Islam) without which the characters, events and philosophies in her story form could not exist.
For Shafak, “spirituality”, “mysticism” and the “inner-oriented spiritual journeys all around the world” (whatever that might mean) are all beautiful ornaments to be inserted in stories and characters, but when describing Sufism in its entirety, it suits her to not mention Islam and the orthodoxy that comes with being a Sufi.
For example, in the book ‘Forty Rules of Love’, Ella the protagonist, relies heavily on some form of Sufism and an ostensible overlay of Islamic theology to engage in an adulterous affair. Very far from the abandonment of self, advocated by Sufism, Shafak’s lead protagonist glorifies self-indulgence rather than the love of God. Entirely in conflict with traditional Sufism. Is the average reader able to understand and decipher where Shafak’s imagination takes over, and where actual practises of Sufism (from any of its schools) exist? Or is Shafak creating her own cocktail of religion, and the reader must accept that this is pure fiction?
However, to ensure the reader does not become too disoriented in her own fantastical imagination, pulls the read back with certain hooks with symbolic gestures to Sufism. For example, each chapter of Forty Rules of Love starts with letter ‘b’ she claims. Why? She claims because the secrets of the Quran lay in ‘Surah Al-Fatiha’ (the opening verse of the Quran) and its spirit is contained in the phrase Bismillah hir Rehman nir Rahim (In the name of Allah, the most Beneficent and Merciful). The first Arabic letter that forms the word ‘Bismillah’ – b – (ب) has a dot below it that symbolises the Universe, an idea she borrows from Sufi thought.
Forty Rules of Love also has a side story that is based around the love between two men (the love between the student and the teacher or master). Rumi and Shams. Both figures are heavily revered Muslim theologians, poets and philosophers in their own right, with Jalal ad-Din Muhammad (the light of the faith) Rumi considered to be the most read poet in the world (in any language). Shams Tabrizi was said to be the spiritual teacher of Rumi, who early on in the life of Rumi, left on a journey and never returned. Though this ancient story has been around for almost a millennium, Shafak took many of the orientalist readings of this legend, and filled the holes with her own imagination, often with grotesque and disturbing concepts. The love that existed between Rumi and Shams is universally considered amongst Sufi’s to be purely platonic, and the relationship of student and master in Sufism is one that perhaps might be odd and hard to understand for many outsiders, yet Shafak implies throughout the book (without adding any nuance) that such love, though spiritual, is also physical and sexual. In other instances, Shafak also takes poorly translated verses from Rumi’s Mathnavi and goes as far as to even imply that bestiality was practised.
So, what about the famous ’40 Rules of Love’?
They do not exist, not in the way Shafak presents them and not in any way that come across in the book. Most if not all of the work completed by Rumi and Shams was in Persian. Shafak does not speak nor read Persian, so how was she able to find a set of rules (not one, two or even ten but forty!) from amongst the writings of Tabriz and Rumi in Persian?
In the references for her book, Shafak notes she owes credit to the following authors and their works for her research:
- The Mathnawi (translation by R. A. Nicholson, an English orientalist who completed the first literal translation of Rumi)
- Autobiography of Shams Tabrizi by William Chittick (an early archaic copy), Coleman Barks (based on the translation of Nicholson and almost entirely fictional, Idris Shah (there is question on how accurate his work is), Kabir and Camile Helmeniski (A good and accurate translation), Refik Algan and Franklin D (I am not familiar with their work)
- Poems of Rumi by William Chittwick and Coleman Barks (Both unreliable and poor)
- Poems by Omar Khayyam by Richard Le Gaillienne (Incomplete and riddled with countless errors).
It can be argued that Shafak has created an amalgamation of ideas and philosophies from the various writings of at least three Muslim poets which she transformed into her own 40 rules. Her own imagination determined which verses, which lines and which words spoke to her and nothing more. By relying only on others translations (majority of which are quite poor in accuracy), it should be assumed almost all of the rules has created are fabrications, if not in meaning, then in spirit from the original work of the author.
But Shafak has found success not only in the minds and hearts of non-Muslim readers, but also amongst Muslims. She has masterfully crafted her image as an ‘authentic’ Eastern author, who borrows from her own Turkish culture and history, to pen stories that has full right and privilege to. Her own atheistic values do not, and should not, disqualify her from writing about Islam, but her decision to conflate Sufism with new-age spiritualism that is agnostic at best, is highly dubious. Shafak also holds no theological qualifications, her ability to decipher and interpret religious doctrines of Rumi and Shams in her own mind hold no weight in even a generous academic test. The love that Shafak constantly refers to in her book is human love, often masked as spiritual and higher, forgetting (perhaps by purpose) that the love Rumi and Shams spoke of was usually for God, the very religious idea of God in Islam. Not a cosmic spiritual force that many pseudo-Sufi interpretations apply today to Rumi.
The global rise of interest in Sufism has created a multi-million industry in yoga, spirituality, poetry and literature. Much of the ‘Sufi’ industry is filled with imitators who openly reject any faith, but borrow and decorate empty spiritual concepts with the label of Sufism. The void left by religion in the West clearly needs a filler, and the need to belong to something, without belonging to the whole religion, is a popular decision made by many. This ‘Sufism-Lite’ which has no clear God, no Prophets, no hell, no strict doctrine is allusive and yet alluring. Shafak has masterfully captured the hearts of many who seek meaning in the meaningless.
In summary, Shafak is a very successful writer. She writes fiction, pure and simple. Her work is marketed as such, so we must ask, why is it not consumed as such? To her credit, she is honest about her personal beliefs, so we must be honest with what we take away from her works. So when we read, for example, the Forty Rules of Love, we must remember the following points:
- It is fiction not based on Islam or Sufism. At best, it is loosely inspired by some generic tenets found in Sufism.
- The book does not instill any real Islamic values. Its protagonist is a woman who justifies her own affair through fabricated values and rules attributed to Rumi or Tabriz.
- There are no such ’40 Rules of Love’ anywhere in the works of Rumi, Shams or Khayyam.
- Shafak is not a scholar of Islam, but instead a novelist. She shows no signs of understanding even the basic tenets of Sufism. Although she touches upon the concept of shedding the ego in the book, the story clearly leans towards a worldly love, not one of God. It glorifies (and sanctions using religious doctrine) of one’s lower desires without regard to the consequence to others.
An atheist secular Turkish novelist should not be the start, middle or the end point for any students of Sufism or spirituality that stems from Islam. Any serious readers or curious minds should head instead to the topic of ‘Tasawwuf’ (the actual concept of Sufism found in Islam). In closing we must remember who Rumi was and for whom his breath exhaled, and for whom his heart beat. On his death bed, he was asked by his wife: “Oh Rumi, plead with God to let you stay here longer”, to which he replied: “Am I a thief? have I stolen someone’s goods? is this why you would confine me here and keep me from being re-joined with my Love?”
This Love is Allah. The night is known as Seb-I Arus – The Wedding Day. The day Rumi joined his Creator. The Almighty God. The very Muslim God.