Rumi, Sufi spirituality and the teacher–disciple relationship in Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love
In William Patrick Patterson’s Struggle of the Magicians, a detailed study of the relationship between the prominent figures of Western esotericism, G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky, he writes ‘Only in a time as confused as ours could one think that the teacher–student relationship – an archetypal and sacred form – exists as an option, rather than a necessary requirement, a station on the way’ (1997: 92). My paper examines the numerous ways in which the famous teacher–disciple relationship that existed between Muhammad Jalal ad-Din, known to the anglophone world as Rumi, and his spiritual guide and mentor, Shams of Tabriz, is represented in Elif Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love (2010) and how her depiction of this relationship is predicated upon her knowledge of, and belief in, the general principles of what can be termed ‘Western Sufism’. Although she had previously thematised elements of Sufi dialectics in her earlier fiction and clear, if minor, references to Sufi philosophy permeated novels such as The Bastard of Istanbul (2007), Shafak’s fascination with the teachings of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz reaches its culmination and most significant artistic expression in The Forty Rules of Love. Published in 2010, the novel situates a fictionalised representation of the relationship between Rumi and Shams at the centre of the narrative and provides an overt depiction of the emanationalist, perennialist and universalist ethics contained within Sufi dialectics. In addition, given that Shafak’s text represents one of the more prominent and commercially successful contributions to what Amira El-Zein (2010: 71–85) has called ‘the Rumi phenomenon’ my paper examines how, in privileging the aesthetics and the interests of American readers over conveying a more complete and more nuanced image of Sufism, Shafak succumbs to the oversimplification and decontextualisation of Rumi’s teachings perpetrated by the Western popularisers of his work.
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