Book Review: ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak

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Reviewed by: Bisma Latif

Themes of ‘The Forty Rules of Love’

The Forty Rules of Love incorporates three themes: Love, Sufism, and feminism. Ella is a complete epitome of feminism and a woman who knows how to love herself and respect her choices. Whereas the Sufism theme is experienced throughout the novel in the spiritual friendship of Shams of Tabriz and Maulana Rumi. The best part is this novel lets you experience two types of love, one is spiritual love and human love. You get to experience these two love side by side, which makes this novel a complete hit amongst its peers!

Book Review

Every once in a while, in a discussion on “Love,” someone would end up recommending their top picks to read concerning the topic, and “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafaq would be there on the list. The book has had such an impact on the readers because of its inherent simplicity but the intricacies involved as we all know human emotions are the most complex and beautiful thing at the same time.

Elif Shafaq narrated two different stories of two different times set in different backdrops. One is from the world of Sufism, where Rumi gets on the journey to find himself and discovers the layers to himself and becoming the greatest Poet and Sufi of his time. Another parallel story is of an unhappy housewife Ella, who happens to be a book reviewer professionally. Her first book in the line of work will change her perspective on “Love and Life” and her. The story provides the readers with two love stories folding simultaneously where the time is different, but what binds them together is Love.

The story begins with a heart-wrenching incident of Ella getting cheated on by her husband. To move forward in life with this burden, she gets a new job as a reviewer. Her first task is to review the book Sweet Blasphemy, which s the other part of the book having the story of Shams of Tabriz and Maulana Rumi. On the one hand, where Rumi explores Sufism, Ella, on the other hand, explores what it’s actually meant to be in Love! The book has forty rules that surround both human and Sufi love!

The story’s start can be summarized from the lines in the book, which encapsulates the idea that “Love has this quality to transform humans and allow them to see things differently.”

“Every true love and friendship is a story of an unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.” 

The Love Ella felt for the Author of the book that changed her and the friendship and devotion between the Sham of Tabraiz and Rumi that made Rumi as we know him today. Love is one emotion that can make someone the strongest person yet the weakest. It makes you do things that you might otherwise never think of. Ella found how unhappy she was in her life and what she really wanted after feeling for Aziz. Rumi discovered his true poetic self after developing a bond with a mystic Sufi.

Elif Shafaq’s book is an easy read, despite the oscillation between the two stories, which are separated by centuries but similar at its heart. A contemporary story of a man-woman love and how they are bound to put behind the worldly traditions and fears to be one and the historical bond between the Shams of Tabraiz and Rumi and how it transformed Rumi even when the society mocked the Sham of Tabraiz for his beliefs and ways of life.

People are bound to reject what seems unusual and different from the normal, and that’s exactly what Shams of Tabraiz had to face initially. It has always been the course of things, and getting past these worldly societal norms and dwelling into a self-discovery journey is what these forty rules of Love are all about. The writer has tried to make forty a significant number for the female protagonist, and her life will change after it.

The prologue does give away a hint as to what the reader should expect:

“If a stone hits a river, the river will treat it as yet another commotion in its already tumultuous course. Nothing unusual. Nothing unmanageable. If a stone hits a lake, however, the lake will never be the same again.”


The book is divided into five parts earth, water, wind, fire, and the void. These five constitute the universe and thus hint at human emotions. Each chapter is a crisp tale of the unfolding of the events taking place through narrations and are set in different eras. One is happening in mid-thirteenth century Turkey and the other in twenty-first-century America. Two very different worlds were trying to make sense of one common idea.

The track of Ella and Aziz that unfolds over their correspondence is rather slow and less gripping. The writer has tried to make it contemporary but yet conventional through the nuances and self-questioning thoughts, but it didn’t spellbind me as the other track did. The track is primarily narrated by the character of Ella, and it makes it a little boring. The other track has characters besides the character of Shams of Tabraiz and Rumi, and that’s riveting, to say the least. It keeps you hooked as to what Rumi’s family has to say and the characters like that of the Sulaiman the Drunk, Desert Rose the Harlot, and Hasan the Beggar. It lets you see the world through people’s eyes that belong to the different strata of the same society. They live very different lives while being in the same place and have opinions based on their individual experiences. That’s the difference of narration and plot between the two stories because of which of the readers find the track of Shams of Tabraiz far more interesting than the track of Ella and Aziz.

The forty rules of Love as the basic principles believed to be universal, dependable, timeless are scattered throughout the book for the readers to comprehend as they like. Everyone’s understanding of the rules might be different as to how they comprehend it. It can mean one thing to one individual and another to someone else. It might leave a lasting impact on one and might not change a thing for the other, as that is the beauty of words. It strikes everyone differently, and words are so powerful that it can change a heart or pierce through it, touch souls, leave them untouched, heal them, break them, and allow everyone to have a rather personal association with it. That is what the Forty Rules of Love can do to oneself and has done for many of its readers. It has liberated people off of their fears, doubts, and can transform one completely.

“When I was a child,

I saw God,

I saw angels;

I watched the mysteries of higher and lower worlds. I thought all men saw the same. At last, I realized that they did not see.”

The story moves smoothly and makes the reader a part of the journey that the main characters take to get to their true self. Rumi learns and unlearns the ways of Sufism from Shams of Tabraiz, who defies the usual. Rumi’s change was unfathomable for his family and people who knew him, and the rest is history as well all know of it. Ella found conviction in her own self and the courage to let go of the ways that weren’t making her happy. It comes down to what the person seeks and wants from his/her life.

What We Learned From Forty Rules of Love

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead, let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

As the rule mentioned above from the book talks about change and how many of us are afraid of change. We spend all our lives living the ways of others right in front of us chosen for us by society and our families. We are hesitant about the change and yet always are in search of it in the worldly things. One important message from the book is to always look inwards. We should try to explore ourselves first and foremost and then the world around us. To find happiness, Love, contentment, and meaning in this life, we would need to know what we truly want and are capable of, and every human being is different in this respect. What inspires one might not inspire another. What motivates one might not motivate the other, and what makes one happy might not make the other happy. We all want to find love, but not many can give love in the truest sense of it devoid of any material or worldly gains. If you would like to get your hands on something thought-provoking, insightful, and impactful, then Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafaq is the right book for you. After reading the book, your thoughts might be different from this review, which makes this book special for so many as it feels personal to its readers. I would like to say bid with another rule from the book:

“Let us choose one another as companions!

Let us sit at each other’s feet!

Inwardly we have many harmonies – think not

That we are only what we see.”



I would rate this book: 4/5



Book Reviewed by Bisma Latif (a writer, coder, and an avid reader, who puts her soul in everything she does!)

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