Monday, July 21, 2014
Layla and Majnun at School, Persian Painting, 15th Century, Courtesy of the British Museum
Elif Shafak is a captivating novelist and one of the foremost cosmopolitan Turkish writers. Her recent book, The Forty Rules of Love, uses a middle-aged American housewife yearning for existential meaning in her life, to frame an underlying narrative about the relationship between Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sufi from Afghanistan, fleeing from the Mongols to Konya, Turkey and Shams, the itinerant Sufi cynic from Tabriz in Persia. Her magical realistic prose stirs up the reader's faculties of imagination and empathy. Shafak's writing is alluring and deep and points us to an alternative interpretation of their relationship that is far beyond prurient sexual speculation and dutiful mentor/mentee hierarchical respect.
For Shafak's Rumi, Love is the underlying presence of God in creation. And, like an artist's uniquely envisioned painting, Rumi's love for Shams, is way beyond the sensual and points us a symbolic realm, full of emotion and tenderness, that elevates both us and Rumi to compassion for all humanity.
In some ways, Shafak's Shams' relationship to Rumi is analogous to Universalists' relationship to Unitarians. Rumi is a bit intellectual, a skilled professor and preacher, but quite a bit emotionally constrained, while Shams consorts with thieves and prostitutes, seeing God's image in everyone, all the while encouraging Rumi to discover the common grace inherent in all of God's creation.
But, The Forty Rules of Love, is not just a theological thriller, but reflects a long tradition in Persian Sufi poetry of elevating Love to being that glue that binds the universe together.
The painting, above, from the British Museum, is a rendering of the love saga between Majnun and Layla. Majnun, whose name means madness, and Layla, night, fall instantly in love. They spend the remainder of their lives seeking each other, fracturing all social restraints and constrictions. For Sufis, the love between Majnun and Layla, is a symbolic representation of Love for God. Layla is God's name for Majnun and that is sufficient--maybe love devotion, itself, is the spiritual discipline that draws us closest to the Divine.