The Forty Rules of Love

The Forty Rules of Love.

I first began reading this book almost two years ago. And was immediately put off by the protagonist Ella. Repulsed by her. Wrote a Facebook post lamenting how marriages are depicted in the most clichéd way in most books. I was angry. I could not read beyond the first few chapters.

About five months ago, I picked up the book again.

Everything comes at its own time, as my mother always says.

Why did I pick up the book again? Not because of Ella. But because of Shams of Tabriz.

Because I wanted to be a sufi.

Two years ago, when I was trying to read the book, I read about Shams narrating the episode of Moses and the poor simple man who committed ‘sweet blasphemy’. Here’s how it goes:

“One day Moses was walking in the mountains on his own when he saw a shepherd in the distance. The man was on his knees with his hands spread out to the sky, praying. Moses was delighted. But when he got closer, he was equally stunned to hear the shepherd’s prayer.

The shepherd’s prayer was a strange one, wherein he professed his deep love for God by offering to ‘give’ things to him and to ‘do’ things for him. “I will do anything for thee, just say the word…” he prayed, enumerating all the things he could do. “Afterwards I would wash thy feet and clean thine ears and pick thy lice for thee. That is how much I love thee.”

Moses was most annoyed at the man and yelled at him that god has no feet and no hands and needs none to feed and clean him. “This is not prayer. This is sheer blasphemy,” said Moses. The shepherd was stunned and ashamed and asked Moses to teach him the ‘right’ prayer. And Moses was pleased.

But that night when God spoke, Moses was surprised. For god told him that the man’s heart had been pure and his intentions sincere. “His words might have been blasphemy to your ears, but to Me they were sweet blasphemy.”

I was moved to tears and wept for a long, long time.

I knew then, right then, that the answers I had been seeking for so long would come to me through the Sufis. They would come to me through sweet blasphemy.

For many, many years I have felt a spiritual angst, a vacant gaping hole in my being, a restlessness translating to anger, a flame within burning out in tears. It was the same desire that had initially made me turn to religion but found that the things I were told did not quite satisfy me. I felt unquenched and unsatisfied by ‘prescriptive’ religion as it was presented to me and despite seeking refuge in it, I felt unfulfilled by the legalities and the unquestionability. It caused me to remain in a state of permanent fracture, always split down the middle.


I sit there
With my head bowed
Meek, within the flock of sheep
—Nodding knowingly as you speak—
And you show me the road
To heaven.
But when I raise my eyes
Unseal my lips,
Unlock the fire in my breath
I’m a dragon
A creature
You cannot contain
My questions burning through
The pathways of sin.
And here I hang, suspended
Between heaven and hell
Between desire and denial
A beast of two heads—
Breathing fire into the haze of myth,
Searing through countless
Decrees and edicts,
Seeking forever the endless azure
Seeking forever the sky.

Beast of two heads. That is who I always felt myself to be. Fire and ice. Virtue and Vice. Beast of two heads.

But the very first time I read that part about sweet blasphemy, two years ago, something moved inside me so much that I glimpsed, for an infinitesimal moment, the path that was destined for me.

That was the day that I wrote this, and I cannot say for certain why:

Falling in love isn’t only a moment of blinding light, an instance of ecstasy when the world ceases to exist. Falling in love is a process, a phenomenon— sometimes noticeable, like the rising of the sun, sometimes imperceptible, like the rotation of the earth—but a phenomenon that unfolds gently, over a long period of time, and continues in its rhythm long after you’ve ceased to exist.

That was also the day I wrote this:


With each step in the dark
The world opens up
Layer upon layer
Gives way,
New lands that
With rainbow and mist
Lands that shake and rent asunder
Skies that spit and strike and sigh
Foliage that curves
Round the ankles
Meaning, as if, to devour
But only to take me
Deeper within;
The world in all its glory
— Awes and scares, delights and dismays—
Stands before me
Like a veiled woman, beckoning.
I must empty myself
To be filled
And be lost and unmoored, to find.

I felt the world opening up to me. I had glimpsed the clearing from where began my path.

And unknown to me, it was exactly in the same month, the January of 2018, that a fated event occurred which gave me the first glimpse of the clearing where lay my path. The path that would lead to the gates of my soul being opened, with water flowing in and out. But the channel of my being hadn’t been sufficiently opened by then. My soul hadn’t been cracked open enough to enable the flow.

The wound is where the light enters you, said Rumi. I hadn’t been sufficiently wounded, not sufficiently cracked open to let light flow. I was not yet aware of flashes and of kayf: the still point of the turning world. Not yet aware of joyous grief. The grief that you hold like a treasure within the heart.

“Dil lazzate gham ki nemat par, beja nahi jitna naaz kare
Mil jaaye to aye hasne wale, tu mujhse zyada naaz kare…”

This urdu couplet by Arzoo Lucknawi seems rather untranslatable to me, but in essence it says that there is nothing as precious as grief within the heart. And if it found this treasure of grief, even the most joyous heart would marvel at it and cherish it.

But I did not know all this then. The vessel was small, the waters too great to hold. And now, now when I had been cracked open, the book beckoned to me again.

Now when I met Ella, I did not feel angry. I felt compassionate, sympathetic if not empathetic. I saw her and I saw that I did not need to identify with her. I did not need her to echo me. She was a person in a story. I could see her, hear her out and understand what she was going through without necessarily taking it personally. And as I moved deeper into the book, I realised that it wasn’t actually Ella who was the protagonist, it was someone else.

 And that someone was the person who I truly identified with. It was Rumi.

As Rumi was learning, so was I. The water had begun to flow in and out.

“Doubts are good,” says Shams. “It means you are alive and searching.” 

“Besides, one does not become a believer overnight,” says Shams again, like he were speaking to me, to the beast in me. “He thinks he is a believer; then something happens in his life and he becomes an unbeliever; after that he becomes a believer again, and then an unbeliever again, and so on. Until we reach a certain stage, we constantly waver. This is the only way forward. At each new step, we come closer to the Truth.”

I could not believe what I was reading! The further I went into the book, the more it seemed to speak to me and to the way life was unfolding around me.  

“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?”

If I had ever had even the slightest of doubts about cosmic coincidences, they were all wiped out during the course of this book.

“Painfully delicate and surprisingly strong, silk resembles love.” Now this is Baba Zaman speaking, in his letter. “I told Shams how silkworms destroy the silk they produce as they emerge from their cocoons. This is why the farmers have to make a choice between the silk and the silkworm. More often than not, they kill the silkworm while it is inside the cocoon in order to pull the silk out intact.”

I knew then, why I had to go through this unbearable, excruciating pain, the pain that threatened to kill me. It wasn’t a threat— I had to die. I had to experience this death. “For the silk to prosper, the silkworm had to die.”

Life cracks you, little by little, to make space for the flow. The flow of knowledge, of understanding, of light, of life. The stream that turns into a waterfall. And little by little, when you’ve been chipped and cracked in so many places you think there’s nothing left of you—you become the ocean. Vast. Limitless. Endlessly open, with unfathomable depths. The earth cracked open in entirety. Utterly, utterly destroyed. Getting there is going to take a long, long time. And a lot more wounds. It scares me, and yet… for the silk to prosper, the silkworm has to die.

The book that I’m reading remains the same as two years ago. The world that I breathe and think in remains the same as it always was.

The world is always the same. What changes is your ability to learn from it.

“Learn the truth, my friend, but be careful not to make a fetish out of your truths.”


Published by Zehra Naqvi

Zehra Naqvi is an author, independent journalist and mother. She has been writing for over a decade on literature, gender and socio-political issues and her articles have been published in Indian Express, Reader’s Digest, The Hindu, The Wire, Outlook, The Quint, Financial Chronicle, Child Magazine, Women’s Web and others. Zehra has been featured in the RBTC list of 100 Most Inspiring Muslim Women from Uttar Pradesh. She has appeared on international radio as well as national and international television, speaking on gender justice. Zehra is a quadruple gold medalist in journalism from Aligarh Muslim University.

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