“Even the worldliest love has a spiritual side”: Interview with Elif Shafak

In her poetic new novel, Elif Shafak explores two parallel journeys toward Love – one set in modern times and another in the thirteenth century, between Sufi masters Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. The intersection between these two narratives reveals important lessons about self, selflessness, and Divine submission. Altmuslimah’s Asma Uddin spoke with the author about the deeper messages behind her lyrical prose.


There was an underlying commentary on the peaceful, loving essence of Islam – and the waywardness of zealots who misuse Islam to cause divisions and inspire terrorists like Baybars. How much of this novel was inspired by a post-9/11 desire to explain the “real” Islam?

Elif Shafak: As writers we are the children of this world, and the spirit of the age affects us profoundly. We do not live in a vacuum, especially if we care about the world and humanity. I, too, put thought into how to make the post-9/11 world a better place – a place where there is coexistence and harmony. The age we live in harbors two opposite tendencies.

On the one hand there is a growing interest in Rumi’s philosophy and poetry, and perhaps to a lesser degree in Sufism. On the other hand there is also a deeply-rooted ignorance with regards to Islam and too many cliches and generalizations out there. These two tendencies flow side-by-side in the modern world. The Forty Rules of Love came out against this kind of background. It makes me sad to see how the Love that lies at the center of Islam, and every spiritual quest worldwide, is sometimes lost or misunderstood in today’s world. We live in an age in which many people are biased and angry, and words divide more than they unite. At times like these I find it essential to rethink the essence of spiritualities, which in my opinion is One.

I loved the way you wrote from many different perspectives, filling the book with short, compelling narratives told by a whole host of characters. Why did you choose to write the book that way?

Both as a novelist and someone who has a lot of respect for Sufism, this method seemed to be the best in telling this story. I wanted to show how “reality” is not absolute or monolithic. It tends to change as we move from one person to the next. As a fiction writer and a storyteller it was essential for me to bring these multiple voices together. I believe at the heart of storytelling lies the concept of “empathy”. To put yourself in the shoes of another person.

I do not believe in heroes. In my novels you cannot find characters that are absolutely good or absolutely bad. I believe that in each of us there is a certain degree of goodness and a certain degree of badness. It is all a matter of degree. And we need to make an inner journey to see the complexity within. Every person is a tapestry of conflicting voices. I like to explore the dialectics of life.

Why did you include Ella’s story – was it in order to make the story more relatable to the average, modern reader, familiar with stories of love lost?

I guess in all of my novels I like to bring together characters from very different backgrounds and see the energy that comes out of that. I am someone who believes in the depth of cosmopolitan, multicultural societies. I think in this world if we are ever going to leran anything we will learn it from people who are different than us. In a way, Shams and Rumi were like that. They were so very different. Shams was fire, Rumi was water. Their personalities were so different, and they learned from each other. So I wanted to have characters from different backgrounds.

I should also add that in my opinion Sufism is not a monolithic bloc. I see it as many brooks, rivers, waterways… all of which flow in the same direction, towards the same ocean. What I have done in my novel was to illustrate my own waterway. In my novel, Sufism is not presented as a theoretical bulk of information. It is a living, breathing, moving story. In that sense I am interested in what Sufism means for the modern human being today. I wanted to bring out how Rumi’s philosophy appeals to us today, even when we seem to be miles and centuries and cultures away from it.

There was an obvious parallel drawn between Rumi and Shams’ relationship and that of Ella and Aziz. Yet, in many ways, this parallel confused rather than elucidated matters, especially since the latter was a romantic relationship and the former presumably wasn’t – or was it? There seem to be insinuations throughout the book that there was a romantic element to Rumi and Shams’ relationship, such as Shams spurning Kimya. Were those insinuations intentional?

In my novel I wanted to connect different pieces of love to one big Love. I wrote about love in the East and the West, love in the past and the present, mundane love and spiritual love…. You know, all these pieces that seem to be different, I took them and connected them in one story. As for insinuations, there aren’t any really. I see the bond between Rumi and Shams as a spiritual connection. In my eyes they were companions of the Path, and that is all. Aziz and Ella have a different connection, of course, a more mundane, a modern love. Yet even the “worldliest” love, if experienced beautifully, has a spiritual side.

Speaking of Kimya: Shams’ willingness to marry her only to later spurn her and refuse to consummate the marriage seemed strangely immature, even immoral, not to mention that it contradicted Shams’ ability to know himself. To the extent this is based on a true story, how do you explain Shams’ actions?

I like to think of my novels as buildings with many doors, many rooms and halls, and floors. Every reader spends time in different rooms, enters through a different door and leaves through a different exit. Sometimes two readers who might be very good friends in real life and think alike can read the same book but derive different interpretations. So my text is fluid, like water. I like that flexibility. And I like to leave room to the reader to bring his or her own interpretation. For me one of the biggest challenges while writing this novel was this: On the one hand I have a lot of respect and love for both Rumi and Shams. On the other hand I am a novelist and I do not believe in putting anyone on a pedestal or in creating absolutely perfect heroes. I think every human being has many inner conflicts, even Shams might have had some. This is not a bad thing. This is what makes him a human being. But of course this is my standpoint. Someone else will tell the story differently.

Ella’s decision to leave her family and run away with Aziz was also morally questionable – and yet apparently was in line with the Forty Rules of Love. How do you reconcile abandoning one’s children with the apparent purpose of the Forty Rules, that is, submitting oneself to the Divine through moral action?

I don’t think Ella really abandoned her children. How can she? She loves them. There is no question about that in my mind. But all I am saying is that as a woman who has dedicated her whole life and full existence to her husband, children and family, she had to make her inner journey alone. On her own. This was a stage she had to go through. Then the rest of the story will be written by every reader separately. Many readers believe she will get back together with her kids and perhaps bring them over to Amsterdam and raise them as a single mother. Why not? I think the text is open to various endings.

I can’t help but wondering – did Shams actually die? Or did he manage to escape his killers?

You know, this is one of the biggest puzzles in the story and perhaps it should remain unanswered. The vagueness, the ambiguity is part of the story. In my novel Shams is killed but there is always a possibility, however slight, that he might have survived. The door is ajar, not closed on that possibility.


(Photo Source: ladybq8.net)
Asma T. Uddin is Editor-in-Chief of Altmuslimah.


  • DH says:

    Loved this book – beautiful, elegant narratives which depict such a lovely side of Islam.  Great way for non-Muslims to quietly absorb some of the inherent beauty of Islam – also good reminder for Muslims of the possibilities within Islam…the freedom, the love, the acceptance of others, the personal relationship w/ God etc.  Excellent book!

    Also, skillful weaving of various story lines, especially the romancing of Ella…

  • asmauddin says:

    I agree. It was so much fun to read…though as my questions to Elif indicate, I was thrown off by certain elements 🙂

  • Saadia says:

    “In God We Trust” is on every dollar bill.

  • First of all, great questions Asma! Secondly, Elif Shafak is extremely intelligent and I am looking forward to more books…!

    I absolutely enjoyed this book. Many of the things Rumi teaches about are linked to the things Prophet Muhammad (S) taught. Shams of Tabriz was clearly a complicated dcharacter that invokes a lot of emotion and questioning even by a reader (and many characters in the novel), but as you read the “Forty rules” you wonder what would happen if we let go of the surface and manner of the person and more into the message. One of the forty rules was thinking of only good about a person you dislike 40 days, it would change how you feel inside, and out, creating lasting positive change in a person… Again, similar to the Prophet’s message and beautiful.


  • Saadia says:

    Perhaps this is what Zaid Shakir meant when he said we should write our own stories?

  • sideboom says:

    I have heard of suggestions that for islam to go forward in america especially, some modernization to the changing times would be in order, principles dont change, people do, the young muslims in america are placed between pier pressure and koran teachings, in my mind ,right is right and doesnt wrong anyone ! I want the hijab never to vanish ,but more important I want the muslim woman to want her hijab, western influences are in some cases saten inspired, I personally wish to find a place of tranquility where conflict is unknown, sometimes i think of the past and wish to return to those countries where i was happy,(algeria) for one, but i know that nothing remains as we left it, salaam

  • Sohum Baloch says:

    Did Kimya die?

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