Elif Shafak, the most widely read woman writer in Turkey whose books include The Bastard of Istanbul, explains how Sufism influenced her latest book, The Forty Rules of Love ...
My interest in Sufism began when I was a college student. At the time I was a rebellious young woman who liked to wrap several shawls of "–isms" around her shoulders: I was a leftist, feminist, nihilist, environmentalist, anarcho-pacifist.... I wasn't interested in any religion and the difference between "religiosity" and "spirituality" was lost to me. Having spent some time of my childhood with a loving grandmother with many superstitions and beliefs, I had a sense the world was not composed of solely material things and there was more to life than I could see. But the truth is, I wasn't interested in understanding the world. I only wanted to change it.
I loved books. I had started reading fiction and writing short stories at an early age, not because I wanted to be a professional writer at the time, but because I found my life dull and boring. I enjoyed living in the stories I wrote. I was an only child. I was raised by a single, working mother who could not spend much time with me. Due to my mother's profession we lived in different countries. Wherever I went "imagination" was the first suitcase I took with me.
Little by little, I had built a private world, an inner space where stories floated freely. This was my life before college and when college started, old habits did not change. Whenever I could I retreated into that private space and I read, read, read. Books were the bridges that connected me to the world. It is no wonder, then, that my interest in Sufism, too, began with books.
It wasn't one particular book, but a series of books. I started reading on Sufism out of intellectual curiosity. One book led to another. A scrap of information in a footnote in one book guided me to another book. The more I read the more I unlearned. Because that is what Sufism does to you, it makes you "erase" what you know and what you are so sure of. Then you start thinking again. Not with your mind this time, but with your heart.
Among all the Sufi poets and philosophers that I read about during those years there were two names that moved me with their words: Shams of Tabriz and the great Rumi. In an age of deeply-embedded bigotries and clashes, they had stood for a universal spirituality, opening their doors to people of all backgrounds equally. They spoke of love as the essence of life, love that connected us all across centuries, cultures and cities. As I kept reading the Mathnawi, Rumi's words gently removed the shawls I had wrapped around myself, layer upon layer, as if I was always in need of some warmth coming from outside.
I understood that whatever I chose to be, "leftist", "feminist" or anything else, what I needed truly was the light inside of me. The light that exists inside all of us.
Thus began my interest in Sufism and spirituality. Over the years it went through several stages and seasons. Sometimes it was more vivid and visible, sometimes it receded to the background, but it never disappeared.
Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1971. She is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read woman writer in Turkey. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Her English language website, including a comprehensive biography, can be found at www.elifsafak.us/en/