Viking, £12.99, 355pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

The Forty Rules of Love, By Elif Shafak

Bored housewife Ella feels stalled despite her gracious suburban life in Northampton, New England. Her teenage children are growing away from her; her husband is distant and unfaithful. Ella's new job as reader for a publisher introduces her to Sufism through a manuscript she is sent to read, and has life-changing consequences.

"Sweet Blasphemy", the novel she is sent to appraise, tells the story of a 13th-century wandering Persian Sufi Dervish, Shams of Tabriz, and his inspirational relationship with Rumi, the greatest poet of the Sufi canon. Rumi, a respected Koranic scholar, was transformed through his love for Shams and was inspired to write the Masnavi, a key Sufi tract which weaves Koranic analysis with poetry, parables of the everyday, the mythic and miraculous. It was to beget Mevlevi Sufism, practised through poetry, music and dance.

The Forty Rules of Love takes Sufism into blockbuster territory. It interweaves Ella's quest to find love with Shams's and Rumi's quest for beatitude through friendship, as told by a range of characters including Rumi's wife and sons: one of whom was to assassinate Shams, the other to carry on his father's work. The narrative is racy, told in first-person fragments, letters, emails and braided through with Shams's theosophy as told through his 40 rules of love. Elif Shafak expounds a populist rather than a scholarly Sufism, providing a vigourous and easily assimilable introduction to Sufi thought.

Bold bestseller this may be, but there is attention to detail. Each chapter begins with the letter "b". For Sufi mystics the secret of the Koran lies in the verse Al-Fatiha, the essence of which is contained in the word bismilahirahmanirahim (in the name of Allah, the Benevolent and Merciful), with the quintessence of the word in the dot below the first Arabic letter, a dot that embodies the universe. Shams espouses multiple readings of the Koran, and Shafak slips in two diametrically opposed contemporary translations of the Al-Nisa, the Koranic verse which M H Shakir interprets as justification for male subjugation of women - while Ahmed Ali translates as a verse extolling respect for women.

Both the observant head-scarfed daughters of AKP, the Islamic party in government in Turkey, and the secular offspring of past Kemalist regimes, are ardent fans of Shafak's novel. Her engaging vision of a gentle non-judgmental Sufi path to Islam that rejects religious fundamentalism and is accessible to all, from medieval drunks and whores to 21st-century Scottish drifters and American housewives, has made the novel a Turkish bestseller.

Challenging truisms of the fundamentalist Islamic orient and the consumerist Judeo-Christian occident, the novel proposes Sufism as a quest for spirituality which can fill the void at the heart of both. Shafak is a mercurial and often controversial writer, but should she choose to continue in this spiritual vein, I have no doubt she will challenge Paulo Coelho's dominance. With its timely, thought-provoking, feel-good message, The Forty Rules of Love deserves to be a global publishing phenomenon.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there