By the end of my conversation with Zaiba Hasan, I was offering her the spare bedroom at my house when she visits California. In retrospect it was, perhaps, a little weird, given that we’d only known each other for an hour. But she is that kind of person – warm and funny and smart AF – and I couldn’t help myself. I want to talk books and spirituality and mothering with her all day. But we started with “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak – part historical fiction, part modern parable, part love story within a love story. The book, and the conversation, were both treasures.
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Books discussed in this episode:
The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Odyssey by Homer
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Facebook Group devoted to The Forty Rules of Love
Secrets of Divine Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Heart of Islam by A. Helwa
Discussed in our Patreon Conversation:
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder by Jo Nesbo and Mike Lowery
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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EPISODE 045 TRANSCRIPT
Zaiba Hasan on “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak
Hello, Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m so pleased to talk to Zaiba Hasan. You may remember that on Episode 39, I spoke with the brilliant Dr. Uzma Jafri of the @mommyingwhilemuslimpodcast about her favorite book, “Little Women.” Today, I’m so excited that I landed her equally brilliant and hilarious cohost Zaiba Hasan. Zaiba is an American Muslim who grew up biracial and bicultural. Born and raised in Chicago, her Irish Pakistani heritage and interfaith upbringing gave her a head start at navigating between identities. Her background makes her a natural at bridging gaps between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States. When she isn’t busy podcasting, public speaking, fostering interfaith community, and working on her Master’s Degree, she can be found homeschooling her four children. I love it when a guests chooses a book I’ve never heard of. And I had so much fun talking to Zaiba about why “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak is the Best Book Ever.
This episode is sponsored by our good friends over at Books2Read, a book listing service with inclusive links to all of the online retail sites where your favorite digital books can be found. Books to read has curated a selection of springtime reads from humorous fiction to romantic comedies, heartwarming literature, and feel good non-fiction. You’ll find several of my personal all-time favorite books on this list, including “The Nest” by Cynthia Sweeney, “The Storied Life of AJ Fickry” by Gabrielle Zevin and the utterly sublime “Act Your Age, Eve Brown” by Talia Hibbert. Plus, there are so many others I am dying to read, like “The Midnight Library” by Matt Hague and “The Authenticity Project” by Claire Pooley. It’s a fantastic roundup of books that will make you feel like you have the spring sunshine on your face, no matter the weather outside your door. So check out the selection over at bit.ly/bookgarden. Now, back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hey, Zaiba, welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Zaiba Hasan: Thank you so much, Julie, for having us and the fact that you are a book lover too. I’m really excited about this podcast because anytime you can talk about books is a good day.
JS: It is a good day. I agree. So I want to ask you about your work and specifically how it intersects with your reading life. You do a lot of interfaith work, and that speaks to me of a desire to really build bridges between people. And I’m wondering, first of all, how you got into that work and second of all, does it have any connection to your reading life?
ZH: yes. And yes. I have a little bit of a unique background where my mother’s family is actually Irish Catholic. It’s just one of those things where, you know, we kind of grew up with the best of both worlds in the sense that, you know, when it was Christmas time, we celebrated with my mom’s family when it was Ramadan we celebrated with my dad’s family. So I had this unique perspective of being able to view both worlds. And I was always just curious, even from a young age, like what are the commonalities between the religions, right? Like that was always where my curiosity came from. I went to Catholic schools growing up as well. And having that unique perspective of being able to be like, okay, you know what, there’s a little bit of, commonality that I thought at the time. And as I’ve delved more into the readings and expanded my religious repertoire, where I’m now studying Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, I realized that that the intersectionality of all the religions are basically the same. And a lot of people don’t realize that. It’s just different paths to kind of get us to where we all ultimately want and need to be. And that is this society that is loving and peaceful. And the rules that are kind of put into place allows us the opportunity to do that. So, because I grew up biracial and multi-religious, and as an adult, I’ve chosen Islam as the one that resonates the closest to me and what my belief system is. I just find it fascinating that we, as a community, are more alike than different. And I think if we focus more on what makes us similar, we can respect the things that make us different.
JS: Tell me what your reading life is like. Tell me about the genres that you tend to reach for.
ZH: Well, obviously I’m reading a lot for school right now, cause I don’t know if I told you, but I’m actually getting my Master’s in Divinity and I’m focusing specifically on that intercultural religion and commonality, with mediation for parenting. So my hope is I can take my parent coaching, my divinity and my mediation and Masters in Divinity, and I can kind of focus on bridging the gaps between, and even within, the same religion. Kids that are born and raised here, they have a very different perspective of their religion, how they’re going to focus it in, in kind of mediating that, that bridge between the parent and child. So I’ve taken my love of interfaith work and I’ve decided to get a Master’s in it. So that is what I’m doing currently right now. So when I’m not reading for school, honestly, I can’t sit down and read physical, tangible books anymore. So what I’ve been doing, Julie, is downloading a book a week on Audible and I alternate between a fiction book, and then I do a non-fiction book. And a lot of the nonfiction books stem from cognitive brain development in teenagers. That is what I’m really interested in right now. It’s not the most like glamorous. but I feel like I have to kind of understand, get a more in-depth understanding of what these kids are going through so that I can respond to them in the most appropriate way. But currently I’m reading All The Light We Cannot See. And it’s essentially from the perspective of a German soldier during World War II, and a teenage blind, Parisian girl who’s kind of helping the allies by using her secret radio to detect and decode and things like that. I just want to know what it’s like during that time. I love when characters give you a glimpse of what history could have been like at that time, you know? Obviously, we know that there’s poetic license and all that. We get that, but I really do enjoy historical fiction. Cause it’s so interesting to see what life could have been like through the eyes of some of these characters. So I do try to pick books that are more religious in nature, and I guess I just gravitate towards that, not even realize that I’m doing that. So thank you for pointing that out to me, but I do love reading right now. I don’t know if, since you homeschool also, I love being able to reread the classics with the kids and, and being able to do that, I think is fabulous. So like, rereading The Odyssey. Rereading Romeo and Juliet. Rereading all of that is just been such a joy as the kids have gotten older.
JS: So tell me, how did you find this book that we’re talking about today? “The Forty Rules of Love.”
ZH: It’s such a weird story in the sense that my brother-in-law, he is a secret reader. He’s a doctor by day also has four kids. He’s married to my husband’s sister and she happens to be one of my best friends, but the two of us love books. So we’ll recommend each other, like, Oh, I just read this. You should think about this. And then he, who was also an avid reader, suggested this book and he was surprised that I hadn’t read it before. So he was like, Oh, this is right up your alley. You should read it. And from the moment I opened it, I was hooked. I was like, Oh, this is because he knows that I’m doing this. A Master’s in Divinity. And my Islam is more of the Sufi perspective, which is very much entwined within this book. So it was so beautiful to me when I was reading it to see some of the readings and the things that I had learned from a scholarly or academic level and putting it in this fiction world. I just thought it was just such a beautiful. Combination of all the things that I enjoy doing.
JS: I had a hard time describing this book when people were asking me what I was reading as I was going through it. Will you try to summarize it for our listeners?
ZH: I mean, honestly, there is a Facebook group devoted to this book.
JS: Oh, no kidding?
ZH: There’s like this weird following about it. It definitely strikes a chord, I think, with a lot of people and not all of them are Muslim. I would even gather it’s a 50/50 split when you kind of go through it. And it’s just one of those books that I feel like regardless of where you are from a spiritual perspective, religious perspective, you can read this book and something in it will connect with you that I think is very important to say. So I’m not a big believer in putting my belief systems on people. I’m just not into that. But I am into, there is this common thread of human love, human understanding, what we’re doing, as a greater gift to the community that I feel like this book kind of touches upon. Essentially, it’s a love story on some level, and it’s not necessarily a love story that is in the romantic sense, but it’s a love story. If you actually look in history, there is this undercurrent that Rumi who is as important poetic philosopher that we all know and quote. There might’ve been something more between the two of them. So that is like, from a historical perspective, I thought that was interesting. He was a scholar though. He didn’t describe himself as a scholar. So that’s why the only reason why I’m pausing. Because now in hindsight, people look at his teachings from a scholarly perspective. He’s a real person. And Shams of Tabriz was this traveling dervish. In a lot of people assume like, they’re this crazy Sufi people. And some of them probably are, let’s just be real, you know? Cause it does connect to you in a different way. Well, I was drawn to Rumi, who was an actual Islamic scholar, and he was not the poet that we kind of describe him to be today. And it was their essential love story. And I’m going to say that again, that kind of forced Rumi to look inside of himself to become who he ultimately becomes, which is this poet that has transcended genre for generations that, you know, even non-Muslim people quote him to this day.
JS: Interspersed with a modern story. In this book a woman in a fairly – well, I didn’t think it was an unhappy marriage at first. I just thought it was sort of a complacent marriage.
ZH: Yeah. The doldrums. We all go there and let’s just be real. Let’s be honest about that. You know, when you’ve been married for a gazillion years, that tends to happen. She kind of has this other love story, with this person who was the author of this book. So it’s like a story within a story. And I don’t know about you, Julie, but you know, so you’re going through this historical time shift, when she’s reading the book that this author has written and she’s kind of finding things within herself because she’s at that age, you know? She said, I’m going to be 42 in May.
Right? So like, it’s just one of those things where I definitely was like, Oh, I see myself in her. maybe that’s why my midlife crisis is to go back to school and do all those things. Cause it’s, it’s like, what did I leave on the table? And how can I recapture that? And in reading this book, cause I believe she iss an editor, and so this kind of came across her table. And she’s kind of falling in love with the author of this book. So I just feel like it really can connect with people on so many different levels. Even my brother-in-law was able to connect with one part of the story, and I was able to connect with a different part of the story.
JS: Can I ask what was the difference between what the two of you connected with?
ZH: So he was really interested in the whole Shams of Tabriz. So if you’re a Muslim family and Muslim kids, you know that he is kind of this mythical figure. Like you kind of brush past the history when you talk about it, because obviously he was a major part of that Sufi movement that he didn’t start it, but he definitely brought it to the forefront. And you do realize that there is this connection, right between the and the Rumi who at the time was a scholar who later became a mystic poet. And, and what people say a lot of his poems you think are written about females, but he was writing about the Shams of Tabriz. A lot of people don’t know that about their particular history. Which is why some people believe that there might have been another relationship between the two. But that’s a whole ‘nother side. And I resonated with the main character who was reading the story within the story, because what had kind of started my journey in going back to school and going back to all that was that I was a younger mom. You know, I had my first when I was 24 and I kind of put my personal things on the back burner, not because it was asked of me to do so, but it was because I wanted to make a committed effort to being the mother to my children that I didn’t necessarily have. And in doing so you do put some of your quote unquote aspirations on the back burner. Cause you’re just like, this is what I’m going to commit to right now. And I do not regret that at all. Zero. But now that my kids are getting a little bit older, this is before the pandemic, I was like, you know what, it’s going to be now or never. And I happened to get into some these programs that I had applied for. And then of course the pandemic hit. And then you’re kind of like a full-time homeschool mom, like times four, where it was just my younger two before. And. And I kept thinking, should I do this? Should I stop? Because it becomes overwhelming, as you know, and I decided not to, and I feel like I’ve been able to get a glimpse into my own self as I’ve evolved as a person that I think is only just going to benefit my children and benefit my family, that I feel she was going through when she was reading this book and kind of transforming within herself.
JS: We’re just going to have to give a spoiler alert right now, because I really want to get into the tension of these relationships. Because you read it the main character resonated with you and you added to your life. You saw it as a call to add more to your life. Both of the characters essentially abandoned their existing families to follow these new loves. I fall in love with authors every day. Rumi, he abandoned his family, and his family very much resented Shams. And I kept thinking this cannot be the right answer.
ZH: Yeah. Well, what I feel like the author was trying to do was show because there was something missing in their lives, they just had to full on go into it. Right. And honestly, as a reader, I read it that it shouldn’t be all or nothing. Along the way, you should have been feeding that other part of yourself so that when the time came, you’re not doing an all or nothing, right. You’re not saying, Oh my God, I have to leave. It was almost like a fable. Like, you should not be doing that. Because along the way, you should be able to capture those moments that fulfill you so that you’re not feeling totally depleted. So that’s kind of how I took it. Like it was like this cautionary tale that if you let your turn that part of you off, this is what could happen to you versus, you know, if you open your mind, you can have both. Right. Like we can have that spiritual awakening and be a mother and be a wife. And if anything, it will make us a better mother and a better wife because we’re grooming and cultivating that side of us. That is in my opinion, the heart center. Right? Your spiritual center. That is what connects all of us as humans. So don’t be like those two who threw everything to the wind, because along the way, as you saw, she was numbing herself, she was going along for the ride. She wasn’t very happy. She did it. Then all of a sudden she sees this glimpse of happiness and abandoned everything that could have been good in her past life to chase this glimmer. But if the glimmer was there the entire time, she wouldn’t be doing that. That’s how I took it.
JS: How is Sufism regarded in modern day Muslim community? Is it kind of considered a fringe group?
ZH: It’s not considered a fringe group. How a Sufi would argue is that everybody is a Sufi, right? Everybody. So the whole concept and my understanding is the study of Sufism is essentially the shedding of the ego. The physical, tangible world. And in shedding your physical, tangible world, as in, you know, what people think about you or how you regarded or how much money that materialism you come down to a segment of yourself, which by the way, exists for everybody that is more open and receptive to the divinity, right? To that spirituality, to that deep connection with God, whoever or however God manifests itself to you. In theory, for Muslims that literally means to submit yourself to God. That’s really what you’re supposed to be doing. In everything that we do in, in taking my ego aside, I can approach relationships at the way that they’re supposed to be approached. From that heart. Understanding that, to me, is what Sufism is. Do I believe in all the chanting and this and that, which I think mainstream Muslims tend to associate, you know, those spinning dervishes or whatever? Yeah, no, I’m not into that. But I am into meditation. I am into introspection when I pray, which I do pray five times a day. I don’t pray for the sake of prayer. Like, Oh my God, I have to pray because I’m going to get in trouble and God is an angry God. And if you don’t pray that, that guilt, or like to relate it to you, that Catholic guilt, if I don’t go to church… I don’t know. I feel like God knew that we needed prayer, as humans, to take a break in our day to get re reconnected with ourselves. If you’re feeling angry or annoyed or whatever the case may be, to be able to take a breather and regroup and be able to come at it from a more positive perspective. So my approach to Islam really means the most beneficence and merciful, like God is there to help guide you and to provide you these opportunities for your own growth for yourself. Not because if you don’t do it, you’re going to hell. He knows what we’re lacking and what we need. And, obviously, scientifically speaking, meditation, yoga, all of these types of taking breaks have been proven to help you cognitively help you emotionally and help you physically. Why wouldn’t you take the time during the day to reconnect with yourself? Am I into the chanting, the spinning? I would get nauseous and throw up. Probably not. But what I am into is, even if I’m having a conflict with somebody, let’s say I come to it from a perspective of, is this conflict because of something within my own ego, that’s causing me to react and respond in this way or a misunderstanding? So I always try to come to that. My interactions with people as what is it in me, that’s making me feel this way and then respond to it accordingly. So that to me, is the basis of Sufism is how can I approach these relationships. Or even as a mom, as a parent, which is kind of what I’m ultimately trying to get to when your kids come at you, you know, and they’re angry. What is it that they’re actually trying to say? And not responding from how I feel, because they’re coming at me in that way.
JS: Kind of towards the end of this book, with Shams of Tabrizi, there is a little bit of talk about the whirling dervish and how the prayer becomes physical. I didn’t even know what a Whirling Dervish is, other than from “The Sound of Music,” which of course I know the Maria song. So I looked that up too. I’m always so interested in when religion becomes physical. I find that absolutely fascinating. And I thought it was so interesting in this book that this woman who was so lacking channels so much of her sadness in those elaborate meals. I mean, come on. Those are insane meals she was making for a Tuesday night dinner. Didn’t that hit hard. Don’t you know so many women who are numbing themselves somehow. In very physical ways. Here in Orange County, I know women who spend four hours a day at the gym.
ZH: No, I love that too. And I love that you pointed that out because people do numb themselves in so many different ways, whether it’s, you know, going to the gym, going to the this, and you have to get to a point where, what is it about life that you’re hiding from? Or escaping? And that kind of was what she was doing. Right? Like she was just kind of like, she knew something was off. Women always know, let’s just be real. And in hiding that part of herself and putting, you know, doing the meals – I was reading this like, wow, she really puts a lot of time. It was making me hungry. I’m going to admit that. It really was just like, why are you doing that? What are you lacking in your life that gets you to this point? And so that is actually something that I feel too, when you’re, when you’re dealing with somebody or you feel like just when you’re about to start judging somebody, for whatever reason, always try to put yourself in that person. Like, what is it in their life that’s getting them to this point? And what is the understanding that we have?
JS: Have you read other books by this author?
ZH: I have them all, but I have not read them because I love this one so much. They’re ready for my summer reading.
JS: Well, let me ask you this: Who would you push this book on? “The Forty Rules of Love”? Would you push this on your fiction reading friends? Or would you hand it to people who were maybe in a spiritual crisis? Who do you think this book is for?
ZH: Spiritual crisis is probably too strong of a phrase, but I definitely have gifted this book to a few of my friends that have kind of been, not in a crisis, but kind of at a quest for wanting something bigger. So I paired this book with “The Secrets of Divine Love,” which is written by a female Sufi scholar. It’s a non-fiction. I usually give both of these books as a gift to my friends that have kind of alluded to me that they’re just in the doldrums or are a little low. I just like to give them a glimpse or an insight that there is something bigger for them out there. We just have to look for it. But it is up to us to do that.
JS: Only Muslim friends who are in those doldrums? Or would you give it to anybody?
ZH: I’d give it to anybody. And because a lot of what is said is universal.
JS: I want to wrap up by thanking you for introducing me to this book, because I thought this was so wonderful. And even from my perspective, having no connection to the faith itself, it was just such a – I don’t want to use the word mystical. Cause I don’t know. I don’t like it when I see white girls quoting Rumi and talking like on Instagram, you know what I mean? I don’t want to to co-opt it that way, but it is a very beautiful and mystical book in the sense of getting you to the true meaning of all religion, which is just: be nicer.
ZH: Yeah, exactly. Be nicer and approach things from the perspective of other people’s situation. And I feel like if we do that, if we take a second to kind of understand what somebody else is going through, our decision-making will just be so much better. And for the greater good.
JS: Right. So I want to thank you for introducing me to this book. It’s it was really a fun reading. It’s been so fun talking to you. Will you tell my listeners where they can find you and all the wonderful work you do?
ZH: Oh my goodness. You can find us on Facebook @mommyingwhilemuslim. Or at Mommyingwhilemuslim.com. And I believe we’re on Instagram, Twitter, essentially, every kind of podcast platform. So we’re pretty much everywhere. We definitely answer all of our DMs and our messages. So we’re very much trying to be as engaged with our listeners as possible. And we’ve grown our community in such a way like we have, most of our listeners are, believe it or not non-Muslim. So obviously we are striking a chord to some degree, because I feel like in the commonality of motherhood, we can really bridge the gap for that next generation. So that’s kind of what we really want to do at MommyWhileMuslim.
JS: I love it. I love your podcast. I love you ladies. I’m a listener and I enjoy it so much and I love the work you’re doing. And I want to thank you so much for joining me today.
ZH:Thank you so much for having us, Julie.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, please go to our website BestBookEverPodcast.com, or follow the podcast on Instagram @BestBookEverPodcast. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me everywhere as @JulieWroteABook. Remember, when you’re doing your book shopping, please help support indie bookstores and this podcast by using my affiliate link at www.Bookshop.org/Bestbookever.
Thank you for joining me today and I will see you at the library.