In Elif Şafak's novel The Forty Rules of Love, in Aziz's correspondence with Ella, he tells her his life story, completing the final part when he meets her in person. Each part of his life he refers to as his "encounter with" a particular letter in the word Sufi.
First he tells her about his wife Margot and how he lost her.
I was a boy once. Love opened up my eyes to a more fulfilled life. After I lost the woman I loved, I metamorphosed drastically. Neither a boy nor an adult, I became a trapped animal. This stage of my life I call my encounter with the letter S in the word “Sufi.”
After his years of drugs and debauchery, he becomes a photographer, and eventually is recommended to the Sufis as a possible way of smuggling him into the holy cities of Islam:
I didn’t know anything about Sufism, and I couldn’t have cared less. As long as they offered to help, I was happy to meet the Sufis. To me they were just a means to an end. But then, at the time, so was everyone and everything else.
Life is odd, Ella. In the end I never made it to Mecca or Medina. Not then, not later. Not even after I converted to Islam. Destiny took me on a different route altogether, one of unexpected twists and turns, each of which changed me so profoundly and irrevocably that after a while the original destination lost its significance. Though motivated by purely materialistic reasons at the outset, when the journey came to an end, I was a transformed man.
As for the Sufis, who could have known that what I had initially seen as a means to an end would very soon become an end in itself? This part of my life I call my encounter with the letter u in the word “Sufi.”
While living with the Sufi brotherhood, he learns about Shams of Tabriz:
I was intrigued. But it was more than simple curiosity. As I listened to Master Sameed tell me more about Shams, I felt a shiver down my spine, an odd feeling of déjà vu.
Now, you are going to think I’m crazy. But I swear to God, at that moment I heard a rustle of silk in the background, first far off, then drawing nearer, and I saw the shadow of someone who wasn’t there. Perhaps it was the evening breeze moving across the branches, or maybe it was a pair of angel wings. Either way, I suddenly knew that I didn’t need to go anywhere. Not anymore. I was sick and tired of always longing to be somewhere else, somewhere beyond, always in a rush despite myself.
I was already where I wanted to be. All I needed was to stay and look within. This new part of my life I call my encounter with the letter f in the word “Sufi.”
Finally, in his hotel room in Boston, he tells her about his cancer and subsequent travels around the world:
“Then I retreated to write the novel I had always wanted to write but, in my laziness or lack of courage, had postponed endlessly,” said Aziz with a wink. “You know, it was one of those things I had wanted to do for a long time. I named the book Sweet Blasphemy and sent it to a literary agency in America, not expecting much and at the same time feeling open to all possibilities. A week later I received an intriguing e-mail from a mystery woman in Boston.”
Ella couldn’t help but smile. A weak smile of respectful compassion, tender and pained. Aziz said ever since that moment nothing had been the same. From a man getting ready to die, he had turned into a man falling in love at a most unexpected time. Suddenly all the pieces that he thought he’d long ago put into place had to be moved. Spirituality, life, family, mortality, faith, and love—he found himself rethinking their meanings again and not wanting to die.
This new and final stage of his life he called his encounter with the letter i in the word “Sufi.” And he said so far this stage had proved to be much more difficult than all the earlier ones, because it had come at a time when he thought he’d worked through most, if not all, of his inner conflicts, a time when he thought he was spiritually mature and fulfilled.
What is the connection between these letters and the stages of his life? It reminded me of the way Shams assigned significance to the individual letters of Rumi's name earlier in the story (the powerful, lucid R; the velvety U; the intrepid and self-confident M; and the mysterious I, yet to be solved), and also of the idea that the entire Koran can be encapsulated in the initial letter B, but how do the different letters symbolise different parts and aspects of life? Is mystical significance of letters part of the Sufi belief, perhaps?