By Abu Aaliyah (Surkheel Sharif), originally published on The Humble “I”
Writing about the marvels of the human heart (‘aja’ib al-qalb), al-Ghazali states: ‘The honour and excellence of man, by which he outstrips all other creatures, is his ability for knowing God, transcendent is He. It is man’s beauty, perfection and glory in this world, and his provision and store in the world to come. He is prepared for [receiving] such knowledge only via his heart, and not by means of any other of his bodily organs. For it is the heart that knows God, works for God, strives towards God, draws near to God and reveals that which is in the presence of God. In contrast, all the other organs are merely followers, servants and instruments that the heart uses and employs … For it is the heart that is accepted by God when it is free from all except Him; it is veiled from God when it is totally absorbed in other than Him … The heart is that which, if a man knows it, he knows himself, and if he knows himself, he knows his Lord. But it is that which, if he knows it not, he knows not himself, and if he knows not himself, he knows not his Lord … So knowledge of the heart and of the true nature of its traits is the root of religion and the foundation of the path of the seekers.’1
Given the above, it is no wonder that the Qur’an says about man’s responsibility to his heart: The day when wealth and sons will benefit not, save he who brings to God a sound heart. [26:88-9] The status and preeminence of the heart (qalb) is also borne out by the following five considerations:
1. The heart is where intentions reside: The Prophet (pbuh) stated: ‘Indeed, actions are by intentions and each person will have that which they intended.’2 Scholars stipulate:al-niyyah mahalluha al-qalb – ‘Intentions reside in the heart.’ Thus, if the intention of the heart is sound, the act will meet with divine acceptance. If, however, it is corrupt or insincere, the act will be rejected by Allah. The eminent scholar and pietist of early Islam, ‘Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak, once remarked: ‘How many a small act is elevated by an intention, and how many a great act is diminished by an intention.’3
2. It is where the Divine Gaze is focussed: God looks at our hearts to see if they have sound intentions and sincerity to Him, and He also looks at our deeds, to see if they conform to the Sunnah of His Prophet (pbuh). A celebrated hadith declares: ‘Indeed, God doesn’t look at your forms or your appearances, but He looks at your hearts and your actions.’4
3. It is where the Qur’an, the Divine Word, is understood: One Quranic verse states:Will they not meditate on the Qur’an, or are there locks upon their hearts? [47:24] Sins and exposing the heart to trials and temptations may seriously diminish the heart’s clarity or understanding. Sufyan al-Thawri said: ‘I was granted understanding of the Qur’an. But when I accepted a gift [from the sultan], it was removed from me.’5
4. It is where piety (taqwa) is located: The Prophet (pbuh) said: ‘Piety is here, piety is here, piety is here’ – pointing to his chest three times.6 The Prophet (pbuh) was once quizzed: Who among people are the best? He replied: ‘Those with a clean heart and a truthful tongue.’ They inquired: We understand what a truthful tongue is, but what is a clean heart? To which he (pbuh) said: ‘It is one that is pious and pure, in which there is neither sin, nor rancour, nor jealousy.’7
5. It is God’s vessel on earth: In one hadith, the Prophet (pbuh) declared: ‘Indeed God has vessels from the people of the earth, and the vessels of your Lord are the hearts of His righteous servants: the most beloved of them to Him are those which are the gentlest and softest.’8 So what we fill these vessels with – faith or disbelief; piety or profanity; submission or transgression; God’s invocation or worldly distractions – is indeed our choice and we alone shall bear the consequence.
A person’s spiritual life seldom unfolds in an orderly fashion, instead it has its ups and its downs. For the spiritual life is subject to the many sensitivities of the heart which, in turn, is subjected to many diverse influences, both negative and positive. The heart, by its nature, is constantly flipped one way, then another, by these influences. In fact, Imam al-Ghazali wrote: The Prophet (pbuh) struck three smilies for the heart: ‘The heart is like a sparrow, turning about every hour.”9 He (pbuh) also said: “The heart’s example in its constant change is like a pot when it boils.”10 And he (pbuh) stated: “The heart is like a feather in an open land, which the wind keeps flipping one way then the other.”11‘12 Such is how the states, moods and sensitivities of the heart change from one moment to the next.
This is why Revelation urges that we each tend to our hearts above all else, and accord them the inalienable rights they were created to have. From the most critical of these rights are:
1. Adorning the heart with faith: A person possesses nothing of greater worth than his heart. And the heart cannot contain anything more cherished by it or more necessary to it than faith (iman); sound beliefs; and internalising the reality and requirements ofla ilaha illa’Llah. For hearts were created to worship and adore Allah, and to be filled with faith. The Prophet (pbuh) would say in one of his du‘as: ‘O Allah! Endear faith to us and beautify it in our hearts, and make unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to us, and make us of the rightly guided (Allahumma habbib ilayna’l-iman wa zayyinhu fi qulubina wa karrih ilayna’l-kufra wa’l-fusuqa wa’l-‘isyan waj’alna min al-rashidin).’13
2. Illuminating it with the Qur’an: O people! There has come to you an exhortation from your Lord, and a healing for what is in the breasts, and a guidance and a mercy for those who believe. [10:57] So the Qur’an declares itself to be a counsel to heal hearts and cure them of doubts, darknesses and anxieties. Its message consoles, reassures and revives hearts mired in desperation, desires and disbelief.
3. Bringing to it tranquility: One hadith informs: ‘Detachment from the world (zuhd) brings relief to the heart and the body, while desire for [worldly] increase brings worry and anxiety.’14 Despite scientific studies revealing, and continued human experience proving, that an increase in material things, above subsistence living, doesn’t increase our overall happiness, we moderns are obsessed with worldly acquisitions. Whether it be living way beyond our means, racking up huge personal debts, pinning our whole sense of self-esteem on wearing the right brand names, anxious about whether or n0t we’re keeping up with the latest trends – all this has pushed us moderns to the mental brink.15 Despite the tech and material comforts that now embrace us, ours is a society ridden with depression, angst and discontent; desperately seeking fulfilment in what can never truly fulfil us: materialism/consumerism. In contrast, the Qur’an offers us this simple truth: Indeed in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [13:28] In one hadith we are reminded of this timeless insight: ‘Richness lies not in possessing many things, but it lies in contentment of the soul.’16 Simple living, then, lived out in the remembrance of God, is the key to tranquility. Such is the heart’s right.
4. Nurturing in it tenderness and humility: The Prophet would exhort others to bring into their lives those deeds that would have a profound effect on softening hearts and removing hardness from them. One such example is the saying of the Prophet (pbuh): ‘I used to forbid you from visiting graves, but now visit them. For doing so softens the heart, brings tears to the eye and reminds one of the Afterlife.’17 As we saw earlier, tender hearts filled with faith are the hearts most beloved to Allah: ‘Indeed God has vessels from the people of the earth, and the vessels of your Lord are the hearts of His righteous servants: the most beloved of them to Him are those which are the gentlest and softest.’18
5. Guarding it from the poison of sins: Endeavouring to keep our hearts free from sins is the heart’s right over us. For sins stain the heart and poison it. The Qur’an says: By no means! That which they have done has veiled their hearts. [83:14] This veil (rayn) has been explained as: atharu’l-ma‘asi ‘ala’l-qulub – the traces of sins upon the hearts. The following hadith sheds further light on this matter: ‘Temptations will be presented to the heart, just as a reed mat is interwoven strip by strip. Any heart that soaks it in will have a black stain upon it. Any heart that rejects it will have a white mark on it. Thus hearts will be of two types: one white, like a smooth stone, that will not be harmed by temptations as long as heavens and earth endure. The other, black and corroded, like a jug with cracks, neither recognising good nor rejecting wrong; rather being overrun by its desires.’19
6. Keeping it free from diseases: The day when wealth and sons will benefit not, save he who brings to God a sound heart. [26:88-9] Keeping the heart sound entails guarding it against two types of sickness or diseases: the disease of doubts (amrad al-shubuhat) and that of desires (amrad al-shahawat). About the first: That He may make what Satan has caste a trial for those in whose heart is a sickness. [22:53] The second type: Be not soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspire to you. [33:32]
7. Praying constantly for the heart’s guidance: This is another essential right (haqq) of our hearts upon us, to pray for its guidance, rectitude and wellbeing, and that it not swerve from faith. This right must never be thought little of, trivialised, or neglected. The Prophet (pbuh) would often supplicate: ‘O Turner of Hearts, turn our hearts to your obedience.’20
O Lord, cause not our hearts to swerve after You have
guided us, and bestow upon us mercy from
Your Presence. Assuredly you
are the Bestower.
1. Al-Ghazali, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 5:9-11.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.1; Muslim, no.1907.
3. Cited in Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:71.
4. Muslim, no.2564.
5. See: Ibn Jama‘ah, Tadhkirat al-Sami‘ wa’l-Mutakallim (Hyderabad: Da’irat al-Ma‘arif al-‘Uthmaniyyah, 1933), 19.
6. Muslim, no.2564.
7. Ibn Majah, no.4462. It was graded sahih by al-Albani, al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib(Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2006), no.2889.
8. Al-Tabarani, Musnad al-Shamiyyin, no.840; it is hasan. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1691.
9. Al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, no.740; al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 4:329 where he stated: ‘It is sahih according to the conditions of Muslim.’
10. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, 20:252, but with the following wording: ‘The heart of the son of Adam stirs far more intensely than a pot that has reached boiling point.’ It is sahih, as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, no.1772.
11. Al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, nos.736-38; al-Baghawi, Sharh al-Sunnah, no.88. One of its chains is graded hasan in al-‘Iraqi, al-Mughni ani’l-Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah Tabariyyah, 1995), no.2676.
12. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din, 5:161.
13. Al-Nasa’i, Sunan al-Kubra, no.10370, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Sahih al-Adab al-Mufrad (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Saiddiq, 1994), no.538. This du‘a echoes the Qur’an when it says: But Allah has endeared faith to you, beautifying it in your hearts, making unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to you. Such are they who are rightly guided. [49:7]
14. Al-‘Uqayli, al-Du‘afa, no459; al-Tabarani, al-Awsat, no.6256. Examining its various routes of transmission and supporting chains, al-Albani declared the hadith as weak (da‘if). Instead he considered it to be the statement of one of the people of knowledge of the past. Consult: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1291. The hadith does, nonetheless, state a general spiritual truth about the human situation.
15. See: Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (England: Penguin Books, 2004), p.4.
16. Al-Bukhari, no.446; Muslim, no.1051.
17. Abu Ya‘la, Musnad, no.3705. The hadith is sahih, as per al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.4584.
18. See footnote no.8 above.
19. Muslim, no.144.
20. Muslim, no.2654.
About the author: Abu Aaliyah (Surkheel Sharif) is a scholar of the Hanbali school of thought and a translator of a number of titles, including, The Exquisite Pearl (2000). He is the author of More Fish Please & the Earth’s Complaint (2011) and Fussing Over the 15th of Sha’ban & the Golden Rule of Differing (2011). Based in East London, United Kingdom, Abu Aaliyah is a regular khateeb and plays a pastoral role in his local community.