The Importance of the Heart
Almost universally, religious traditions have stressed the importance of the condition of the heart. In the Muslim scripture, the Day of Judgment is described as a day in which neither wealth nor children shall be of any benefit [to anyone], except one who comes to God with a sound heart (Qu'ran, 26:88-89).
The sound heart is understood to be free of character defects and spiritual blemishes. This “heart” is actually the spiritual heart and not the physical organ per se, although in Islamic tradition the spiritual heart is centered in the physical. One of the extraordinary aspects of the modern era is that we are discovering aspects about the heart unknown in previous times, although there were remarkable insights in ancient traditions. For instance, according to traditional Chinese medicine, the heart houses what is known as shen, which is spirit. The Chinese characters for thinking, thought, love, the intention to listen, and virtue all contain the ideogram for the heart.
In nearly every culture in the world, people use metaphors that directly or indirectly allude to the heart. We call certain types of people “hard-hearted,” usually because they show no mercy and kindness. Likewise, people are said to have “cold hearts” and others yet who are “warm-hearted.” We speak of people as wearing their “hearts on their sleeves” because they do not (or cannot) conceal their emotions from others. When someone’s words or actions penetrate our souls and affect us profoundly, we say that this person “touched my heart” or “touched the core of my being.” The Arabic equivalent for the English word core (which originally in Latin meant heart) is known as lubb, which also refers to the heart, as well as the intellect and the essence of something.
The most ancient Indo-European word for heart means “that which leaps,” which is consonant with the idea of the beating heart that leaps in the breast of man. People speak of their hearts as “leaping for joy.” People also say that their heart “skipped a beat” when they come upon something startling that elicited from them a very strong emotional response. When people fall in love, they speak of “stealing one’s heart.” There are many other metaphors involving the human heart, owing to its centrality in life. These phrases – however casually we may utter them today – have roots in ancient concepts.
Spiritual Diseases of the Heart
The ancients were aware of spiritual diseases of the heart. And this understanding is certainly at the essence of Islamic teachings.
The Quran defines three types of people: al-mu’minūn (believers), al-kāfirūn (scoffers or atheists), and al-munāfiqūn (hypocrites).
The believers are described as people whose hearts are alive and full of light, while the scoffers are in darkness: Is one who was dead and then We revived [with faith] and made for him a light by which to walk among the people like one who is in darkness from which he cannot exit? (QURAN, 6:122). According to commentators of the Quran, the one who was dead refers to having a dead heart, which God revived with the light of guidance that one may walk straight and honorably among human beings. Also, the prophet Muhammad said, “The difference between the one who remembers God and one who does not is like the difference between the living and the dead.” In essence, the believer is someone whose heart is alive, while the disbeliever is someone whose heart is spiritually dead. The hypocrite, however, is somebody whose heart is diseased. The Quran speaks of certain people with diseased hearts (self-inflicted, we understand) and, as a result, they were increased in their disease (QURAN, 2:10).
The heart is centered slightly to the left of our bodies. Two sacred languages of Arabic and Hebrew are written from right to left, toward the heart, which, as some have noted, mirrors the purpose of writing, namely to affect the heart. One should also consider the ritual of circumambulation or circling around the Ancient House (or Ka’ba) in Makkah during the Pilgrimage. It is performed in a counterclockwise fashion, with the left side of the worshipper facing the House – with the heart inclined towards it to remind us of God and His presence in the life of humanity.
The Physical Heart
The physical heart, which houses the spiritual heart, beats about 100,000 times a day, pumping two gallons of blood per minute and over 100 gallons per hour. If one were to attempt to carry 100 gallons of water (whose density is lighter than blood) from one place to another, it would be an exhausting task. Yet the human heart does this every hour of every day for an entire lifetime without respite. The vascular system transporting life-giving blood is over 60,000 miles long – more than two times the circumference of the earth. So when we conceive of our blood being pumped throughout our bodies, know that this means that it travels through 60,000 miles of a closed vascular system that connects all the parts of the body – all the vital organs and living tissues – to this incredible heart.
We now know that the heart starts beating before the brain is fully fashioned, that is, without the benefit of a fully formed central nervous system. The dominant theory states that the central nervous system is what controls the entire human being, with the brain at its center. Yet we also know that the nervous system does not initiate the beat of the heart, but that it is actually self-initiated, or, as we would say, initiated by God. We also know that the heart, should all of its connections to the brain be severed (as they are during a heart transplant), continues to beat.
The Centre of our Being
Many in the West have long proffered that the brain is the center of consciousness. But in traditional Islamic thought – as in other traditions – the heart is viewed as the center of our being.
The Quran, for example, speaks of wayward people who have hearts with which they do not understand (7:179). Also the Quran mentions people who mocked the prophet and were entirely insincere in listening to his message, so God placed over their hearts a covering that they may not understand it and in their ears [He placed] acute deafness (6:25). Their inability to understand is a deviation from the spiritual function of a sound heart, just as their ears have been afflicted with a spiritual deafness. So we understand from this that the center of the intellect, the center of human consciousness and conscience, is actually the heart and not the brain. Only recently have we discovered that there are over 40,000 neurons in the heart. In other words, there are cells in the heart that are communicating with the brain. While the brain sends messages to the heart, the heart also sends messages to the brain.
Two physiologists in the 1970s, John and Beatrice Lacey, conducted a study and found that the brain sent messages to the heart, but that the heart did not automatically obey the messages. Sometimes the heart sped up, while at other times it slowed down, indicating that the heart itself has its own type of intelligence. The brain receives signals from the heart though the brain’s amygdala, thalamus, and cortex. The amygdala relates to emotions, while the cortex or the neocortex relates to learning and reasoning. Although this interaction is something that is not fully understood from a physiological point of view, we do know that the heart is an extremely sophisticated organ with secrets still veiled from us.
Muhammad (SAW), the Prophet of Islam spoke of the heart as a repository of knowledge and a vessel sensitive to the deeds of the body. He said, for example, that wrongdoing irritates the heart. So the heart actually perceives wrong action. In fact, when people do terrible things, the core of their humanity is injured. Fyodor Dostoyevsky expresses brilliantly in Crime and Punishment that the crime itself is the punishment because human beings ultimately have to live with the painful consequences of their deeds. When someone commits a crime, he does so first against his own heart, which then affects the whole human being. The person enters a state of spiritual agitation and often tries to suppress it. The root meaning of the word kufr (disbelief) is to cover something up. As it relates to this discussion, the problems we see in our society come down to covering up or suppressing the symptoms of its troubles. The agents used to do this include alcohol, drugs, sexual experimentation and deviance, power grabs, wealth, arrogance, pursuit of fame, and the like. These enable people to submerge themselves into a state of heedlessness concerning their essential nature. People work very hard to cut themselves off from their hearts and the natural feelings found there. The pressures to do this are very strong in our modern culture.
Being disconnected with your heart
One of the major drawbacks of being severed from the heart is that the more one is severed, the sicker the heart becomes, for the heart needs nourishment. Heedlessness starves the heart, robs it of its spiritual manna. One enters into a state of unawareness – a debilitating lack of awareness of God and an acute neglect of humanity’s ultimate destination: the infinite world of the Hereafter. When one peers into the limitless world through remembrance of God and increases in beneficial knowledge, one’s concerns become more focused on the infinite world, not the finite one that is disappearing and ephemeral. When people are completely immersed in the material world, believing that this world is all that matters and all that exists and that they are not accountable for their actions, they effect a spiritual death of their hearts. Before the heart dies, however, it shows symptoms of affliction. These afflictions are the spiritual diseases of the heart (the center of our being) – the topic of this book.
In Islamic tradition, these diseases fall under two categories. The first is known as shubuhāt or obfuscations, diseases that relate to impaired understanding. For instance, if somebody is fearful that God will not provide for him or her, this is considered a disease of the heart because a sound heart has knowledge and trust, not doubt and anxiety. Shubuhāt alludes to aspects closely connected to the heart: the soul, the ego, Satan’s whisperings and instigations, caprice, and the ardent love of this ephemeral world. The heart is an organ designed to be in a state of calm, which is achieved with the remembrance of God: Most surely, in the remembrance of God do hearts find calm (QURAN, 13:28). This calm is what the heart seeks out and gravitates to. It yearns always to remember God the Exalted. But when God is not remembered, when human beings forget God, then the heart falls into a state of agitation and turmoil. In this state it becomes vulnerable to diseases because it is undernourished and cut off, Cells require oxygen, so we breathe, If we stop breathing, we die, The heart also needs to breathe, and the breath of the heart is none other than the remembrance of God. Without it, the spiritual heart dies. The very purpose of revelation and of scripture is to remind us that our hearts need to be nourished.
We enter the world in a state the Quran calls fiṭra, our original state and inherent nature that is disposed to accept faith and prefer morality. But we soon learn anxiety mainly from our parents and then our societies. The heart is created vulnerable to anxiety and agitation (QURAN, 70:19). Those who are protected from this state are people of prayer, people who establish prayer and guard its performance with a humble and open heart connected with God, the Lord of all creation, The highest ranks among people are those who do not allow anything to divert them from the remembrance of God. They are the ones who remember God as they are standing, sitting, and reclining on their sides (QURAN, 3:191).
The second category of disease concerns the base desires of the self and is called shahawāt. This relates to our desires exceeding their natural state, as when people live merely to satisfy these urges and are led by them. Islam provides the method by which our hearts can become sound and safe again. This method has been the subject of brilliant and insightful scholarship for centuries in the Islamic tradition. One can say that Islam in essence is a program to restore purity and calm to the heart through the remembrance of God.
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