The Diseases of the Heart

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

On the Day of Judgment no one is safe save the one who returns to God with a pure heart.

The Prophet of Mercy, Muhammad (PBUH) said: ‘Surely there is in the body a small piece of flesh; if it is good, the whole body is good, and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted, and that is surely the heart’ [Sahih Bukhari]

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:

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 hears 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.

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:

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.

The prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “The difference between the one who remembers God and one who does not is like the difference between the living and the dead” [Bukhari].

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.

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, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 Hamza Yusuf‘s book: Purification of the Heart.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Hamza Yusuf’s book, Purification of the Heart, is based on the poem known as Maṭharat al-Qulūb (literally, Purification of the Hearts), which offers the means by which purification can be achieved. It is a treatise on the “alchemy of the hearts,” namely, a manual on how to transform the heart. It was written by a great scholar and saint, Shaykh Muhammad Mawlud alYa’qubi al-Musawi al-Muratani, as his name indicates, he was from Mauritania in West Africa. He was a master
of all the Islamic sciences, including the inward sciences of the heart. He stated that he wrote this poem because he observed the prevalence of diseased hearts. He saw students of religion spending their time learning abstract sciences that people were not really in need of, to the neglect of those sciences that pertain to what people are accountable for in the next life, namely, the spiritual condition of the heart. In one of his most cited statements, the Prophet (PBUH) said,

“Actions are based upon intentions” [Muslim & Bukhari]

All deeds are thus valued according to the intentions behind them, and intentions emanate from the heart. So every action a person intends or performs is rooted in the heart.

Imam Mawlud realized that the weakness of society was a matter of weakness of character in the heart, Imam Mawlud based his text on many previous illustrious works, especially Imam al-Ghazali’s great Ihya’ Ulum al-Din (The Revivification of the Sciences of the Religion). Each of the 40 books of Ihya‘ Ulum al-Din is basically about rectifying the human heart.

If we examine the trials and tribulations, wars and other conflicts, every act of injustice all over earth, we’ll find they are rooted in human hearts. Covetousness, the desire to aggress and exploit, the longing to pilfer natural resources, the inordinate love of wealth and position, and other maladies are manifestations of diseases found nowhere but in the heart. Every criminal, miser, abuser, scoffer, embezzler, and hateful person does what he or she does because of a diseased heart. If hearts were sound, these actions would no longer be a reality. So if we want to change our world, we do not begin by rectifying the outward. Instead, we must change the condition of our inward. Everything we see happening outside of us is in reality coming from the unseen world within. It is from the unseen world that the phenomenal world emerges, and it is from the unseen realm of our hearts that all actions spring.

The well-known civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. said that in order for people to condemn injustice, they must go through four stages. The first stage is that people must ascertain that indeed injustices are being perpetrated. In his case, it was injustices against African Americans in the United States. The second stage is to negotiate, that is, approach the oppressor and demand justice. If the oppressor refuses, King said that the third stage is self-purification, which starts with the question: “Are we ourselves wrongdoers? Are we ourselves oppressors?” The fourth stage, then, is to take action after true self-examination, after removing one’s own wrongs before demanding justice from others.

We of the modern world are reluctant to ask ourselves—when we look at the terrible things that are happening—”Why do they occur?” And if we ask that with all sincerity, the answer will come resoundingly: “All of this is from your own selves.” In so many ways, we have brought this upon ourselves. This is the only empowering position we can take. The Quran implies that if a people oppress others, God will send another people to oppress them: We put some oppressors over other oppressors because of what their own hands have earned.

According to Fakhruddin al-Razi (a 12th century scholar of the Quran), the verse means that the existence of oppression on earth may be caused by previous oppression. By implication, often the victims of aggression were once aggressors themselves. This, however, is not the case with tribulations, for there are times in which people are indeed tried, but if they respond with patience and perseverance, God will always give them relief and victory. If we examine the life of the Prophet (PBUH) in Makkah, it’s clear that he and the community of believers were being harmed and oppressed, but they were patient and God gave them victory. Within 23 years, the Prophet (PBUH) was not only free of oppression, but became the leader of the entire Arabian Peninsula. Those people who once oppressed him now sought mercy from him; and he was most gracious and kind in his response. Despite their former brutality toward him, the Prophet (PBUH) forgave them and admitted them into the brotherhood of faith.

This is the difference between someone whose heart is purified and sound and one whose heart is impure and corrupt. Impure people oppress, and the pure-hearted not only forgive their oppressors, but elevate them in status and character. In order to purify ourselves, we must begin to recognize this truth. This is what Hamza Yusuf’s book is all about—a book of self-purification and a manual of liberation. If we work on our hearts, if we actually implement what is suggested, we’ll begin to see changes in our lives, our condition, our society, and even within our own family dynamics. It is a blessing that we have this science of purification, a blessing that this teaching exists in the world today. What remains is for us to take these teachings seriously.

Purification of the Heart

Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures

This is an extract from Hamza Yusuf’s book, Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart. 

To continue reading, you can download the eBook in full here.

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2 comments

  1. […] at the mosque was about Arrogance in Islam. Hamza Yusuf addressed this beautifully in his book, Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart, so we decided to share this with […]

  2. […] at the mosque was about Arrogance in Islam. Hamza Yusuf addresses this beautifully in his book, Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart, so we decided to share this with […]

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