Heart in Sufism


What is heart in Sufism? What is the importance of heart in Sufism?

The aim of Islam is to raise human beings of elegance and maturity, conscious of being the servants of Allah, glory unto Him. Realizing this aim entirely depends on becoming conscious of what it is to be a servant of the Almighty, in the truest sense of the word. Reaching the heights of spirituality through maturation is possible only to the degree of sublime excitement, divine fear and stirrings felt deep in the heart.

The heart is our physical and spiritual hub. It plays a vital role in sustaining our physical existence. Over four seconds of delay in pumping the required amount of fresh blood to a cell spells an end to its life; and the same goes for the billions of other cells that abide in our bodies.

Playing so important a role in our physical existence, the hearts is also a spiritual gem, the focal point of the power and ability for spiritual sensing. In this sense, the heart is virtually the king of the realm that is the body, both physically and spiritually, such that even the brain, a center of thought, produces ideas only in the shade of the emotions that emanate from the heart. This means that through the ability for spiritual sensing it possesses, the heart dominates the entire organs, including the mind. Upon a rush of panic attack, the hands begin to shake and heartbeats increase. Just how externally motivated feelings of compassion, anger or love singlehandedly influence the willpower, thoughts and consequently behavior, is vividly observable in every mode of human behavior.

In terms of its spiritual dimension, the heart is like a compass for the real and the truth. This is a function it has been given by the Almighty. Yet, once detached from this dispositional function and steered towards a direction contrary to its reason of existence, it cannot avoid being dragged to the negative. Then, instead of saving the person in both Here and the Hereafter, it works towards his destruction. Subjecting the heart to influences that will guide it to its reason for existence, nurturing and developing the inherent capabilities it has for attaining Divine pleasure, therefore forms a vital side of human education.

In the Quran, Allah, glory unto Him, sends out a warning to us, His servants, not to allow the heart to deprive us of eternal happiness by being duped by the passing pleasures of the world: “O mankind! Surely the promise of Allah is true, therefore let not the life of the world deceive you, and let not the arch-deceiver deceive you respecting Allah.” (Fatir, 5)

Mawlana Rumi -may Allah sanctify his secret- expresses the need for man to tighten the reins on his egoistic desires, not to stray from his essential purpose:

Do not look to overfeed your body and ripen it, for in the end it is but a sacrifice for earth. Look to feed your heart! That is the one to fly to soaring heights and receive honor.

Feed your body only little of greasy and sugary stuff. As those who feed the body in excess, fall in the pit of their desires and perish in disgrace.

Feed your spirit with foods spiritual. Serve it mature thought, a refined understanding and provisions of the spirit so that it can go to where it is bound to go, full of health and vigor.”

Luqman (a.s) similarly advises his son against heedlessness: “The world, my dear, is a bottomless sea that has drowned many an unwise scholar, and other alike, in its torrent. Let the frame of your ship be a contented faith in Allah, glory unto Him. Let your equipment be piety and worship. Let the sails of your ship, which will allow you to ride its waves, be trust in the Divine. Only by this means, I hope, you may attain salvation.” (Bayhaki, Kitab’uz-Zuhd, p. 73)

Being the center of the body as well as the center of spirituality, the heart holds an equal importance for both. Yet, since it is not so much the external appearance as it is the spirit that makes human beings who they are, the spiritual role exercised by the heart is greater than its physical role, in all its aspects. Owing to this spiritual characteristic, not to mention the subtle secrets and wisdoms it contains, the heart is the exclusive cause that enables the human being to attain to the meaning and virtue of ‘humanness’. This is the underlying wisdom behind the fact that faith (iman) is established through the affirmation of the heart, well before the confirmation of the tongue. Noteworthy is that, here, an affirmation of the heart is considered sufficient, rather than an acceptance by thought.

Just as man, considered as the essence of the universe, carries the joint tendencies and abilities towards good and evil, the sublime and the lowly owing to his natural disposition, the heart, which is the essence of man, endures these opposite tendencies and abilities. As open as he is to angelic influences, man is also at the disposal devilish interventions. It could be said that the heart is the battlefield of good and evil, piety and impiety, forces both angelic and devilish. Hearts tremble to the sound of angelic and devilish influences until man breathes his last.

As for the heart being at the disposal of angelic and devilish influences: Angelic influences impart onto the heart spiritual impressions like faith, pleasant traits, righteous deeds, compassion and a quality of worship. As for devilish influences, they inject into it bad conditions like blasphemy (kufr), doubt, immorality, lust and desire. Only through worshipping and the remembrance of the Divine (dhikrullah) may Shaytan be expelled from the heart. Through the remembrance of the Almighty, hearts find their peaceful ground; and having found that peace through dhikr, faith becomes deeply entrenched in it, elevating the heart to the most sublime level of contentedness. And there comes a moment when the heart opens up from within, just like a drape, and the mysteries of the realms of the conceivable (nasut) and the inconceivable (lahut) lay bare and exposed. The universe, with all its mysteries, turn into a book waiting to be read.

Being the battlefield of angelic and devilish tendencies, the heart has an active and impulsive structure, ever-ready to join the ranks of the victor and embody its characteristics. The heart is different from the other organs in terms of submitting and surrendering to the will. Its natural predisposal towards both good and evil is activated not so much by internal influences as by external influences. In other words, emotions come to life not through ideas that spontaneously appear in the heart (which are called sunuhat) but through external factors. In this sense, the heart is like water that assumes the shape and color of its container. People of spirit, however, opt for the positive tendencies within the heart, whereby they are delivered to the land of peace.

It is stated in the Quran:

“O you who believe! Fear Allah and be with those who are true (in word and deed).” (at-Tawba, 119)

“And when thou seest those who meddle with Our revelations, withdraw from them until they meddle with another topic. And if the devil cause thee to forget, sit not, after the remembrance, with the congregation of wrong-doers” (al-Anam, 68)

“And indeed He has revealed to you in the Book that when you hear Allah’s communications disbelieved in and mocked at do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them; surely Allah will gather together the hypocrites and the unbelievers all in hell.” (an-Nisa, 140)

The will comes into play right at the beginning, to determine and choose between positive and negative influences that will have a bearing on the heart. Shaped according to the influences it is exposed to, the heart in this sense is like a weather vane placed on rooftops. Literally, qalb does mean to turn something into its opposite and to change in shape and color, which only reinforces this said characteristic of the heart, man’s most central organ.  So reveals a hadith: “The heart is like a feather on an empty plane, swung about hither and thither by the blowing winds.” (Ibn Majah, Muqaddimah, 10; Ahmed ibn Hanbal, Musnad, IV, 408)

The below incident clearly points to the “changing” nature of the heart:

Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him- one day came across Hanzala -Allah be well-pleased with him- and asked him how he was. Hanzala replied, in a fretful tone, “Hanzala has become a hypocrite!”

“Subhanallah”, replied Abu Bakr –-Allah be well-pleased with him–. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“When we are in the company of the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace-”, explained Hanzala -Allah be well-pleased with him-, “he reminds us of Heaven and Hell and we become so deeply affected that we virtually see Heaven and Hell before our very own eyes. But once we return to our families and become carried away in earning our living, we neglect most of what we hear.”

“Truly, I sometimes feel the same”, confessed Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him-. They thereupon went to the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- and informed him of their anxiety. The Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace- said:

“By Allah, in whose Hand of Might my life lies, if you were able to maintain the state of mind you have whilst in my company and be in a constant state of dhikr, angels would have held you by the hands, while asleep and when walking about.” He then added, three times:

“Sometimes it is like this, Hanzala, and sometimes like that!” (Muslim, Tawbah, 12) 

The continuation of life demands that servanthood, filled with and motivated by the truths and mysteries of the Hereafter, and the pursuits of life, go hand in hand.

Such is how the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- sheds light on the heart’s talwin, its quality of fluctuating from one state to another. One of the main objectives of tasawwuf is to transform this talwin to tamkin, or stability, as much as possible through the refreshment provided by sohbah (Islamic conversation) and dhikr; to turn the heart towards the Divine direction and stabilize it thereon. Among the Companions, Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him- provides the best example of this state of mind. His unshakable conviction of heart in affirming the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- with regard to the Miraj, without the least hesitation, can only be explained with the stability his heart had acquired by then.

The idolaters had erupted in a storm of denial concerning the Miraj. They wanted to sow the seeds of doubt in Muslim hearts and thereby turn them away from their faith. So, just as they went to numerous Companions to tell them what they thought of the Miraj, they also went to Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him-: “Have you heard the latest? Your friend says he rose to the skies”, they said mockingly. “What do say about that?”

A man with an ecstatic level of iman, Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him- then uttered the magnificent words of loyalty; words the idolaters could never imagine hearing. They only added misery to their hopeless condition: “Whatever he says is true for he never speaks a lie. Whatever it is that he says I believe him instantly!” (Ibn Hisham, as-Sirah, II, 31)

Angels are only disposed towards the good; that is how they were created. Devils work only for evil, towards deviating. Human beings are positioned right between these two beings. Safeguarding their hearts from immoderation, human beings must avoid lowering themselves into a devilish state. This does not mean they should try to overdo themselves beyond human capability in hope of attaining an angelic status. Moderation is what natural predisposition demands.

The inevitable death and the eternal beyond should be humankind’s greatest concern and the objects of their greatest endeavors. Only by knowing the reality of the heart, protecting it from evil and subjecting it to spiritual influences is this possible. Balance and peace on Earth and happiness and salvation in the Hereafter depends on having a refined heart (al-qalbu’s-salim), a heart that is on the purifying path of Islam, having retained its pure traits that come from natural disposition (fitrah). As indicated by the words of the Beloved Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-: “Every child is born upon the fitrah (of Islam). His parents then turn the child into a Christian, a Jew or a Magean…” (Muslim, Qadar, 22), the dispositional and natural structure of the heart is upon Islam right from the beginning. It is when the heart is exposed to negative influences that destroy its natural structure that the possibility of its deviation arises.

In contrast, hearts filled with spiritual manifestations through the waft of the inspiring air of spirituality develop good morals, righteous deeds and spiritual states. Only in this way does one gain insight into the mystery of ‘ahsan-i taqwim[1] inherent in his disposition, which is when his perception of beings and surrounding events gains depth and prudence. And this means that the curtains are lifted from his ‘heart’s eye’, alluded to by the Quran[2], allowing it to gaze beyond. Undoubtedly, this vision pertains to realities beyond the field of physical vision.

Those whose heart’s eyes have a potential of becoming opened, eagerly desire spiritual training and enlightening and exert a serious effort to advance in the way of the Real. But those who have no genuine desire, those oblivious from the desire to attain to spiritual certainty, turn a blind eye on the advices of prophets and saints. With a stubborn arrogance, they become more wicked, as they sink more and more in their dark swamps of ignorance. They pity the blind who cannot find their own way except through the help of another, yet they have absolutely no idea of their own spiritual blindness.

With a tendency towards both the positive and the negative, man is endowed with a will and power to choose in this world of trial in which he is subject to Divine commands and prohibitions. It is the lines of direction (istiqamah), be it positive or negative, embedded in the heart, that determine how the will and power to choose is to become manifest. On the other hand, the incontestable fact stands that the heart, weighed down by many external influences and egoistic tendencies, does distance itself, time and again, from its reason of existence, jeopardizing one’s eternal future.

Hearts dominated by their accompanying egos are filled with unbelief, immorality, lustful desires and provoking whispers (waswasah). Such hearts have turned against their reason of existence. Blinded towards the sublime, they have an insatiable appetite towards the lowly. More bewildered than beasts[3] in the words of the Quran, they squander their lives in their illusions of ignorance. Hearts of this kind are diseased, in desperate need of treatment.

Our behavior reflects the mood of our hearts. We behave according to its ebbs and flows.

[1]        Ahsan-i Taqwim: Having been created in the best possible measure; the Quran’s reference to the creation of man.
[2]        See, al-Hajj, 46.
[3]        See, al-Furqan, 44.

Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Sufism, Erkam Publications