Diseases of the Heart: Diagnosis & Treatment
Man is not merely a material body. There is a spiritual, metaphysical aspect of oneself that can either be corrupted or sound, which is known as the heart [qalb]. The term ‘heart’ should not be confused with the physical heart which pumps blood. Rather, it refers to the spiritual heart. The Qur’an says, concerning the Day of Judgment: “On that day, no amount of wealth or children will be of any benefit, except the one who comes to Allah with a sound heart.” This indicates that the heart is capable of change, and that its final condition will determine where a person will end up in the Hereafter.
The Prophet elucidated the concept of the spiritual heart: “There is a certain entity in the body. If it is sound, the entire body will be sound. But if it is corrupt, the entire body will be corrupt. Indeed, it is the heart.” From this explanation, we understand that the heart is in control of the body and it makes the final decisions as to what a person will do. This would mean that even though the human brain is responsible for motor control and thoughts, it is subservient to the spiritual heart.
The existence of a spiritual heart has been almost universally acknowledged throughout history by the use of metaphors such as: ‘a dead heart’, ‘hard-hearted’, ‘has no heart’, etc. It has been argued by materialistic thinkers that the brain ultimately controls everything as evidenced by the fact that a laceration in part of the brain impairs function and stimulation of another region results in movement. However, this narrow explanation is no different than someone arguing that the brain is not in control of the limbs because cutting off a hand would impair its function or having another person physically move that hand would result in movement.
Another term used in the Qur’an to refer to how the heart is influenced is nafs, often translated as ego or self. Allah explains how the nafs has the capacity for both good and evil: “…the ego [nafs], how it has been balanced. He [i.e. God] inspired it with evil [inclinations] and good [inclinations]. The one who purifies it will have success and the one who corrupts it will fail.” The nafs is a force which influences the heart through potentially destructive desires such as greed: “Those who are protected from the greed of their own ego [nafs] will be successful.” Nonetheless, it has the potential to be purified from unleashing evil inclinations so that the influence diminishes. This requires firm resistance in order to be protected: “As for the one who feared the station of his Lord and prevented the ego [nafs] from desires. Paradise will be his destination.”
Like the human soul [rūḥ] which Allah has created to animate dead matter and cause it to be alive, we neither know the physical location of the heart or ego nor its details. The Prophet Muhammad was instructed to respond to people who asked about the details of the soul: “…tell them: ‘The soul is from the command of my Lord, and you have only been given a little knowledge.” Therefore, it is encouraged not to excessively philosophize about the nature and differences between terms like heart [qalb], ego [nafs] and soul [rūḥ] but rather to reflect on how they can be purified and made sound.
Every part of the body has a specific function. If an organ becomes diseased, it either loses all or part of its function. A diseased eye, for example, is unable to perceive things the way a healthy eye would. The function of the heart is to know Allah and follow His guidance. That is the purpose behind its creation. This ability to know, understand, and choose differentiates humans from all other creation, even though some animals may have better vision, a greater appetite or more strength than a human. Anything which constantly prevents the heart from performing its function should be classified as a disease.
From that perspective, every act of injustice in this world has been the cause of a diseased heart. So, in order to change the world, we must either rectify those hearts or prevent them from manifesting their disease onto others. However, this book asks you to focus primarily on yourself, because one of the main deceptions which prevent self-reform is to analyze shortcomings in others while neglecting your own.
Purifying the heart through self-reform is an individual obligation on every Muslim. It is one of the purposes why the Prophet was sent, “We have sent among you a messenger…purifying you and instructing you in scripture…” This meant that one of the purposes behind the Prophet Muhammad being sent was to purify people from corrupt behavior and traits through his teachings and example.
Purification of the heart is a continuous process which must be kept up regularly. It will only end when we die. The Companions went through such struggles under the guidance of the Prophet and achieved life-changing transformations. Muslim scholars, based on their exacting analysis of the Qur’an, Sunnah and human psychology, have explained several common diseases of the heart as well as prescribed beneficial treatments to cure them and exercises to keep them away. The symptoms of such illnesses and how one develops these diseases have also been explained in detail. One who desires a healthy heart must learn about them, make sure to avoid them, and treat them if they have already been afflicted.
Our only task is to take these teachings seriously by learning and applying them. Remember not to give up and become frustrated. No one can force you to take the medicine, which may be bitter at times, against your will. Whoever fails to do so and ends up with a corrupt heart should remember where the blame lies: “…Allah did not wrong them, but they wronged themselves.”
How to Purify the Heart
Knowing How the Heart Works
Knowing how to purify your heart is a means to an end, so attaining the means is a prerequisite to attaining the end. Most people are ignorant about how the heart functions, so whoever wants to purify it should first know how it works and what weaknesses it is susceptible to. This is similar to a cardiologist who learns the details of how the physical heart works before attempting to treat it.
The heart is intrinsically capable of becoming good or bad, but it begins to sway to one side or the other. The negative influences that are inevitably encountered throughout life cause it to become dirty, the way a car gets dirty from being outside, and thus needs to be cleaned regularly.
Guarding your heart is like guarding a castle. There are entrances which can be compromised. Satan is trying to get in through these entrances in order to cause corruption. Knowing these entrances and vulnerabilities is the first step to protecting oneself. The entrances to the heart are character traits like anger, greed and lust. If not kept in check, they can blind a person and lead them to do things they know are wrong. Here are some potential vulnerabilities of the heart:
- Envy and covetousness: Extreme desire for something can blind a person to what is right and wrong. Satan can then easily convince a person to take any path to attain that thing.
- Anger: Extreme anger clouds the intellect and causes people to make decisions without reflecting on their consequences.
- Excessive love of beautification: This can lead people to focusing all their time in life in beautifying their homes, clothing, or cars and have no time left for other priorities in life.
- Gluttony: This increases base desires and makes a person lazy to perform good deeds.
- Desire to please others: This leads to exaggerating in praise of someone and neglecting to encourage them to good and forbid them from evil.
- Haste: Leads to lack of reflection before action.
- Love of wealth: Leads to pursuing it through unlawful means and being preoccupied with its pursuit. Can also lead to stinginess and fear of poverty.
- Theoretical speculation: When excessive can distract people from doing actions which they need to do.
- Prejudice: Leads to hatred, backbiting, arrogance, searching for faults of others.
It is an obligation to protect your heart from the negative effects of these traits. Make sure that you keep your distance from these diseases, the way that Adam was ordered to not even approach the tree in the garden. The Prophet exemplified this behavior when he protected his Companions from these thoughts arising in their heart. While he was walking with his wife Ṣafiyyah one night, some of his Companions passed by and greeted him. He announced loudly that the woman next to him was his wife, and they became embarrassed saying, “That thought did not even cross our mind, Messenger of Allah.” He responded by saying that these thoughts can affect anyone, so they should be cut off from the start.
Even if you are able to keep these in balance, Satan can still whisper to prevent you from doing what you are supposed to. This is similar to besieging a fortress where, even though the entrances are guarded, the needed supplies are blocked. If you are too distracted to engage in the performance of prayer, supplication and remembrance of Allah, then even if you lack negative character traits, you make no progress in your spiritual journey. Imagine a car on the correct road, on ‘the straight path’, but it is not going anywhere. Exhibiting contentment with being on the right path, even though you are not moving and stopped on the side of the road, is ludicrous.
Purifying the heart of the underlying causes of these diseases can protect it. Then, you can only slip temporarily by having things beautified in the moment, rather than leaving a permanent disease in the heart.
There are three categories into which a person’s heart may fall. Reflect on them, then decide where you are and where you want to be:
- A sound heart fully conscious of Allah at all times. This heart has been purified through rigorous cleansing. It is free from bad character traits.
- A corrupted heart full of desires and weakness. This heart is full of impurity and bad character traits. Whatever miniscule consciousness of Allah it might have had can easily be overcome through a few evil whispers. It is a dark heart that has no light, like an eye which is unable to see. No admonition or advice affects this type of heart. Listening to powerful and eloquent lectures, imbibing heart-softening poems and hearing persuasive intelligent arguments will not help this heart, until the person makes up their mind to begin the process of change. Allah described these people: “…it is the same whether you warn them or not…Allah has set a seal on their hearts and their hearing, and over their sights is a veil…”
- A struggling heart that fluctuates between following desires and being conscious of Allah. This heart is always in danger and needs to be under constant supervision, because it can easily become corrupted.
When reflecting on the types of hearts, if you found yourself immediately placing people you know into these categories, reflecting on their deviance or righteousness, then know that this is a trick to make you focus on others and neglect yourself.
Remember that your heart cannot become sound only through prayer and remembrance of Allah. That would be like taking pain medication when you have swallowed spoiled food which remains in your stomach. The medicine of prayer works only after the stomach has been emptied, the way that the heart must be cleansed of diseases before worship can enact its full capabilities. It is no different than the need to have a correct intention in order for acts to be accepted. Anyone who thinks that verbally uttering words taught by Allah without the proper prerequisites might serve as a magic pill is deluded. Satan is like a hungry dog who approaches you. If you yell at it, it will go away, but if you have some food in your possession, no amount of yelling will stop it from approaching you. The food of Satan are the diseases of the heart like excessive anger. Asking Allah to protect you from Satan while uttering that in a state of anger does not keep him away. Rather, the utterance helps you to calm down and refocus, which then results in Satan staying away, since the food is now gone.
If the heart is not purified, then the remembrance of Allah will only be verbal. A person can pray, recite Qur’an and even parrot emotional supplications, but these words alone will not benefit anyone if there is no intent of meaning and sincerity behind them. The reason words are vocalized, even though Allah already knows a person’s thoughts, is because they signify the acceptance and determination of the individual to mean what is said. If you want to test yourself, analyze your prayers and see how often your thoughts wander into the shopping mall, the movie you just watched or the deadline you have at work.
Ibrahim ibn Adham [d. 165/782] was asked by his students, “What is wrong with us? We pray to Allah but He does not grant our supplications, even though he said, ‘Ask me and I will respond’ [40:60]?” He replied, “Because your hearts are dead.” They asked, “How did that happen?” He said, “Eight habits have caused them to die:
- You have known Allah’s right over you, but have not fulfilled it.
- You have recited the Qur’an, but have not respected its boundaries.
- You have said that you love the Messenger of Allah but have neglected his way [sunnah].
- You have said that you fear death but have not prepared for it.
- Allah said to take Satan as an enemy [35:6] but instead you sought his help in acts of disobedience.
- You said that you fear the Fire but have committed so many evil deeds.
- You have said you love Paradise but have not tried to earn it.
- When you wake up, you neglect your defects and look for defects in other people.
This is how you have incurred the anger of your Lord. How could your supplications be granted?”
The Importance of Manners
“The best of you are those who are the best in manners.” B 3559
Prophet asked about a woman who prays all night, fasts every day and gives charity, but harms her neighbors with her tongue. He responded, “There is no good in her, she is from the people of the Fire.”
Al-Fuḍayl ibn ʿIyāḍ said, “I prefer the company of a sinner with good character over a worshipper with bad manners.”
Manners are how you deal with other people, and good manners are admirable. A person’s manners produce actions without requiring much deliberation because it is something the heart is accustomed to and becomes a habit. It is similar to the way a person drives to school or work on ‘autopilot’ without carefully having to think about what they are doing.
There are people who have become accustomed to laziness who believe that a person’s character is an inborn trait or a result of a bad upbringing that cannot be changed. The answer to such a person is: if that was true, there would be no point in all the verses of the Qur’an and the statements of the Prophet admonishing people to change themselves. Furthermore, even wild animals can be tamed and taught new manners. Hunting dogs are trained to not eat the prey they catch for their owners, despite their hunger and natural desire to eat. Horses are trained to charge into battle and die for the army despite the natural survival mechanism that it was born with. Humans have more intelligence than animals and should therefore be able to achieve similar results through training. Some people require more effort and must work harder at it, but that is either part of their test in life or a result of their bad habits having become deeply rooted.
Balance is the Goal
The goal in purifying the heart is to tame the desires and have control over them, not to uproot them entirely. Desires must be balanced between hyper-manifestation and insufficient expression, such as a person who eats too much or too little. The prophets, who are the best of creation, had the characteristics of anger, hunger, and desires but they possessed these traits in the correct balance and never allowed them to get out of control.
Desires are natural and have been created for a reason. The appetite exists to ensure that the body is nourished. Greed is present in order to protect your belongings and secure your future. Sexual desire is necessary to procreate. Even anger helps with the function of defending yourself and fighting against injustice.
Every child is created with different tendencies. Some are more talkative while others are more drawn to beautiful things. The existence of these qualities forms the framework for the types of tests they will go through. A quiet person is less likely to gossip about others, but also less likely to give good advice to others.
Anger should be capable of inflicting harm, but subservient to the intellect so that it is not used incorrectly, like possessing the power of a gun but only using it for the right purposes. There is much evidence that balance is the goal. Even the Prophet got angry, but kept it under control. Allah described the true believers as those who ‘control their anger’, not those who must ‘uproot’ it. [3:134] Even when giving charity, Allah had clarified that one should neither be tight-fisted, nor one who is so open-handed that they end up regretting what they have given. [17:29, 25:67] Even food has balance [7:31 does it mean waste or excess]. The prophets have shown the balance by eating sweet food but avoiding gluttony, by marrying but remaining chaste, and by sleeping while praying much throughout the night. “Inna li-nafsika alayka haqqa”
“…monasticism, which they [i.e. the followers of Jesus] innovated; We did not prescribe it for them except [that they did so] seeking the approval of Allah. But they did not observe it with due observance…” 57:27
The method to restore character traits back to a balanced state is by exaggerating in condemning extravagance in these characteristics. Anger, greed, lust, etc. are considered bad characteristics because they are easy to exaggerate towards the extreme. That is why they are referred to as being negative, even though, in reality, they must be balanced and controlled. Acquiring balance in one of these attributes is either a gift from Allah [through a person’s birth or upbringing] or requires self-discipline.
For example, balance generosity away from miserliness by regularly spending. Once money becomes like water to a person, they will give it to those in need but keep enough for themselves and family as well. Balance humility away from arrogance by not listening to praise concerning you and by performing acts which lower the perception of yourself. Over time, that trait will become a habit as well as a pleasure. Once the heart begins to loves it, the limbs will stop complaining as well, such as when a person learns swimming, writing, or exercising.
Perfect balance is extremely difficult to achieve, so aim to get as close as possible. That requires a lifetime of effort. That is why we ask Allah for help “Guide us to the straight path.”
Remember to not expect immediate results. It is like planting a tree and having to wait for the fruit to come. They key is consistency. A few good actions that are performed regularly will produce positive results, while a few bad actions can produce very harmful results.
 Q 26:88-89
 Bukhārī 1:20.
 Q 91:7-10
 Q 59:9
 Q 79:40-41
 Q 17:85
 Q 2:151
 Q 16:33
 Selected Writings, 185.
 Q 2:6-7
 Al-adab al-mufrad #119, 1:63 saḥīḥ albānī