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What is the Matter with the Qalb?

How are “Qalb” and “Ŝadr” used in the Qur-aan and Hadeeth?

The issue of one’s Qalb is an important and sensitive issue. The word ‘Qalb’ in Arabic implies changing quickly and frequently. (Inqilaab means drastic change; Taqallub means hustle and bustle, alteration, variation, ups and downs.) The Prophet (ŝall-Allaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam/Peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: The Qalb takes its name from its constant changes (Taqallub). The Prophet (ŜA'WS) illustrated, “The likeness of the heart is that of a feather at the root of a tree, being turned over and over by the wind.” (Reported by Ahmad). According to another report: “The likeness of the Qalb is that of a feather in an empty plot of land, being blown over and over by the wind.” (Reported by Ibn Abee ‘Aasim in Kitaab al-Sunnah, No. 227). The constant changing of man’s Qalb is also illustrated by the Prophet (ŜA'WS) by the example of boiling water: “The heart of the son of Adam changes more quickly than a pan or a pot of rapidly boiling water.” (Reported by Ibn Abee ‘Aasim in Kitaab al-Sunnah, no. 226, also Reported by Ahmad).

So what is this Qalb? Islam (both the Qur-aan and Sunnah) use the term “Qalb” to refer to the human mind, psyche or mental processes that comprise thinking, reasoning, consciousness, intention, decision-making mindset and outlook, and which define a human being as a person and determine his personality. The rapid changes being referred to in the Ahaadeeth above are changes in thoughts, outlook and mindset that occur rapidly under exposure to the strong winds blowing in the society or the intense heat generated by the pressures of the society. The fact that Qalb refers to mind and mental processes is clearly implied by the following verse:

They have (Quloob[1]) minds with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. They are like livestock; in fact, they are worse because they are so heedless! (Al-A‘raaf 7:179)

“Do they not reflect upon the Qur-aan; are there locks on their Quloob (are their minds blocked)? (Muĥammad 47:24)

The famous Hadeeth that describes how Qalb becomes gradually darkened by one black dot for every sinful act is a case in point. Obviously, the Hadeeth does not contend that some black colour physically covers one’s heart. Rather, it just metaphorically explains the natural process that every sin leaves a mark on our personality and if we continue sinning, the sin becomes a part of our personality. The more we practice a sin, the more we are inclined to repeat it, the more justifiable it becomes in our minds, the more “normal” it sounds to us and the harder it becomes to get rid of it. Its impact is neutralized only when we regret committing it, seek Allaah’s forgiveness and repent. The Prophet (ŜA'WS) explained this process by a visual example saying that every sin leaves a black dot on our heart and gradually the whole heart becomes black. It simply means that every disobedience of Allaah SWT that we commit blemishes our personality until our whole personality becomes so corrupt that the darkness of the evil becomes the norm in the sinner’s eyes. In the Qur-aan, this condition is labelled “Rusted-minds (Quloob).” (Al-Mutaffifeen 83:14)

If people continue to insist on disbelieving or defiantly disobeying Allaah SWT, the rusting process described in the Hadeeth eventually shuts people’s Quloob completely. Their minds become so adept in justifying their misguidance and so oblivious to the truth that they deny even a naked reality. At that stage, one’s mind is totally blocked from perceiving the truth or appreciating the right behaviour. This condition is described as hearts being “sealed”. It is also called hardening of hearts: “Then, after that, your hearts hardened so that they were like stones, or even harder yet.” (Al-Baqarah 2:74)

In the Qur-aan, usually Allaah SWT says that He seals the Quloob (minds) of Kuffaar or defiant sinners.[2] The attribution of this process to Allaah needs to be properly understood.

Allaah SWT is the creator of Nature and the Laws of Nature. He designed those laws the way He wanted the world to operate. As every law of nature is operating exactly as Allaah wanted it to operate, and the only reason it is operating that way is because He lets it operate that way, Allaah usually attributes the results of their operation to Himself. Instead of saying such and such happened because of the natural results of the laws I had implemented, He just says, ‘I did such and such’. For example:

We all know how the rain falls: water evaporates, rises, forms clouds, condenses and falls down. But, it happens in that manner because Allaah SWT created water with certain fundamental properties as part of the laws of nature to make it happen. Hence, in the Qur-aan, Allaah always attributes rainfall phenomenon to Himself saying, “He sends down rain”. (Luqmaan 31:34)

We know how plants and trees grow from seeds when they sprout with the help of the right amount of moisture and temperature, but the Qur-aan says, “It is Allaah who causes seed grain and date stone to split and sprout.” (Al-An’aam 6:95)

We get milk from cattle to drink, but Allaah says, “We give you drink from what is in their bellies … pure milk, palatable to drinkers.” (An-Nahl 16:66)

Allaah has granted human beings freedom to choose their response to a stimulus. A person can choose to adopt good or bad behaviour at every step of the way in life. He has also made human nature such that whatever path one chooses to follow, that path becomes easy for him. A person’s aptitude grows and intensifies in whatever direction he wants to take it. If a person keeps on doing good things and making the right choices, his personality develops in that direction and good behaviour becomes easier for him. On the other hand, if a person insists on doing wrong, he gets more deeply entrenched in his wrong attitude. Whatever path a person chooses to stay on, that path becomes his natural way. That is how we form habits and become conditioned to certain patterns of behaviour. Also, that is why the more time and effort we spend on a certain hobby, project or activity, the more interesting and enjoyable it becomes for us.

Now, if a person closes his mind because of his own biases, prejudices, jealousies, and other negative emotions, he cannot understand a different point of view regardless of how true and reasonable that point is. On top of that, if the person starts defending his own stance and arguing and fighting for it, he becomes more and more fixated on his position. In his insistence on his opinion and in his efforts to justify it, a point comes when he does not accept the other point of view even if it is clearly evident and proven without doubt. That is a stage when you can say that the heart and mind of the person is sealed.

Although it is a person’s own negative and closed-minded attitude towards Truth that causes this condition, Allaah attributes it to Himself just as He does with the outcomes of other laws of nature. The benefit of using this style of description is to show the Majesty of Allaah as the Creator of the nature which we are all bound by. Also, it is to underscore the deprival the closed-minded people should feel for losing touch with reality. It is to show that insisting on the wrong is not something they should be proud of. It is a curse of Allaah that they have imposed upon themselves.

Similarly, when Allaah tells us in Al-Anfaal 8:24 that: “Allaah intervenes between a person and his heart”, it implies that Allaah’s laws and processes deprive a person who has become a slave to his desires, the ability to reign in his lusts, passions and temptations as well as the propensity to do the right things.

Thus, our mindsets, thoughts and attitudes follow Allaah’s laws and are affected by the consequences prescribed by Allaah‘s laws. That is what is meant when it is said that it is Allaah Who turns hearts around and controls people’s Quloob. ‘Abd-Allaah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aaŝ reported that he heard the Messenger of Allaah (ŜA'WS)  say: The Quloob of the children of Adam are between the fingers of the Most Merciful, and He turns them in whatever way He wills. Then he said: O Allaah, Controller of the Quloob, direct our Quloob to obey You. (Reported by Muslim)

Naturally, when we pray to Allaah SWT, He mercifully listens to our du’aas and grants us the goodness we ask for.

Some other uses of Qalb or Quloob in the Qur-aan are: the “diseased Qalb or Quloob” to describe the hypocritical mentality[3]; the “joining Quloob” to indicate the development of brotherhood;[4] the crookedness of Quloob to identify the crooked mentality of those who ignore the apparent, straightforward and logical meaning in favour of convoluted, esoteric, speculative and “hidden” meanings;[5] vicious Qalb to indicate a mindset prone to sin habitually and without compunction;[6] and sceptic or doubting Quloob to describe the personality of those who suffer from undue scepticism, suspicion and doubts.[7]

It is the adoption of the right mentality, mindset or paradigms that is needed for success as a Muslim and that is described in the verses such as the following:

  • No one will succeed on the Day of Resurrection – “the day when neither wealth nor sons will avail -- except for the one who comes to Allaah with a sound Qalb (mindset).” (Ash-Shu‘araa 26:88-89)
  • The promise of Paradise is for those “Who feared the Most Gracious (Allaah) in the Unseen, (i.e., in the worldly life, before seeing and meeting Him in the Hereafter), and brought a Qalb (mindset) turned in repentance (to Him).” (Qaaf 50:33)

Otherwise:

  • Doomed are “those whose Quloob are hardened (those with a closed-minded, hard-lined inflexible mentality).” (Al-Hajj 22:53)
  • “Then woe to those whose hearts are hardened against the remembrance of Allaah. They are clearly misguided.” (Az-Zumar 39:22)

Obviously, all of the above-mentioned expressions about and attributes of “Quloob” are metaphoric or figurative expressions describing different personalities.

In Arabic, the “Qalb” is used literally for the “biological heart.” Once the true meaning of the use of Qalb in the Qur-aan has become clear, the figurative use of the Qalb for emotional or thought processes, that are in fact mental processes or functions of the mind, should not seem out of place or confusing. Even in our daily lives, we use the heart metaphorically in many expressions such as “my heart is not into it” or “to my heart’s content” which actually implies that “my mind is not into it” or “to my mental satisfaction.” Also, we use the shape of a red heart to symbolize love or “sweetheart” for the beloved. The emotional state of love may impact the beating of our heart, but the love is basically a mental condition. In the same way, the Arabs used Qalb for everything to do with mind, emotions and personality, which is reflected in the Qur-aanic usage. So, Quloob in the following verse has been used in the same figurative, allegorical or metaphorical sense:

“Have they not travelled through the earth, having the Quloob by which to understand and reason or the ears by which to hear? The truth is that it is not the eyes that are blinded; rather, it is the Quloob that are in the breasts that are blinded.” (Al-Hajj 22:46)

This verse identifies the cause that stops disbelievers from learning lessons from what they observe or hear – that they are suffering from mental blockage which hinders their thinking, reflection, learning and acceptance of the reality. Their eyes see but their minds are blinded from the lessons. Although visibly they have eyes, the problem is inside their psyche, which is blinded by their negative emotions and motives. The “breast” used in this verse is as proverbial as the breast in which “we hold a grudge or a secret”! Otherwise the perception and understanding are the functions of our minds and mental processes.

Like heart (Qalb), breast (Ŝadr) is also frequently used metaphorically for mental condition, mentality and mindset. For example:

  1. “Did We not open/expand your breast for you.” (Al-Inshiraah 64:1)

    In this verse, “Opening of breast” (Sharĥ Aŝ-Ŝadr) is an expression that has two closely related and inter-dependent meanings:

    • Having a sincere and whole-hearted conviction free of doubts, confusions or reservations that Islam is the Deen of Allaah and is the only right way of living in this world, accompanied by a clear, crisp and thorough understanding of Islam as a complete way of life and of the objectives it is designed to achieve.
    • Having unbeatable courage and confidence and an unshakable commitment to stand up for Islam regardless of the dangers, difficulties, challenges, threats and terrors a person may have to face or sacrifices he may have to make.
  2. My Lord! Expand for me my breast,” that is: grant me determination, confidence and courage fitting for the job assigned to me. (Ŧaa Haa 20:25)
  3. “Whomsoever Allaah intends to guide, He opens his breast to Islam; and whomsoever He intends to leave straying, He makes his breast close and constricted, as if he were climbing up to the skies. Thus does Allaah place defilement upon those who do not believe.” (Al-An‘aam 6:125)

    When people study Islam with an open mind and in a rational manner, they feel the truth, the beauty, the simplicity, the rationale and the meaningfulness of Islam. They are attracted to it and realize a sense of tranquility upon its discovery. They find their questions about its beliefs fully answered in a logical manner, their doubts about the unseen duly cleared and their scepticism properly disposed. When they accept it, they feel that they have found their lost soul and accomplished the objective of their life. The close-minded people, on the other hand, are overburdened by their prejudices, arrogance, vested interests in status quo, and worldly expediencies so much so that they do not want to discover Islam. They rather feel threatened by its teachings and all of its beautiful attributes that attract the open-minded, sincere people. They do not even want to hear its name. When Islam is presented to them they feel so much anxiety and rage that they feel tightness of their chest and breathlessness as if ascending a very high mountain peak at a high speed in the thin air.

  4. “Who open their breasts to disbelief…”; that is: who willingly accept the disbelief and are happy, content and satisfied with their misguidance. (An-Naĥl 16:106)
  5. “So is one whose breast Allaah has expanded for Islam and he is upon (i.e., guided by) a light from his Lord (is like one whose heart is hardened to reject it)? Then woe to those whose hearts are hardened against Allaah. They are clearly misguided.” (Az-Zumar 39:22)

    That is: the person who is endowed with clarity of thought and conviction that Islam is the only right way of living in this world, and who is free of doubts, confusions or reservationsin this respect is totally a different personality from someone who has completely closed his mind and is bent upon rejecting the truth regardless of how valid it is. Naturally, each of the two personalities will face totally different consequences in the Hereafter, closed-minded being the utter losers.

  6. One of the attributes of Allaah SWT mentioned 12 times in the Qur-aan is that He is “the Knower of whatever is in your breasts (minds).” That is: Allaah SWT knows all the intentions, motives, thoughts, considerations and emotions that people harbour in their conscious or subconscious minds. There are additional 22 similar uses of “breasts” for mind, mentality, mental conditions, psyche, memories and other contents of the mind in the Qur-aan.

The above explanations show clearly that the use of Qalb and Ŝadr is a figurative / proverbial use to represent human mind, psyche or mental processes that include thinking, reasoning, consciousness, intention, decision-making, mindset and outlook, and that define a human being as a person and determine his personality. Thus, when we are translating the Qur-aanic or Hadeeth text, Qalb should be appropriately translated into a proper English word representing mind or mental processes, instead of being translated into “heart,” which gives the wrong impression as if the biological heart is being talked about in the text. We know that the Qur-aan is not a medical text and does not deal with the issues of our physical bodies. Rather, it is the Book of guidance revealed to guide our minds, thoughts, outlook, personality, etc., aright to make us excellent in our attitude, conduct, behaviour and lifestyle.

Unfortunately, many people do think that Qur-aanic Qalb is literally the heart that pumps blood in our body, while it has been well-established scientifically that almost all of the thinking, reasoning, consciousness, intention, decision making, etc., take place in the brain. They take the changes in the heartbeats in case of fear, grief or stress as an indication of the heart being the organ of mental processes. They forget that other organs of the body such as stomach and intestines also react similarly to those emotions, that they are caused by the hormones released as the result of a mental condition and that the changes in the heart beats, feelings of the heart sinking, loss of appetite, and other changes in the functions of major organs are in fact reactions, not the cause of our mental conditions.

Those who insist on taking Qur-aanic Qalb to mean heart sometimes quote the recent research which indicates that the human heart has its own memory and a limited level of somewhat brain-like function and that it communicates back and forth with the human brain. It is the heart’s own brain-type function performed by its neuropeptides that makes heart transplants possible because its self-contained resources make the transplanted heart continue to function normally without having nerve connection with the recipient’s brain. Its example is like some auxiliary equipment that has its own small memory and logical circuit, enabling it to be attached to any computer. Research has also established that all other organs of the human body also have their own share of neuropeptides and cell memories, although they are more concentrated in the heart tissue (other than the brain). There has been some indication, though not yet accepted by the neuroscientist community in general, that the transplanted heart may be able to establish some sort of communication with the recipient’s brain resulting in the transfer of some of its memory to brain. Even if this transfer of memory or communication with the brain is proven beyond doubt, we still cannot escape the fact that the brain plays the key and governing role in all of the mental processes. And the mind and mental processes are the subject matter of the Islamic teachings, not the parts of the body.

Thus, the prudent attitude is not to link the Qur-aanic Qalb with any part of the human body, but only with the human mind or mental processes – the faculty of thinking, reasoning, consciousness, intention, decision-making, mindset and outlook. This way we will let the word of Allaah play its guidance role without being unduly and unnecessarily pulled into the discussion and arguments about how much of the mental functions are performed by which biological part of the human body.

As long as people thought that the heart performed all mental functions, taking Qalb literally for biological heart did not matter. Since people have become aware that mental functions such as thinking, reasoning and decision-making are performed by the brain, and that attitude and personality are determined by the brain, an insistence on translating Qalb literally into heart, instead of the intended Islamic meaning, potentially causes three problems:

  1. Scientific-minded non-Muslims can be turned off and deprived of Islamic guidance.
  2. Many Muslims are misguided into Sufism. Simple Islamic teachings that deal with refining attitudes, improving personality, controlling emotions, removing mental blocks, opening one’s mind, keeping Allaah in one’s conscious mind, etc., are misunderstood. They are considered the matters of heart that need to be dealt with by some “spiritual means”. This attitude shifts the whole focus of one’s Islamic activity from practical improvement in one’s overall personality and societal systems to “cleaning one’s heart” through Sufi practices. It changes the objectives of Islamic endeavours from the pursuit of personal and collective excellence to “spiritual development”. It converts Islam from a Deen of justice and excellence at both an individual and societal level to a religion of mysticism.
  3. Even those Muslims who stay away from Sufism develop a narrow, “spiritual” view of Islam focused on rules, laws and rituals. They forget that Allaah SWT sent His guidance to reform the whole human personality and to make the person as a whole excel in everything people do individually and collectively. They neglect the Islamic objectives of justice and excellence as the worldly goal of all day-to-day endeavours of individual Muslims and the society of Muslims, and as the key means of attaining the ultimate goal of pleasing Allaah SWT.  


[1] Plural of Qalb.

[2] For example: “Allaah has sealed their hearts and their hearing; and their eyes are covered up.” (Al-Baqarah 2:7) and “They are those whose hearts, ears, and eyes Allaah has sealed off and they are the heedless ones.” (An-Naĥl 16:108)

[3] For example: Al-Baqarah 2:10, Al-Anfaal 8:49, At-Tawbah 9:125 and Al-Aĥzaab 33:12, 32 and 60.

[4] For example: Aali ‘Imran 3:103 and Al-Anfaal 8:63

[5] For Example: Aali ‘Imran 3:7-8 and At-Tawbah 9:117

[6] Al-Baqarah 2:283

[7] At-Tawbah 9:45, 110

 

 
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