The Meaning of Heart in the Quran

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We usually think of the heart as either a physical organ of the body or the place of emotions. But the Quran uses the word for “heart” in ways that show us a more expansive range of meaning, one that in fact revolutionizes our way of thinking about who we are and how our lives, bodies, choices/ decisions and actions intertwine, with deep and important consequences. The heart is one of the most important concepts in the Quran. as both a physical living organ and symbolically, as the seat of the soul or self, the nafs. The very name of Allah contains the image of a heart and the sound of the heartbeat, as if the heart itself was created as a symbolic force expressing Allah’s presence.

If you listen to the sound of the heartbeat, you will hear two syllables, with the emphasis on one, and its sound fits the name Allah, Allah, Allah… Sometimes you may hear the emphasis on the first syllable, sometimes on the second, because in fact the heartbeat is continuous, and one cannot know which is first or second, and the name Allah can be pronounced either way. The heart is literally pulsing thikr Allah, invoking, recalling, repeating over and over the name of the Almighty, All-Merciful Allah (glory to Him in the highest). Perhaps our lifetimes are measured in thikr Allah.

Quran 13:28

الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُم بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ ۗ أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ
Those who have believed and whose hearts are reassured by thikr Allah. Unquestionably, by thikr Allah hearts are reassured.”

The heart itself, as both physical heart and seat of the soul and emotions, is continuously reassured by thikr Allah, the sound of its own pumping in a regular rhythmic pattern. Its very regularity suggests the continuous and eternal presence of Allah, which is also dynamic, a powerhouse whose energy itself is a mystery, a cycle of continuous return, a replenishing, the source of all vitality and at the same time constancy. The heart is also a sacred space, the core or essence of a being, in any language the same universal idea. So our hearts are also where our essence, our being resides. And if we keep our hearts open to that reassurance from Allah, we can keep our hearts receptive to His guidance.

Quran 89:27

يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ
O reassured soul,
89:28
ارْجِعِي إِلَىٰ رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَّرْضِيَّةً
Return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing [to Him],
89:29
فَادْخُلِي فِي عِبَادِي
And enter in among My servants
89:30
وَادْخُلِي جَنَّتِي
And enter My Paradise.

Note that in the previous aya it is hearts that are reassured by thikr Allah, whereas the passage above is directed to the reassured nafs or self/soul. As the dwelling place of the self/soul, the heart is intimately close to it and has influence. Similarly, the nafs has influence on the heart. The difference is that the nafs or self has free will and is responsible for its actions, whereas the heart is a place and thus is acted upon by the nafs. In fact, we are held responsible for the condition of our hearts when we die and are brought before the Almighty on Judgment Day.

Quran 26:88-89

88
:يَوْمَ لَا يَنفَعُ مَالٌ وَلَا بَنُونَ
The Day when there will not benefit [anyone] wealth or children
89:
إِلَّا مَنْ أَتَى اللَّهَ بِقَلْبٍ سَلِيمٍ
But only one who comes to Allah with a sound heart.

The “sound” heart (“saleem” or whole, healthy) refers to the spiritual/ moral state of the heart, not its physiological status. The heart then reflects or reveals the condition of our souls at that moment when our mortal lives end. What makes or breaks the condition of the heart is its resident soul’s relationship to Allah, which shows why salat (Islamic formal prayer), a word which means “connection,” is so important: it maintains our connection with Allah alone. We thus “keep in touch” with our Creator continuously at regular times. All the required acts of worship, such as zakat or “purification” charity, fasting for Ramadan, and making the Hajj to Makkah, help bring us closer to Allah and His acceptance. But there is an even greater act of worship, albeit simpler: thikr Allah — recalling that for the heart, this is not a choice but its sole God-given function to pump lifeblood in its cycle through the body with thikr Allah, whereas for the self, this (bringing Allah’s presence to mind) is an act of free will. And what greater harmony can there be for the heart than to be home to a soul who willingly on its own joins the heart in thikr Allah?

We do not want to ignore the importance of reading and understanding Allah’s message to us, the Quran. The Quran itself was sent down to Prophet Mohammad’s heart (Quran 2:97), the seat of his soul and repository of memory. What is stored in the heart’s memory/ repository is stored indelibly, for it it kept not in a physical place such as folds of the brain, subject to mortality, but rather in the soul which is by its nature eternal (recall that death is only of the body, but the soul lives to face its Creator and the eternal consequence of its choices). So imagine the soul of Prophet Mohammad receiving the Quran, in all its power, in his heart, the dwelling-place of his soul. Indeed, his heart was purified beforehand as was his soul in order to receive it. The Prophet had already spent time in a cave in contemplation, which was in fact (unbeknownst to him) a preparation period to ready his heart and soul to receive the divine message. To give us an idea of how immense such an event is, Allah gives us this example:

Quran 59:21

لَوْ أَنزَلْنَا هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنَ عَلَىٰ جَبَلٍ لَّرَأَيْتَهُ خَاشِعًا مُّتَصَدِّعًا مِّنْ خَشْيَةِ اللَّهِ ۚ وَتِلْكَ الْأَمْثَالُ نَضْرِبُهَا لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
If We had sent down this Qur’an upon a mountain, you would have seen it trembling, crumbling from fear of Allah. And these examples We present to the people that perhaps they will give thought.

Imagine the power of this Quran, which had to be sent down from the eternal to the temporal realm in a Night of Power (Surat Al-Qadr 97) when the angels and the Ruh (which means “spirit” and refers to Jibreel, in English Gabriel, who is also referred to as “possessor of great powers” and “messenger,” as he is the one who carries all divine revelations to the prophets) all participated in protecting and securing that night. Here “night” refers not simply to the local time when the earth is turned away from the sun as we think of it empirically, but to the state of the creation above us as we view the night from earth, when the sky is stripped of its daytime shield (allowing us to see and live on earth) and the magnificence and vastness of the larger universe appears. It is also “a night,” a moment in time captured as it were by this event. And as the Quran’s very name means “read” (which also means “recite”), when the Ruh Jibreel delivered the Quran to the Prophet’s heart, he also revealed (and the Prophet uttered) the first word (a command), “Read!” and the words that immediately followed. This command to read, now that the Quran is among us in this world, applies to us as well; but in our case, not only to precisely recite it as did the Prophet, but also to read in the sense of reading and studying the literal words for the purpose of understanding their meaning.

And understanding the meaning of words and other signs, such as life experiences, is accomplished in the heart. The “mind” or “fu’ad” is not the same as the brain, for in the Quran there is no word referring to that organ; rather “fu’ad” is, like “mind,” referring to “intellect,” a capacity rather than a physical entity. In fact, the Quran itself emphasizes the huge importance of working to understand meanings, which is done by the self in the heart, where intellect, emotion, and experience are considered by the self. This process produces an understanding which may elude the reductions of definition, being itself a “sense” about truth and reality which always extends beyond the empirical. We are enjoined to think, to understand, to take into consideration. We are never enjoined to passively accept dogma, which is a reduction of the truth into specific empirical or quasi-empirical terms, but rather to accept Allah—who can never be reduced to empirical or rhetorical dogma—as truth in the highest sense, the source of all truth and light/ illumination and knowledge, and to be open and receptive to His guidance. In fact, refusing Allah’s guidance is a kind of closing up of the self, covering up and rejecting the evidence presented by their own senses, including the “sense” provided by thinking to reach an understanding.

Quran 7:179

‎وَلَقَدْ ذَرَأْنَا لِجَهَنَّمَ كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الْجِنِّ وَالْإِنسِ ۖ لَهُمْ قُلُوبٌ لَّا يَفْقَهُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ أَعْيُنٌ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ آذَانٌ لَّا يَسْمَعُونَ بِهَا ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ كَالْأَنْعَامِ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَلُّ ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْغَافِلُونَ
And We have certainly created for Hell many of the jinn and mankind. They have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. Those are like livestock; rather, they are more astray. It is they who are the oblivious.

In this aya it is the heart itself that provides the “sense” with which one thinks. Not using this sense to try to understand for oneself deprives the heart of understanding which it is the self/soul’s responsibility to achieve as best it can. It is of such terrible importance to think and try to understand Allah’s guidance for oneself, one’s own heart, that those who refuse to do so are described above as being the inhabitants of hell. It doesn’t get clearer than that.

The self uses the heart’s sense in the same way it uses the input of the eyes and ears. But so far I have referred to the heart as a “place.” And indeed it is “where” the soul resides as a “home base”. But it is not a static place, a mere four walls, but a four-chambered dynamo which “holds” the eternal soul’s memory, which includes both memories of this life and all one experienced and learned in it, AND a “collective memory,” a set of basic principles and understandings we often call “intuition” and some of whose elements are expressed in “archetypes” or universal symbols. We use this “storehouse” as a resource in making sense of things, a filter through which thoughts are processed. So the brain is like an instrument which processes thoughts and emotions, but decisions and attitudes are created in the heart. Think about how difficult to impossible it is to convince anyone of something by reason alone. They must accept it in their hearts. And so it is to the heart that Allah sends His guidance.

Quran 8:24′
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اسْتَجِيبُوا لِلَّهِ وَلِلرَّسُولِ إِذَا دَعَاكُمْ لِمَا يُحْيِيكُمْ ۖ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَحُولُ بَيْنَ الْمَرْءِ وَقَلْبِهِ وَأَنَّهُ إِلَيْهِ تُحْشَرُونَ
O you who believe, answer the call of Allah and His messenger when he calls you to what will grant you life. And know that Allah comes between a person and his heart, and that to Him you will be gathered.

The heart here is clearly separate from the person (in Arabic mar’, which is in a sense what one makes of oneself) in whose chest it resides. Ultimately we will be judged as mar’, each person according to their deeds, intentions, attitude, and faith or whom/what one worships and relies on. And it’s this person whom Allah guides, coming between the person and their heart, reminding them of thikr Allah on the one hand and what they have done and experienced on the other. If the person ignores or rejects Allah’s guidance, if they ignore their own intuition, which is the sense of right and wrong Allah plants in the heart as the basis for guidance, if one covers up this and turns away from Allah, then Allah “turns away” from that person, leaving them to stumble in the chaos of their own willful ignorance.

Quran 6:110
وَنُقَلِّبُ أَفْئِدَتَهُمْ وَأَبْصَارَهُمْ كَمَا لَمْ يُؤْمِنُوا بِهِ أَوَّلَ مَرَّةٍ وَنَذَرُهُمْ فِي طُغْيَانِهِمْ يَعْمَهُونَ
And We will turn away their hearts and their eyes just as they refused to believe in it the first time. And We will leave them in their transgression, wandering blindly.

This totality of each person reflects on the heart. For example, disbelief and denial of Allah results in hardness of heart, a “sealed heart” which cannot understand, which cannot be guided, and whose soul will face eternal torment and separation from Allah, which is hell.

Quran 2:7

-خَتَمَ اللَّهُ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِمْ وَعَلَىٰ سَمْعِهِمْ ۖ وَعَلَىٰ أَبْصَارِهِمْ غِشَاوَةٌ ۖ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ
Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.

In turn, the righteous, those who accept and have faith in Allah’s guidance and presence, will be granted the guidance they seek (in the opening prayer Surat Al-Fatiha 1:5), and the reward for their faith and good deeds is paradise, a state of eternal connectedness with Allah. In stark contrast to the disbelievers who refuse faith and persist in conceit and egotism even as truth and guidance are offered to them, the righteous are both humble and faithful without demanding as a precondition of faith some empirical proof (which is more challenge and distraction than logic or argument). They are believers as described here:

Quran 50:33

مَّنْ خَشِيَ الرَّحْمَٰنَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَجَاءَ بِقَلْبٍ مُّنِيبٍ
Who feared the The Almighty unseen and came with a repenting heart.

There is another point of significance: note that the disbelievers are called “oblivious,” “ghaafileen.” It is often translated “heedless” or “careless,” but these words imply more of a lack of care/ attention whereas ghaafil refers more to an absence of sense or blocked/ sealed off senses, a state which is more encompassing, as is being oblivious. But in either case, awareness itself, what is often referred to as “mindfulness,” is essential for a heart to be receptive to guidance. It requires being present in the present, not distracted, about those things which matter such as faith.

Quran 50:37

إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَذِكْرَىٰ لِمَن كَانَ لَهُ قَلْبٌ أَوْ أَلْقَى السَّمْعَ وَهُوَ شَهِيدٌ
Indeed in that is a reminder for whoever has a heart or who listens while he is present (mindful).

Warnings against being oblivious, often distracted by the things of this world, are frequently given in the Quran.

Quran 7:205

وَاذْكُر رَّبَّكَ فِي نَفْسِكَ تَضَرُّعًا وَخِيفَةً وَدُونَ الْجَهْرِ مِنَ الْقَوْلِ بِالْغُدُوِّ وَالْآصَالِ وَلَا تَكُن مِّنَ الْغَافِلِينَ
And remember your Lord within yourself in humility and in reverence without speaking aloud, in the morning and the evening. And do not be among the oblivious.

The “speaking aloud” refers to those who want to show off an appearance of faith to others for ulterior motives. That very loudness for such a purpose shows lack of heart and sincerity, but loudness can show lack of reverence as well.

That the heart is mentioned, counting both plural (104) and singular (22) forms, 126 times, indicates the great importance of the heart as both seat of the soul, symbol of Allah’s presence and power, and the inner sanctum whose interactions with the self or person ultimately determine that soul’s fate. Certainly this is a far more thoroughgoing understanding of how thought, emotion, faith, intuition, and consciousness interrelate, of Allah’s dynamic presence and influence therein, and of what this means for us, than the rather poorly considered and simplistic common conceptions most commonly held in our present, supposedly sophisticated era. The value, meaning, and relevance of symbolism is everything when the source is Allah (swt). In this case, and so to say the heart is “symbolic” is not to make it an abstraction but rather to reveal its connecting power and spot-on integrity to the whole universe and the mysteries beyond, all of which are under Allah’s knowledge and authority.

Indeed the Quran presents us with an endlessly deepening understanding of what matters most. But if we don’t make that understanding our own by using the heart’s capacity for connecting the “dots” of meaning, we deprive our own hearts of their capacity to receive Allah’s guidance. That would be the unthinkable catastrophe. So will we not think, and open our hearts to understand?

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