19 Strategy 9: Focus on Your Heart

Under strategy 5, Study Islam, we highlighted how studying Islam is different than studying any other subject because it involved a dynamic interplay between knowledge and spirituality.   We also spoke about the fact that shubuhāt only resemble the truth and are not the truth and as such, they don’t have any intellectual weight.  Remember, shubuhāt are not strong, but it is our hearts that are weak.

 

The 12th century polymath, Ibn Taymiyyah beautifully expresses the centrality of the heart and its role in the constitution of the human being under the Islamic worldview:

 

“The master of knowledge, in reality, is the heart. The remainder of the organs and limbs are gatemen to whom information reaches, which they are unable to acquire themselves. [It is the master] to the degree that whoever loses any of the other organs, loses only the knowledge that was conveyed through them. Thus, the deaf person is unable to gain knowledge from speech, and the blind person is unaware of what vast knowledge objects contain. Likewise, whoever looks at things or listens to the words of scholars, without the participation of the heart, does not understand anything. Thus, the pivot of the affairs is the heart.  Here the wisdom of the Almighty’s statement becomes clear:

 

‘So have they not traveled through the earth and (don’t they) have hearts by which to reason and ears by which to hear? For indeed, it is not eyes that are blinded, but blinded are the hearts which are within the breasts.’1

 

Sight is not mentioned here as in the previous verses because the context of the statement here is regarding unseen things, and the lessons to be understood from the final end of things, in which sight has no role.”2

 

Considering the indispensable need to have a strong heart when confronted with destructive doubts, it behooves us to focus on our hearts and take all measures necessary to strengthen our hearts.  Hence, our ninth strategy is to Focus on Your Heart and Strengthen it.

 

Strengthening your heart such that it moves from being a sponge to becoming an unbreakable glass as was an analogy that was quoted earlier from Ibn Taymiyyah’s advice to Ibn Qayyim:

 

“Do not allow your heart to be a sponge for every doubt and allegation so that it drinks them up and is moistened with nothing else. Instead, make your heart like solid glass; doubts pass over its surface but do not settle on the inside. Thus, the doubts are seen through the clearness of the glass, but are repelled by its firmness. Otherwise, if you allow your heart to drink every doubt you encounter, it will end up affirming them…”3

 

How does one strengthen their heart? The topic of strengthening the heart subsumes many subtopics that a person would need to study, internalize and consistently put into practice.  Some of these subtopics are:

  • – Diseases of the Heart such as kibr (arrogance), ‘ujub (self aggrandizement) , riya’ (ostentation), ḥasad (blameworth jealousy).
  • – Actions of the Heart such as raja’ (hope in Allah’s mercy), khawf (fear of Allah’s wrath), ḥub (love of Allah).
  • – Spiritual practices such as qiyām al-layl (the night prayer), ṣawm (fasting), ṣadaqh (charity).

 

It is outside the scope of this section of the book to cover the entire gamut of subtopics that fall under the umbrella of strengthening the heart.  However, we will suffice in offering some key ways in which a person can start on the journey of making their heart sound.

 

  1. Tawbah – Repentance

Turning to Allah and seeking His forgiveness i.e. ‘tawbah’, is an essential tool in a person’s spiritual toolbox.  The reason is because we as human beings all sin and when we do, an impediment is placed upon the heart such that truth may not be recognized by the heart.  The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said,

 

“Verily, when the servant commits a sin, a black mark appears upon his heart. If he abandons the sin, seeks forgiveness, and repents, then his heart will be polished. If he returns to the sin, the blackness will be increased until it overcomes his heart. It is the covering that Allah has mentioned:

No, rather a covering is over their hearts from what they have earned.45

  1. Kibr – Arrogance

Every human being has an ego.  It is by this ego that we are able to have a healthy sense of self and thus, have the confidence we need to do a number of beneficial tasks. However, a person can go beyond acceptable confidence and become arrogant. Arrogance is one of the greatest spiritual diseases one can be afflicted with and one must be vigilant in guarding his heart from such a dangerous malady.

 

It was narrated from ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood that the Prophet said: “No one who has an atom’s-weight of arrogance in his heart will enter Paradise.” A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, what if a man likes his clothes and his shoes to look good?” He said, “Allah is Beautiful and loves beauty. Arrogance means rejecting the truth and looking down on people.”6

           

The word for arrogance in Arabic is ‘kibr’ and comes from the triliteral root k-b-r which means ‘to become great, big, large’.7 When a person sees themself as being great and above others, in a sense they consider themselves ‘big’ and others ‘small’.  Since this false sense of ‘bigness’ is how arrogant people conducted themselves while they were alive, when these people come on the day of judgment, their physical manifestation will be that will be the smallest of all people, so much so that they will be trampled upon by everyone else:

 

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah said, “The arrogant and the tyrants will be gathered on the Day of Resurrection as tiny particles. The people will trample upon them due to their disgrace before Allah Almighty.”8

 

Since kibr has to do with a false sense of thinking of oneself as ‘big’ or ‘great’, the cure to this disease would be to practice those spiritual exercises that cause a person to realize their ‘smallness’.  One way to do this is to ponder upon death:

 

Anas reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, passed by a group who were laughing and playing. The Prophet said, “Remember often the destroyer of pleasures: death.”9

 

Death is a gate that every human has to pass through. We may have spent our life building our wealth, our reputation, our fame but all of that will come to an end with death and we will come to Allah with the absolute clear truth about how ‘great’ we really were.

 

Another means to remind us of our ‘smallness’ is to reflect upon the majesty and greatness of Allah and understand our total and utter dependency upon Allah.  As Allah says,

 

O mankind, you are those in need of Allah, while Allah is the Free of need, the Praiseworthy.10

 

In this verse, ‘those in need’ is the word fuqarā’ which gives the sense of being a beggar with no money or resources at all. This term is  juxtaposed against ‘Allah is the Free of need’ or ‘Allah is Al-Ghani’ and this term, ‘Al-Ghani’ gives the sense of richness or wealth that signifies that Allah owns everything.  When a person reflects upon their own limitations and compares that to the nature of Allah, they realize their insignificance or ‘smallness’.

 

  1. Dhikr – Remembrance of Allah

The remembrance of Allah, dhikr, is one of the best ways to cleanse and strengthen the heart.  The Prophet ﷺsaid,

 

“For everything there is a polish, and the polish for the hearts is the dhikr (remembrance) of Allah. There is nothing more potent in saving a person from the punishment of Allah than the dhikr of Allah.” It was said: Not even Jihād in the path of Allah? So he replied: “Not even if you were to continue striking with your sword until it breaks.”11

 

The motif of the heart becoming blackened or stained or rusted is employed often in Islamic literature (see hadīth in the section on Tawbah above).  Ibn Qayyim makes use of the same motif when speaking about dhikr,

 

“Whoever neglects [remembering Allah] most of the time, then his heart will become rusty in accordance with how neglectful the person is. And when this [filthy] rust accumulates on the heart, then it no longer recognises things as they really are. Thus, it views falsehood as if it is the truth, and truth as if it is falsehood. This is because this rust darkens and confuses the heart’s perception, and so it is unable to truly recognise things for what they really are. So as the rust accumulates, the heart gets blackened, and as this happens the heart becomes stained with this filthy rust, and when this occurs it corrupts the heart’s perception and recognition of things. The heart [then] does not accept the truth nor does it reject falsehood, and this is the greatest calamity that can strike the heart. Being neglectful [of dhikr] and following of whims and desires is a direct consequence of such a heart, which [further] extinguish the heart’s light and blinds its vision. Allah – the Most High – said:

 

“And do not obey him whose heart We have made to be neglectful of Our remembrance, one who follows his own whims and desires and whose affairs are furat [have gone beyond bounds and whose deeds have been lost].”1213

 

  1. Tahajjud – The Night Prayer

While the obligatory five prayers themselves are essential in strengthening the heart, tahajjud or the night prayer has a special significance:

 

Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet said, “The best of prayers, after those prescribed, is that which is offered in the depth of the night.”14

 

The effect upon the heart of the night prayers is especially significant since it is a time when Allah comes closer to His servant (i.e. the one standing in prayer):

 

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying:

 

Our Lord descends to the lowest heaven in the last third of every night, and he says: Who is calling upon me that I may answer him? Who is asking from me that I may give him? Who is seeking my forgiveness so that I may forgive him?”15

 

The last third of the night16 is a time when most people are asleep and it is truly someone who loves Allah that would wake up at that time and pray to Allah.

 

1 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Haj [22:46] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 28, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/22/46.

 

12 Taymīyah, Aḥmad ibn ʻAbd al-Ḥalīm Ibn. A Commentary on Ibn Taymiyyah’s: Essay on the Heart. Translated by Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips. Selangor: Dakwah Corner Bookstore , 2008.

 

3 Jawziyya, Ibn Qayyim al-. مفتاح دار السعادة و منشور ولاية العلم و الارادة. Vol. 1. Mecca: Dar Alam al-Fawa’id, 2010. , Pg. 395

 

4 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Mutaffifin [83:14] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 28, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/83/14.

 

5 Tirmidhī, Muḥammad ibn ʻĪsá. Sunan Al-Tirmidhi, 1965., No. 3334

 

6 Qushayrī, Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim

7 Wehr, Hans, and J. Milton Cowan. Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (English and Arabic Edition). Snowballpublishing.com, 2020. Pg. 947-948

 

8 al-Tawāḍu’ wal-Khumūl 224. Grade: Hasan (fair) according to Al-‘Iraqi

 

9 Shu’ab al-Imān 4493. Grade: Hasan (fair) according to Al-Albani

 

10 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Fatir [35:15] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 29, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/35/15.

 

11 Related by Ahmad (4/352), from Mu’adh ibn Jabal. It was authenticated by al-Albaanee in Saheehul-Jaami’ (no.5644)

 

12 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Kahf [18:28] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 29, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/18/28.

 

13 Ibn al-Qayyim, AI-Waabilus-Sayyib min Kalimit-Tayyib (pp.78-82)

14 Qushayrī, Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim

15 Qushayrī, Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim

16 The last third of the night is calculated by taking the time between the maghrib prayer and the fajr prayer and dividing it into three.

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