By Jan-e-Alam Khaki
October 05, 2018
THE ‘heart’ and religion are two human domains that accommodate each other well. It thus may not be wrong to say that the heart is the ‘heart’ of religion. The heart is seen as the repository of human emotions, and emotions relate to religion in a very personal and profound way. Some use these emotions more powerfully to delve deep into the oceans of meanings, using them to generate knowledge and gnosis, while many others float on the surface restricting the meanings to only the literal domain.
Emotions and reason are often seen by some as opposing forces in specific senses yet, they both play a profound role in the way we acquire and generate knowledge. They are compatible, playing a supplementary role in enriching human existence, if seen from this perspective. They are simply two modes of knowing and being — different but not contradictory.
The importance of the heart (qalb) can be gauged by the fact that the Quran mentions it as many as 120 times. The Quran sees the heart as the locus of revelation confirmed by the verse “With it came down the Spirit of Faith and Truth. To thy heart and mind, that thou mayest admonish (2:193 & 194)”. (The addition of ‘mind’ in the translation by Yusuf Ali here is very significant.)
While commenting on the meaning of the word ‘heart’, many have taken it literally referring to the physical heart, the biological organ, giving it neuro-cognitive functions, while others have referred to a much more complex function, leading to a non-physical entity. (Since the physical heart cannot function as a knowledge-production organ, we can see Yusuf Ali’s translation above adding the word ‘mind’ as well because today the neuro-cognitive sciences inform us that these knowledge-related functions are performed by the brain/mind.)
The Quran sees the heart as the locus of revelation.
The heart is portrayed in the Quran in multiple ways: at the one spectrum, it is a “sound heart” (26:89), “greater purity” (33:53); it “joined your hearts in love” (3:103) whereas, at the other end, it has been associated with many negative connotations, such as being covered with rust (83:14); hardened (2:74); it can fail to understand; (7:179); it is locked up (47:24) and diseased (2:10).
The diverse interpretations tend to enrich us with multiple interpretations of the same concept seen from different angles. Nasr and a group of modern scholars, in their translation and commentary of the Quran (2015) explain that in the Quran, “the heart … is the organ associated not only with sentiment, but also with consciousness, knowledge, and faith.” It means that the heart is an organ that plays out multiple functions and obviously this cannot be the physical organ — we call it the ‘heart’, but it is something more subtle, metaphysical, and sublime, expressed in a metaphorical language.
Going back in history, one of the early mystics, Sahl al-Tustari (818-896 AD), has dwelt extensively on the notion of the ‘heart’ of Muhammad (PBUH) [and the Light of Muhammad (PBUH)]. According to Bowering, who has extensively studied Tustari’s thought, the great mystic speaks “of the heart as being a locus of the realisation of God’s oneness (tawhid) and of gnosis (ma‘rifa), love (mahabba) and intimacy (uns) with God.” According to Tustari, “…the Prophetic heart is like a ‘mine’, and a mine of His oneness and of the Quran”.
“Tustari shows how the Quran and the Prophetic heart are inextricably linked”. He states that God is He who “sent down the Quran to his Prophet, and made his heart a mine of His oneness and of the Quran. ... Tustari also refers to the Prophet’s breast (sadr), another concept used by the Quran, “as a light, and Abu Bakr al-Sijzi explains this as meaning: ‘the repository of light from the divine Substance (jawhar), which is the original locus of light within the breast’.”.
Connecting the ‘locked hearts’ mentioned in the Quran (47:24), Tustari says that God secured hearts, when He created them, with locks. “The keys to those locks were the realities of faith, and the only ones who were vouchsafed the opening of their hearts through those realities were [God’s] friends (awliya), messengers (rusul), and the veracious (siddiqun). The rest of people leave this world without the locks on their hearts being opened.” Thus, we see that Tustari gives a sophisticated interpretation of the heart.
In sum, the discussion here showed us that, often, the words of the Quran are taken as apparent, however, this is not always the case. We need to reflect on the deeper levels of meanings couched in metaphorical language requiring us to reflect discerningly as one would explore a mine hoping to find gems beneath the stones.
The writer is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.