IMAM IBN AL-JAWZI relates a powerful story that I hope will drive home the purpose of this article:
A man from the Israelites was much given to worship and prayers. One night during prayers he thought about his sins and wondered, “O my Lord, how many are the sins that I commit, but you never punish me.” Allah responded to him, “O my servant, how much I do punish you, but you just don’t know!”
How does Allah punish us without us knowing it? Think of all our prayers, salah and worship that are lost in distractedness, of all the moments in which we are depressed, anxious and miserable, sometimes for no good reason; think of all the people around us who hurt or dislike us for no apparent fault of ours, or of all the little troubles that weigh like a mountain on our chests; and most importantly, think of all the time our hearts are severed from Allah’s light and love, so much so that we even forget the bliss that we are missing! What could be a worse punishment, a more agonizing bereavement?
Depression, anxiety, malice, and other ailments of the soul, are an epidemic in our modern society— no less among Muslims. In reality, they are a result of the deprivation of our hearts from the love and knowledge of Allah, and a punishment for those who neglect the root cause of this deprivation and a wake-up call for those who heed it.
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Key to Self-Assessment
You will not read this article, I hope, as just another article, but one that will profoundly affect the innermost reaches of your soul. For it addresses an issue that is the ultimate concern of every Muslim, in fact, of every human being. And that is, our incessant search for happiness. At the outset, this sounds deceptively simple. Happiness, of course, is what we all want. But the question is: What is happiness? What kind of happiness? And most importantly: How to attain it?
Very often, we confuse what we really want with instant gratification of our senses, only to be proven wrong. Take for example the cues our culture of consumerism and materialism (the dominant culture of the world, anywhere, in fact) gives us about the nature of happiness. Passing down the lanes in the grocery store, one reads on products such as ice-cream cans, chocolate bars and other products slogans such as “your passport to Heaven,” “sinful pleasure,” “follow your senses,” and so on. Regardless of the permissibility of such products or their slogans, one cannot help but feel a profound sense of deception at the implicit connection between pampering one’s senses and the promise of ultimate bliss.
But even to those unaware of spiritual realities, the deceptiveness of such a connection becomes obvious when they recognize the cost of harmful calories and artificial chemicals hidden behind the sensuous gratification causing incurable ailments such as corpulence, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and many others. People who love nothing but gratification and material pleasure in this life are often found eating fat-free, calorie-free and carb-free foods that are, frankly, scarcely superior to the food their dogs eat. Even they recognize that unless regulated, the short-term gratification can lead to long term pain and harm to the body.
But if gratification of our senses alone does not make us happy, then what does? What kind of happiness is lasting on the one hand, and on the other, pleases [not only our senses but] that which is inside of us –and does not bring regret and harm in its wake?
We are torn apart inside between that part of us which wants instant gratification, and that which wants the real ultimate happiness, a more appropriate term for which would be ‘bliss.’ But if what we really want is bliss, why do we so often fall for short-term gratification?
The secret is to grasp the nature of the conflicting forces inside us that lead us to want different things. A deep knowledge of the self is the first step to true happiness.
The War Inside: The Nafs versus the Qalb
We are prone to deception and confusion in our search for happiness unless we recognize that we have inside us two forces seeking two different kinds of “happiness.”
Our Merciful Creator tells us that the human nafs (self) has a deceptive aspect to it:
Indeed, the self is ever commanding evil, except upon whomever my Lord has bestowed mercy—indeed, my Lord is Merciful, Forgiving. [Sûrat Yûsuf, 12:53]
On other occasions too, the Quran associates the word nafs with greed and lower desires:
… And the anfus (pl. of nafs) have been filled with greed. [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:128]
And whosoever is saved from the greediness of his nafs, such are indeed the successful. [Sûrat Al-Taghâbun, 64:16]
Another aspect of nafs is also mentioned in the Quran, when Allah takes an oath by al-nafs al-lawwama (the blaming self) that is, that self which blames a soul for its sins. But often when the word nafs is used in the Quran by itself, it refers to the lower self which seeks short-term worldly pleasure, as seen in the verses above.
On the other hand, there is the qalb, heart. The qalb is said to be that aspect of us which looks for the ultimate bliss and peace, and finds this in nothing but the remembrance of Allah:
Know that in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find peace. [Sûrat Al-Raʿd, 13:28]
In this verse, the word used for the happiness of hearts is itmi’nan, which means satisfaction, peace, and bliss –in a word, tranquility.
As an aside, some scholars of the Islamic spiritual sciences use the term rûh to refer to what is being called qalb here. (More on rûh in Part 3.) The reason for our choice is that in the Qur’an the word rûh is used to mean different things, such as the Archangel Gabriel or the symbolic divine breath, but never to mean the moral aspect of human self, for which the Qur’an uses the word qalb.
For example, Allah says in the Quran:
- Only a sound heart, one which has achieved its natural longing for Allah, will eternally prosper:The Day when neither wealth nor sons will be of help. But only he (will prosper) who brings to Allah a sound heart. [Sûrat Al-Shuʿarâ’, 26:89]
- About His beloved servant, Ibrahim, Allah says,Behold! he approached his Lord with a sound heart. [Sûrat Al-Ṣaffât, 37:84]
- Paradise will be prepared for the one…who feared (Allah) the Merciful in the unseen and brought a heart turned in devotion (to Him). [Sûrat Qâf, 50:33]
- The message of truth can be received and understood only by those who have a living heart, whose hearts have not been sealed or killed by their vanity and rebellious nafs:Verily in this is a Message for any that has a heart and understanding or who gives ear and earnestly witnesses (the truth). [Sûrat Qâf, 50:37]
- If one believes in Allah, Allah guides his heart and fills it with divine knowledge and love:No kind of calamity can occur, except by the leave of Allah. And if any one believes in Allah, He guides his heart (aright): for Allah knows all things. [Sûrat Al-Taghâbun, 64:11]
- The Messenger of Allah ﷺ also used the term qalb to mean the moral human self which is the source of all good or evil. A well-known hadîth goes,… Verily, in the body there is a piece of flesh which, if it is sound, the entire body will be sound, and which, if it is corrupt, the entire body will be corrupt. Verily, it is the heart. (Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah)
Accordingly, the part of our soul that commands evil has been termed here as the nafs, while the part that seeks tranquility by seeking and remembering Allah has been called the qalb.
It is true that the terms nafs (self) and qalb (heart) are sometimes used interchangeably in the Qur’an. Yet, whenever they two terms are used in their absolute sense without qualification, the nafs is used to mean that aspect of us which seeks instant gratification and is the host of greed and other vices, whereas the qalb refers to that part of our soul that seeks Allah alone, and cannot be at peace except when it is filled with Allah’s knowledge and love.
The qalb, heart, is where the emotions, feelings and motivations reside. By its nature, it yearns to be filled with faith and certainty in Allah, with His love and fear, with high aspirations and pious motivations, and with mercy, justness and kindness towards other humans. Just like our body gets sick if fed with a rotten, harmful or unbalanced diet, so too does the heart get sick when filled with doubts or disbelief in Allah or moral ills such as jealously, hatred, malice, lusts, evil, depression and cowardice.
…To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 2.
Originally posted 2016-05-12 13:30:39.