A Peaceful Heart Overcomes Depression and Sin | 3

IN PARTS 1 and 2, we differentiated, defined and characterized the nafs (the self) and the qalb (the heart) as referred to in the Quran and the Sayings (Hadith) of Prophet Muhammad œ. We looked at the parts they play in attaining tranquility– a fruit of pleasing Allah– versus their role in triggering depression and their interplay in seeking forgiveness for sin (tawba) and thus returning to a sound and blissful state.

The Alchemy of Happiness

Imam Al-Ghazali begins his famous treatise on the nature of happiness, The Alchemy of Happiness, by citing the profound adage, “Whoever knows himself, knows God.” (This is not a hadîth, but was mistakenly cited by Al-Ghazali as such. Nonetheless, it contains a profound truth.)

The ultimate bliss, he says, comes by seeking four kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of self, of God, of the reality of this world, and of the reality of the next world. Al-Ghazali uses profound allegories and parables to explain the reality of the spiritual world. Most instructive in this treatise is the elaboration of the nature of the human soul. It should be noted that he uses the terms heart (qalb) and soul (h) interchangeably.

What follows is a summary of some of his insights about the nature of the soul and the spiritual existence.

1. The ‘heart’ (or soul) refers to a spiritual entity and governs all other human faculties, and belongs to a spiritual world, and it cannot be satisfied except when filled with knowledge and love of Allah.

The first step to self-knowledge is to know that thou art composed of an outward shape, called the body, and an inward entity called the heart. By ‘heart’ I do not mean the piece of flesh situated in the left side of our bodies, but that which uses all the other faculties as its instruments and servants. In truth it does not belong to the visible world, but to the invisible, and has come into this world as a traveler visits a foreign country for the sake of merchandise, and will presently return to its native land. It is the knowledge of this entity and its attributes which is the key to the knowledge of Allah.

2. A parable:

For the carrying on of this spiritual warfare by which the knowledge of oneself and of Allah is to be obtained, the body may be figured as a kingdom, the heart/soul as its king, and the different senses and faculties as constituting an army. Reason may be called the vizier, or prime minister, passion (nafs) the revenue-collector, and anger the police officer.

Under the guise of collecting revenue, passion is continually prone to plunder on its own account, while resentment is always inclined to harshness and extreme severity.

Both of these, the revenue-collector and the police officer, have to be kept in due subordination to the king, but not killed or expelled, as they have their own proper functions to fulfill.

But if passion and anger master reason, [then] the ruin of the soul infallibly ensues.… The aim of moral discipline is to purify the heart from the rust of passion and anger, till, like a clear mirror, it reflects the light of Allah.

3. The knowledge of the spiritual realities is acquired progressively through worship and discipline.

An exact philosophical knowledge of the soul is not required to begin walking in the path of religion, but [it] comes rather as the result of self-discipline and perseverance in that path, as it is said in the Quran: Those who strive in Our way, verily We will guide them to Our paths. [Sûrat Al-¢Ankabût, 29:69]

4. The hearts are like mirrors that reflect the light of God, unless they are befouled by the rust of desires (shahawat) of the nafs.

Every human being has in the depths of his consciousness heard the question ‘Am I not your Lord?’ and answered ‘Yes’ to it. But some hearts are like mirrors so befouled with rust and dirt that they give no clear reflections, while those of the prophets and pious people, though they are men with passions like us, are extremely sensitive to all divine impressions.

This parable reminds one of the Qur’anic verse:

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; a likeness of His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive-tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not—light upon light—Allah guides to His light whom He pleases, and Allah sets forth parables for men, and Allah is Cognizant of all things. [Sûrat Al-Nûr, 24:35]

Ubay ibn Ka’b, one of the foremost Companions of the Messenger in the knowledge of the Quran, interpreted the locus of this light of Allah to be the heart of a true believer (recorded by Ibn Kathîr).

5. The ultimate bliss of our heart, or soul, is in the knowledge and love of Allah.

Anyone who will look into the matter will see that happiness is necessarily linked with the knowledge of God. Each faculty of ours delights in that for which it was created: lust delights in accomplishing desire, anger in taking vengeance, the eye in seeing beautiful objects, and the ear in hearing harmonious sounds.

The highest function of the soul of man is the perception of truth; in this accordingly it finds its special delight. Even in trifling matters –such as learning chess– this holds good. And the higher the subject-matter of the knowledge obtained, the greater the delight.

An astronomer who can, by his knowledge, map the stars and describe their courses derives more pleasure from his knowledge than can the chess-player from his.

Seeing, then, that nothing is higher than Allah, how great must be the delight which springs from the true knowledge of Him!

How to Attain Happiness

As we can infer from the discussion above, the basic strategy of attaining true happiness is to:

  • Tame and control our nafs –the animal soul– by recognizing and opposing its desires, through punishment and reward
  • Strengthen our qalb, by recognizing its demands through contemplation and nourishment through the remembrance of Allah and reading the Book of Allah
  • Practically speaking, we need to engage in this effort in two modes:

(A) our routine maintenance mode, and

(B) our response on special occasions such as those of excessive joy or grief.


  • Set time for daily recitation and contemplation of the Quran. You may start with as little as half an hour a day, and time yourself to read for half the time and contemplate for the rest half. During special blessed times such as Ramadan, of course, this time period should increase, but even after Ramadan, at least some minimal time must be set aside for this.
  • Set time for daily adhkar (supplications taught by the Prophet). Besides the usual adhkar after every prayer, it is extremely beneficial to devote some time for a set of special adhkar recommended by the Messenger of Allah.
  • Set a time for daily muraqaba (self-evaluation) and tawba (repentance). This should consist of not only the standard prayers and verses recommended above, but a personal, intimate and candid conversation with your Lord acknowledging His blessings, your shortcomings, reasserting your commitment and asking all your good desires and wishes.
  • Read books, articles and listen to lectures of scholars who focus on this issue. Avoid polemical and doubt-creating literature and talks and focus first on what is beneficial to the faith in your heart.
  • Consciously oppose the excessive demands of your nafs, even in permissible things, such as excessive eating, sleeping and other forms of permissible entertainment. Certainly avoid doubtful forms of entertainment.
  • Voluntary fasting and Qiyam al-Layl, even in times other than the blessed month of Ramadan.


  • When faced with a calamity, don’t let your nafs The nafs will react with anger, disappointment, revenge, or losing faith in Allah. Look into your heart, and its reliance upon Allah, and recall that all losses are small compared to the ultimate eternal success with Allah, and that success can be guaranteed with patience (sabr).I can never forget one such case of patient reliance upon Allah that I personally witnessed in my family. When I was a kid, one of my older cousins, married to a poor man with six small children, lost her husband. She had nothing saved up and no prospects of how she would raise this many kids in the future. As a young woman, her life was not only over, it appeared that it was going to be endless misery and humiliation. She was naturally devastated by the news. Right then, my grandmother, a God-fearing woman, told her to get up and make two rak‘at of salah, thanking Allah for what He had given her. To my surprise, ceasing her wailing and weeping, she got up and performed the salah and thanked Allah. Never have I seen a such real example of patience and reliance upon Allah. Whenever I think of patience, I think of this woman, and it makes my own troubles look so much smaller and patience so much easier.
  • When in distress, recall your unattended-to-sins instead of blaming others, losing hope, or venting anger.When you feel aggrieved, distressed or depressed, recall that this state is a result of your disconnectedness with Allah or some untreated ills of the heart or some sins you have not repented for. Thank Allah for reminding you of this weakness inside of you and roll up your sleeves to evaluate yourself and make sincere tawba.
  • When your qalb and your nafs are in tension, associate yourself as much as possible with the former, not with the latter.In other words, instead of thinking,“I really want to skip salah right now, but this thing inside of me won’t let me,”think:“My nafs wants to skip salah right now, but I [my qalb] won’t let it happen.”
  • Nourish your qalb in good times; it will protect you in bad times. For example, make a routine to offer thanks to Allah in the form of two rak‘at prayers, or one-day fasts, whenever something great happens in your life. When on vacation or just before going out with friends for lots of permissible fun, offer two rak‘at When you see your final grades or get a bonus at work, etc., thank Allah by giving charity, however small. When you acquire something new and significant, like a new car or a house, thank Allah in proportion by praying, fasting, giving charity and other good deeds.
  • Most importantly, always ask Allah to protect your qalb and not leave your nafs to its own devices even for a moment. Supplicate as the Prophet of Allah used to do:“Ya muqallibal qulûb thabbit qalbi ‘ala dînik” O turner of hearts, establish my heart on your dîn.“Allahumma la takilni ila nafsi tarfata‘ayn” O Allah, do not leave me at the mercy of my nafs even for the wink of an eye.

In sum, if you stay close to Allah, He will stay close to you. Tame the nafs through purifying the qalb. Seek to please Allah and He will give you tranquility. Self-assess yourself and seek His pardon and you will find your ultimate bliss in Him.

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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