Acts of the Heart
Allah created the heart and made it a king, and the limbs as its troops. If the king is good, then the soldiers will be good, too.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“Indeed there is a piece of flesh in the body: if it is sound, the entire body is sound; and when it is corrupt, the entire body is corrupt. Truly it is the heart! (al-Bukhari and Muslim).
The spiritual heart is connected to the physical one, in ways that we may not yet be able to put in modern scientific terms. The heart is the place of belief and piety, or alternatively, of disbelief, hypocrisy and polytheism.
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The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“Piety is right here” and he pointed to his heart/ breast three times. (Muslim)
What Constitutes Iman and How Does it Relate to the Heart?
Iman is Belief, Speech and Acts: Belief and conviction residing in the spiritual heart; Speech of the tongue; and Acts of heart and limbs. The heart believes and affirms, which generates, for example, the saying of the Shahada (testimony) on the tongue. Then the heart acts with love, fear and hope. (We return to these three acts of the heart in Part 4.) After that, the tongue remembers Allah and recites from the Qur’an; the limbs prostrate and bow, and they perform actions that bring one closer to Allah. The body follows the heart; accordingly, nothing enters into the heart except that its indications are shown in the body in some way.
What are the acts of the spiritual heart? They are the conditions or processes which originate from the spiritual heart and stay connected to it. The greatest of these acts of the heart is heartfelt belief in Allah. From among these acts is having belief with submission and confirmation. In addition to what is in the heart are feelings of fear, hope, repentance, trust, patience, certainty, humbleness, love of Allah, and so on.
How does the Heart get Sick and How can we Rectify it?
Every healthy act of the heart has a sickness that opposes it. Showing off opposes sincerity, doubtfulness opposes certainty, hatred opposes love, and so on. If one neglects rectifying his heart, then his sins are going to build up in it and destroy it.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“When a servant commits a sin, a black mark is put into his heart. If he stops and asks for forgiveness, [that black mark] is cleared and removed. If he commits [the sin] again, more marks are put into [his heart]; and if he does [the same] again, more marks are put into it until they cover his heart. This is the stain that Allah mentioned: “No! Rather, the stain of that which they were earning has covered their hearts. “ [Sûrah Al-Muṭaffifîn, 83:14].” (al-Tirmidhi)
The Prophet (ﷺ) also said:
“The heart will be exposed to temptations as a mat is woven stick by stick, and any heart which accepts them will have a black mark put into it, but any heart which rejects them will have a white mark put in it. Then there will be two types of hearts: one white like a white stone which will not be harmed by any temptation, so long as the heavens and the earth endure; and the other black and dust-colored like a vessel which is turned over, not recognizing what is good or rejecting what is evil, except that which agrees with its desires.” (Muslim)
Knowing the acts of the heart is more important and a greater obligation on the servant than knowing the actions of the limbs. This is because the act of the heart is the base, or trunk, and the actions of the limbs are a branch and fruit of it, which completes the intention of the heart.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“Allah doesn’t look at your bodies and wealth; but rather He looks at your hearts and actions.” (Muslim).
Furthermore, the heart is the place of knowledge, contemplation and reflection. This is why Allah’s evaluation of people depends on what resides in their hearts in regard to belief, certainty and sincerity, and so on.
Al-Hasan al-Basri said:
” By Allah, Abu Bakr didn’t surpass them [the other Companions] by praying or fasting, but indeed it was the belief that was in his heart. ”
Acts of the heart are as important as, or of greater consequence than, actions of the limbs:
Any defect in the worship of the heart, such as showing off, could risk destroying Allah’s acceptance of the actions performed by the limbs.
The acts of the heart are the basis on which Allah evaluates your deeds. Thus you are not held accountable for an inadvertent statement or movement not intended by the heart.
1) Acts of the heart are the initiating cause for obtaining the highest levels in Paradise. Example: asceticism (zuhd) —see Part 4.
2) Acts of the heart can be harder and more difficult to perfect than the actions of the limbs.
Ibn al-Munkadir said:
“I strived with myself for forty years until it submitted to me.”
3) Acts of the heart have a more beautiful effect, like love for the sake of
4) Acts of the heart have a greater reward.
Abu al-Darda said:
” To contemplate for awhile is better than praying the whole night.”
5) Acts of the heart motivate the
6) Acts of the heart are the triggering cause for adjusting the reward of the actions of the limbs, making its reward greater or lesser, or even worthless. Example: khushû‘ (submission and humbleness) in prayer is highly rewardable.
7) Acts of the heart could be equivalent in reward to the actions of the limbs. Example: Having the intention to give in charity although not having money to make a donation.
8) Acts of the heart have a reward without limit. Example: Patience is one of the greatest characteristics of a believer.
9) Acts of the heart have a reward which continues even if the actions of the limbs stop or are incapable of
10) Acts of the heart begin before and continue during the actions of the limbs
The acts of the heart are not something that come automatically out of a passing desire to be a good Believer, a Muslim. Rather, there is a process by which one supervises the condition of his heart as he seeks to please Allah.
The Condition of the Heart goes through Stages before the Limbs Perform an Action
By understanding these stages and their implications, one can cultivate a pure heart.
Stage 1. When a thought first comes upon the heart. This stage is called al-Hâjis.
Stage 2. When the thought remains in it. This stage is called al-Khâtirah.
Stage 3. When one is undecided as to doing or leaving aside an action. This is called Hadîth al-Nafs.
Stage 4. When one seriously considers carrying out an action. This is called al-Hamm.
Stage 5. When one has a settled will to carry out the already-considered act and has determined to do so. This is called al-Azm .
There is no reward —nor is there a sin— for engaging in the first three stages.
As for the fourth, al-Hamm, any good deeds seriously considered are ‘written down,’ that is credited to one’s ‘Account,’ but the bad deeds are not written down at this stage.
Then, once a person decides to act upon his thought (al–Azm), his act enters the fifth category. That is when his intended deed becomes accountable: If the act which one has determined to carry out is good, it is ‘written down’ as a good deed; and, if it is bad, it is written down as a bad deed, even if one does not actually carry it out. The reason for this is that having the will to do something is accounted as doing it. Let us see how the acts of the heart work in Stage 5.
Narrated Al-Ahnaf bin Qais:
While I was going to help this man (‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib), Abu Bakra met me and asked, “Where are you going?” I replied, “I am going to help that person.” He said, “Go back for I have heard Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) saying,
“When two Muslims fight each other with their swords, then both the killer and the one who is killed are in the Fire.” I said to him, “O Messenger of Allah! I can understand this with regard to the killer, but what about the one murdered?” He replied, “He surely had the intention to kill his companion.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 31)
Stage 5 Options – Avoiding Punishable Choices and Cultivating a Healthy Spiritual Heart
Hopefully, the sincere Muslim gives primary attention to doing good deeds. As we know, even the best of us may sometimes fail to reject a tempting poor choice. Instead, a blameworthy deed is about to be committed. If a person ends up NOT committing the intended sin after having determined to do so (al–Azm), he or she falls into one of the following categories regarding that intended action:
- A person who leaves the intended bad deed [undone] out of fear of Allah —that is, for the sake of pleasing Allah and intending to conform to what Allah requires. In such a case, this person is rewarded for changing his mind and, in the end, determining NOT to do that bad deed.
- A person who leaves the intended bad deed [undone] out of fear of people. In such a case, this person has, even so, still committed a sin, a blameworthy act of the heart. While leaving off the action of the intended sin is a rewardable act of worship, still it is rewardable only when done for the sake of pleasing Allah, not for the sake of looking good in the eyes of the people around him—whether they be fellow Muslims or others.
- A person who has determined to commit the bad deed, but fails because he is not actually capable of carrying it out. He may be prevented by circumstances beyond his control. In this category he doesn’t seek the means to overcome those circumstances. Perhaps he simply loses interest for the time being. In such a case, this person is accounted as having committed a bad deed due to his having determined to follow through on something he had weighed in his heart (at Stage 4) and decided to go ahead.
- A person who fails to commit the bad deed because he is incapable of doing so. In this category [unlike in category 3) he seeks —but unsuccessfully— the means of committing it. In such a case, a full bad deed is written to the account of this person, because having the will to commit a sin is like committing it. In this case, he did not change his mind about trying to follow through (category 1), nor did he stop seeking the means to fulfill his intention (category 3) .
- A person has a continuing intention (al-Azm) to perform a blameworthy deed. That person is punishable for it, whether his continuing intention came before his first success at the bad deed or, again, after a further successful repetition of this bad deed. So if a person commits a sin, and then he intends to do it again when he again has the opportunity, this is a person who insists on committing sins. In that case, he is punishable for this intention, even if he never actually succeeds again in committing the sin.
Notice that having once “gotten away with” soiling his heart with this blameworthy deed, he continues to be open to the opportunity of doing the same thing again.
The seriousness of the punishment deserved —and decided— for wrongdoing is left to Allah’s merciful judgment. He has given to mankind guidelines which can —at one and the same time— encourage us to do good and forbid us from doing evil. Further details follow in Parts 2 and 3.
The above categories of calculating the increasing seriousness of bad deeds to the detriment of the health of our hearts can be thought of as a system of “Cost-Benefit Analysis.” This ascending scale of seriousness (in Stage 5 Options above) increases from category (1) —in which the effect of the bad deed is wiped out— to category 5 —which incurs the most deterioration and destructive effects on the spiritual heart.
Being aware of this sliding scale of consequences can help us monitor the acts of our spiritual hearts and assist us to make our decisions regarding which promptings of our hearts to follow in consideration of their various degrees of greater reward, and which to reject at all costs because of their profound blackening of our hearts.
Our goal, of course, is to learn to maximize good deeds and to carry them out with exclusively pure intention. It is well known, however, that we constantly live with the possibility either of pleasing Allah or of displeasing Him. The above Stage 5 Options can spur us deliberately to CHOOSE to reject what will displease our Creator and Lord, and deliberately to allow ourselves to be doing only what will please Him.
Not only are their various degrees of intention which govern the purity of our hearts further addressed in Part 2, but we also look at degrees of wrongdoing impinging upon the soundness of our hearts, as well as the design of repentance.
 I would like to acknowledge my debt of gratitude for assistance in writing this article to Al-Azhar University graduate, Mr. Ahmed Nagy, now Director of the online Firdaws Academy for English language teaching of the Qur’an, Arabic language and Islamic Studies <https://firdawsacademy.com>,where the author is a tutor.