Whether in enhancing the way our bodies look or perform, or understanding how to improve our health and well-being, or just trying to get rid of that pesky pimple on our face, it seems modern society has made us all very aware of our physical body and appearance.
We are sometimes painfully aware of any defect that shows up on our external selves and billions of dollars are spent worldwide on products meant to enhance the way we look.
With all this time and energy being put into physical appearance, one would imagine people would be even more concerned with their internal image, the state of their hearts and soul.
Or would they?
Beauty Starts from the Inside
We live in a world where so much emphasis has been put on the external, that attention to the internal is often neglected. How much time do we spend trying to enhance the way our hearts look, behave, function (at the spiritual level)?
Might we spend hours a day? Or is it more like minutes? Or are we totally oblivious to this dimension of ourselves?
It seems that sadly, the latter is the case—not only in predominately non-Muslim countries, but in Muslim-majority countries as well. And while it is important to take care of our external selves and of our physical appearance in a way that is pleasing to God, let us remember:
Narrated by Abu Hurairah:
“Allah does not look at your figures, nor at your attire but He looks at your hearts (and deeds).” (Muslim, 7)
So if it is the state of our hearts, our inner image that God looks at, isn’t it worthwhile for us to care about beautifying that image as much as we care about beautifying our outward appearance?
And what if we do not beautify and cleanse our inner image? Then, we end up with ugly hearts, diseased hearts, unhealthy hearts, and this will translate into ugly and unhealthy actions at the individual, family, and societal levels.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) very clearly states:
There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily this piece is the heart. (Al-Bukhari, 52 and Muslim, 1599)
Where do we begin to understand the state of our hearts?
This question is of great importance and though one could never fully answer it in the scope of one article, I hope, God-willing, to at least remind myself and others, not only of the importance of the heart, but also of how we may begin to cleanse and purify it.
The Importance of the Heart
The heart has always been recognized as one of the most important components of the human being. Even ancient, pre-Islamic civilizations, like those of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, emphasized its centrality in the physical and spiritual well-being of a person.
Perhaps no other religion or civilization emphasized the importance of the heart as comprehensively as Islam. The Quran relates the story of Prophet Abraham, when he called upon God and supplicated:
…Oh Allah, do not allow me to be put to shame, on the day when all will be brought forth, on the day when nothing will avail anyone from money or children except he who comes to God with a sound heart (that is saleem). (26:87–9)
The word Saleem is an Arabic word which has several meanings. It means at peace, or peaceful; It means whole; It means consistently healthy; It also means flawless, free of defects or disease.
Why is it so important that we strive to have a heart that is saleem?
Islam teaches that the heart serves like a compass for the believer. It helps him/her follow the light and guidance that God has sent to His creation. It helps him or her decipher truth from falsehood, good from evil and beauty from ugliness.
When the heart is upright and pure, a person will be able to drown out the noise of this material world and tune into his or her fitrah, or innate nature, that is naturally inclined toward goodness. When the heart is healthy and whole, it more easily follows the guidance that is laid out in the Quran and Prophet traditions.
However, when the heart is corrupted, either from sin or from having been filled with knowledge contrary to that which is in accordance with the fitrah, a person may have trouble distinguishing between good and evil, between beauty and ugliness.
In fact, to the corrupt heart, that which is evil may seem justifiable and even good. How often do we see this in our world, when horrible atrocities are committed in the name of serving society and spreading goodness?
How do we begin to rectify our hearts to ensure that they are in a state that is sound?
The heart, just like the body, needs nourishment, and while we fuel our bodies with food, the fuel of the heart is knowledge. Thus, one of the first pieces of advice given by scholars is to pay attention to what type of knowledge we feed our hearts.
The right type of knowledge includes that which helps us understand our religions and grow closer to God—some examples include learning about the traits and attributes of God; learning the correct way to perform acts of worship according to the Quran and Sunnah; and reading and understanding the words of God and His prophet.
Other types of knowledge are very important as well and historically Muslims have made great advancements in the arts, sciences and languages.
However, there must always be a balance so that the believer’s heart receives the consistent nourishment it needs to help keep it on the right path. Ibn Taymiyah attests to this when he says:
“Guidance is not attained except with knowledge and correct direction is not attained except with patience.” (Majmoo-ul-Fatawa, 10/40)
Another important piece of advice is to be very conscious of one’s actions. Righteous actions help cleanse the heart. A cleansed heart will better appreciate goodness and will be deterred from evil and falsehood. This attraction to goodness will then feedback to help the owner of this heart remain steadfast on the path of Allah and do more righteous actions.
Conversely, sinful actions put a dark spot on the heart, as the Prophet tells us:
“When a slave commits a sin, a black spot appears on his heart. If he gives it up, seeks forgiveness and repents, his heart will be cleansed, but if he repeats it, (the blackness) will increase until it overwhelms his heart.” (Ibn Majah, 4244)
What does this darkness do to the heart? It prevents it from receiving the light of truth and guidance. Without truth and guidance, the heart becomes corrupted. And the owner of a corrupted heart will then continue down a path of evil, sometimes unaware of how corrupted his or her heart has become.
Purifying Ourselves by Purifying Our Selves
The amount of knowledge that exists on how to purify the heart is vast. However, one last piece of advice we may benefit from in this article is to be wary of our nufoos (plural of nafs, which means self). The nafs is the source of base desires and whims. If left undisciplined, it will lead a person to seek those things that provide pleasure and entertainment to it, at the cost of being negligent or even in violation of the dictates of Islam.
Thus, we must train and purify our nufoos so that their whims and desires do not create roadblocks on our journey to our Lord, Glorified and Exalted is He. We must realize that there is more to life than just eating, drinking, talking, and being entertained. We must be wary of the vice of materialism and think twice about how much happiness we derive from simply buying and having more stuff.
We should also take time in the morning and evening to evaluate our intentions throughout the day—did our egos have a share in what we were supposed to be accomplishing for the sake of God? And always, we should ask God to purify our actions for His sake.
Working to purify our hearts is a daily struggle that continues so long as our hearts are beating. However, we can be encouraged by the fact that the fruits of this struggle are not only vague concepts we can intellectualize, but tangible results we can feel and experience in this life. What are some of them?
As we work to achieve a sound heart, we feel increasingly attached to God and closer to Him. This increases our internal feelings of peace, assurance, and reliance on God (tawakkul). This is not to say we will not be tested.
God promises to test the believers. But God-willing we will be better equipped to handle those tests and will face them with patience and rida (contentment for what God has decreed).
Finally, as we draw closer to God, we experience more of a desire to worship Him and actually find pleasure in doing so. At this time, acts of worship we once felt were difficult, will actually feel easier (like fasting for example, or praying at night).
Lastly, as we purify our hearts, we find that God will facilitate our affairs for us and make clear for us the path to Him. He will, in a sense, remove the blindness from our hearts and surround us with that which gives us direction, be it in the form of people, experiences, and or feelings that will further encourage us in our spiritual journey.
(This article is from Reading Islam’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.)