ISLAMIC TALKS ABOUT the heart are all well and good, but often times we can be lost (even pleasantly) in the discussion of this mysterious muscle, which is fixed in the world of the unseen just as much as it is the tangible. This muscle is the seat of our bodily and spiritual life, and while quick and easy checklists exist for how to improve the heart’s physical condition, we don’t find nearly enough easy guidelines for keeping our spiritual heart healthy.
This article will point out five common actions that can lead to spiritual heart disease, and a follow-up article will tell us five ways we can keep our heart spiritually fit.
Just like physical heart disease, spiritual heart disease finds its root in laziness and instant gratification. Here are five things you want to avoid to keep your heart in good shape:
The fastest destroyer of the heart is addiction in any shape or form. It doesn’t matter what the object of addiction is. Addiction is a fixation and desire for something that goes beyond reasonable, healthy bounds.
If the thing one is addicted to is something permissible, it will put the heart in trouble, but the effects may not be seen right away. Rather, they will culminate slowly over time. One may only feel some restlessness initially which is easily brushed off but can still end up with the same result: hardness of the heart and dislike of reading the Quran or prayer or dhikr.
If the thing one is addicted to is a sin, it will put the heart in severe danger. One is in danger of Allah’s punishment or abandonment until the person becomes repentant. The heart will become coated in blackness and engulfed in the whispers of shayṭân and will feel sick with an insatiable hunger. The heart is in danger of a very quick, brutal end, and should one decide to correct himself, the reversal of the damage will need to take a very drastic, concerted effort, a “cold turkey” approach.
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself how easily you can leave what you’re doing to pray and how much focus do you have when you pray; does the object enter your mind often during ṣalâh? Do you feel any satisfaction from worship, or only from this thing?
It goes without saying that sins deaden the heart. Yet it is within the nature of human beings to be vulnerable to our own nafs and the whispers of the shayâṭîn. The Prophet ﷺ said:
I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul, if you were a people who did not commit sin, Allah would take you away and replace you with a people who would sin and then seek Allah’s forgiveness so He could forgive them. (Muslim)
As humans we live in a constant cycle of sin, remorse, repentance—and hopefully, avoidance and atonement. Sins themselves are not good for the heart, but they are part and parcel of our journey on this world. Sins, whether major or minor, are best avoided, just like tempting foods and lifestyles that would lead to high cholesterol.
However, life is peppered with highs and lows, and no one is a fitness buff through every season. Îmân has its highs and lows, and with the lows often come a flux of sins that, inshâ’Allah, the human being will address as he becomes aware of himself and breaks out of his “rut.”
It is obvious that major sins deaden the heart quickly, but minor sins are a silent killer because all too often the person thinks he’s doing “okay” until he gets smacked with reality. Yes, we should avoid sins, but more importantly—just like when we go through a funk of laziness and over-eating—we at least have the humility to realize we are being weak and need to start taking those small-steps back onto the right track, and that begins with sincere repentance and small but consistent good actions.
3. Too Much Socializing
Socializing comes in three forms:
- that which is encouraged, such as socializing for a good cause like meeting with people for a ḥalaqa or charitable event,
- that which is permissible, such as getting together with friends just for the sake of fun or Facebook, and
- that which is forbidden like getting together with friends to watch a bad movie or go to a ‘club’ where ḥarâm or questionable activities are likely to take place
The first one, that which is encouraged, is not one that contributes to spiritual heart disease. The other two, however, can and do, respectively. Permissible socializing does not deaden the heart unless it is over-done.
The Prophet said:
You should laugh less. Verily, too much laughter will deaden the heart. (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, graded hasan “fair” by Imam Bukhari)
Permissible socializing can actually keep the heart balanced and promote its good health, because everyone needs a break or time of relaxation from doing work. Just like someone who works out routinely and eats well, he does well to treat himself to an occasional pizza night or time off from the gym to stay home and put his feet up.
If he works this permissible socializing into a greater routine of spiritual fitness, this will prevent him from burning out. However if one socializes too much, the heart will begin to feel restless and be at risk. Sometimes we can’t help that we are asked to socialize more than we’d like, whether because of work or family commitments. The solution to this is to schedule in some pointed alone time, such as ṣalât al-ḍuḥa or qiyâm al-layl to nourish the heart.
It goes without saying that socializing in ways that includes sinful actions will hurt the heart and lead to its atrophy. What many Muslims need to be aware of is those silent sins that accompany socializing like back-biting, showing off, or arguing, especially on social media.
4. Excessive Eating and Drinking
Here is a practice that can atrophy both the physical and spiritual heart in tandem, and while it poses a dual-threat, it is one that all too often is overlooked or downplayed. Overconsumption can be a type of addiction, in which case it belongs in the first category. However, it could also be just a bad habit and laziness to monitor oneself. The Prophet ﷺ said:
The strong believer is better to Allah than the weak believer. (Muslim)
Strength is not just understood in terms of brute force, but in terms of one’s physical fitness level. A Muslim who has a healthy weight and some level of athleticism will have more stamina for his worship, as many acts of worship include a physical component.
Fasting requires one to abstain from food and drink, yet those who have made themselves diabetic through bad lifestyle choices cannot even fast. Others who are accustomed to over-eating throughout the day will over-eat at ifṭâr time and will not be agile enough for ṣalâh at night. Standing is one of the main features of ṣalâh, but a person who is overweight will need to sit because his knees and ankles will not be able to carry his own weight. One may be thin but if not athletic, s/he may become fatigued quickly during prolonged ṣalâh. Anyone who over-consumes will have difficulty rising from his sleep—whether to perform qiyâm al-layl or fajr—because of a “food coma.”
Those who over-consume are also often distracted by constant thoughts of food and drink. Any time they feel a food craving, they seek to satisfy it, so they spend a great deal of time preparing food or eating it. If one learns to bear some hunger, one can accomplish more worship.
The Prophet ﷺ advised us to limit how we fill our stomachs:
There is no vessel which the son of Adam can fill that is more evil than his stomach, for it is enough for him to take a few bites in order to straighten his back. Yet if he is overcome by appetite, then he may fill it with one third water, one third food, and one third ‘air’—for ease of breathing. (Ibn Mâjah)
Abu Sulaymân Al-Dârânî said:
Everything rusts and the rust of the heart is eating to one’s fill.
5. Disproportionate Sleeping
There is a lot of research suggesting the importance of sleep and that the human being should have, on average, eight hours of sleep at night. However, we know that our beloved Prophet ﷺ used to pray at least a third of the night; for us, any portion of rising in the night to pray is better than none.
One should not think of sleep only in numbers of hours, but also in the quality of those hours. As Muslims we believe in the concept of baraka, implying an increase beyond what you could expect n the normal course of affairs. If rising for qiyâm al-layl or even fajr is difficult and our body is crying out that it is tired, then our biology is telling us to go back to sleep, that we need more rest. However, most of us know that a day without fajr is often a day with its baraka lessened or lost, a day of lethargy and lack of focus.
So for the one who spends some of his night in worship, whether prayer or reading the Quran or dhikr, he knows that while he has lost some sleep, Allah will put baraka in the sleep he does take. And furthermore that sleep will be not only enough for him, but he will be even livelier the next day. This is because while the body may be a little short on sleep, the soul is refreshed and the heart is enlivened. Energy comes not from the physical body alone but from the heart and soul as well.
Many are the people who sleep plenty at night, yet they still feel lethargic the next day. This is because their soul is practically in a coma from the absence of any struggle and fitness in worship. They have indulged themselves too much and they are those whose heart has atrophied.
Let us begin the process of cleaning up our hearts by removing its rust. Insha’Allah in the next article we will offer five healthy habits to nourish and protect the spiritual heart.