Qalb(قلب ) 

Conceptual Definition

The Qur’an and hadith have provided a rich and nuanced vocabulary and description of the various dimensions of the human heart, and over the centuries, various Islamic disciplines and literatures have built upon this foundation to develop profound understandings of the heart as the meeting place of the ethical and intellectual, the Divine and the human, the eternal and temporal, the spiritual and the physical.

The Sufi and theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111) distinguished between two meanings of the word “qalb”: the first is the physical organ that pumps blood and is part of the visible world, while the second is a “subtle substance,” which is connected to the physical heart, but is the real essence of humanity, whereas non-human animals and corpses also have physical hearts. He writes, “The heart is the part of man that perceives and knows and experiences; it is addressed, punished, rebuked, and held responsible, and it has a connection with the physical heart… Its connection resembles the connection of accidents with substances, of qualities with the things they qualify, of the user of a tool with the tool or of that which occupies a place with the place.” In short, the heart is the center of human consciousness/being (wujūd in Arabic) in both its invisible (psychospiritual) and visible (physical/imaginal) forms. 

Later Sufi authors used Qur’anic terminology to describe the different levels of the heart and the human psychospiritual self, for example some schemas describe the breast (al-ṣadr) as the seat of emotions, within which is the heart (al-qalb), within which is the inner heart (al-fū’ād), within which is the innermost heart/kernel (al-lubb), which is the seat of spiritual perception and realization. Related schemas described the human being as having multiple “subtle bodies,” each existing on a different level of being/consciousness, so while the physical heart is the center of the physical body, there are other “hearts” corresponding to the centers of these different “bodies” on different levels of being. For example, one common schema lists seven such subtle centers corresponding to seven levels of being/consciousness:

  1. Nafs (Soul)
  2. Qalb (Psychospiritual heart)
  3. ‘Aql (Intellect)
  4. Rūḥ (Spirit)
  5. Sirr (Secret)
  6. Khafī (Hidden)
  7. Akhfā (The Most Hidden)

 The Sufi tradition presents itself as a “cure” for hearts that are “diseased,” “hardened,” and “blind,” characterized by turbulence, ignorance, and selfishness, transforming them into “sound” hearts characterized by limpidity, knowledge, tenderness, and receptivity to Divine theophanies.  This transformation is also described as a journey from the periphery of one’s being to its center, into the heart itself, which a Prophetic tradition describes as “the throne of the All-Merciful.” Thus, the heart is thus at once the vehicle as well as the goal of the journey of human life; in the words of another hadith, “My heavens and my earth cannot contain me but the heart of my believing servant contains me”; that is, the heart contains the Divine presence that is both our origin and final end.

Philosophical significance

In Islamic philosophical works, the heart is likened to the king of a city and the other human faculties to the cities’ inhabitants. If the heart is sound, then the city will be run well and the inhabitants (the human faculties and whole human being) will be happy and healthy. If the heart is sick and/or if another body part/faculty such as hunger/the stomach, anger, pride, lust, etc. take control, then the people of the city will be oppressed and the city will be out of balance and eventually fall into ruin—the human being will be sick and wretched. As another hadith says, “There is a piece of flesh in the body if it is sound the whole body is sound, but if it is spoiled the whole body is spoiled and that is the heart.” 

For the Sufis however, the heart is the primary instrument of perception and knowledge, provided that it has been properly purified. Another hadith says, “Knowledge is a light that God casts into the heart of the knower” and the Qur’an declares, “Have they not traveled in the land, and have they hearts wherewith to intellect and ears wherewith to hear? For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts, which are within the chests, that grow blind.” (Qur’an 22:46). Yet another hadith says that, “Were it not for the excess of your talking and the turmoil in your hearts, you would see what I see and hear what I hear!” Implying that the enlightened mode of consciousness which the Prophet possesses is accessible to those who can still the turmoil in their hearts. The key to stilling the turmoil of the heart is the central Sufi practice of dhikr, which means mention, remembrance, and invocation . The Qur’an says, “Verily in the remembrance (dhikr) of God do hearts find rest” (13:28) while another hadith says, “for everything there is a polish, and the polish for hearts is dhikr.”

A famous story found in the works of al-Ghazali, Rumi, and Ibn al-‘Arabi contrasts philosophers and scholars to Sufis describing a contest between two groups of artists, each given half of a king’s room to decorate. One group paints beautiful images all over the walls and ceilings, while the other group polishes all the surfaces of their half of the room to mirror-like reflectivity. When the screen between the two halves of the room is removed, the polished surfaces reflect all the images of the other half, made more beautiful, as well as the light and scenery from the room’s windows, as well the people within the room. The polishers are deemed the winners, and are compared to the Sufis who focus on polishing the mirrors of their hearts, in which can be found all Divine and cosmic beauty and knowledge.

It is thus the heart through which the Sufi seeks to see the Real, to see God, in the celebrated symbolism of the “eye of the heart” (‘ayn al-qalb), which is the same “eye” through which God sees us, as the famous Sufi master al-Hallāj sang in a daring poem:

I saw my Lord with the eye of my heart

I said, “who are you?”, and He said, “you.”

Or in another poem by Ibn al-‘Arabi:

When my Beloved appears

Which which eye do I see him?

With His eye not with mine

For none see Him but Him

The Sufi practice of dhikr typically involves repeating names of God or formulas like the Shahada (testimony of faith), la ilaha illa Allah (there is no god/reality but God/Reality), or those invoking blessings upon the prophet. It can be done out loud (with the tongue) or silently (with/in the heart). In some advanced Sufi practices, adepts sync this dhikr (invocation) with their breath and eventually their heartbeat, continuing the practice even as they sleep. As another hadith states, “My eyes sleep, but my heart is awake.” 

 Etymologically, the word “qalb” comes from an Arabic root that means to “turn over, to transform” and the Sufi tradition in particular has emphasized this to illustrate that the human heart is in perpetual flux, never in the same from moment to moment and never in the same state twice. A famous prayer of the Prophet puns on these meanings, “O turner of hearts, establish my heart upon Thy religion.” And as another hadith says, “The heart of the believer is between God’s two fingers.”  Ibn al-‘Arabi takes this up to contrast the perfect receptivity (qābila, from a related root) and flexibility of the sound heart that responds perfectly to the ever-changing, never-repeating theophanies (tajalliyāt) or manifestations of the Divine, like a perfect mirror to the images that impinge upon it. He contrasts this to ‘aql, reason/intellect, which etymologically comes from a root which means “to bind or fetter,” to argue that while reason (al-‘aql) tries to limit the Real according to its own limitations, the Real is exceeds the bonds of the ‘aql, and is in fact that which determines the limits of ‘aql, not the other way around. This is why the heart, with its infinite receptivity, is the proper organ for knowing the Real. Ibn ‘Arabi has a beautiful and famous poem on this theme: 

My heart has become receptive to every form

A meadow for gazelles, a cloister for monks

A hosue for idols, and the pilgrim’s Ka’aba

The tablets of the Torah, pages of the Qur’an

My religion is love’s own and wheresoever turns

Her caravan, that love is my religion and my faith

The word “qālib” meaning container or mold comes from same q-l-b root as “qalb” (heart), indicating that the heart contains the presence of God and is the mold into which God pours His existence, knowledge, love, and light. As the hadith says, “the heart of the believer is the throne of the All-Merciful (al-Raḥmān) [one of the central names of God].”

 In Islamic cosmology, the throne is the boundary between the Divine and created orders and the Qur’an describes it as being carried by 8 angels, so it is often represented by an 8-pointed star (two interlocking squares). In traditional homes, palaces, and mosques, this 8-pointed star design is often found on ceilings as well as around fountains or pools in the middle of the central courtyard, which is symbolically the “heart” of the home. The reflectivity of the water, the perpetual motion of the fountain, and the way it brings life (water) into its surroundings all recall the symbolism of the heart, which is often likened to a fountain or a spring. As another hadith says, “one who dedicates himself to God for forty days, springs of wisdom will flow from his heart to his tongue.” 

Rearranging its letters (as one does in the Islamic kabbalistic science of jafr or ‘ilm al-ḥurūf), the word for heart (qalb) is also related to the word qābila, receptivity, discussed before, and “qibla”, the direction of prayer for Muslims—towards the Ka‘aba in Mecca. The Ka‘aba is the site of the annual hajj pilgrimage and is also symbolically the dwelling place of God, and therefore the center and geographic and ritual focal point of the whole Muslim world. As such, it is also a symbol of the heart, as Ibn al-‘Arabi explains:

“When God created your body, He placed within it a Ka‘ba, which is your heart. He made this temple of the heart the noblest of houses in the person of faith. He informed us that the heavens… and the earth, in which there is the Ka‘ba, do not encompass Him and are too confined for Him, but He is encompassed by this heart in the constitution of the believing human. What is meant here by ‘encompassing’ is knowledge of God.”

In his esoteric commentary on the Qur’an, Imam Ja ‘far al-Ṣādiq describes the Sufi path as a journey of the heart (sayr al-qalb), comparing it to the journey of the heavenly bodies through the constellations of the zodiac:

“Heaven is called heaven due to its loftiness. The heart is a heaven, since it ascends by belief and knowledge without limit or restriction. Just as the Known [God] is unlimited, so the knowledge of it is unlimited the zodiacal signs of heaven are the courses of the sun and moon, and they are Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagitarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. In the heart there are zodiacal signs and they are, belief, knowledge, intellect, certainty, submission, excellence, reliance, fear, hope, love, longing, and ravishing.”

These last three stages of the heart’s journey are all words for intense love.

While death and decay brings an end to our outer, physical heart, for Sufis, the inward, spiritual or unseen dimensions of our heart—particularly those sound hearts polished by the remembrance and love of God—continue their journey back to and within the Divine Presence, endlessly.

As the poet Hafez wrote,

One whose heart has been revived by love can never die

Our everlastingness is engraved upon the cosmic scroll

Significant References

Al-Ghazālī. The Marvels of the Heart: The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Fons Vitae, 2010.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi path of knowledge: Ibn al-Arabi’s metaphysics of imagination. Suny Press, 2010.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi path of love: The spiritual teachings of Rumi. Suny Press, 1984.

Morris, James Winston. The reflective heart: discovering Spiritual intelligence in Ibn Arabi’s Meccan illuminations. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2005

Ernst, Carl W. Sufism: An introduction to the mystical tradition of Islam. Shambhala Publications, 2017.

M. Rustom, “The Metaphysics of the Heart in the Sufi Doctrine of Rumi.” Studies in Religion 37 (2008), 3-14.
Todd, R. The Sufi Doctrine of Man: Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī’s Metaphysical Anthropology (Leiden: 2014).

‘Aql (عقل)

Conceptual Definition

In Islamic intellectual disciplines, there Arabic term ‘aql plays a role similar to that of “intellect,” “reason,” or even “mind” or “common sense” in English-language discourses. Etymologically derived from the root, ‘-q-l , whose basic verb is ‘aqala, “to bind or fetter [a camel],” some linguists and philosophers explained that the ‘aql is thus named because it is that which restrains the soul from that which is harmful or evil, or that which “binds” human beings to their Divine Origin, or that which “ties down” concepts, permitting comprehension and understanding. This root appears as a verb, but not as a noun, in the Qur’an, typically meaning “to understand,” for example:

Have they not journeyed upon the earth, that they might have hearts by which to understand or ears by which to hear? Truly it is not the eyes that go blind, but it is hearts within breasts that go blind. (22:46)


They say, “Had we listened or had we understood, we would not be among the inhabitants of the Blaze. (67:10)

‘Aql is typically taken to refer to the intellective faculty of the soul (nafs) or heart (qalb) by which human beings can understand the principles of reality underlying its multiform appearances. In Islamic philosophy and theology, it is the characteristic and defining feature of a human being, that which makes moral responsibility possible, and whose development and cultivation is our raison d’être. In most traditions of Islamic philosophy, the human intellect is the last link in a chain of divine intellects going back to God. The potential of the intellect (ʿaql) to achieve the blissful state of divine contempla­tion and knowledge that is the goal of human existence is actualized through the acquisi­tion of knowledge, and, since the intellect is an immaterial substance, through ascetic ex­ercises, discipline, and a balancing of the passions and bodily humors, which can cloud and weaken the functioning of the intellect. 

However, certain traditions of Sufism and theology emphasized the limited and limiting nature of the ‘aql, contrasting it to the infinitely-flexible and receptive heart (qalb). Nevertheless, other traditions of philosophy, Sufism, and later theology identified the Aristotelian/Neo-Platonic Active Intellect (al-‘aql- al-fa‘āl) with the Archangel Gabriel or the Holy Spirit of Abrahamic cosmologies who is the bringer of revelation. In these traditions, the human intellect served as a kind of immanent or subjective revelation that complements, mirrors, and is connected to the origin of prophetic revelation. In this perspective, if God is like the sun, then the Active Intellect is like the moon, and the activated human intellect is like the full moon’s reflection on a placid lake on a perfectly clear night.

It is important to note that in all of these perspectives, the functions of the ‘aql include but also exceed those of the “rational faculty” (ratio in Latin) to include those of the medieval Latin intellectus, that is, the direct metaphysical perception of universal realities. These perspectives are perhaps best summed up in the distinction of the famous Sufi and poet, Jalal al-dīn Rūmī, between the partial intellect (al-‘aql al-juzwī), which is the instrument of rationality and ordinary learning, and the Universal Intellect (al-‘aql al-kullī) (which he calls “the Intellect of the intellect”), which is the purified intellect of prophets and sages and the instrument of direct intellection of things “as they are.” He writes:

 What sort of thing could the partial intellect possess that is not possessed by the Universal Intellect? The partial intellect is unable to produce anything from itself that it has not first seen. These compositions, engineering feats and structures that people erect are not new compositions. Having seen something like them, human beings merely make additions.  Those who truly produce something new form themselves are the Universal Intellect. The partial intellect can be taught, it is in need of teaching. But the Universal Intellect is the teacher; it has no needs…. Whoever possess a partial intellect is in need of instruction, but the Universal Intellect is the originator of all things. Those who have joined the partial intellect to the Universal Intellect so that the two have become one are the prophets and saints.

Philosophical significance

As the faculty of knowledge, the ‘aql is the main instrument of the Islamic philosophical tradition (falsafa), in both its theoretical and practical dimensions. Indeed, Al-Kindī (d. 873), the first great Muslim peripatetic philosopher, defined falsafa as “the knowledge of the reality of things within man’s possibility, because the philosopher’s end in his theoretical knowledge is to gain truth and in his practical knowl­edge to behave in accordance with truth.” As this definition suggests, the tradition of falsafa combines philo­sophical contemplation, rational demonstration, and ethical cultivation to free the intellect from its limitations and ultimately achieve the goal of human perfection and felicity (saʿāda).

Following the earlier Islamic philosopher, al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā describes four levels of the intellect’s potential development through proper training: (a) the material intellect (al-aʿaql al-hayūlānī), which is shared by all mankind and is simply the potential to acquire knowl­edge from the senses and reason; (b) the dispositional intellect (alʿaql bi’l-malaka), which is the level of the intellect attained when one has mastered the basic rules of knowledge and correct thinking and become habituated to putting them into practice; (c) the actual intellect (al-ʿaql biʾl-fiʿl), in which the intellect can arrive at knowledge by itself and gener­ate its own intellectual activity; and finally, if one continues to train the intellect, one can reach the highest stage (excluding the level of the prophets, who, because of the perfec­tion of their nature, have even greater intellectual possibilities), (d) the acquired intellect (al-ʿaql al-mustafād), in which the intellect perfectly mirrors the higher intelligible world, conjoining with the Universal or Active Intellect (al-ʿaql al-faʿāl), the source and home of all intelligibles and through whom all human knowledge is received by Divine outpouring (al-fayḍ al-ilāhī).

For Ibn Sīnā, the Prophets have a nature characterized by a perfect clarity of conscious­ness and a prefect imagination, which leads to a state of consciousness called the “sacred intellect” (al-ʿaql al-qudsī), which receives all knowledge, directly and without human instruction, from the Active Intellect.  The Prophet’s perfect imagination also gives perfect sensible and verbal form to these intelligible realities, which he can communicate to others in the form of stories, parables, metaphors, and rituals to guide the development of their intellects. Herein lies the import of the rituals of religious prac­tice from the perspective of falsafa: they promote and support the development of the in­tellect in imitation of the Prophetic model of perfect intellection. That is, revelation and its commands and prohibitions kindle the intellect, but the intellect is also necessary to comprehend revelation, and the two work together in a virtuous cycle to cultivate the human perfection of intellection.

Other traditions of philosophical Sufism and theology instead emphasized the limited and limiting nature of the ‘aql, arguing that it seeks to fit reality into its rational constructions, which are exceeded by reality itself. al-Ghazālī famously fell into period of extreme doubt and psycho-intellectual paralysis when he considered that just as the senses can be mistaken, and require an additional faculty to verify conclusions drawn from them, so too could the ‘aql be mistaken, and since it cannot circularly prove the validity of its own conclusions, so too must another faculty be needed to ground and confirm its conclusions. For al-Ghazālī and other Sufis, this form of knowledge beyond the level of the intellect (warā’ tawr al-’aql) is known as kashf (unveiling) or ma‘rifa (direct knowledge) and is bestowed by God to a sound heart (qalb salīm). The influential Sufi master, Ibn al-‘Arabī, emphasizes that one’s ‘aql must work in tandem with imagination and the heart to overcome these limitations and understand and conform oneself to the Real as it is, beyond one’s own rational constructions of reality. Nevertheless, in later traditions of philosophical Sufism, the universal or divine intellect (al-‘aql al-kullī or al-‘aql al-rabbānī ) plays a role somewhat similar to that of the acquired or active intellect in the Avicennan schema—that is, it is cultivated through spiritual exercises and its nearly-perfect knowledge of divine realities is both the means and goal of the process of human perfection. Some later philosophers, such as Mulla Sadra (d. 1636), similarly synthesized Avicennan and Sufi frameworks to create a system that seamlessly combines epistemology, ontology, and ethics, since it is through ethical practice and intellection that the intellect develops and is re-united with the Active Intellect and ultimately, God, Absolute Being.

Historical Context

As with the nafs, Islamic theories of the ‘aql were strongly influenced by the Qur’an, hadith, and traditions of Qur’anic interpretation, and in Shi’ite intellectual traditions, the numerous sayings of the Imams about the ‘aql (e.g. Imam Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq is reported to have said that “Intellect is that ability by which the Merciful God is worshipped and by which Heaven is attained”) profoundly shaped the development of the concept. These traditions interacted with and were interpreted in reference to various Greco-Roman philosophical traditions, especially the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Neo-Platonic, as well as their adaptations by Christian and Jewish authors. Islamic theories of ‘aql influenced Medieval Latin Christian philosophy, Jewish philosophy, and early modern European philosophy. Sufi critiques of the partial intellect and rationalism were taken up by Goethe and the Romantics. The traditions of Islamic philosophy, Sufism and theology, and their various syntheses have continued down to the present day (21st-century), and the nature, function, and limits of the ‘aql continues to be a major topic of debate. Finally, through his many works in both English and Persian, the contemporary Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933) has emphasized the intellectual (‘aqlī) dimensions of Islamic spirituality and the spiritual dimensions of Islamic intellectual (‘aqlī) traditions, especially philosophy and Sufism.

Significant References

 P. Adamson, “Avicenna and his Commentators on Self-Intellective Substances,” in D.N. Hasse and A. Bertolacci (eds), The Arabic, Hebrew and Latin Reception of Avicenna’s Metaphysics (Berlin: 2011), 97-122.

D. Black, “Knowledge (ʿIlm) and Certainty (Yaqīn) in al-Fārābī’s Epistemology,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 16 (2006), 11-45.

Davidson, Herbert Alan. Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes on intellect: Their cosmologies, theories of the active intellect, and theories of human intellect. Oxford University Press, 1992

Chittick, William C. “Reason, intellect, and consciousness in Islamic thought.” In Reason, Spirit and the Sacral in the New Enlightenment, pp. 11-35. Springer, Dordrecht, 2011

Kalin, Ibrahim. Knowledge in later Islamic philosophy: Mulla Sadra on existence, intellect, and intuition. OUP USA, 2010.

Marmura, Michael E. “Avicenna’s Psychological Proof of Prophecy.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 22, no. 1 (1963): 49-56.

 Nasr,  Seyyed Hossein, Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn ʿArabi. New York: Caravan Books, 1997.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Practice of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition. HarperCollins, 2007. 

Rustom, Mohammed. The Triumph of Mercy: Philosophy and Scripture in Mulla Sadra. SUNY Press, 2012.

Treiger, Alexander. Inspired knowledge in Islamic thought: al-Ghazali’s theory of mystical cognition and its Avicennian foundation. Routledge, 2011

Yazdi, Mehdi Ha’iri. The principles of epistemology in Islamic philosophy: Knowledge by presence. Suny Press, 1992.