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).