Spiritual Diseases of the Heart

Spiritual diseases of the heart are those sins which are committed by the heart and cannot be seen. They have an impact on our outer actions, because they are often the cause of other sins. Imam Al-Ghazali once wrote:

“Other sins are like the mosquitoes hatched in a swampland and the sins of the heart are like the swampland itself. Unless the swampland (i.e. sins of the heart) is not eradicated, it would not be possible to get rid of the mosquitoes (i.e. other sins).”

If we do not cure these diseases, we cannot truly get rid of the cycle of sin whether in our private or public lives. Therefore, it is very important to recognize these spiritual diseases and work to cleanse them from our hearts. It is not an easy process but is a necessary one for the benefit of this world and more importantly the afterlife. Our heart is a great blessing from Allah and we must do our utmost to not let it waste away. Just as we should take care of our health and food so that we do not take on any medical diseases of the heart, we should also take care of the spiritual side. We are beings that consist of body and soul. We must be balanced and take care of both aspects of our existence.

Allah in the Qur’an says:

The Day when there will not benefit [anyone] wealth or children. But only one who comes to Allah with a sound heart. [Qur’an 26:88-89]

A sound heart is that which is free from vices like disbelief, hypocrisy, and other spiritual diseases.

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is famously reported to have said:

“That which is lawful is clear and that which is unlawful is clear, and between the two of them are doubtful matters about which many people do not know. Thus he who avoids doubtful matters clears himself in regard to his religion and his honor, but he who falls into doubtful matters [eventually] falls into that which is unlawful, like the shepherd who pastures around a sanctuary, all but grazing therein. Truly every king has a sanctuary, and truly Allah’s sanctuary is His prohibitions. Truly in the body there is a morsel of flesh, which, if it be whole, all the body is whole, and which, if it is diseased, all of [the body] is diseased. Truly, it is the heart.” [Bukhari & Muslim]

Causes for the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart

There are many causes for why spiritual diseases develop within an individual but the following are some of the most common ones:

  • Being neglectful – when a person is neglectful of the commands of Allah and does not take proper precautions to safeguard his heart from corruption, then he/she is likely to be infected by spiritual diseases. We must make an effort to do what Allah has commanded and keep away from what He has prohibited no matter how small or big it may be.
  • Sinning in private – How you are in private really defines your relationship with your Lord. It is easy to be the pious person in public and portray to the people that you are a God-fearing believer. However, if you are living two different lives where you are the righteous person in public and a habitual sinner in private, then this is a serious spiritual concern and causes diseases in the heart to formulate and grow. In fact, being more righteous and obedient in private than in public is a sign of sincerity in faith and someone who truly fears His lord. It is often said that the one whose good deeds are the same in private and public is a true servant of Allah.
  • Looking at impermissible things – Our eyes are a gateway to our hearts, therefore, we must take care to only let through that which will give it life and not that which will cause it to corrupt and eventually [spiritually] die. We must assure to not look at things which are forbidden in our religion. This is why the practice of lowering our gazes has a great value in our religion.
  • Becoming too occupied in the worldly life – This world is only a small part of our existence, however, we treat it like we will live in it forever. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught us to view this world as a traveler on a journey that takes rest for a few moments before he/she continues on his/her journey. The life of this world is that rest…that’s how short and insignificant this life really is in comparison to the afterlife, yet, we are often so invested into it as if we’ll be here for good. Just as a traveler takes proper preparation for his/her journey and assures that he/she has the needed supplies for the journey so that it will be easy for him/her and not difficult, the believer too must live his/her life in a way so that he/she has the proper supplies (i.e. good deeds, sincerity, belief, etc.) for the journey into the afterlife, the place of eternal life. This is not to say that the person should become a hermit, but that we should live a balanced life where we benefit from the worldly life while at the same time not neglect our afterlife. Unfortunately, many of us become so consumed into the worldly life that we live at the expense of our afterlife. If you’re living your life in a way where you are ignoring the commands of Allah just so you can enjoy some aspect of this life (cheating, adultery, girlfriend/boyfriend, bribes, impermissible sources of income, etc.), then this is a serious cause for spiritual concern. Some of the Muslim sages used to say, “Keep the world in your hand and not in your heart!” Once a thing enters into the heart, it becomes it’s master.
  • Neglecting the dhikr of Allah – The dhikr of Allah (remembering Allah) is something that gives life to the soul. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) compared the one who makes dhikr of Allah to the one who does not like the living and the dead. Dhikr comes in many forms. Following are a few examples: prayer, supplication (dua’), reciting Qur’an, making tasbeeh, seeking religious knowledge, contemplating over the magnificent creation of Allah, seeking Allah’s forgiveness, etc. Therefore, it is one of those things that can be done at any time and doesn’t even require much effort. Neglecting to do dhikr of Allah causes the heart to harden and forget about Allah and the afterlife, whereas, constantly doing dhikr keeps the believer mindful of Allah.

Some Examples of Spiritual Diseases of the Heart

  • Hypocrisy – The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Whoever has the following four (characteristics) will be a pure hypocrite and whoever has one of the following four characteristics will have one characteristic of hypocrisy unless and until he gives it up. 1. Whenever he is entrusted, he betrays. 2. Whenever he speaks, he tells a lie. 3. Whenever he makes a covenant, he proves treacherous. 4. Whenever he quarrels, he behaves in a very imprudent, evil and insulting manner.” Hypocrisy also occurs when someone does not practice what he/she preaches. It is a disease of the heart and the one suffering from it should work diligently to remove it.
  • Following unlawful desires – In today’s society we are constantly told to “Do whatever feels right”, “You only live once, so enjoy your life to the fullest”, etc. These are not healthy slogans to practice for believers. We are told in the Qur’an to control our desires not to worship them. Desires are like a wild animal and a believer must tame it with the leash of Islam. We should never allow our desires to control us. We must curb them to the obedience of Allah and His Messenger. This is why Allah says in the Qur’an, “But as for he who feared the position of his Lord and prevented the soul from [unlawful] desires, then indeed, Paradise will be [his] refuge” [Qur’an 79:40-41]. And the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used to supplicate, “Oh Turner of Hearts, keep my heart firm on Your obedience!” Blindly following one’s desires without a thought in the world is a disease with serious spiritual consequences.
  • Arrogance – This is when someone despises others or denies the truth. It is a serious sin about which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Whoever has a mustard seed’s weight of arrogance in his heart, shall not be admitted into Paradise” [Tirmidhi]. He (pbuh) also said, “Shall I tell you of the people of Paradise? They comprise every poor humble person, and if he swears by Allah to do something, Allah will fulfill it; while the people of the fire comprise every violent, cruel arrogant person” [Bukhari]. How often are there people who think of themselves superior to others just because of the color of their skin, race, economic position, social status, etc.? These all stem from the disease of arrogance.
  • Envy – This is when someone becomes jealous of someone else and wishes the blessing that Allah gave the other person would be taken away and given to him/her instead. It is a very problematic disease because indirectly this person is questioning the wisdom of Allah. It is Allah who gives to whomever He wants from His dominion and takes/withholds from whomever He wants from His dominion. It is not for us to question a blessing given by Allah to someone and wish it be taken away from the person and given to us. In fact, it is such a dangerous sin that Allah Himself in the Qur’an tells us to take refuge in Him from the one who envies in chapter 113 of the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Do not cut off one another, nor desert one another, nor hate one another, nor envy one another. Be you , O worshippers of Allah, brothers. It is not lawful for the Muslim to shun his brother for more than three days” [Tirmidhi].
  • Showing off – Every single good deed that we do, it should be to seek Allah’s pleasure first and foremost. This is sincerity in the religion. It should not be to show off to others how righteous or great a person is. Whenever someone does any good deed to please the people, then it is not accepted by Allah. We have to be careful because we do not want to be raised on the day of judgement and find out that all of our prayers, charity, worship, and other forms of good deeds simply did not count because we didn’t do them for Allah’s pleasure but just to show off to the people. Sometimes a person may start off with the right intention but this disease of showing off may creep in and take over, therefore, we must check our intentions before, during, and after completing a good deed. If you find yourself doing good deeds more or only when others are around, then you suffer from this spiritual disease. It is reported that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Shall I not tell you of that which I fear more for you than Dajjal?’ We said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Hidden polytheism (shirk), when a man stands to pray and makes it look good because he sees a man looking at him” [Ibn Majah].
  • Having a bad opinion about others – We are instructed in Islam to give benefit of the doubt and not to believe everything that we hear. Allah tells us in the Qur’an, “O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful” [Qur’an 49:6]. Some people of knowledge said to make 70 excuses for your brother/sister in Islam if you see or hear something bad about them and not immediately jump to judgement. This particular spiritual disease causes people to become suspicious of one another, spread rumors and gossip, lie, etc., thereby, breaking apart the cohesion of the community. It spreads hate and anger. This is why the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) beautifully said, “Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the worst of false tales; and do not look for the others’ faults and do not spy, and do not be jealous of one another, and do not desert (cut your relation with) one another, and do not hate one another; and O Allah’s worshipers! Be brothers” [Bukhari].

Cure for Spiritual Diseases of the Heart

  • Taking accountability of yourself – The first step to resolving a problem is to acknowledge and recognize that you have a problem. Take a step back and evaluate your life and see where you are not abiding by Allah’s laws. How often are you disobeying Him? Have you habitually taken on some sins? Are you doing anything to become a better servant of Allah and correct yourself? Answering these questions requires introspection and really looking closely at your life. It is only then you can go about curing the diseases which are inflicting your heart.
  • Seeking forgiveness and repentance – This is a powerful method of curing spiritual diseases. However, it must be a sincere repentance. I’m not talking about just a lip service of saying Istaghfaar, as many habitually do, without seriously intending to leave the sin. Any form of disobedience to Allah, no matter how small, has a negative spiritual impact on our hearts and sincerely seeking forgiveness and repentance removes its effect. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “When the believer commits sin, a black spot appears on his heart. If he repents and gives up that sin and seeks forgiveness, his heart will be polished. But if (the sin) increases, (the black spot) increases” [Ibn Majah].
  • Supplication (dua’) – As I have mentioned in one of my other posts, dua’ is a weapon of the believer. Nothing is possible until and unless Allah wills it. Therefore, we must beg Him for all of our needs. A believer must always be begging Allah to purify his heart and cure it from spiritual diseases because it cannot be done without His help. Allah tells us in the Qur’an, “Allah guides those who pursue His pleasure to the ways of peace and brings them out from darknesses into the light, by His permission, and guides them to a straight path” [Qur’an 5:16]. And He also said in the Qur’an 76:30, “But you cannot will, unless Allah wills“. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Let one of you ask his Lord for his every need, until he asks Him for salt, and asks Him for the strap of his sandal when it breaks” [Tirmidhi].
  • Increase in acts of obedience in private – As mentioned earlier, doing good deeds in private is a sign of sincerity. One of the signs of a believer is that he/she tries to hide his/her good deeds because they want to keep their intentions purely for Allah’s sake. They don’t want to be tempted to show off to the people. This has a positive spiritual impact on their heart and it strengthens their relationship with their Creator.
  • Dhikr of Allah and reciting the Qur’an – The issue of dhikr has already been discussed earlier. As for the Qur’an, then it is the greatest form of dhikr. It should be noted that this step is not referring to an empty reading of the Qur’an in Arabic without any understanding, rather, a deep reflective reading where a person ponders over the verses and their meanings, refers to books of tafseer, consults scholars when confused, etc.
  • Lowering the gaze – This issue has already been discussed earlier above. I have also discussed it in a separate post.
  • Remembering the afterlife – Keeping in mind that there is a day when we will all be raised and held accountable for our affairs can keep a believer from falling into sin and corrupting his/her heart. Just keeping in mind that we will be raised and be made to stand before the Creator of all existence and asked about our deeds, big and small, should cause terror in the heart of a believer. Even before the resurrection, the thought of the questioning by the angels Munkar and Nakir and the punishment of the grave should be enough to cause a person to keep distance between himself and Allah’s disobedience. This is why the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Frequently remember the destroyer of pleasures” [Ibn Majah]. He meant death.
  • Sincerity in good deeds – This issue has been discussed already above in different places.

I was invited by the Al-Huda Youth Council in Canada for a podcast discussion on this topic. You can view the whole video of that discussion below. For those interested in a more thorough discussion of the topic, I’d suggest listening to this free 31 days course on the topic. It’s a study of Al-Ghazali’s famous Ihya Ulum-ud-Deen.

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