Question: “Do we say the physical heart is the thinking organ?” (a short reply)

Edited and slightly modified by the Team

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

The following is a question posed by one of our members regarding the ‘Qalb’ [translated variously as heart, mind, etc.] and how the Muslim scholars understand the mention of the ‘Qalb’ in the Qur’an and the Ahadeeth, and whether this is taken to refer to the physical heart, or to something else.

Question: The Qur’an says in many places that the ‘Qalb’ is the origin from where comprehension of the truth or turning away from it (is) settled. I have also read a number of articles by Muslims [one even by a student of traditional Islamic knowledge who is also a Neuroscientist], who take this matter literally, (saying) that the physical heart is really the place of thinking.

What I wanted to ask is whether what is actually being referred to is the spiritual heart that is connected to the physical heart, or is it a combination of both perhaps? Also, are there any works about this, either from the interpretations of the Qur’an, or works of spirituality, or any other works?


We need to understand the words or verses from the Qur’an with the help of Ahadeeth. Yes, some scholars like Imam An-Nawawi (Rahimahulla) believed that the literal physical heart was the place of the ‘Aql (mind) due to a Hadith in the Sahihayn[1] (which says in translation): “…In the body there is a piece of flesh which, if it is sound, all of the body is sound, and which, if it is diseased, all of the body is diseased. This part of the body is the heart.” Some Muslims have taken this narration literally and say that the heart is the place of thinking or where the ‘Aql resides.

However, the majority of scholars and Qur’an exegetes are not of this view and we follow the majority (Jumhur) of the scholars. For example, Surah Qaf (Chapter #50), verse 37 says:

إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَذِكْرَىٰ لِمَن كَانَ لَهُ قَلْبٌ أَوْ أَلْقَى السَّمْعَ وَهُوَ شَهِيدٌ

Lo! therein verily is a reminder for him who hath a heart[2], or giveth ear with full intelligence.

The word ‘Qalb’ in this verse is used in the meaning of ‘Aql (mind) according to many exegetes and scholars such as Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani (Rahimahulla). This can also be ascertained by looking into the interpretation and commentaries of Imams at-Tabari, Maawardi, al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir, the Jalalayn Tafseer, Ibn ‘Aashuur (Rahimahumullah) and others.

The esteemed Companion Ibn ‘Abbas (Radhia Allahu ‘Anhu) also used Qalb in the meaning of ‘Aql. The Arab grammarian and expert al-Farra stated that Qalb is generally used as ‘Aql in the Arabic language, as mentioned in the Tafseer of Imam al-Baghawi.

Imam al-Ghazali (Rahimahullah) is also of the same opinion and mentions furthermore the different usages of Qalb as Nur (light) and ‘Aql when he is explaining what Basirah (insight) is in his Ihya Uloom ad-Deen.

Moreover, the scholars of Tasawwuf (Islamic spirituality) have always used the word Qalb in this manner.

What we say is that we have a physical body and a spiritual soul (Ruuh) or self (Nafs), and in this realm our soul needs our body to survive on earth, and thus the body is used as a vehicle by the soul. While we see the heart as the vital organ of the body in terms of being alive when it functions properly, we can say the same with the soul which has ‘Aql just like the heart of the body. When the ‘Aql is dead that means the man is dead, the only thing being that he can walk and his physical body is alive.

So heart to the physical body is what ‘Aql is to the spiritual soul. That is why the Qur’an refers to them as dead in their Qalb (‘Aql), as their spiritual soul is locked, curtailed, blind or dead so that they cannot hear, see, or sense. They are dead but people cannot see it because they always look at the physical realm and forget what is beyond the physical realm which is the essence of what we really are, the soul.

Note that I also studied physiology, neurons, and the heart as part of my first degree, and I remember vividly when I heard the news that they discovered neurons in the heart similar to the ones in the brain. I think one needs to have a balanced understanding of who we are as tangible and intangible beings (so that we do not commit extremism in the interpretation of the information available to us.)

If we take the heart literally as this brother does then we will have many difficulties in explaining certain Ahadith and verses of the Qur’an. For example, there is a very famous Hadeeth where the Prophet (SAW) says that the heart is in between the two fingers of Allah (in the collection of Tirmidhi, in the Chapter on Qadar), and many other well-known Ahadeeth where it is mentioned that the heart darkens because of the sins.

With respect to this last type of Ahadeeth, we know that sins are not physical entities, then how does it occur to some people that the heart being talked in here is the physical heart? One does not seem to correspond with the other. We know that blood can be darkened due to high levels of carbon dioxide, and in an analogous manner, when one sins his ‘Aql is being affected and the mind gets confused; many other similar examples can be given. We also have other terminologies in the Qur’an similar to the heart but with subtle differences like صدر sadr, فؤاد fuad, لبّ lubb, حلم hilm, and so forth.

There are a lot of things that could be said about this issue, but these may be postponed for a later lengthy article in order to remove misunderstandings surrounding this issue.

Hafiz Mahmut

[1] In both Bukhari and Muslim

[2] ‘Qalb’ is in here translated as ‘Heart’.