Last year I wrote a post detailing what my ideal mosque would look like. This mosque was painted with inclusivity, a shared prayer space for women and men, a soup kitchen, and with a dream that one day Eryn would have the opportunity to write the Friday sermon and call the faithful to prayer. Since many are largely excluded from participation at the mosque in general, I love the idea of women writing or giving the jumu’ah sermon, and wish more mosques would take the opportunity to consult and showcase their female scholars.
So I was absolutely thrilled to learn that frequent guest writer Rawiya presented the following khutbah on broken-heartedness and patience at the Masjid el-Tawhid in Toronto while we were away in Kuwait. She’s allowed me the honour of sharing exerts from it with all with you.
Enjoy and happy jumu’ah!
Have We not opened up your heart
And lifted from you the burden
That had weighed so heavily on your back?
And, behold, with every hardship comes ease.
Verily, with every hardship comes ease!
So, when you are free from distress, remain steadfast.
And unto your Sustainer turn with love.
(Surah 94, The Opening Up: 1-8)
This year, I have found myself increasingly interested in the topic of the heart in Islam. What can be said about the heart, in any definitive way? There is the literal muscle, sitting here somewhere in each of our chests, pumping blood throughout our bodies and giving us life. But of course, the “spiritual heart” represents so much more. We have been raised to consider the heart as one of the centers of our humanity. In some ways, it is a complete mystery, and for this reason, we can’t really say anything about it. But, the tradition of Islam offers a surprising amount of information about the heart to humankind, from the Qur’an, sunnah, scholarly, and mystical traditions.
I have been curious about how the tradition of Islam views the heart and human emotion, partially because of something said by the Sufi mystic and philosopher, Ibn ‘Arabi: “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” And again, “When we know our souls we know our Lord.” I believe that delving into the mysteries of the self helps us in our eternal journey towards God, Glorified and Exalted — as we were endowed from the moment of our creation with a trace of divinity.
As Allah gave life to the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, He infused him with an-nafas ar-Rahman, “the breath of the Merciful One,” and we carry this fragment of divinity with us to this day. So, it makes sense to me that these human mysteries, these human conditions, have something to say about our Lord, as He relates to His creation, and in His essence.
And here I return to the heart.
Muslim philosophers, like al-Ghazali treated it as the seat of intellectual and emotional life. The Arabic word for “heart,” (qalb) is distinct from other elements of the self, such as the “spirit” (ruh), the “soul” (nafs), and “intelligence” (aql). In addition to the physical heart, al Ghazzali describes the heart as the “subtle tenuous substance of an ethereal spiritual sort, which is connected with the physical heart.”
Interestingly, the root of the Arabic word, qalb (Q-L-B) has connotations of turning over and changing. Perhaps this is due to the changeable nature of the human heart. As I will address later, however, I’d like to think that it has to do with the potential for the heart’s transformation and renewal.
I wanted to share some of my thoughts about one particular condition of the heart, that is, heart-brokenness. How can we, as Muslims, view the condition of broken-heartedness with faith, beyond simplistic words of encouragement? What can we say to someone who is in a real state of brokenness, who is looking for meaning in their suffering?
We have all had our hearts broken by the world. Each and every one of us. Whether it was the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, histories of abuse, the failure of a dream, or generally witnessing the many injustices and oppressions of the world, I can guarantee that we have each felt the ache of broken heartedness.
The first point I’d like to make is a simple one, but one that I think doesn’t get acknowledged enough. It’s okay to feel broken-hearted. It’s okay to express broken-heartedness. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) communicated his grief and sadness. We even call the year in which he lost both his uncle, Abu Talib, and his first wife, Khadijah (may Allah be pleased with them), the “Year of Sorrow,” acknowledging the loss of two of his most intimate companions and protectors. And then later in his life, when the Prophet lost his son Ibrahim, a baby just about a year-and-a-half old, he also expressed his anguish. One of the stories of the Prophet’s life describes the moment:
Tears flowed from his eyes. The child lapsed gradually, and his mother and aunt watched and cried loudly and incessantly, but the Prophet never ordered them to stop… With tears in his eyes…he said: “The eyes send their tears and the heart is saddened, but we do not say anything except that which pleases our Lord. Indeed, O Ibrahim, we are bereaved by your departure from us.”
What does this example show us, if not the Prophet’s humanity and fragility, and the reality of heartbreak?
Brokenness is a part of human existence. But sometimes, in the face of this pain, we begin to wonder why. What is the suffering for?
There are many reasons given for the dissatisfactory human condition. And perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them really offer that much comfort in times of distress. Of course, we’ve all been told before that we experience heartbreak as a test from Allah. That suffering is woven into the fabric of existence so that God may see who is truly righteous. This is the old “Job” paradigm, the test of patience and faith in God, in the face of suffering. The Holy Qur’an states:
Blessed is He in whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things; It is He Who has created death and life that He might try you—which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Most Forgiving. (67: 2-3)
On one level, suffering, heart-break, is constructed as a meaningful tool of discerning the commitment one has to their faith. Faith is not faith, after all, if it only exists when things are going your way.
In Surat al-Baqara, God explains to humanity:
And surely We shall try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to the patient, Who says, when afflicted with calamity: ‘To Allah We belong, and to Him is our return”: They are those on whom (descend) Blessings from Allah, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.] (2:155-157)
The patient, then, are those who hold the key to endurance. But what is patience in Islam? Patience is often construed to be a passive act, a calm acceptance of whatever comes one’s way. But I believe that we need to start regarding patience as a much more active practice, a practice that requires cultivation.
“Oh, you who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy. Vie in such perseverance, strengthen each other, and be pious, that you may prosper.” (3:200)
The term often employed in the Qur’an translated in English as “patience” is sabr. In Arabic, the root ‘S-B-R’ implies connotations of binding or restraining. What is it that we are binding and restraining when we practice sabr? We are restraining ourselves — our fearful selves, our distrustful selves, our anxious selves that construct unproductive loops in our own minds. And so it is not a simple acceptance of calamity, a passive reception of hardship, but an active effort of restraint, a struggle to pull on the reigns of the fearful self and acknowledge our own limited knowledge.
As goes a saying attributed to Shams Tabrizi:
Patience is not sitting and waiting, it is foreseeing. It is looking at the thorn and seeing the rose, looking at the night and seeing the day. Lovers are patient and know that the moon needs time to become full.
Broken-heartedness, therefore, is a state that reveals your hidden self to God. But it also reveals ourselves to us. We are, in the end, utterly dependent creatures, who like to pretend that we are in control. The true nature of our existence, is most readily felt when you are on your knees, crying out for help, for an end to suffering. Sometimes, it is only when we are at our lowest that we can acknowledge our dependence upon Allah.
Allah SWT says in a hadith qudsi, “I am with those whose hearts are broken for my sake.”
I am broken-hearted. Like all of you. I wanted to explore this topic further, as someone who is struggling to know what to do with my broken heartedness. How can I make sense of it, and how do I alleviate the pain? The discussion that I have provided here is superficial, because I believe I am only at the start of my journey towards understanding. I have been afraid of sounding trite, of providing little insight into such an important topic. More than anything, I know how hollow recommendations to “be patient” and “have faith in Allah” sound in the midst of anguish. And that is why I actually think it is important to make good use of the times when we are happy, stable, and comfortable, in preparation for the inevitable suffering that each of us must endure in this world.
I don’t mean to sound cynical, but rather, realistic. As Muslims, we are supposed to encounter the world, and the prospect of the hereafter, with a balance between hope and fear. Just as pain is a guarantee of this world, so is the promise of relief. It is tiring, sometimes absolutely exhausting, to keep struggling, but the Qur’an highlights two things:
Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest. (13:28).
And, as I quoted at the beginning of this post:
Behold, with every hardship comes ease. Verily, with every hardship comes ease! (94:5-6)
I mentioned before that the Arabic term for heart, qalb, carries with connotations of “turning over,” of “change.” The Prophet Muhammad PBUH used to make this du’a: Allahumma ya Muqallib al Quloob thabbit qalbi ‘alaa Deenik,” “O Turner of the hearts, make my heart firm upon Your Religion.”
God is the one turning our hearts, turning our hearts to Him, taking our brokenness and restoring us. He is al Jabbar, normally translated as “the Compeller,” one of God’s “majestic names.” But Suhaib Webb makes the case that the root “J-B-R” has to do with restoring.
The Arabic word for a splint that is used to help an arm heal when it is broken is “jibeera” from the same root ja-ba-ra. Thus, when we feel broken, we need to go to the only One who can mend our state–al-Jabbar.
Al Jabbar is the one who is able to restore what is broken. He is the mender of our broken hearts.
I want to end with a story that some of you may have heard before. A learned of it from a friend, who mentioned she found it in a book called “Working on God” by Winifred Gallagher:
Once, a great rabbi taught the people that they should put God’s words across their hearts. Finally, a student said, excuse me, but don’t you mean in their hearts? No, said the rebbe, you aren’t ready for that. Lay them across, and when your hearts break, God’s words will fall in.