In the Name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Most Merciful

Health is an Intention

244 Acklam Road, London W10 5YG

Saturday 7th April 2007

Our imam in Norwich, Shaykh 'Ali Laraki, often told us:

الْحُكْمُ‏ ‬فَرْعُ‏ ‬التَّصَوُّرِ

“Reaching a judgement is a branch of having visualised it.”

i.e. before one can reach a judgement on any matter one must first have a proper picture of that matter.

Prior to intention there is knowledge, because if you do not know something you cannot intend it.

So what is health? If we do not know what it is, we cannot intend it.

We currently operate on the premise that health is the absence of sickness. Thus we have a medicine that expends all its energies on the identification and eradication of sickness. Our medicine is a war medicine, and that is probably because its real origins and its major successes have been in wartime or in crisis and emergency situations. We think if the enemy is dead, then the friend will be alive and well. We have anti-biotics. They are anti-life. We want them to kill the bacteria, forgetting that many bacteria are helpful and useful, such as in the digestive tract.

With our obsession with sickness, we have not only identified and labelled a whole host of conditions, but we have also been forced to admit numerous new conditions which were previously unidentified as pathologies, so that we are faced with an extraordinary host of plagues, and all of our medical services are clearly in collapse, and people are visibly neither sick nor well, in a new interspace of twilight ill-health. And we have a medical fraternity whose livelihoods are dependent on sickness. They and the pharmaceuticals have a vested interest in sickness.

But we would say that defining health as the absence of sickness is no definition. It is as if we were to define men as not-women or women as not men. 

A sane definition of health would have to define it and not illness. Moreover, it would depend on prior definitions of the human being, life, the universe, existence, etc.

You would have to frame it in the widest possible terms, and would need to ask whether physical, mental, economic, social and emotional well-being can be separated at all. Certainly neuro-physiology would rule out the possibility of making any meaningful separation between physical, mental and emotional states.1

We would want to know whether the individual can seriously be considered separately from family, relatives, clan, tribe, society and the rest of humanity. Can one be well in any meaningful sense if everyone else is desperately ill? As you can see, sometimes the questions one asks are more important than the answers. We are probably in an age that has arrived at more answers than any other age without really asking the right questions.

So let me present a different answer to some of these questions. It is a Greek argument as transmitted by and modified by a Muslim scholar, Mahdi ibn 'Ali ibn Ibrahim as-Subayri al-Yamani, although often mistakenly attributed to Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti, in a book called ar-Rahmat fi’t-Tibb wa’l-Hikmah, i.e. the Mercy. That is its title, “The Mercy”. And its subtitle is “Concerning Tibb and Wisdom.”2

Tibb comes from a root to do with treating skilfully and gently, and is the ordinary word for medicine. But hikmah is another word for medicine. However, this word, often translated, as I have done, as wisdom, needs some explanation. It signifies the Sofia, love of which is called philosophy. It comes from a root to do with judgement. Our doctors used to be called hakim wise, because they showed people how to live well, not because they treated them when they became ill, although of course they did that as well. Hikmah, in the limited sense of medicine, is the knowledge of how to eat, sleep, exercise, etc., so that one is in the best of states. Wisdom in Arabic does not mean the store of knowledge that the old accumulate from long lives and sometimes terrible mistakes, such as Oedipus who – after discovering that he has killed his father and married his mother, and after his mother’s suicide because of this terrible discovery – becomes wise. Wisdom is the sound judgement of people, young or old, that means they do not kill their father and marry their mother in the first place, although we are human and do make mistakes, and learning from our mistakes is not a small thing.

In his book, Mahdi ibn 'Ali has first to set the scene in a way which is very unfamiliar to us today, and if you want access to this you must accept it – from Kuhn’s perspective3 – as a paradigm, which has been replaced by the Newtonian paradigm. 

In this Greek way of seeing things, everything comes from the interplay between dual opposites that emerge from the unitary reality, and which in their interaction with each other generate four, the most well known of which are: earth, water, fire and air. The argument he advances is that at first there is a movement that throws into relief movement’s opposite: stillness. Movement, however, is warmth just as stillness is coolness. Warmth brings about dryness and coolness brings about wetness, and we have our first four. Putting them in pairs, then warm-dry is fire, warm-wet is air, cold-dry is earth and cold-wet is water. Everything then can be seen in terms of these four. What you have to retain is that these are all to do with dynamic motion and interaction. You would make a very serious mistake to think that there is an essence called “earth” or “fire”. This is a way of looking; it is a different focus from the Newtonian way. You ought to understand, however, that the Newtonian focus has been a disaster for the human race; its implicit thesis is that in essence things are material machines,4 both the individual, society and the cosmos itself. Later developments added sophistication to that, including the Einsteinian and quantum discoveries, but in essence it was and is this idea of the machine. That epoch is over. The mechanical metaphor has been a disaster. We cannot go back to the age that was lost, but we are looking for new and true ways to see things. In that, we can gain something from re-examining the old ways.

The point to grasp from this Greco-Arabic view is that the beginning is motion, and that it is always in motion; it is dynamic. Thus, health as a static concept is not going to get us anywhere. This view is dynamic, and then there are balance points. In these terms, of all created beings, animal life is the most balanced. Of animal life, the human being is the most balanced. Of human life, the mu'minun are the most balanced. 

And if I were to say one thing about the mu'minun – those who have the quality of iman – then it is this thing that one of the Arabic lexicographers says: iman is being true to the trust, the amanah, placed in one.

Of the mu'minun the awliya' are the most balanced. Of the awliya' the prophets are the most balanced. Of the prophets, the messengers are the most balanced. Of the messengers, the Ulu’l-'azm “those possessed of great resolve” – Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, 'ˆsa and Muhammad, peace be upon them – are the most balanced. Of these five, Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, is the most balanced. 

Having arrived at the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, then let us take our way onwards with him, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, with some of his words, not mistaking the words for the reality or for our goal: health. Having come to a prophet, we are going to expect revelation. Anything less, such as information, will simply not do. 

In approaching this matter we bear in mind the adab of Imam Malik, who when approached would ask if the person questioning him had come for fatwa or for hadith. If it was for fatwa then he would listen to the question and do his best to answer. If it was for hadith:

When he sat down to narrate hadith, he put on perfume and donned new clothes. A dais was set out for him on which he sat. He emerged from his house with tranquillity and humility, and sat with gravity and forbearance. Aloes wood ('ud) was set and it continued to burn as incense until he finished recounting  the hadith of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.5

'Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak said, “I was with Malik while he was relating hadith to us and a scorpion stung him ten times. Malik changed colour and grew ashen, but he did not interrupt the hadith of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. When the people left him, I said to him, ‘I have seen something wondrous from you today.’” He mentioned the story and Malik said, “I was not steadfast out of fortitude, but out of respect for the hadith of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.”6

But the reason for this is because the hadith are not pieces of information but they partake of the revelation, they have this quality unique to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, of being jawami’ al-kalim – concise comprehensive words, words which although small in number may contain numerous un-contradictory meanings and levels of meaning.

So, we will take one of the most well known hadith, these verbal reports which are literally ‘novelties’, and this one is transmitted in Sahih al-Bukhari and later Imam an-Nawawi included it in his Forty, one of the most famous hadith collections of them all.

عَنْ‏ ‬عَامِرٍ‏ ‬قَالَ‎:‬‏ ‬سَمِعْتُ‏ ‬النُّعْمَانَ‏ ‬بْنَ‏ ‬بَشِيرٍ‏ ‬يَقُولُ‎:‬‏ ‬سَمِعْتُ‏ ‬رَسُولَ‏ ‬اللَّهِ‏ ‬‎-‬‏ ‬صَلَّى اللَّهُ‏ ‬عَلَيْهِ‏ ‬وَسَلَّمَ‏ ‬‎-‬‏ ‬يَقُولُ‎:‬‏ ... ‬أَلَا وَإِنَّ‏ ‬فِي‏ ‬الْجَسَدِ‏ ‬مُضْغَةً‏ ‬إِذَا صَلَحَتْ‏ ‬صَلَحَ‏ ‬الْجَسَدُ‏ ‬كُلُّهُ،‏ ‬وَإِذَا فَسَدَتْ‏ ‬فَسَدَ‏ ‬الْجَسَدُ‏ ‬كُلُّهُ،‏ ‬أَلَا وَهِيَ‏ ‬الْقَلْبُ‏.‬

It is narrated from 'Amir that he said: I heard an-Nu'man ibn Bashir saying: I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, saying, “Certainly there is in the body a morsel of flesh which if it is sound then the whole body is sound, and if it is unsound then the whole body is unsound. Certainly it is the heart.”

So here we are in a new territory, and we are somewhere that we had not really expected to be. Because here we see the health of the body entirely dependent on the heart, and the heart is defined as a morsel of flesh, not some spiritual or esoteric entity. We are clearly not, however, talking about the cardiac entity which is ordinarily meant by modern man when he talks about the heart; we are not talking about a mere pump. The key word concerning its condition is salaha meaning: 

“it was, or became, good, incorrupt, right, just, righteous, virtuous, or honest; it was, or became righteous,  in a good, incorrupt, sound, right, or proper, state or in a state of order; he, or it, throve” (Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon)

So if the heart is right the body will be fine. This is not the same as cardiac medicine which is basically concerned with the well-being of a pump. 

Now I was privileged to hear a talk in Denmark of a doctor Søren Ballegaard, a GP, talking about the human heart. He roundly refuted the idea that it is simply a pump. Moreover, he had some rather interesting scientific evidence. He talked about a research project done in Sweden more than 30 years ago. In it there were two groups of rabbits one of them being the control group, both groups being fed exactly the same high cholesterol diet. The control group, were simply given their food at specific times. The researchers sat with the other group before, during and after the meal and talked to them, tickled them etc. After some time the latter group had markedly less heart disease than the former. So this activity of sitting before, during and after eating with the eater has some positive effect on the health of the heart.

Then he talked about which are the healthiest human hearts in Europe in cardiac terms. The answer is the Cretans. Their diet, however, is not low in cholesterol nor would health aficionados endorse it. They smoke, drink coffee, etc., plenty of meat. Cretans, however, never eat alone. The table is always alive with men, women, children, neighbours, aunts and uncles. It is this that keeps their hearts alive. But we are clearly not talking about pumps, even though it is the health of the pump that the medical establishment are qualified to measure.

So with this we have altered our perception of the human being, and now we see him as one with a principle organ upon which all of his well-being depends: the heart. From everything else we know about the revelation, we can sum up a number of key points about this organ: it is the organ of understanding, intellect and insight or we might say inner sight. The following verse of Qur'an was revealed reprimanding the people who cover over the truth or are kafir, this condition that is the obverse of iman: being  true to the trust placed in one.

لَهُمْ‏ ‬قُلُوبٌ لاَّ‏ ‬يَفْقَهُونَ‏ ‬بِهَا وَلَهُمْ‏ ‬أَعْيُنٌ‏ ‬لاَّ‏ ‬يُبْصِرُونَ‏ ‬بِهَا وَلَهُمْ‏ ‬آذَانٌ‏ ‬لاَّ‏ ‬يَسْمَعُونَ بِهَا‏ 

They have hearts they do not understand with.
They have eyes they do not see with.
They have ears they do not hear with. (Surat al-A'raf: 179)

Note that in this ayah we see clearly that the relationship of the heart to understanding is the same as that of the eyes to seeing and the ears to hearing, i.e. the heart is the organ of understanding.

فَإِنَّهَا لَا تَعْمَى الْأَبْصَارُ‏ ‬وَلَكِن تَعْمَى الْقُلُوبُ‏ ‬الَّتِي‏ ‬فِي‏ ‬الصُّدُورِ‏ }‬46‏{‬

It is not their eyes which are blind
but the hearts in their breasts which are blind. (Surat al-Hajj: 46)

So in this ayah, it is said that the hearts of those who cover over are blind – and it  is stressed that it is the actual heart that is in the breast which is intended – and this is also said in reprimand. It is obvious from this that the heart is meant in some sense to be an organ that sees. Putting it together with the previous ayah, then this understanding is such as to have the quality of seeing, i.e. it is not merely the understanding arrived at by thought but an immediate and direct form.

Putting this together, we can say that human health is dependent on an organ of understanding, or an organ of vision.

Given who we are and the age we live in, for historical reasons, we probably associate the heart with a warm sentimentalism; it is in our view an emotional organ, and we associate it with such matters as falling in love. Intellectually, we are the heirs of Descartes and his cohorts who threw the human project entirely off the rails. They envisioned that one could think things through entirely rationally and unemotionally, indeed mathematically. The furthest fruit of their endeavours in our time is the science of neuro-physiology. This science has, however, shown relentlessly that there is no such thing as a thought without a feeling. This science is the child of Descartes. But it has disproved his central driving impulse. He wanted to think things through without subjectivity and all human feelings, but his own science was to be used to show that this is not possible. But it leaves us in the difficult position, as his children and as thoroughgoing Cartesians, of trying to recover this wholeness of heart and intellect. Nor can we in a dialectical somersault embrace the woolly emotional heart; it is no good for us. But the dry intellect is a proven disaster. It is inhuman for it means that someone like Madeleine Albright can make her infamous remark when asked by an interviewer with regards to the effect of sanctions against Iraq: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”. Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it.”

So we would say that the disease that afflicts the heart is this covering over of the nature of existence, and the healthy heart is an organ of recognition, understanding and vision. So here we have a a health to aim for and to intend.

This Muslim community has always recognised that one does not automatically have a healthy heart merely by being Muslim, and the Muslim community has always had a science for the purification of the heart, and the recovery of its wholeness. There is a science of the sicknesses of the heart (amrād al-qalb) as well as of the fostering of this inner sight and understanding and the other noble qualities.

And the heart’s wholeness is most evident when it is able to see. In Qadi 'Iyad’s magnificent work ash-Shifa bi ta'rif huquq al-Mustafa – “The Healing: by means of making the rights of the Chosen One, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, known” – a work loved and admired by 'ulama’ and Muslims in the East and the West, he examines carefully the events of the Isra and the Mi’raj, the Night Journey of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, to Jerusalem and his Ascent through the heavens to the meeting with Allah, exalted is He. He examines whether the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, saw his Lord with his eyes, and finds that this was a matter over which the Companions were divided quite passionately, some of the Companions and the later 'ulama’ denying that he saw Allah, exalted is He, with his eyes and some affirming equally strongly that he had seen Him. But the 'ulama’ are unequivocal in their affirmation that Allah, exalted is He, may be seen by the heart.

We have remained within the zone of the individual and now we wish to consider the social dimension.

عَنِ‏ ‬النّعْمَانِ‏ ‬بْنِ‏ ‬بَشِيرٍ‏. ‬قَالَ‎:‬‏ ‬قَالَ‏ ‬رَسُولُ‏ ‬اللّهِ‏ ‬صلى الله عليه وسلم‎:‬‏ }‬مَثَلُ‏ ‬الْمُؤْمِنِينَ‏ ‬فِي‏ ‬تَوَادّهِمْ‏ ‬وَتَرَاحُمِهِمْ‏ ‬وَتَعَاطُفِهِمْ،‏ ‬مَثَلُ‏ ‬الْجَسَدِ‏. ‬إِذَا اشْتَكَىَ‏ ‬مِنْهُ‏ ‬عُضْوٌ،‏ ‬تَدَاعَىَ‏ ‬لَهُ‏ ‬سَائِرُ‏ ‬الْجَسَدِ‏ ‬بِالسّهَرِ‏ ‬وَالْحُمّىَ‏{.‬

It is narrated of an-Nu'man ibn Bashir who said: the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “The likeness of the mu’minun in their mutual affection for each other, in their showing mercy to each other and their kindness to each other is like that of the body.” (Ahmad and Muslim)

Not only is the individual not a compartmentalised entity, divided between intellect, feelings, spirituality and so on, neither is he separate from his society. Can the individual be healthy when his brother is ill? I leave you with the question.

So we have come this far with the hadith of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. An Arabic word for health is sihhah, which has some of the sense of soundness and possibly even authenticity. It is known to the technically scientific Muslim because of a cognate term from this root being used in the science of transmission of reports, such as those that we have examined, from the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. A certain class of such reports are termed sahih – sound, authentic – if they are transmitted by a line of narrators, a chain of transmitters who combine complete integrity with proven powers of memory and a number of other key qualities. But these are transmissions of words and accounts of events. They indicate the health we are seeking, as we have shown. But more interesting to us is the fact of the embodiment of this health in the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and in his companions. More interesting to us is the transmission of that in its entire

We call to mind the du'a of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib, may Allah have mercy on him:

اَللَّهُمَّ‏ ‬إنِّيَ‏ ‬أَسْأَلُكَ‏ ‬إسْلاَماً‏ ‬صَحِيحاً

O Allah, I ask you for a sound Islam.

i.e. for the entire din to have this quality of authenticity that we expect in the science of reports.

That lived and practised embodiment is called in Arabic the Sunnah. When it is transmitted in a whole manner, you will find the same phenomenon again: a noble man surrounded by his companions engaged in establishing the practice in the outward and in purification of this extraordinary organ the heart in the inward ready for vision of Allah. This has been the true history of Islam across the ages, and not the doings of various figures in their palaces, and endless wars. Certainly not the doings of our current crop of nihilists today.

If you are even half awake you must see that our society is in terminal decline. The machines are superb, but the humans are almost an extinct species. That is because this extraordinary Judaeo-Christian culture has exhausted itself. There is a need for a new direction, and Islam is always the new venture; it is always post Christian. I urge you to find such a community and enter into the fulness of Islam. Do not be content with a partial Islam, even if such is legally acceptable. 

Finally, we are perhaps able to approach our title: Health is an Intention, and for that, having examined the ground, health itself, we must look at the intention. We have already seen the dead hand of this mechanical culture of technique and the devastation it has wreaked. Some of it came from quite simple misunderstandings and falsehoods in what we know as 'aqidah. The West inherited a Roman misapprehension and thought that God created nature but man created civilisation. However, Allah, exalted is He, said:

‏‮ ‬وَاللَّهُ‏‮ ‬خَلَقَكُمْ‏‮ ‬وَمَا تَعْمَلُونَ‏‮ 

Allah created both you and what you do. (Surat as-Saffat: 96)

The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, is reported to have said:

إِنَّ‏ ‬اللَّهَ‏ ‬تَعَالَى صَانِعُ‏ ‬كُلِّ‏ ‬صَانِعٍ‏ ‬وَصُنْعَتِهِ

“Allah, exalted is He, made every maker and what he made.”7

As-Suyuti comments on this in his al-Jami' as-saghir, “Meaning [He is] the Creator of every actor and the action.”

This is the 'aqidah of the Muslims. It means that we don’t see man as the creator of technology, for example, but that it is Allah Who is creating it. Thus, the Muslim has a very different relationship to action.

Moving on then to niyyah “intention”, we find that there are three words that are to some extent synonyms for it in Arabic: qasd (purpose), iradah (will) and mashi’ah (also: will).

There is a necessary fiqh aspect of intention, which can sometimes obscure its deeper importance, the facet of it that makes it in the view of many of the 'ulama’ the very first matter in the din. In fiqh, people think of intention as, for example, intending Salat adh-Dhuhr as four rak'ahs etc. This, however, can obscure the deeper significance of whether the prayer is intended for the sake of Allah or for a variety of other reasons, such as out of habit.

Allah, exalted is He, says about will:

وَمَا تَشَاؤُونَ‏‮ ‬إِلَّا أَن‏‮ ‬يَشَاءَ‏‮ ‬اللَّهُ‏‮ ‬

But you will not will unless Allah wills. (Surat al-Insan: 30)

So at the end we are brought face to face with our inability even to intend and will without Allah. We are brought to our utter dependence on Him.

1   Damasio, Antonio R., The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness

2 There is some controversy among modernist thinkers about this book, but Hajji Khalifah in Kashf adh-dhunun says that is: "Subtle (lateef), useful (mufeed)."

3 Kuhn, T.S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. ISBN 0-226-45808-3

4 From Descartes' idea of the res extensa, the external world of things including animals, as being subject to cause and effect much as mechanical things are, it not taking scientists very long to begin to include human beings in that order, even though Descartes initially proposed man as being  res cogitans the cognitive being that is aware of its own being, which Descartes considered as of a radically different order from the res extensa.

5 Qadi 'Iyad , Tartib al-madarik, 1:14, as-Sakhawi, Fath al-mughith, 306.

6 Ibn Farhun, ad-Dibaj al-mudhahhab, 23, with a slight difference: he was stung sixteen times by a scorpion.

7 Al-Bukhari narrated it in a book called Khalq af'al al-'ibad – The Creation of the Slaves' Actions


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