The Role of Intellect and Heart

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

We have been given numerous faculties/qualities: intellect/reason, heart, sense, ego, conscience, partial-freewill, willpower, etc. When we make decisions, we use all these faculties simultaneously. In other words, it is not possible for us to completely shut off our emotions or our intellect at any given moment. We may think that we think and choose solely with our intellect, but so many other faculties play a role in each decision.

Our intellect looks at the apparent face of creation through the five external senses that collect information. Thus reason is not concerned primarily with the meaning of things. For instance, when we see a tea cup, we say, “There is a cup and there is tea in it.” We observe and tell what is apparently there. But we like the tea; we enjoy the taste; we feel sorry for those who do not have it; we want to share it with those who are in need of it…etc. Thus, actions we take have many reasons behind them, not only reason.

The plant grows as if the cells are reproducing themselves. Yes, this is true, but at the end it comes out as an extraordinarily amazing system. Although at first glance, when we observe creation it seems straightforward, all is going on smoothly. Cells multiply; the world revolves around itself… When we look at things carefully, all is precisely measured. The outcome of the precise angle of the world’s axis is amazing. Millions of events are attached to it and they are purposefully designed this way. Then our reason questions what this is and interprets it. While reason tries to interpret it, other human faculties come into this thinking process.

What does the heart entail? Having a heart means consciousness, emotions, senses, being considerate, wanting to help other people even strangers. When our expectations are fulfilled, we are pleased. If I see something I do not like, I wish it was not so. For example, we ask our sick friend to get well soon. This is not a rational desire. If he could get well soon on his own, he would not have been sick to begin with. So a greeting of “get well soon” expresses our hopes, although rationally, we know that to make the apparent system of creation help our friend to “get well” is not within our capacity. Our senses take us beyond the system of creation to its Creator. The system does not listen to me; it has no conscious, but our feelings require a conscious addressee. This leads us to the Conscious Creator of the system.

When we question whether the heart leads our intellect or vice versa, the matter becomes complicated. Reason looks at the causal relationship. On the other hand, the emotions do not concentrate on the casual relationship. The heart hopes and wishes. It gets frightened. Its limits are completely different than the limits of our intellect.

Let’s say I have 100 dollars. I know with my reason that I can only buy three or four books with this money but my heart wishes for so much more. It wants, for example, to feed all the poor. In the apparent causal relationship, there are no means to do so with what I have, but the heart still desires. I desire that no one hurt each other, that there be no wars, etc.

There is then a contradiction between reason and heart. They do not exclude each other, yet reason is very limited, whereas the heart seems to have no limits. While the heart hopes for infinity in everything, there is no absolute in creation. Everything we observe is limited, bound by time and space. Nothing in this creation that we observe or experience is unlimited. Hence, reason sees the limitations and measures them, while the heart does not recognize these limitations; it always hopes for infinite happiness and beauty.

The heart is the mirror of the divine attributes. The heart is the mirror of Rab (The Sustainer/Educator/Care-taker). The heart always looks beyond the causal network. It wishes for everything good, but eternally. The heart is one of our faculties that open up to the divine sphere. When we engage in retrospective thought and try to analyze what it means for our heart to hope for eternity, we realize that eternity is in the divine sphere. When we listen to our senses, we see that we desire eternal justice, peace and beauty. Even if we may not be able to describe what they are, we still wish for them. So human senses address somewhere or something that is beyond the limits of this creation. Even if our senses cannot see any means to realize it, to make it come true, our heart still wants it. There seems to be an apparent contradiction between what we see in this world and what we desire.

What my heart desires is not confirmed by what my intellect can see and can perceive. Since we cannot experience and confirm this desire for eternity, where did it come from? We can conclude that whoever made me gave me these senses, which look for something beyond the limits of this creation. These desires are innate in us; we are programmed this way. Everyone dies, everything perishes. But we still want eternity.

“I wish” is the heart; “I know I cannot” is the reason. Reason blocks the heart’s path to deciphering the meaning in creation, because reason only functions with causal relationships.

How can we utilize reason to help the heart and vice versa? Reason will say “I have this much food,” but the heart wants to share it with the hungry. This feeling is given to us as a promise, to understand that this desire will be fulfilled. We see this is a transient world, and our desires cannot be satisfied here. How can this feeling be a promise for eternity?  We see in our lives that the Creator always keeps His promises. The babies desire to walk and to speak, and those abilities gradually come. Whatever is promised to them is gradually realized. We have to train our reasoning with the help of the heart.

For example, Prophet Abraham (pbuh) was searching for the Creator and started to exercise his reason with the help of his heart. He observed and concluded with his reason that this amazing creation cannot happen accidentally in this perfect way. In a way, his heart was saying: “Yes you are right; look for the one who gives you all these senses, desires, and get to know the Creator of this universe, who is unlimited, and try to see His signs in creation.”

In materialist science there is only room for reason. Materialist scientists deny the desires of the heart. For example, for our desire to live eternally and the existence of an eternal Afterlife, they conclude “It cannot happen, it is only human imagination.”  Billions of people have the same imagination then? This desire for eternity is innate in us, and has been placed in us purposefully. We take the message we receive through the heart, and give another dimension to the cause and effect relationship observed with the reason. The heart tries to understand the meaning. Maybe the Creator is giving us a message, a clue about Himself. If the Creator whose creation we observe creates the human being from one cell or a tree out of a tiny seed, then He is revealing His Attributes, He can create everything out of simple things. He can create endless things. The heart is the seed of our desires. Out of this seed, the Creator is creating eternity.

We cannot see the truth without the heart. Without the help of the heart, the reason cannot reach the truth. Materialist science does not take the message of the heart into account. Belief without reason is also not desired. Just to say that something is true because the Qur’an says so, is not enough. God also gave us reason to use and to confirm the scripture.

How did we invent our wishes? The heart has a letter from God promising He will give all that we desire. Here, in this world, there are free samples of everything. The desire for eternity is a need like hunger; and just like all our physical needs are satisfied here, our desire for eternity will also be satisfied.

Our intellect is only one of the many faculties that make us who we are. Although we know that our parents are there (intellect), we go to visit them because we miss them (heart). We do not always act with our reason. Only reason causes hopelessness, arrogance and selfishness. Reason finds out this world is limited, and concludes that it wants all for itself. Colonialism, wars, power struggles, civilizations dominating the world are all a result of letting the reason dominate our being. On the other hand, the heart realizes its poverty and weakness. It hopes his friend gets well but does not claim “I will give health.” This realization is the door opening to God.


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

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