The modern world is heartless. Not only in the symbolic sense – as the capitalistic system keeps destroying nature and dehumanizing men – but also quite literally.
Where the likes of philosopher Aristotle and physician Galen deemed the heart to be the central seat of intelligence, emotion, and soul, modernity limits the heart to being a mere bodily organ.
Of course it’s an important organ, pumping blood throughout the entire human body. However it’s no longer seen as the “spiritual center” of man, as it was in traditional civilizations.
This desacralization happened in the seventeenth century, with physician William Harvey and philosopher René Descartes (“the father of modern philosophy”). The two may have had diverging views but ultimately both gave it a materialistic interpretation – naturally espousing the mechanistic paradigm of the day, something that Descartes would popularize way beyond the field of anatomy alone.
Even if Descartes’ views of the heart were not entirely factual (as Danish bishop Nicolas Steno would show during these same years), the materialistic and mechanistic approach of the heart triumphed.
It’s just an organ.
Of course, as German philosopher Ernst Cassirer has discussed, language itself is deeply rooted in myth and poetry. Therefore secularization couldn’t enact its materialistic demolition job completely. And till today, even in the secular West, an expression such as the “heart of a matter” means the center, most important or innermost part of the said matter. The heart is still used, often crudely, in romantic movies and songs as a spiritual symbol of love, and not as “just an organ.”
The Heart in Islam: More Than Just a Blood Pumping Organ
In numerous Qur’anic ayat and authentic ahadith we gain an understanding of the heart which goes far beyond its mere physiological functions.
For instance, in the Qur’an (2:74) we read:
Even then your hearts became hardened like a rock or even harder, for some rocks gush rivers; others split, spilling water; while others are humbled in awe of Allah. And Allah is never unaware of what you do.
We also read in the Qur’an (13:27-28):
The disbelievers say, “If only a sign could be sent down to him from his Lord.” Say, ˹O Prophet,˺ “Indeed, Allah leaves to stray whoever He wills, and guides to Himself whoever turns to Him— those who believe and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of Allah. Surely in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find comfort.
There are also many other Qur’anic ayat on the subject.
As for authentic ahadith, we find in Sahih al-Bukhari (52):
Narrated An-Nu’man bin Bashir:
I heard Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) saying, ‘Both legal and illegal things are evident but in between them there are doubtful (suspicious) things and most of the people have no knowledge about them. So whoever saves himself from these suspicious things saves his religion and his honor. And whoever indulges in these suspicious things is like a shepherd who grazes (his animals) near the Hima (private pasture) of someone else and at any moment he is liable to get in it. (O people!) Beware! Every king has a Hima and the Hima of Allah on the earth is His illegal (forbidden) things. Beware! There is a piece of flesh in the body if it becomes good (reformed) the whole body becomes good but if it gets spoilt the whole body gets spoilt and that is the heart.
And in Sahih Muslim (2564):
Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:
Verily Allah does not look to your faces and your wealth but He looks to your heart and to your deeds.
We could quote many more textual evidences, but in essence what we derive from both the Qur’an and the ahadith is that the heart is a spiritual center, as well as the seat of emotions and intelligence (beyond rationality).
It is not merely a physical organ which pumps blood through the circulatory system.
We can also quote an uncountable number of classical scholars of Islam regarding the importance of the heart.
Of course, all of this suffices for us as Muslims. We do not take modern science as a benchmark or determining factor in such religious matters…
But still, what if the latest academic research reaffirms the Islamic perspective?
Heart Transplants and “Cellular Memory”
In 2000, three authors associated with American universities penned an article titled Changes in Heart Transplant Recipients That Parallel the Personalities of Their Donors for the Integrative Medicine journal.
They studied many cases and directly interviewed not only transplant recipients but also their families and friends, and also those of the donors. They claimed that the transplant recipient very often replicated some of the donor’s most unique behavioral traits – as if there was some sort of experiential or emotional transfer which had occurred.
Two to 5 parallels per case were observed between changes following surgery and the histories of the donors. Parallels included changes in food, music, art, sexual, recreational, and career preferences, as well as specific instances of perceptions of names and sensory experiences related to the donors (e.g., one donor was killed by a gun shot to the face; the recipient had dreams of seeing hot flashes of light in his face)
The authors called this “cellular memory” and gave the example of Claire Sylvia. She wrote a whole book called A Change of Heart explaining how she’d basically replicated her dead donor’s experiences. For instance adapting the donor’s eating habits, which previously repulsed her (such as consuming fast foods and beer).
As we’ve mentioned, they studied many cases. They provide many examples, but as it would be too lengthy to go into detail, there’s a summary here found in Table 2:
These are all marked behavioral traits which must have passed on from the donor to the transplant recipient. These can’t be “coincidental” at all.
A possible counter-argument could be: perhaps transplanting other organs, such as kidneys, would work too? The authors dismiss this possibility on p. 72:
They were usually transitory and could be associated with medications and other factors of transplantation. The findings for heart transplants appear more robust and were more strongly associated with the donor’s history. If this observation is verified in future research, the implications for basic physiology as attention and well as clinical medicine could be substantial.
Years later in 2020, Dr. Mitchell Liester (a professor of psychiatry associated with the University of Colorado) released an article for the journal Medical Hypotheses, Personality Changes Following Heart Transplantation: The Role of Cellular Memory.
He basically uses the same arguments as the previous authors. But he also brings his own examples and adds perspective from the growing field of epigenetics.
Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.
So he goes further than the previous authors. While discussing the matter, he also touches on things such as the DNA, the RNA, or the proteins – but without adding anything new.
The fact that in such a large span of time, nothing new has been added to the discussion reveals how it is still a relatively new field of research. This could possibly be because it’s meeting stern resistance from the wider “scientific” community, due to modern science’s innate materialist bias.
Saying that the heart stores emotions, memories, a certain form of intelligence, and perhaps even the soul, is blasphemy. Besides the soul, the very existence of which they reject, according to them all of these characteristics simply must be associated with the brain.
It’s quite unlikely that the crusaders of scientism will go through an enlightening change of heart on such a matter (and also other such matters). However it certainly reaffirms the Islamic perspective about the heart transcending just its materialist functions. Not that this means much to us as Muslims though, since we already believe firmly in the superiority and truth of Islam.