A Book Review of With the Heart in Mind by Mikaeel Ahmed Smith
In addressing the concept of aql’ (intellect), extensive scholarship has attempted to answer the questions of what is intellect and what is its purpose? Shaykh Mikhaeel Ahmed Smith begins his book, With the Heart in Mind, by outlining the paradigms that have shaped modern understanding of intelligence as being removed from, often even diametrically opposed to, theism. Modern understanding of rationality views skepticism as the highest form of intelligence and certainty in one’s beliefs – particularly in God – as fanaticism. From John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” a major work of British empiricism that makes a case for rationality as removed from the soul, to Cartesian dualism of mind and body, Smith sets the stage for an introduction to the Prophetic model of intellect, one that is inspired through God’s revelation.
This paradigm holds knowledge to be a divine light which illuminates the unknown inside and outside the human being, with the ultimate source of that light being Allah. Allah addresses the modern obsession with doubt, stating from the beginning of the second chapter of the Qur’an that ‘this is the book in which there is no doubt’ [2:2]
Smith stresses the need for Muslims to understand factors that shape their worldviews before delving into the alternative model the book proposes, examining both emotional and moral intelligence as fundamental aspects of ‘aql. The book is divided into four sections, with sections II and III comprising the majority of discussion.
Section I: ‘Aql
Through personal anecdotes of his journey of seeking knowledge sitting among scholars, Smith introduces different theories of intellect from Muhasabi and Al-Ghazali. Islam’s emphasis on a solid foundation in the sciences of logic and reasoning is made clear, but perhaps most effective in elucidating this reality is Smith’s retelling of personal encounters with his teachers and students. He reiterates the importance of the ability to distinguish between what is sound and fallacious while being aware of the limitations of rationality in a refreshing style that brings relevance to our daily lives and engagement with sacred knowledge.
Section II: Emotional Intelligence
The next Section, discussing emotional intelligence, builds on examples of the interpersonal interactions of the Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet ﷺ was perfect in speech, mannerisms, and interactions. Every aspect of how he presented himself, from gait to tone of voice, was a means of seeking the pleasure of Allah and effecting change in people. He was able to nurture and strengthen a community by understanding what ailed them, externally and internally.
It is this exact quality that enabled him to reach such a level of influence, transforming not just the cities of Mecca and Medina, but also the entire world, for centuries to come. Due to its role in propagating the message of Islam, Smith admits that the emotional intelligence of the Prophet ﷺ motivated him to investigate ‘aql.
Many understand the importance of developing emotional intelligence, but lack the acumen for handling strife in interpersonal interactions. Seeking to emulate the Prophet ﷺ must include developing an awareness of the balance of discipline and mercy he imbued every action with, beginning with knowledge of one’s self – a part of ‘aql. Smith weaves examples from the life of the Prophet ﷺ with theories of self-knowledge and emotional awareness from both classical and contemporary thinkers, building on current studies in psychology. In one example, Smith discusses body language and how even the way one walks can convey a message to passersby. Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi, a collection of hadiths describing the mannerisms and appearance of the Prophet ﷺ, offers explicit description of his gait. The Prophet ﷺ understood the role of something as minor as walking can have in our interactions with others, and his gait – walking in a measured manner, described as leaning slightly forward – communicated focus and humility. These descriptions illuminate the beautiful way the Prophet ﷺ conducted himself as a leader, father, husband, and friend.
I found this section to be the most instructive, with examples to implement into my own life. Interspersed in the chapters are Smith’s reflections on the challenges of family and community building and practical ways to develop healthy relationships, mindfulness, and self-awareness. However, emotional awareness and understanding is only beneficial when coupled with moral intelligence, as knowledge of our own and others’ temperaments cannot serve to build stronger communities unless coupled with the ability to distinguish good from bad.
Section III: Moral Intelligence
Within the prophetic model of intellect, Emotional Intelligence is only praiseworthy because it allows one to effectively communicate the message of revelation to others and facilitates one’s ability to fulfill the rights of the creation of Allah.
With this in mind, Smith centers section III around moral intelligence. He describes the importance of moral intelligence – the ability to see right from wrong and practice towards the good – and the use of ‘aql to reach that ideal. Without moral intelligence, an emotionally intelligent person risks using the knowledge of interpersonal relationships to their advantage and neglecting the rights of others upon him.
Smith references the works of Sa’d al-Taftazani, Ibn al-Qutlubugha, Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Ghazali, Ibn Sina, and others to illustrate the concept of sight, insight, and the pitfalls of moral blindness. For example, Ibn al-Qayyim regards the sickness of the heart a “type of imbalance” that affects one’s ability to see truth as truth, such that he “begins to hate the truth, which is actually beneficial, or love falsehood, which is harmful….” Learning about these spiritual states is a key step to healing spiritual sickness, as recognizing the signs of deficiency in moral intelligence, and how it can lead to emotional neglect and abuse, enables us to seek appropriate help for others and ourselves.
While this is a philosophy-dense section, even readers unfamiliar with the field can parse through the key concepts in theology and philosophy that Smith concisely introduces and the authors discussed can provide a foundation for delving further into the subject areas. The section ends with key aspects of moral intelligence and a directive for readers to “recalibrate the collective moral compass,” paving the way for Smith’s poignant push for radical transformation in Section IV to build an attachment to God and actions that please Him.
Section IV: Radical Change: How EQ Leads to Real Transformation
‘Aql is God-given and He asks us in the Qur’an to use it (21:20) – it is through this tool that we may distinguish right from wrong. The intellectual capacity we’ve been given must effect deep change, within ourselves and others, to align with the truth from God.
Smith strings together psychology, philosophy, theology, and history to illuminate an alternative model of emotional and moral intelligence centered on God, His revelation, and the examples of His prophets and messengers. Though just under 200 pages in length, reading With the Heart in Mind requires deliberation. It is not simply a summary of the life of the Prophet ﷺ and esteemed scholars in the Islamic tradition, but a work that calls for using our intellectual capacity for intentional transformation of the self and our communities.
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About the author: Heraa is best known for her research project, Muslims Condemn. She is a graduate in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.