The central locus of where doubts attack is the spiritual heart. The centrality of the heart is highlighted by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ,
“Truly in the body there is a morsel of flesh, which, if it is sound, the whole body is sound, and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Truly, it is the heart.”1
The Arabic word for heart is ‘qalb’ which comes from the root meaning ‘to turn over’ or ‘to turn upside down’. The heart, thus is always in a state of motion and being impacted on one hand, by the calling of the spirit (rūh) and the fiṭrah towards the Divine and on the other hand, being called by the physical, base desires towards the ephemeral world.
The desired state of the heart is to be strong in the sense that the fiṭrah is sound (i.e. not ‘clouded over’). When this sound fiṭrah is coupled with a clear and properly functioning intellect, the result is certainty and a heart that is tranquil due to this certainty. This state of heart is what is desired on the day of judgment, as Allah mentions in the Qur’an,
“The Day when neither wealth nor children can help. But only one who comes to God with a sound heart…”2
The main corrupters of the heart fall into two broad categories. Shahawāt which are one’s base desires and Shubuhātwhich are destructive doubts.
Every human has base desires. We all have a desire to eat, sleep, drink, procreate, etc. However, the concept of shahawātrefers to when we lose control of our desires and they lead to negative consequences upon the heart. For example, procreation is a natural desire. To fulfill one’s desire with their spouse is praiseworthy under the Islamic worldview. However, a person who is overcome with sexual desires to the point that they don’t care how they fulfill their desire (maybe being so overtaken by their desire that they rape a person!), this is what would come under the rubric of shahawāt.
Shubuhāt is the plural of the word ‘shubhah’. The triliteral root of the word, sh-b-h refers to things resembling one another or things being con-similar to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. Doubts that affect your īmān are called shubuhāt because as Al-Fayyūmi states, “…a shubhah is called so because it resembles (tushbihu) the truth.”3
Ibn Taymiyyah elucidates this further,
“Every significant belief usually contains an element of truth (shubhah min al ḥaqq), since if that wasn’t the case, such views would not have circulated…”4
We can compare the insidious nature of shubuhāt to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Shubuhāt pose as the truth with the intent to attack the heart and suck the īmān out like parasites. As such it would be insufficient to merely refer to them as doubts. Rather they are destructive doubts.
Comparing shahawāt (base desires) to shubuhāt (destructive doubts), Ibn Qayyim states the following:
“Fitnah(i.e. Trial, tribulation, test) is of two types: the fitnah of Shubuhāt, this one being the greater of the two, and the fitnah of Shahawāt.”5
Generally, shubuhāt will be more dangerous than shahawāt, as Ibn Qayyim mentions. However, prolonged shahawāt could lead to shubuhāt, which makes them very dangerous. In other words, a person could be engaged in practicing a sinful desire and initially feel that they are doing something wrong. As time goes on however, a person cannot remain in a state where they feel like they are doing something morally wrong. In order to settle the cognitive dissonance, they may start presenting rational reasons to themselves that in fact, their sinful desire isn’t sinful or wrong at all. Thus they move from desire to doubt.
1 Qushayrī, Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim
2 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Ash-Shu`ara’ [26:88-89] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 29, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/26/88-89.
3 al Miṣbāḥ al Munīr: 1/358
4 Jāmi’ ar-Rasā’il 2/401
5 Ibn Qayyim, Ighāthatu Lafān Masāyidush-Shaytān