A couple of years ago, an atheist asked me why the Qur’an says Allah ﷻ will seal the hearts of those who disbelieve, and then punish them for disbelieving.
“Allah ﷻ has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.” Qur’an 2:7
I didn’t have a satisfying answer, and for a very long time, I couldn’t find a satisfying answer. I read various explanations. I asked Muslims who study with me. I sought scholarly opinion. I was left wanting.
A last, someone conveyed the idea in a way that made perfect sense to me. He said:
Allah ﷻ attributes to Himself the outcome of His natural laws.
This manner of speaking is a hint as to the divine nature of Qur’anic revelation. A person would not speak this way, but Allah ﷻ is the Creator and the Sustainer. His Creation is an instrument of His will:
Do they not observe the birds above them, spreading their wings and folding them in? None can uphold them except (Allah ﷻ) Most Gracious: Truly (Allah ﷻ) Most Gracious: Truly it is He that watches over all things. Qur’an 67:19
Seest thou not that Allah ﷻ makes the clouds move gently, then joins them together, then makes them into a heap? – then wilt thou see rain issue forth from their midst. And He sends down from the sky mountain masses (of clouds) wherein is hail: He strikes therewith whom He pleases and He turns it away from whom He pleases, the vivid flash of His lightning well-nigh blinds the sight. Qur’an 24:43
Do they not look at Allah’s ﷻ creation, (even) among (inanimate) things,- How their (very) shadows turn round, from the right and the left, prostrating themselves to Allah ﷻ, and that in the humblest manner? Qur’an 16:48
Indeed, Allah ﷻ is the cleaver of grain and date seeds. He brings the living out of the dead and brings the dead out of the living. That is Allah ﷻ ; so how are you deluded? Qur’an 6:95
Most of creation does not rebel. Human beings, like jinn, have free will, which we can exercise within the bounds of natural law.
Verily, We did offer the trust [of reason and volition] to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains: but they refused to bear it because they were afraid of it. Yet man took it up – for, verily, he has always been prone to be most wicked, most foolish. Qu’ran 33:71
When Allah ﷻ says he seals the hearts of the disbelievers, He is attributing to himself the outcome of natural law, commingling with the agency He has granted to the human being.
Through our choices, we can increase or decrease our awareness of Allah ﷻ.
I know what some readers must be thinking. The atheist who posed the question objected to the notion of choice. Unbelief, he said, was not a choice. He had done his homework. He had examined all the evidence and come to reasoned conclusion. He didn’t deserve to be punished.
Maybe he’s right. Only Allah ﷻ knows what’s in the heart of a human being, and the exact balance of his or her deeds. We’re warned not to judge others.With our limited knowledge, we may think one person is better than another, but Allah ﷻ may see the truth is quite the opposite.
Nevertheless, it is possible for the ego to obscure truth. There are levels between fully conscious and unconscious, and we operate along that spectrum.
Some Muslim philosophers have said human essence is comprised of three parts: ego, heart and soul. Our hearts can incline toward Allah ﷻ, or lead us astray. We can become so absorbed in the ego, the heart and soul are neglected.
The lowest deeds associated with ego are the misdeeds we do on a whim. Higher are deeds associated with ego that require intervention. We can use reason and judgement, and control our impulses, but we are still in the space of the ego. The philosophy of religion is the ego’s path to understanding faith through reason, and the final destination is agnosticism. From there, any leap is a leap of faith–including atheism.
The spiritual realm is known not through the ego or through pure reason, but rather via the heart. The heart is the locus of the Divine gaze. He sees us through our hearts, and through our hearts we see Him.
Expecting your rational mind to find Allah ﷻ is like staring at your toaster, expecting it to pick up radio waves. The waves are all around, but to tune in, you need a radio, not a toaster. Your heart is the instrument of Divine frequency.
Last, but certainly not least, is the soul. The soul is always in the presence of Allah ﷻ , who tells us in the Qur’an He is closer to us than our jugular vein (Qur’an 50:16). To experience the soul is to be aware of His presence. To commune with Him.
The broker between the ego and the soul is the heart.
If you sin but repent, and if you do good deeds and pray, then you can increase your awareness of the Divine presence. You clear the fog of ego and worldly things. But if you sin and do not repent, and if you do bad deeds and overlook Allah ﷻ in favor of worldy things, then you can decrease your awareness of the Divine presence. This balance is the Divine order which governs the path of those endowed with free will.
Disbelievers: Are you sure you’re not trapped in the murky depths of your own dark ink?
Some say that Allah ﷻ really does ‘put a seal’ on the hearts of the disbelievers, not just as a feature of His design commingling with our agency, but actively and deliberately as a punishment. I don’t know if that’s true of not, but to me it seems unlikely. As part of the trust He granted through free will, Allah ﷻ allows us to wander in a spiritual wilderness.
How can it be otherwise?
nevertheless, Allah ﷻ , in His infinite mercy, also welcomes us to repent until the Last Day:
Allah’s ﷻ Messenger said that Allah ﷻ said: He who comes with a good deed, its reward will be ten like that or even more. And he who comes with vice, his reward will be only one like that, or I can forgive him. He who draws close to Me a hand’s span, I will draw close to him an arm’s length. And whoever draws near Me an arm’s length, I will draw near him a fathom’s length. And whoever comes to Me walking, I will go to him running. And whoever faces Me with sins nearly as great as the earth, I will meet him with forgiveness nearly as great as that, provided he does not worship something with me. Hadith no: 1 Narrated / Authority of: Abu Dhar, Chapter no: 1, Book of 110 Ahadith Qudsi.