Some of the common English translations of the word taqwa are “piety” and “heed” or “God-fearing.” Each of these translations gives only a partial understanding of this word’s true meaning because it is an attitude that combines many feelings, such as fear of God, heeding, and above all being God-conscious.
Is Taqwa Simply Fear?
The term fear, when used to refer to God-consciousness in the Islamic context, does not mean being scared of God because being scared excludes any feeling of love or respect.
Fear of God means to fear His disobedience and punishment, on the Day of Judgment, and to fear forgetting Him and losing His blessings.
Another partial meaning of fear, which is nobler, is the fear of displeasing God, the One Whom you love. For example, when two people love each other, you find each of them trying their best to please the other and to avoid even forgetting their anniversaries or birthdays. If this is the attitude of humans towards each other, then it is more appropriate that people fear God’s displeasure. People should love God most because they owe everything to Him: their lives, property, and, above all, His guidance to know and worship Him.
So, fear of God is not founded on a vengeful concept of hate and fear of God. It is actually based on love, which leads to a feeling of fear of God’s displeasure.
The meaning of taqwa was clarified in a statement made by `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph after Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). `Umar compared being God-conscious to a person going through a narrow path with thorns while he is trying to snatch his clothes in order to protect himself from any harm. In Arabic, clothing is used as a metaphor for a person’s character and the thorns are a metaphor for the temptations in life, such as greed and wanting to get money from any source whether legitimate or illegitimate, or temptation towards illicit relationships. This similitude means that the person goes through life trying to protect his moral and pure character, which was endowed on him by God, from all other diversions, deviations, or temptations that surround him.
God-consciousness is the core of taqwa because God-consciousness is acknowledging, feeling, and realizing God’s presence at all times, and knowing that He is looking after you and knows what you are doing and even what your soul whispers to you. This feeling results in trying to go through life according to God’s orders and being ashamed of doing wrong in His presence, which is at all times.
So a person who has taqwa tries to avoid both: things that displease God and things that may harm himself or others. This is explained beautifully in a story that took place during the reign of `Umar ibn Al-Khattab. A simple teenage girl had a mother who sold milk and in order to increase the amount of milk and earn money easily her mother added water to it. On seeing her mother, the girl advised her not to cheat but the mother said that they are alone and caliph `Umar cannot see them, so the girl told her that `Umar cannot see them but the God of `Umar can see them.
This story shows the degrees of God-consciousness and that reaching a high degree of God-consciousness is not necessarily measured by how often a person feels it on going to places of worship, but by a person tries to be conscious of God’s presence at all times.
Taqwa and Divine Love
For centuries, philosophers and writers have tried to explore divine love but found that there are some feelings that just cannot be translated into words, especially when a person moves to higher degrees of divine love.
Divine love in Islam is not a type of superficial love but it is considered a mutual genuine feeling between God and man, which is referred to in the Qur’an: [Then Allah will bring a people, He shall love them and they shall love Him] (Al-Ma’idah 5:54).
The Qur’an connects divine love to taqwa in a verse that says what means [For lo! Allah loveth those who ward off (evil)] (Aal `Imran 3:76). This shows that divine love is not only manifested in pure acts of worship like prayers, but it is also reflected in different aspects of life. That is why following the path of God is the real test for the genuineness of divine love.
This is beautifully expressed in the Qur’an, while addressing Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): [Say, (O Muhammad, to mankind): If ye love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful] (Aal `Imran 3:31).
Following this path that God has established for man results in a sense of dependence upon God and a sense of gratefulness to God for all His bounties.
Divine love requires commitment and steadfastness so a person can be prepared to face the different trials and tribulations in life. It also requires responsibility and sacrifice of some of the person’s time, property, desires, and even a person’s own life if necessary. The Qur’an indicates that to have this true love, one must put God’s love above all other types of love: [But those of Faith are overflowing in their love for Allah] (Al-Baqarah 2:165).
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also mentioned that one of the things that a person must achieve in order to feel the sweet taste of faith in his heart, is to love God and His Messenger more than anything else.
This divine love is also the foundation of love for other creatures in the universe because the deep and profound love for humans and other creatures would not be felt by someone who does not truly love God.
Translating Love Into Good Deeds
Various verses in the Qur’an explain the characteristics that a person should have in order to receive God’s love. One of those traits is taqwa or God-consciousness, which is referred to in the Qur’an: [For lo! Allah loveth those who ward off (evil)] (Aal `Imran 3:76).
Also, people who constantly repent to God deserve His love: [For Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean] (Al-Baqarah 2:222), which means that the door for repentance is open if a person sins, and not only does God accept those who repent, but He also loves them.
A third characteristic is constant self-purification. The Qur’an says what means [And Allah loves those who purify themselves] (At-Tawbah 9:108).
People who do good were also mentioned in several verses: [Surely Allah loves the doers of good] (Al-Baqarah 2:195).
God also loves those who have trust in Him. He says what means [For Allah loves those who put their trust (in Him)] (Aal `Imran 3:159).
Those who are steadfast and persevering also deserve divine love: [And Allah loves the patient] (Aal `Imran 3:146).
People who are just or judge in equity are also mentioned in the Qur’an as receiving God’s love: [Surely Allah loves those who judge equitably] (Al-Ma’idah 5:42).
Endangering Divine Love
There are also characteristics that God does not love, such as aggression or transgression. He says what means [Lo! Allah loveth not transgressors] (Al-Ma’idah 5:87)
Corruption on earth or doing mischief is another bad characteristic: [And Allah loveth not mischief] (Al-Baqarah 2:205).
In addition, being ungrateful is something that God does not love: (…and Allah does not love any ungrateful sinner.) (Al-Baqarah 2:276).
Those who reject faith are also endangering divine love: [Say: Obey Allah and the Messenger. But if they turn away, lo! Allah loveth not the disbelievers (in His guidance)] (Aal `Imran 3:32). In the Qur’an God mentions oppression, where He says what means [And Allah does not love the unjust] (Aal `Imran 3:57).
Betrayal and treachery are also bad traits that God does not love: [Surely Allah does not love the treacherous] (Al-Anfal 8:58).
God dislikes vanity and arrogance.
Those who waste and misuse things are mentioned by God as people who endanger divine love: [Surely He does not love the extravagant] (Al-A`raf 7:31).
There are also a number of verses that show that God dislikes vanity and arrogance, where He says what means [Surely Allah does not love him who is proud, boastful] (An-Nisaa’ 4:36).
Fruits of Taqwa
There are several benefits derived from the moral quality of being God-conscious. First, the Qur’an is in itself guidance for those who are God-conscious: [This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off (evil)] (Al-Baqarah 2:2). This is why many people do not really benefit from reading scriptures of holy books, because their hearts are not really receptive to them.
Another benefit is that taqwa helps people to have proper vision, knowledge, and wisdom. Referring to this we find a beautiful verse in the Qur’an saying what means [O ye who believe! if ye fear Allah, He will grant you a criterion (to judge between right and wrong), remove from you (all) evil (that may afflict) you, and forgive you: for Allah is the Lord of grace unbounded] (Al-Anfal 8:29). Another verse that relates taqwa to knowledge and vision says what means [Observe your duty to Allah. Allah is teaching you. And Allah is knower of all things] (Al-Baqarah 2:282).
Taqwa is also a cause for receiving the blessings of God and finding a way out of problems and tribulations that may be found in life. For example, the Qur’an says what means [And whoever is careful of (his duty to) Allah, He will make easy for him his affair] (At-Talaq 65:4).
Ultimate bliss is also reached by God- consciousness
The Qur’an refers to taqwa as a perquisite for the forgiveness of sins. It says in one verse what means [And whoso keepeth his duty to Allah, He will remit from him his evil deeds and magnify reward for him] (At-Talaq 65:5).
Taqwa is also a precondition for receiving God’s mercy, which is indicated in a moving verse that says what means [That (mercy) I shall ordain for those who do right, and practice regular charity, and those who believe in Our signs] (Al-A`raf 7:156).
Ultimate victory and taqwa are also related: [Lo! the sequel is for those who ward off (evil)] (Hud 11:49).
Ultimate bliss is also reached by God-consciousness, and not only is this bliss in life on earth but also in the eternal life of the hereafter. The Qur’an refers to this by saying what means [Behold! verily on the friends of Allah there is no fear, nor shall they grieve] (Yunus 10:62).
This is why the Qur’an constantly mentions taqwa as an essential quality: that one should submit to God’s will and take taqwa as provision for the travel from this life on earth to the eternal life in the hereafter. The Qur’an refers to this by saying what means [For the best provision is to ward off evil. Therefore keep your duty unto Me, O men of understanding] (Al-Baqarah 2:197). Having this quality of taqwa would result in a feeling of inner peace, and eternal tranquility would spread among people.
* Adapted from a lecture in Dr. Jamal Badawi’s Islamic Teachings series.