Taqwa – The Concept of God-Consciousness in Islam

One of the interesting things that we find in the Quran is that there is repetition of concepts, which in reality is a way of emphasizing the significance of any given concept. And the more likely it is for us to forget about that concept, the more frequently Allah (SWT) has mentioned it in the Quran. So Allah (SWT) for example frequently mentions the life of the Hereafter. Why? Because as human beings we have a tendency of overindulging in the affairs of this world and in the process forget about the accountability of the Day of Judgment. So the frequent mention of the Hereafter essentially serves as a constant reminder for us. One such often-repeated concept in the Quran, is that of taqwa.

Khawf is a perceived danger and a fear of something that is physical. Khawf is the type of fear you’d feel if you were out on a camping trip and were chased out by a bear for example. Allah (SWT) says:

وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَىٰ

“But as for him who feared (khawf) standing before his Lord, and restrained himself from impure evil desires and lusts.” (79:40)

The believer has a fear of something that is manifest and real, which is captured in this ayah by the use of khawf. Allah did not state in this ayah that the person fears their Lord, but fears the standing before his Lord, and as a result of this fear, he protected himself from misguided lusts and desires.

Khashyah is a fear as a result of knowledge and leads to action. It is when you know the greatness and magnitude of what you fear, and as a result, have an awe and reverence of it.

“It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allah.” (35:28)

Taqwa is the most common word used for fear. It comes from the root wiqaayah, which means to protect and is used for a shield. Taqwa is to protect yourself from the consequences of your own actions. It implies self-restraint, guarding oneself from all sin and wrong deeds. It is to protect yourself in two ways: to abandon sinning and to adorn yourself with good deeds because you fear the punishment of Allah. Allah says in the ayah of Hajj,

وَتَزَوَّدُوا فَإِنَّ خَيْرَ الزَّادِ التَّقْوَىٰ

“And take a provision (with you) for the journey, but the best provision is At-Taqwa” (2:197)

At-taqwa imtithaal al-awaamir wajtinaab an-nawahi

To implement the commandments and avoid those which are prohibited.

A person once asked the Messenger of Allah (SAW), Ya Rasulullahi ooseeni (O Messenger of Allah! Give me some advice.) The Prophet (SAW) replied, Ooseeka bi taqwa Allah fainnahu ra’sul amri kullihi (I advise you to fear Allah because it is the head of everything.)

Omar ibn Al-Khattab once asked Ubay ibn Ka’ab: How would you describe Taqwa? In reply Ubay asked, “Have you ever had to traverse a thorny path?” Omar replied in the affirmative and Ubay then continued, “How do you do so?” Omar said that he would carefully walk through after first having collected all loose and flowing clothing in his hands so nothing gets caught in the thorn. Ubay said: “This is the definition of Taqwa.”

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (radiyallahu anhu) narrated: “Taqwa is not fasting during the day and it is not praying during the night and it is not the mixing of the two of them, but taqwa is leaving what Allah has made haram (forbidden) and by doing what Allah has made fard. After one has done this, Allah will provide good things for that person.”

Most of the concepts in our Islamic tradition are in reality a process vs. being a goal and the concept of taqwa or God-consciousness is no exception. If we consider taqwa to be a goal then that would mean that there is a point where we can say we have reached it and that is pretty much the end of it. But if we view taqwa as a process then there is consistency, there is commitment and there is constant work done on our part.

Hatim Al-Assam was one of the companions of Shaqiq Al-Balkhi. One day Shaqiq Al-Balkhi said to him ‘You have kept company with me for thirty years. What have you got out of them?’ He replied, ‘I got a few useful lessons by way of knowledge and they are enough for me, for I hope for my deliverance and salvation because of them’. Shaqiq asked, ‘What are they?’

Hatim replied ‘I observed mankind, and saw that everyone had an object of love and of infatuation which he loved and with which he was infatuated. Some of what was loved accompanied him up to the sickness of death and some even up to the graveside. Then all went back and left him solitary and alone, and not one of them entered his grave with him. So I pondered and I said: the best of what one loves is what enters one’s grave and be a friend to one in it. And I found it to be nothing but good deeds! So I took them as the object of my love, to be a light for me in my grave, to be a friend of me in it and to not leave me all alone.’

I saw some people blaming others and some slandering others, and I found that that was through envy regarding money, fame and knowledge. So I meditated on Allah (SWT)’s saying, “We distribute their sustenance amongst them in the life of the world”, and I understood that the distribution was from God, the Exalted in eternity, so I did not envy anyone and I was content with the distribution of God, the Exalted.

I saw that some of mankind believed their nobility and standing to be in the size of their nations and tribes, so they were conceited because of them. Others had the opinion that it lay in the wealth of their possessions and the numerousness of their sons, so they were proud of them. Some reckoned nobility and standing lay in forcibly acquiring the property of men, in tyrannizing them and spilling their blood. One group held that it consisted in wasting money, spending it lavishly, and squandering it. I meditated on Allah’s saying, ‘The noblest of you in the view of God is the most God-conscious of you.’ So I chose God-consciousness, believing the Quran to be accurate truth, and their opinion and evaluation to be utterly empty falsehood.

Motivators for Taqwa

Our scholars have mentioned several things that engender this desire for taqwa in the hearts. These are called bawa’ith (plural of ba’ith – that which stimulates you to do something):

  1. Fearing a Punishment in the Hereafter

Qul inni akhaafu in asaytu rabbi azaaba yawmin azeem

Verily I fear that if I rebel against my Lord the punishment of an awesome day

Inna nakhaafu min rabbina yawman aboosan qamtareera

We fear from our Lord a day of distressful wrath

It is said that if you see Allah grant blessings to a certain person, and then you see that person continuing in disobedience to Him, then know that this is from Allah’s plan against him and that he is referred to by Allah in the verse:

Sanastadrijuhum min haythu la ya’lamoon. Wa umlee lahum inna kaydee mateen.

We shall gradually seize them in punishment in ways they perceive not. And I respite them; certainly My plan is Powerful.

  1. Fear of worldly retribution

The human nature is such that we tend to fear pain. In fact fear of pain is probably is a greater immediate concern than the desire for pleasure. So when given two choices and the possibility of one or the other is equal, people will generally prefer avoiding pain than to acquire some pleasure. There was a study done in which they took these 5 year old kids and they offered them a cookie. They said you can have this cookie right now or if you wait ten minutes, you can have two cookies. The children were very different in their choices. What they did was they monitored these kids over a thirty year period and they found almost consistently that the children that delayed their gratification were far more successful in life than the ones that wanted it immediately.

The delay in gratification, some temporary deprivation is very important. And this is the basis of what’s mentioned in the Quran. Because people of duniya, Allah says about them:

Kalla balla tuhibboonal ‘aajila wa tazarunal aakhir’ah

You put off what’s coming and you want this immediate pleasure

That’s why tadabbur, which means to reflect, comes from a word, to take something to the end, dubar is the behind of something, it’s the end, adbaar is what’s behind you. When you have the tadabbur as a quality, you look down the road. Whereas this person whose stuck in the ‘aajilah, they cannot get beyond the present.

  1. Hope for Wordly and Other-Worldly reward

Wa minan naasi man yaqoolu rabbana aatina fid duniya hasanah wa fil aakhirati hasanah wa qina azaaban naar

And amongst the people there are those who say O our Lord give us good in this world and good in the Hereafter and protect us from the punishment of the hell fire.

  1. Fear of Reckoning

Anybody who runs a business and lives in a country where you have something like the revenue services, they have this system of internal audits. Because these revenue services can come and examine your businesses. And if you’ve been fudging the books, you get penalties, you don’t just pay the taxes you owe but you are penalized. So companies that are worried about that external reckoning or audit by the revenue service, they do an internal audit. So if there is anything that needs correcting, they correct it internally. That’s called muhasaba and its part of taqwa where you actually take yourself to account.

Umar (RA) is related to have said:

Haasibu anfusakum qabla an tahaasabu

Take yourself to account before you’re taken to account

  1. Shame or modesty from the awareness of Allah

Shame or modesty from the awareness of God, that Allah is aware of you, what is referred to as haya in Arabic. So there are certain things that you wouldn’t do out of respect of others, so children won’t do certain things in front of their parents. The prophet (SAW) said:

Likulli deenin khuluq wa khuluqul Islamu al-hayaa

Every religion has a characteristic and the characteristic of my religion is modesty.

Anthropologists divide cultures into two types, shame cultures and guilt cultures. Guilt cultures tend to cultivate in people a moral component inside of themselves, where they do something wrong they feel bad about it inside. So one of the things a lot of people note about people in the West is that often people will find it difficult to do something without feeling bad, in fact there is a whole industry in America to help people overcome guilt, things such as self-help books, etc. So in guilt cultures there is an internal mechanism.

In shame cultures, the mechanisms are external. And so people do not do wrong out of fear of others, which generally creates hypocrisy in cultures, when you don’t have an internal component, when there are only external factors. So when a person is in his country and its shameful to do certain things but then they go to another country, and its not shameful to do those things, they start doing them and they don’t feel anything. It’s completely acceptable because they are no longer in the culture where to do that thing is shameful. Also the anonymity of a city when people move in to cities. Because in a village knows you, they know your parents, so if you do anything, the whole town is going to hear about it. In a city there is an anonymity so its difficult to sense that shame, which is why shame works well at the tribal level but guilt cultures become very important in advanced societies.

Now Islam has both of these components but the shame component is not rooted in the shame of people. Its rooted in shame before Allah (SWT) and also in part His angels. So you have two angels on each side and the idea is to become aware of the spiritual presence that should prevent you from doing things.

  1. Sincerity in one’s love for God

The nature of love is you want to obey the one you love so the more you love God, the more you want to obey Him.

Ta’si Ilaha wa tuzhiru hubbahu

Haaza muhaalun, fil qiyaasi badee’u

Lauw kaana hubbuka saadiqan la ata’tuhu

Innal muhibba liman yuhibbu mutee’u

You disobey God but you are feigning His love

This is impossible and is a strange type of logic

Had your love been sincere you would have been obedient

Indeed a lover is to his beloved, obedient


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