Translations of Taqwa
Taqwa is an essential Islamic term. Linguistically, this term is from the Arabic root,
< ي – ق – و > or < w – q – y >, which means “to protect.” In Islamic terminology, Taqwa means to protect yourself [from God’s displeasure and ultimately from His punishment],. How to suceed in this? By obeying God and avoiding what He forbids. There is no one English word which fully carrys this meaning, so Taqwa has been translated variously as: piety, devotion, piousness, abstinence, fear of God, love for God, self-restraint, forbearance, righteousness, God cognizance, God consciousness.
One day, I was teaching an American Muslim child the Quran, and I translated the word Taqwa as “Fear God.” The child asked me:
Why should we fear God?
I did not understand the question, so I asked her:
What do you mean?
I mean God loves us, so we should love him, not fear him.
I thought for a while, and I asked myself, “Why do Muslims talk about fearing God, while Christians talk about loving God?” So, then I answered:
It is exactly like that. Your father loves you, and you love him, so you try to respect him by avoiding anything that makes him upset with you.
That is the practical meaning of Taqwa in today’s world. So, I no longer translate Taqwa as “Fear of God.” Why? Because of wrong associations for English-speaking Muslims. It is a known tactic to use fear in order to control others. Some people ask you to fear God in order for you to fear them; this is because they imagine themselves in God’s place of authority. I prefer to translate Taqwa as “righteousness” as this term speaks to the Western heart and mind.
Centrality of Taqwa
Taqwa is the main goal of all religion. God asked us to worship Him as a step toward becoming righteous.
O mankind, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, that you may become righteous [tattaqûn]. [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:21]
For example, the goal of our fasting is to become righteous.
O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous [tattaqûn]. [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:183]
Who is closest to God? The most honorable among us, in His assessment, He tells us, is the most righteous of us—not the most knowledgeable, not the smartest, not one or another race or gender.
Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous [atqâkum] of you. [Surah Al- Ḥujurât, 49:13]
Taqwa Means Living Up to Responsibility
As we will see, Taqwa is a composite, multi-relational concept, yet many believers wrongly reduce it to a relationship between you and God only. This reductive view of Taqwa ignores that your relationship with God should be reflected in your relationships with yourself and with others: Taqwa is not limited to dealing with God by obeying His commands and avoiding what He forbids. It is also to consider God when you deal with yourself and with others.
In this holistic view, Taqwa is to have the sense of responsiblilty in front of God for our words, actions and all the blessings and advantages that He provides for us on this earth. This sense of responsiblilty should keep us from hurting others by our actions or words. Also, our sense of Taqwa helps us use His blessings and benefits to satisfy our desires in a way that does not take us away from representing God and performing the mission that we were created for. Figure 1 compares the reductive and holistic views of Taqwa.
Be Conscious of God When You Deal with Yourself
Taqwa includes having a sense of responsibility for all the blessings and favors that God offers us on this earth. You consider God when you deal with yourself if you are grateful for His blessings and gifts. For example, if you use your vision to watch porn, you deny God’s blessings, but if you use it for reading His instructions, observating His creation and contemplating His Ways, you are showing your gratefulness for His blessings.
And do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart – about all those [one] will be questioned [mas’ûlâ]. [Surah Al-Isrâ’, 17:36]
Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) defined the Muslims as those who do not use God’s blessings (such as his body and senses) to hurt others.
It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that:
The Messenger of God (ﷺ) said: “The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe, and the believer is the one from whom the people’s lives and wealth are safe.” (Sunan an-Nasa’i, 4995 — graded Saḥiḥ by Darussalam)
In addition, Quran emphasizes the responsibility for the words we utter.
Have you not considered how Allah presents an example, [making] a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches [high] in the sky? It produces its fruit all the time, by permission of its Lord. And Allah presents examples for the people that perhaps they will be reminded. And the example of a bad word is like a bad tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, not having any stability. [Surah Al-Ibrâhîm, 14:24-26]
The English words “ask,” “question,” and “be responsible” are all component meanings of the one Arabic root, < ل – أ – س > or < S – ‘ – L >. How so? Because if you are trusted to be responsible for something, then you would be asked to give account about your handling of it: Did you take care of that responsibility or did you waste that opportunity?
Narrated `Abdullah bin `Umar:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Everyone of you is a guardian and everyone of you is responsible (for his wards). A ruler is a guardian and is responsible (for his subjects); a man is a guardian of his family and responsible (for them); a wife is a guardian of her husband’s house and she is responsible (for it), a slave is a guardian of his master’s property and is responsible (for that). Beware! All of you are guardians and are responsible (for your wards). (Saḥiḥ al-Bukhari 5188)
That explains why God will ask us on Judgement Day about the blessings that He has provided for us in the worldly life of each of us.
Abu Barzah reported:
The Messenger of God (ﷺ) said, “Man’s feet will not move on the Day of Resurrection before he is asked about his life, how did he consume it; his knowledge, what did he do with it; his wealth, how did he earn it and how did he dispose of it; and about his body, how did he wear it out.” (Al-Tirmidhi,Book 1, Hadith 407)
In addition, we are advised to avoid wasting His blessings and favors on us.
It was narrated from ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr that:
The Messenger of God passed by Sa’d when he was performing ablution, and he said: ‘What is this extravagance [in wasting water]?’ He said: ‘Can there be any extravagance in ablution?’ He said: ‘Yes, even if you are on the bank of a flowing river.'” (Sunan Ibn Majah, Vol. 1, Book 1, Hadith 425 — Graded Ḍa’if by Darussalam)
Taqwa as Respecting God’s Limits on Mankind
Our lusts and desires are part of our human experience, even necessary for survival. If we do not desire food, drink and sex we would become extinct. On the other hand, an exaggerated way of satisfying our desires is very dangerous. This unrestrained way (lacking Taqwa) makes us like animals and prevents us from representing God and following His instructions and law. As humans, we need set and fixed standards to show us the limits between necessary and exaggerated desires.
We need to ask ourselves whether we consider God when we use His blessings and favors to satisfy our desires properly or not, and whether we satisfy our desires in just any way we please, or whether we limit that satisfaction to a way that does not take us away from representing God and performing the mission that we were created for. That is the test of our life. For example, you need God’s blessing of good health to nourish your desire for sex, and you can choose to satisfy this desire in a responsible way (marriage) or in a non responsible way (adultery).
God has distinguished for us two competing ways to use His blessings in order to satisfy our desires.
So, as for him who transgressed and preferred the life of the world, then indeed, Hellfire will be [his] refuge. But as for him who feared standing [before the presence] of his Lord and prevented [his] soul from [unlawful] inclination, then indeed, Paradise will be [his] refuge. [Surah Al-Nâzi’ât, 79:37-41]
Be Conscious of God When You Deal with Others
Being conscious of God, and being attentive to what He requires of believers, when you deal with others (Taqwa) is called Karma in the Asian religions—which believe that your intent and actions directly cause your future condition, and that your destiny is an effect of your intent and actions, which are its cause. It adds up to the same result when a Muslim fears God’s punishment in the case when he treats others badly. The word “others” here is not limited to Muslims, or even to all humans; this includes animals, too.
Narrated Abu Huraira:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way; there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself, “This dog is suffering from thirst as I did.” So, he went down the well again and filled his shoe with water and gave water to it. Allah thanked him for that deed and forgave him. The people said, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! Is there a reward for us in serving [even] the animals?” He replied: “Yes, there is a reward for serving any animate (living being).” (Saḥiḥ al-Bukhari, 2466) (See also Hadith No. 551)
Not Considering God in Determining Our Actions
I co-teach with an atheist a seminar about knowing what is right and wrong. I define ‘sin’ in the Abrahamic religions as disobedience to, or violation of, the revealed holy books —because these books are our instructional manuals. The atheist defines right and wrong in terms of avoiding hurt to self or others
When I had thought about the difference between us in this regard, I found that my initial definition makes some believers focus on their relationship with their Creator while allowing them to ignore their relationship with others. Therefore, they would be selfish, and think only about their rights and interests —as long as they do not commit a sin, that is, as long as they do not violate a Do or Don’t of Islam. I saw that this formulation (the Reductive View of Taqwa, Figure 1) did not go far enough: In a reductive framework we can easily forget empathy with others. The atheist’s definition likewise has its fault: It makes atheists focus on their relationship with others while they ignore their relationship with their Creator. Maybe, that is why atheists can be more peaceful than some believers are now, in that atheists care only about the worldly life as the only life they have, but believers care more about the hereafter thinking that if the worldly life is messed up, we can still have a better life in the Hereafter.
I believe that my Holistic definition of Taqwa —and thus of sin— includes the atheist’s definition; because the revealed holy book always discourage you to hurt yourself or others. We live in a community, not a vacuum; Much of what we do is seen by others, even when it doesn’t not affect them directly.
Another problem is that many believers now think exclusively about adultery and homosexuality when they hear the word Sin. They have forgotten that selfishness and gossip are also sins.
O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one has come to] faith. And whoever does not repent [from this] – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.
O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful. [Surah Al-Ḥujurât, 49:11-12]
On the other hand, it is not good enough to teach people that it is wrong to hurt self or others; because our minds can find a reason for every evil and justify every wrong: The drug dealer says I do not force any one to buy drugs from me, and I never sell drugs to a child or pregnant woman. The prostitute says I make people happy and I never hurt anyone.
Is there any doubt that we need God’s guidance as a basis for our Taqwa? Or that Taqwa is our ticket to righteousness and success in this life and the Next?