THE MEANING OF the Arabic word ‘taqwa’ is so challenging to bring into English because of its tremendous spiritual depth and the nuance with which the Quran and ḥadîth—Revelation—have infused it: “Godfearingness” and “God-Consciousness”; “piety” and “piousness”; and also “devotion,” “religiosity,” and “religiousness” are some attempts to convey its import. Taqwa subsumes all of these meanings, and still the educated Islamic sense feels unfulfilled by the English elucidation. Taqwa’s kernel is goodness (khayr); it is the end-goal of religion within the human being; and it is the best of provisions for the Day of Return.
Yet taqwa goes beyond being a technical Islamic term in Arabic, the language of the Quran. In every era from the beginning of man, and in all the Revealed Heavenly Books to humanity, Allah has commended His servants to taqwa, and commended taqwa to His servants: And truly We have enjoined those who were given the Scripture before you—and you yourselves—that you shall have taqwa [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:131].
Our Prophet ﷺ never tired of advising his followers to nurture taqwa. He never stopped characterizing taqwa as the prize upon which every Muslim should fix his eyes—if truly one’s heart longed for the Face of Allah and beat for the triumph of nearness to Him in His Paradise.
Every oration, the Prophet ﷺ prefaced with the uniquely phrased words: I advise you to the taqwa of Allah… (Abû Dâwûd and Tirmithî). When he dispatched a delegation or expedition, he instructed their commanders and their company to the taqwa of Allah (Muslim, No. 1731). Counseling his eminent Companion Muʿâdh ibn Jabal, the Prophet ﷺ urged him to the taqwa of Allah in all his affairs: O Muʿâdh! Upon you is the taqwa of Allah wherever you may be. By this he meant to exhort his emissary to a constant awe and realization of the ever-presence and omnipotence of Allah, to a vigilant, hoping, devotional fear of Him in all the situations, conditions, and actions that would eventuate for him in his embassy for Islam and for its Prophet ﷺ—publically and privately, in pleasure and displeasure, when traveling and settled, in poverty and affluence—come what may.
This was a lesson grasped in toto by our righteous forebears (Al-Salaf Al-Ṣâli ḥ), who duly placed the highest premium on taqwa. They used to exhort one another to it, echoing the counsel of the Prophet ﷺ. They began their letters with the words: “I advise you to the taqwa of Allah, for it is the most honorable thing you conceal, the most virtuous thing you reveal, and your prime investment. May Allah help you and us to taqwa, and May He reward us and you handsomely for it” (JâmiʿAl-ʿUlûm wa Al-Ḥikam, 158).
Imâm Ibn Rajab Al-Ḥanbalî has gathered in his book JâmiʿAl-ʿUlûm wa Al-Ḥikam (from which our previous example is cited) a wealth of sayings, anecdotes, and quotations, so as to underline the significance of taqwa and the supreme esteem in which the noblest of our forebears held and coveted it.
The Reality of Taqwa
Many have sought to illustrate the Quranic term ‘taqwa.’ The Fifth Rightly Guided Caliph, ʿUmar Ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz, said of it: “Taqwa is not fasting by day and praying by night and mixing good deeds and misdeeds in between. Taqwa is deserting what Allah has proscribed and doing what He has prescribed.”
The spiritual sage Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah said:
One is said to have taqwa when he erects a protective barrier between himself and the punishment of Allah. This, however, is achievable only through performance of Allah’s commands and avoidance of His prohibitions. The essence of taqwa is to obey Allah out of belief in His command and promise, and in hope for His reward; and to shun His prohibited acts and thoughts out of belief in the benefit of obeying His command and in fear of His threat.
Ṭalq ibn Ḥabîb, the Tâbiʿî (‘Successor,’ that is, a person belonging to the generation succeeding that of the Companions)—may Allah have mercy on him—said: “When fitnah (trial, civil strife, persecution, and so forth) strikes, ward it off with taqwa.” Someone asked: “And what is taqwa?” He said: “Taqwa is to be obedient to Allah, upon a ‘light’ from Allah, seeking His reward; and to refrain from sins, upon a ‘light’ from Allah, fearing His punishment.”
Commenting on Ṭalq’s definition of taqwa, Imâm Ibn Al-Qayyim said: “This is the best definition of taqwa” (Al-Risâlah Al-Tabûkiyyah, 45). Imâm Thahabî, commenting on Ṭalq’s definition of taqwa, said: “Ṭalq’s definition of taqwa is ingenious and succinct, for taqwa is not attainable without ‘work’ (ʿamal). Work will not do one any good without ʿilm (knowledge of Allah’s revealed requirements) and following in the footsteps (ittibâʿ) of the Prophet ﷺ. And ʿamal, ʿilm, and ittibâʿ are useless if they are not done purely for the sake of Allah” (see Siyar Aʿlâm Al-Nubalâ’).
Ibn Al-Qayyim said also:
There is no ‘labor’ save that it necessarily must have an origin and end. For ʿamal (a work, or deed—‘labor’) does not qualify as obedience to Allah until it issues from belief, meaning that it is actuated by pure belief in Allah and His promise, rather than it being a mere function of custom or vain desire. A ‘work’ that draws the slave nearer to Allah must originate in pure faith in Allah and have as its end-goal the attainment of Allah’s reward and pleasure.
The foregoing attempts at explaining, defining, and characterizing taqwa all highlight three aspects of its fundamental nature: (1) Taqwa is the single most important quality in the life of a Muslim. (2) Taqwa is a characteristic of elevated rank, and attaining it elevates one’s own rank with Allah u. (3) Taqwa is unequivocally established within the Quran as the key criterion determining one’s rank in the moral hierarchy of human excellence relative to all other human beings whether past, present, or future. It is for this reason that taqwa is headquartered in the spiritual heart of man (qalb), the organ upon whose goodness the goodness of the other facets of the Muslim character depend. The Prophet ﷺ said: Certainly, there is in the [human] body a morsel-like lump which, if it is good, the entire body becomes good; and when it is corrupt, the whole body goes corrupt (Bukhârî).
Attesting to the fact that the qalb is the locus of taqwa was the categorical gesture of the Prophet ﷺ, who once, when talking about the location of taqwa, three times pointed to the center of his chest. Another proof is the statement of Allah: Thus whoever honors the prescribed rituals [and waymarks] of Allah—then, indeed, it is out of the taqwa of Allah in [their] hearts [Sûrat Al-Ḥajj, 22:32]. Moreover, the Prophet ﷺ said: Indeed, Allah does not judge you by your outer bodily forms or your wealth. Rather, He judges you by your [spiritual] hearts and your works (Muslim).
Now, if the qalb is the place where taqwa resides, it follows, then, that none other than Allah—Sole Knower of the Realm of the Unseen—knows it, for he knows what is in our hearts, hidden or open. Allah said: He [Allah] knows full well who exactly is God-fearing [Sûrat Al-Najm, 53:32].
The Importance of Taqwa
Taqwa is the ultimate accolade that the believer seeks, the most superb of his strivings in the way of Allah. He who has taqwa holds the loftiest rank with Allah. Consider, for a moment, taqwa’s sheer magnitude and the immensity of its consequences.
- Allah calls taqwa ‘the Word of Piety’ (Kalimat Al-Taqwa) He said: Behold! Those who disbelieved induced in their own hearts hot indignation [at Hudaybiyyah]—the indignation of pagan ignorance—[to block you from the Sacred Mosque]. So Allah sent down His tranquility upon His Messenger and upon the believers [who stayed their hands]. And thus [Allah] caused them to adhere to [the imperatives of] the Word of Piety (Kalimat Al-Taqwa)—for they were most worthy of it and entitled to it. And ever is Allah all-knowing of all things [Sûrat Al-Fat ḥ, 48:26]. Ibn ʿAbbâs said: “Kalimat Al-Taqwa is the acknowledgement that there is no God but the God.” Ibn Al-Qayyim said: “Kalimat Al-Taqwa is the ‘Word’ by which one does make himself beware of Allah. The highest form of this Word is Lâ ilâha illâ-Llah (There is no God but Allah). Any word or phrase, however, by which one does make himself beware of Allah is subsumed under the term Kalimat Al-Taqwa” (Shifâ’ Al-ʿAlîl, 60). Mujâhid ibn Jabr said: “Kalimat Al-Taqwa is purity of intention (ikhlâ ṣ)” (Tafsîr Al-Qur ṭubî, 16:691).
- Taqwa—and no other consideration—is the criterion by which Allah judges people and determines their worth with Him. Allah said: O humankind! Indeed We have created all of you from a single male and female. Moreover, We have made you peoples and tribes, that you may [come to] know one another. And, indeed, the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, are those of you of the utmost taqwa [the most God-fearing of you]. Indeed, Allah is all-knowing, all aware [Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât, 49:13].
- Taqwa is the element without which one’s works are worthless, lifeless, rendered utterly futile by Allah. Allah said: Indeed, Allah but accepts from those of taqwa (the God-fearing) (Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:27). Imâm Ibn Al-Qayyim said: “The best comment on the meaning of this âyah is this: Allah will accept only the work of the one wary of Him in that work, meaning, he does it purely for the sake of Allah and in the way prescribed by Allah u and His Messenger ﷺ—two conditions that only ʿilm, knowledge of Revelation, equips one to suffice” (Miftâ ḥ Dâr Al-Saʿâdah, 1,82).
- All of Allah’s prophets f commended their peoples to taqwa and emphasized its worth to them. The Quran testifies to this: Behold! Their brother Noah said to them: Will you not have taqwa [be God-fearing]? [Sûrat Al-Shuʿarâ’, 26:106].Behold! Their brother Hud said to them: Will you not have taqwa [be God-fearing]? [Sûrat Al-Shuʿarâ’, 26:124]. Behold! Their brother Salih said to them: Will you not have taqwa [be God-fearing]? [Sûrat Al-Shuʿarâ’, 26:142]. Behold! Their brother Lot said to them: Will you not have taqwa [be God-fearing]? [Sûrat Al-Shuʿarâ’, 26:161].
- Allah commands His slaves to taqwa, Godfearingness, of Him—which is a self-defining condition of the believer. He said: And, indeed this faith-community of yours is one community. And I am your Lord. So have taqwa of Me [fear Me] (Sûrat Al-Mu’minûn, 23:52). And: O My servants! Be you, indeed, [filled with] taqwa of Me [fearful of Me] (Sûrat Al-Zumar, 39:16). And also: O you who believe! Be ever [filled with] taqwa [of Allah] with a fear justly due to Him. And do not die except while you are Muslims, in willing submission to Allah alone [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:102]; and He said: And truly We have enjoined those who were given the Scripture before you—and you yourselves—that you shall all ever be [filled] with taqwa of Allah [be ever God-fearing] [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:131].
- Taqwa is the fruit of worship: O humankind! Worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, so that you may become of those [filled] with taqwa [God-fearing] (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:21). For this reason, Allah prescribed ritual fasting ( ṣawm) for us, for it is among the greatest means to attaining taqwa. Allah said: O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those [who have believed] before you, so that you may be ever [filled] with taqwa [God-fearing] [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:183].
The Fruits of Taqwa
Allah honors the people of taqwa and bestows countless bounties and benefits upon them, both in this world and incomparably in the Hereafter. No man can adequately enumerate all the benefits of taqwa. But here are eight major gains that taqwa affords us. I present them to motivate you, and myself, to a sincere and sober self-examination of our own personal consciousness of taqwa as a habit of the heart, and as the motivating force behind our conduct.
- Taqwa guarantees one’s admittance to the Garden of Paradise. Allah said: This is the Garden [of Delight] which We shall bequeath to those of Our servants who are of the taqwa of Allah [who are God-fearing] [Sûrat Maryam, 19:63]
- Allah promises to grant one whose heart harbors taqwa easy access to beneficial knowledge, and to confer upon him a divinely-given insight to guide his steps amidst the darkness of ignorance and misguidance. Allah said: O you who believe! Be ever of the taqwa of Allah [Be ever God-fearing]! And believe in His Messenger! He shall then give you a double share of His mercy. Moreover, He shall make for you a light, by which you shall walk [always in His way]. Thus shall He forgive you. For Allah is all-forgiving and mercy-giving [Sûrat Al-Ḥadîd, 57:28].
- Allah grants the people of taqwa a way out of every distress, a relief from every adversity, and a good end after each affliction. He also eases their endeavors and provides for them in ways which they never anticipated. Allah said: And whoever is of the taqwa of Allah [fears Allah], He shall make for him a way out [of every difficulty]. Moreover, He shall provide for him from where he has never conceived (Sûrat Al-Ṭalâq, 65:2-3). And Allah also said: And whoever is of the taqwa of Allah [fears Allah], He shall make his [difficult] matter easy for him [Sûrat Al-Ṭalâq, 65:4].
- He who has taqwa, his sins are forgiven and the rewards he receives for his good deeds, even if those deeds are meager, are multiplied many times. Allah said: And whoever is of the taqwa of Allah [fears Allah], He will absolve him of his misdeeds and make his reward immense [Sûrat Al-Ṭalâq, 65:5].
- He who has taqwa attains to the state of wilâyah (the state of being befriended by the divine) and is promised a wholesome life in this world and in the Hereafter. Allah said: Most surely, the friends of Allah shall have no fear upon them, nor shall they grieve—those who believed and were ever of the taqwa of Allah [were ever God-fearing]. For them, there are glad tidings in the life of this world and in the Hereafter. Never can the [decreed] words of Allah be changed. This is in truth the magnificent triumph [Sûrat Yûnus, 10:62-64].
- With taqwa a slave wins Allah’s love and support. Allah said: Indeed, Allah loves those of taqwa [the Godfearingness] [Sûrat Al-Tawbah, 9:4]. He also said: Yet be ever of the taqwa of Allah [be ever God-fearing] and know that Allah is with those of taqwa [the God-fearing] [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:194].
- Taqwa enables the slave to safely pass over the Ṣirâ ṭ (Traverse)—which Allah sets across the abyss of Hell-fire on the Day of Judgment—as a passage to Paradise, and enables them to traverse it: And there is not one of you but shall come to it [Hell-fire]. It is, with your Lord, an inevitability decreed. Then We will deliver those who have been of the taqwa of Allah [who have been God-fearing]. But We shall leave the wrongdoers in it, on their knees [Sûrat Maryam, 19:71-72].
- People of taqwa are promised a good end in this life and in the Hereafter. Allah said: Thus the ultimate outcome is [success] for those who of the taqwa of Allah [the God-fearing] [Sûrat Al-Qa ṣa ṣ, 28:83].
Even so are the wholesome fruits of taqwa plentiful beyond count and diverse in this abundance—too much and too multi-splendored for a mere creature to name. But perhaps the taste of the spiritual spread laid before us will have been enough to put us in pursuit of its delights and happy consequence, and to initiate a renewed longing for the Light of the Countenance of the One for whom taqwa ever is directed.
Allah grant you taqwa in your every state—and all of us, every one.