“Is he who founds his building on God wariness and [the pursuit of Allah’s] pleasure better off or he who founds his building on the brink of a collapsing bank which collapses with him into the fire of hell? And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing lot.” (9:109)
Taqwa is the Islamic concept of having self-restraint. It is used 251 times in the Holy Qur’an as either a noun or a verb. The term taqwa comes from the Arabic root “wa-qa-ya” which means “protection” or “support.” Taqwa is not meant to mean “fear” or “avoidance”, but because having fear is a prerequisite to protecting oneself from something and to avoid it, it may sometimes refer to having fear.
Also, since protection from something requires a feeling of fear alongside it, it may in some cases metaphorically refer to “avoidance” or “fear”. Both meanings are accurate although there is no evidence to confirm that this metaphorically means “fear” or “restraint.”
While it is widely believed that the commands ittaqu’llah means “fear Allah” and ittaqunnar means “fear fire,” these commands actually refer to protecting oneself from Allah’s punishment and the harm of fire. Moreover, those who practice self-control by refraining from acting upon desires that require patience and a resolute attitude are called muttaqeen, which is an Arabic term for “those who practice taqwa.”
It is important to note that taqwa is not about performing religious obligations such as prayer and fasting: it is about living a pious life. A person possessing taqwa abandons living an animalistic life and chooses to live a moral one. Though there are other definitions of it, such as social and political taqwa, religious taqwa has a more superior and elevated status. It is only on the basis of religion that a person can create a well-grounded taqwa in himself. As stated in the Qur’an:
Is he who founds his building on God wariness and [the pursuit of Allah’s] pleasure better-off or he who founds his building on the brink of a collapsing bank… (9:109)
In his Al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Qur’an, Ra-ghib says that the meaning of the word wa-qa-ya is to protect something against everything which may damage it and taqwa- means to put the soul under protection against whatever threatens it. However, sometimes according to the rule of using the cause instead of the effect and vice versa, the words fear and taqwa- are used interchangeably. In religious law, taqwa- means keeping one’s self from whatever leads him to commit sins so that he refrains from prohibited acts.
Ra-ghib explicitly says that taqwa- simply means to protect oneself. He also says that this word can be translated as fear and does not denote that in the example of ittaqu’llah the metaphoric meaning is intended. And as we said, there is no reason to affirm that in such sentences any metaphor is used. The strange thing is that this word is translated as restraint (parhizkari) in Farsi.
It has never been seen that any linguist ever claims that this word is used in this meaning. As it was mentioned before, Ra-ghib translated this word as fear but did not use it as restraint. It is not certain where, when, and why this word became translated as piety in Farsi. I suppose that only Farsi-speaking people get the meaning of restraint from the word taqwa-. No Arabic-speaking person understands this word in this way. There is no doubt that in practice, the prerequisite of having taqwa- and self-protection for something is to avoid it, but it does not mean that the word “taqwa-” has this meaning.
The meaning of Taqwa
Taqwa is the prerequisite for a person who wants to live his life by certain principles, whether they are religious or not, and he is to have a clear direction in order to move towards a specific goal. In doing so, he is to protect himself against transitional desires inconsistent with his goals and principles.
Thus, taqwa in a broader sense is a requirement for everyone who wants to be a true human being, live under control of reason, and follow certain principles. In religious context, taqwa is the quality of those who protect themselves from all that is considered by religion as wrong and sinful. In stating this, there are two kinds of taqwa: the first is just to avoid facing situations, in which sins may take place and this is the quality of the weak people and leads to seclusion and isolation, while the second is to face challenges and remain persistent and this is the quality of those who are strong in their faith and can play an active role in society.
According to the first type, a person protects himself from sins by refraining from a situation that leads to committing one. This is similar to a person who avoids an infested environment to protect his health.
According to the second type, a person creates a state and power in his soul that gives him a spiritual and moral security. That is, if he does find himself in a situation where the means and causes of sin are around him, that spiritual state protects him and prevents him from committing sins. This is similar to a person who creates a medical immunity in his body so that the microbes of the diseases have no effect on his health.
Now, laymen consider taqwa- to be the first type. For those who are said to have taqwa-, it usually means that he is a cautious man who secludes himself in an isolated corner and refrains from the causes of sin. It has been understood this way because the word taqwa- has always been translated for us as abstinence.
Moreover, abstinence from sin has been gradually construed as avoiding the grounds for sins; later on the meaning changed into isolation and avoiding society. Thus, when this word is heard in ordinary conversation, a state of avoidance and reluctance comes to mind.
Though the prerequisite of leading a reasonable life is to follow specific principles, it is not wise to avoid social life in doing so. The key to living the right way is to create a state of immunity in our soul that eventually protects us. Sa‘di-, in his famous book of poetry Gulistan, says:
I beheld an illustrious man in a mountain region
Who had contentedly retired from the world into a Cave
Why, said I, comest thou not into the city
For once to relax the bonds of thy heart?
He replied: ‘Fairy –faced maidens are there.
When clay is plentiful, elephants will stumble.’4
In the above poem, the man who secluded himself in the mountains refrains from returning to the city because of the “fairy-faced maidens” who may eventually cause him to “stumble.” This is the first kind of “taqwa”. However, it is not to a person’s advantage to keep himself away from a slippery surface to refrain from slipping. Better than that is to know how to walk on it without losing his balance. Baba Taher says:
Beneath the tyranny of eyes and heart I cry,
For, all the eyes see, the heart stores up:
I’ll fashion me a pointed sword of steel,
Put out mine eyes, and so set free my heart.
Undoubtedly, our heart will be captivated by everything our eyes fall upon. However, blinding ourselves is not our only option. A better way is to create a power in our heart so that our eyes do not captivate our heart. If we want to make a dagger with an iron point to release our heart from our eyes, we need another dagger for our ears because everything our ears hear, our heart turns to it.
The same goes for the senses of tasting, touching, and smelling. In this case, a human being becomes like a lion without a tail, belly, and head which Mulawi (Jalal al-Dim Rumi) described in his story in Mathnawi.
Taqwa in Nahj al-Balaghah
The word “taqwa” is emphasized in the compilation of sermons and sayings of Imam Ali (a) collectively known as Nahj al-Balaghah, and it has always been used to mean the habit of strengthening and taming the evil-prompting soul with its unquenchable desires. In this book, Imam Ali (a) is quoted to have said:
إن تقوی الله حمت اولياء الله محارمه و الزمت قلوبهم مخافته حتی اسهرت لياليهم و اظمأت هواجرهم
Certainly fear of Allah has saved the lovers of Allah from the unlawful and has given His dread to their hearts till their nights are passed in wakefulness and their noons in thirst.5
In this passage, Imam Ali (a) clearly explains the meaning of “taqwa” as a spiritual state which saves people from committing sins and considers fear of God as one of its results. Thus, taqwa does not mean “to fear” but one of the consequences of it is that it makes the hearts wary of Allah. As stated in the beginning, ittaqu’llah does not mean the command to “fear God”.
In another hadith, Imam ‘Ali (a) says:
ذمتی بما أقول رهينه و انا به زعيم. ان من صرحت له العبر عما بين يديه من المثلات حجزته التقوی عن تقحم الشبهات . . . الا و ان الخطايا خيل شمس حمل عليها اهلها و خلعت لجمها فتقحمت بهم فی النار الا و ان التقوی مطايا ذلل حمل عليها اهلها و اعطوا ازمتها فاوردتهم الجنه
The responsibility for what I say is guaranteed and I am answerable for it. He to whom experiences have clearly shown the past exemplary punishments (given by Allah to peoples) is prevented by piety from falling into doubts …
Beware that sins are like unruly horses on whom their riders have been placed and their reins have been let loose so that they would jump with them in Hell. Beware that piety is like trained horses on which the riders have been placed with the reins in their hands so that they would take the riders to Heaven.6
In this sermon, the definition of taqwa is to control or to dominate the soul. A person who is not strong enough to disobey his desires and surrenders his control to his soul is likened to an unskilled rider on an unruly horse who lacks willpower.
The prerequisite of taqwa and self-control is increasing one’s willpower and having a spiritual and rational personality, like a wise horseman who skilfully rides his horse, and his horse, in turn, quickly obeys him. The person who is riding the unruly horse of desires, lust, avarice, and ambition is dependent on these vices and lets his reins of will slip away from his hands would not be controlled by wisdom and insight.
As for the one reliant upon taqwa, it is like he is riding the horse of self-control and holds the reins of will. He handles himself in all directions. In this regard, Imam Ali (a) says:
فان التقوی فی اليوم الحرز و الجنه و فی غد الطريق الی الجنه
Certainly, for today piety is a protection and a shield, and for tomorrow (the Day of Judgment) it is the road to Paradise.7
The Imam (a) expands on piety by presenting a very moving example:
ان التقوی دار حصن عزيز و الفجور دار حصن ذليل لا يمنع اهله و لا يحرز من لجأ اليه
Know, O creatures of Allah, that piety is a strong house of protection while impiety is a weak house which does not protect its people, and does not give security to him who takes refuge therein.8
Here, piety (taqwa) is likened to a strong house of protection.
In yet another well-known sermon, titled “The Pious” (al-Muttaqi-n), Imam Ali (a) responds to the request of Hamma-m ibn Shuray who had asked him (a) to describe who the pious are, so much so that he could clearly visualize them.
At first, Imam Ali (a) gave a brief answer; however, Hamma-m was not contented and insisted the Imam (a) expand on it. Thus, the Imam (a) answered giving more than one hundred spiritual characteristics and mental and moral qualities of the pious. According to historians, as soon as the Imam (a) ended his speech, Hamma-m was so impressed that he cried out and passed away.
Thus, it is clear that taqwa is a spiritual state which is like a fortress, amulet, or a trained horse for the soul. In short, taqwa is a spiritual power.