Defining the Pious: The Quranic concept of Taqwa

Awareness is central in our daily activities, not only in prayer, meditation and recitation of the scripture but also in daily routines like work, eating and meeting. This state of awareness is encapsulated in the Quranic term Taqwa. This article explains the meaning of this important concept, its rewards and virtues. I also compare Taqwa with the contemporary concept of ‘Mindfulness’, which is widely recommended by health professionals. In doing so, I argue that the Islamic concept of Taqwa is a well-developed term for living in the moment that is encouraged because of its long-term benefits and its impact on spirituality.

Introduction

Normally, our brain tunes-out ‘background’ noises so we become unaware of distractions that surround us. Consequently, we mostly function on ‘autopilot’. Similarly, in the spiritual aspects of our lives, there is often low level of awareness of the reality, this is like ‘blindness’ a term used by the Quran to describe disbelievers, blindness hinders the worshipper from performing duties conscientiously. Taqwa is the antidote to this lack of focus and awareness. Taqwa is derived from the Arabic verb ittaqa, to be aware, be on one’s guard, protect oneself. The verb ittaqa has many forms and occurs 230 times, the imperative form of the verb ittaqo appears 69 times (Mujam al Mufahras Lialfaz al Quran; Cairo).

Taqwa is defined as ‘to protect oneself from things, which one fears will cause harm’. However, in Sharia, it refers to protecting oneself from sins. The idea of Taqwa is that the believers are expected to be constantly on guard, lest they fall into the temptation of the self, personal desires and Satan. It expresses the state of alertness, awareness and attentiveness. This leads to the idea of fear of Allah, which is a common working translation of Taqwa. Muslims fear to displease their Lord, the Master, the Creator.

“Because he believes that there exists a beautiful scheme of things, Divine pattern. But he can only conform with this Divine pattern if he meticulously follows the Sharia. This compliance with Sharia and eagerness to avoid sin is known as Taqwa” (Islam and destiny of man, Gai Eaton, Islamic text Cambridge).

Taqwa is being cautious, focused and serious. The believer is serious about religion as the worldly man is serious about business and is focused on his Lord like the worldly person is focused on his career. Taqwa in this sense is similar to Zikr a Quranic term, which means remembrance, to bear in mind the invocation of the Lord “Remember me and I shall remember you” (Baqarah: 152). It is this remembrance, awareness and bringing to mind that “the heart finds solace and peace” (Al-Raad: 28). The daily prayer is also defined as “the greatest Zikr” (Anakabut: 45). The opposite of the state of awareness and consciousness is Nisyan, forgetfulness “they forgot Allah so He forgets them” (Tauba: 67). The term ghaflah, to ignore, unmindful, inattentive and negligent is a fitting description of the godless person, unaware of his Lord and mindless of his duties. Taqwa is a unique concept encapsulating the believer’s state of alertness, caution, seriousness and sense of duty.

Different meanings of Taqwa

Some Quranic words can have many meanings in different contexts, that’s called polysemy. Taqwa is a polyseme with several interrelated meanings, faith, repentance, obedience, purity of intention and shunning sin (Tafsir al-Kabir by Razi, Cairo).

For example, Allah commands, “People of Pharaoh, have Taqwa”, i.e. fear me; repentance for example, “had the people of town behaved well and repented” (Al-Araf: 97), sometimes it means obedience; “warn humanity that there is no God but me, so be obedient to Me” (Nahl: 97). Occasionally Taqwa is used to mean shunning sin, “so enter your houses from the front and observe your duty to Allah so that you may be successful” (Baqarah: 189). The Arab custom of not entering their houses through the front door whilst they were wearing the Ihram is being condemned. Taqwa is used to convey the meaning of purity of intention, “whosoever respects the signs of Allah surely that is the purity of the heart” (Hajj: 32).

Defining Taqwa

Ibrahim ibn Adham said, “Taqwa is that people can’t find fault in your speech and the angels can’t find a fault in your actions, whilst the angel of the throne can’t detect a fault in your intention.” Someone else defined it as “you decorate your inner-self for the Lord as you dress up for the people, your Lord should not see you in that place from which he has forbidden you to go to. Nor should he find you absent from the place which he has commanded you to be present” (Zia-al Quran, Pir M K Shah, Lahore).

Abdullah Ibn Umar explained the meaning of Taqwa, “when you walk on a narrow and steep path lined with thorny bushes you will tread very carefully so that your clothes don’t get entangled in the thorns and you don’t get injured.” This is a good metaphor for Taqwa. Since the journey of life is a narrow steep path, hemmed on both sides by the selfish desires and Satan, one must exercise extreme caution to avoid harm.

Others defined it as “to purge oneself of evil behaviour and to embellish oneself with good behaviour.” That is to rid of all wrong beliefs, false ideologies, evil deeds and bad manners.

The description of pious people in the Quran

The above discussion shows that Taqwa is a state of mind and heart that makes one aware of one’s duties. Hence a pious person is ever-cautious, like a soldier in a battlefield riddled with mines and unexploded bombs, just imagine how carefully he will tread. The Quran describes the pious, “the glorious Quran in it there is no doubt, guidance for the pious, people who believe in the unseen, establish the regular prayer and spend in charity from what We gave them” (Baqarah: 2-4).

The Quran is for the entire humanity, but it carefully singles out the pious as the ones who will receive its guidance. Thus, highlighting the greatness of these noble people, as though Allah is saying, “these are the only real people” (Tafsir al-Kabir, Razi, Cairo).

The qualities of the pious people

These can be summed up as:

  • They believe in the unseen
  • They have a deep-seated conviction
  • They have recognised their creator and the ever-seeing Guardian
  • They accept the teachings of beloved Messenger about the life hereafter, the angels and the day of reckoning
  • They establish regular prayers
  • They spend from the sustenance We gave them

Faith is no empty slogan, it’s a living reality, to be enacted and expressed through the motions and the postures of prayer. “Prayer is the ascension of the believer,” said the blessed Messenger (peace be upon him). The pinnacle of the spiritual state, where the soul pours out its yearnings to meet the Lord. When the veils are removed, and the spirit is in the presence of the Almighty Lord. The idea of establishing the prayer means to do it properly and fulfil its requirements. So, when they stand on the prayer mat their hearts and souls are present – otherwise “my standing is veiled, so is my prostration veiled” (Allama Iqbal).

The pious are generous and charitable, the skills they possess, the knowledge they acquired they spend it generously. Helping and giving to those who are less fortunate than themselves in selfless service to their fellow humans.

Allama Muhammed Iqbal (d.1938) the famous poet-philosopher asserts the importance of faith and conviction in this couplet:

“O bewildered by the modern civilisation listen! Lack of faith is worse than slavery”

Method of developing Taqwa

The above discussion has shown that Taqwa is a precious asset of the believer since it’s the way to eternal peace and endless bliss. How does one acquire this spiritual treasure? Imam Ghazali said “the way to develop Taqwa is to resolve not to commit any evil, that means avoiding excessive Halal, even those things that are permissible regarding the eyes, ears, tongue, stomach from the excesses. By enforcing a strict regime of self-control on one’s body and restraining the mind and the heart from evil thoughts” (Minhaj al-Abideen, Lahore).

The way to develop Taqwa is to avoid all the forbidden things and even the permissible things in excess. Furthermore, the practice of Sharia, daily prayers, fasting, being charitable, performing the pilgrimage and regularly doing the invocations. Allah says “Believers, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you so that you may become pious” (Baqarah: 183).

Developing Taqwa by controlling the bodily organs

Organ  Proper useImproper use
 EyesEnjoying beautiful scenes and admiring Allah’s creationWatching unlawful scenes e.g. inappropriate films, nudity etc. 
 EarsListening to the Quran and religious speechesListening to gossip, backbiting and obscene music
TonguePraising Allah, saying pleasant and polite things to othersSwearing, backbiting and gossiping
StomachEating and drinking from Allah’s bounties in moderationEating and drinking unlawful food and being wasteful
HeartFear of Allah, the dread of the hereafter and wish to be goodGreed, jealousy, hatred and arrogance   
The above table shows examples of how our organs can be used for good or bad

A comparison with mindfulness

As explained above Taqwa is the spiritual state of awareness, Allah-consciousness, it’s like mindfulness, a modern concept. Mindfulness is becoming aware of the present moment that can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better. As we become more aware of the present moment, we begin to experience afresh things that we have been taking for granted. There’s encouraging evidence for the use of mindfulness in health, education, prisons and workplaces. Now it’s widely deployed in the National Health Service to promote attention to the present, to your thoughts and feelings and to the world around you since that’s good for mental health.

Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre said: “Mindfulness means knowing what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour.” He goes on to say how one can achieve this: “An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a bannister as we walk upstairs. It’s allowing yourselves to see the present moment clearly”.

Three steps to achieve mindfulness

  1. Take notice of your thoughts: Your feelings, body sensations and the world around you, notice the food we eat, the air moving past the body as we walk. “All this may sound very small, but it has huge power to interrupt the ‘autopilot’ mode we often engage day-to-day and to give us new perspectives on life” says Professor Williams.
  2. Keep it regular: It can be helpful to pick a regular time, the morning, the journey to work or a walk at lunchtime, during which you decide to be aware of the sensations created by the world around you.
  3. Free yourself from the past and future: You can practise mindfulness anywhere, but it can be especially helpful to take a mindful approach if you realise that, for several minutes, you have been “trapped” in re-living past problems or “pre-living” future worries.

When we compare mindfulness with Taqwa we see that the fruits of Taqwa relate to being mindful as well as achieving spiritual awakening. Such enlightened people not only benefit from being mindful but also are promised many rewards here and in the hereafter. For example:

Know that Allah is with the pious” (Tauba: 36). Allah is enough for them. He is ever hearing and all-knowing. Here Allah is guaranteeing them help so they are successful, good fortunes will come their way. The pious have the comfort of knowing that the Lord’s kindness and grace shroud them.

Believers, if you are mindful of Allah He will give you the standard to judge between right and wrong, and He will cover up your wrongdoings and forgive you. Allah is Gracious in His favour” (Anfal: 29).

Abundant Sustenance

A constant fear that haunts people is “how will my needs be met?” The pious are promised, “whoever fears Allah, Allah will make a way out for him and will provide for him from where he has no expectation, and whoever puts his trust in Allah he will be sufficient for him” (Al Talaq: 2). This means “Allah will deliver him from the doubts of the world and the mortal throws and from the punishment in the hereafter” (Imam Razi).

 Allah will facilitate the daily business of the pious

Whosoever fears Allah then he shall make easy for him his work” (Talaq: 5). This is another marvellous promise for the pious, his burden will be lightened here and in the hereafter. The pious are truly successful “so be pious and intelligent people, so that you may be successful” (Maida: 100).

Special favours for the pious in the hereafter

The greatest blessings await the pious in the hereafter; forgiveness of sins. The burden of the sins will be removed and he shall be relieved of it. Allah says “the pious people will enter Paradise without account.” They will be saved from the punishment and the horror of hell, “Beware, Allah’s friends have no fear, nor do they grieve” (Yunus: 62). On the day of judgement, everyone will be worried about their fate, trembling as they see the horrors of hell unfold in front of them but the pious will be sober and calm.

Entering paradise

Those who were mindful of their Lord will be led to Paradise in crowds. When they reach there, its gates will be opened and the gatekeepers will greet them, “Peace be on you, you were good so enter it and stay here forever.” They will say, “All the praises are for Allah Who kept His promise for us, and gave us this land, we shall live in the Garden wherever we want.” What a wonderful reward for those who worked hard” (Al Zumar: 73-75).

As can be seen, the Islamic concept of Taqwa develops mindfulness and is a comprehensive strategy for practising and developing one’s faith, character and positive attitude to life. It becomes the believers means to paradise.