The word ‘taqwa’ occurs in the Quran many times yet it a term which many Muslims find hard to understand/explain. Some claim it is ‘God-fearing’, others that it is ‘piety’ with many nuances offered in between.
For its true meaning, we must look to the Quran itself to see what Allah has told us about it and subsequently why it is so important.
1). Taqwa is the opposite of forgetting Allah
Surah Al Hashr (verses 18 & 19):
يأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ اتَّقُواْ اللَّهَ وَلْتَنظُرْ نَفْسٌ مَّا قَدَّمَتْ لِغَدٍ وَاتَّقُواْ اللَّهَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ – وَلاَ تَكُونُواْ كَالَّذِينَ نَسُواْ اللَّهَ فَأَنسَـهُمْ أَنفُسَهُمْ أُولَـئِكَ هُمُ الْفَـسِقُونَ
18. O you who believe! Have taqwa of Allah and let every person look to what he has sent forth for tomorrow, and have taqwa of Allah. Verily, Allah is All-Aware of what you do.
19. And be not like those who forgot Allah, and He caused them to forget themselves. Those are the rebellious.
So, verse 19 informs us that Taqwa is the opposite of forgetting Allah – it involves remembering Allah.
2). Taqwa is acquired by worshipping
(Surah Al Baqarah, verse 21)
يَـأَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اعْبُدُواْ رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِىْ خَلَقَكُمْ وَالَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
O mankind! Worship your Lord (Allah), Who created you and those who were before you so that you may acquire Taqwa.
In other words, you worship Allah and a by-product is taqwa. Worship is everything Allah has told us to do.
3). ‘Taqwa’ is something Allah gives.
In Surah Muhammad (verse 17), Allah states:
وَالَّذِينَ اهْتَدَوْاْ زَادَهُمْ هُدًى وَءَاتَـهُمْ تَقُوَاهُمْ
And as for those who accept guidance, He increases them in guidance and bestows upon them their Taqwa.
4). Allah defines the qualities of those who have taqwa in Surah Al Baqarah (verse 177):
لَّيْسَ الْبِرَّ أَن تُوَلُّواْ وُجُوهَكُمْ قِبَلَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْمَغْرِبِ وَلَـكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنْ ءَامَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الاٌّخِرِ وَالْمَلَـئِكَةِ وَالْكِتَـبِ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ وَءَاتَى الْمَالَ عَلَى حُبِّهِ ذَوِى الْقُرْبَى وَالْيَتَـمَى وَالْمَسَـكِينَ وَابْنَ السَّبِيلِ وَالسَّآئِلِينَ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ وَأَقَامَ الصَّلَوةَ وَءَاتَى الزَّكَوةَ وَالْمُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِهِمْ إِذَا عَـهَدُواْ وَالصَّابِرِينَ فِى الْبَأْسَآءِ والضَّرَّاءِ وَحِينَ الْبَأْسِ أُولَـئِكَ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا وَأُولَـئِكَ هُمُ الْمُتَّقُونَ
It is not Birr (righteousness) that you turn your faces towards east and (or) west; but Birr is the one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book, the Prophets and gives his wealth, in spite of love for it, to the kinsfolk, to the orphans, and to Al-Masakin (the poor), and to the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and to set slaves free, performs As-Salah, and gives the Zakah, and who fulfill their covenant when they make it, and who are patient in extreme poverty and ailment (disease) and at the time of fighting (during the battles). Such are the people of the truth and they are Al-Muttaqun.
So, here Allah tells us those who have taqwa believe in Allah, the Day of Judgement, angels, books and prophets and then this is coupled with action – namely, giving in charity, freeing slaves, prayer, zakah, keeping promises and having patience.
Using these verses, the meaning of ‘Taqwa’ becomes clear:
1). It is remembering Allah.
2). It is acquired through worshipping.
3). Allah increases your taqwa when we do the right actions.
4). Those who have taqwa have the correct beliefs and carry out good deeds.
The best word in the English language for a concept that is based upon remembering Allah, making sure you have the correct beliefs and making yourself worship Allah would be ‘vigilance’, a higher level of awareness.
‘Taqwa’ then, is to be ‘vigilant’, not physiologically (as you would if you feared a physical danger) but, in a spiritual/psychological sense.
Now, once we understand ‘taqwa’, we also realise its significance.
Imagine the case of someone we will call ‘Ahmed’. Ahmed thinks he will worship more and become a better Muslim once he has a higher lever of eemaan. This goes against what Allah says about taqwa. In fact, Ahmed must make himself worship more and when he does the good deeds, Allah will increase his level of taqwa. Taqwa is in fact the cornerstone of eemaan.
Now, ‘Ramla’ is a Muslim who believes but doesn’t really worship much. She believes those who are better worshippers or ‘more practising’ are that way because Allah has chosen them and given them stronger eemaan. Again, this is not the correct understanding. Ramla needs to make herself worship more and Allah will increase her in taqwa and subsequently, eemaan. It is a cyclic process – the more you do, the stronger a Muslim you become and the more you will keep doing.
In conclusion, ‘Taqwa’ is mentioned so many times in the Quran. It is the cornerstone of our belief in Islam and to understand it correctly is vital. We now know that in order to gain it, we must be vigilant of Allah and this vigilance makes us worship better. By way of that worship, Allah will increase our ‘taqwa’ (vigilance) and we will continue with the cycle of doing good.
May Allah (Glorified be He) make you, dear reader of the Al Muttaqqeen.