يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
O you who believe, fasting has been decreed upon you, as it was decreed upon those before, so you that you may attain taqwa.
As we enter Ramadan, this verse is one that we will hear regularly as a motivation for us to use this blessed month to form lasting changes in our character.
Taqwa is often translated as ‘God-consciousness’ or ‘piety’, yet it serves as an example as to the inability of the English language to fully encapsulate its Quranic meanings. For taqwa is more than simply thinking of God or others deeming one pious due to their outward displays of religion – it is an affair of the heart, determined ultimately by our intentions in obeying Allah in different facets of our life.
In explaining the intricacies of this concept, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, the famous Ummayad caliph, was reported to have said: “Taqwa is not achieved by fasting the day or praying the night. Rather, it is doing what Allah has obligated, and avoiding that which He has prohibited.”
This turns the tables on our modern understanding of piety – it is not simply achieved through ritualistic worship that is observed by others, but by conscious choice of the heart to willingly abide by the obligations and limits ordained by Allah, a choice known only to Him.
Ibn Juzayy on the impact of taqwa
Linguistically, the world taqwa stems from the root wiqayah, meaning to erect a barrier to ward oneself from harm. The terminological meaning consequently extends to shielding oneself against sinfulness and disobedience by doing works of faith.
The great Andalusian scholar and martyr, Imam Ibn Juzayy Al-Kalbi, looked in greater detail at the concept of taqwa in his books Kitaabut Tashil li Ulumu Tanzil, Making Easy the Knowledge of Revelation and Tasfiyah Al-Qulub, Refinement of the Heart.
He identifies fifteen benefits or rewards of taqwa through verses from the Quran, starting with it as a path to guidance, victory, and knowledge. The muttaqi also attains a close friendship with Allah and His divine love: “Truly, Allah loves the muttaqoon” (9:111).
God also promises those of taqwa that He will cover up their misdeeds from public view while increasing their rewards:
ذَٰلِكَ أَمْرُ اللَّهِ أَنزَلَهُ إِلَيْكُمْ ۚ وَمَن يَتَّقِ اللَّهَ يُكَفِّرْ عَنْهُ سَيِّئَاتِهِ وَيُعْظِمْ لَهُ أَجْرًا
That is the command of Allah, which He has sent down to you; and for the one who has taqwa of Allah – He will remove for him his misdeeds and make great for him his reward. (65:5)
The person of taqwa will find their provision multiplied, their affairs made easy, and Allah will provide a way out of any depression or sadness that threatens to overcome them. And, of course, the ultimate reward of taqwa is salvation from the Hellfire and entrance into Paradise.
Ibn Juzayy further explains five levels of consciousness of the muttaqi; the first is fear of kufr, the level upon which all Muslims are on due to their commitment to their belief in Allah alone. The second is the fear of disobedience and sinning; this is the level of tawba, repentance, that sees one acknowledge their weaknesses and call upon Allah to redeem them. The third is when one fears even doubtful matters, a station of caution and carefulness, reflecting the heightened love for Allah to avoid anything which could displease Him.
The penultimate level is the fear of things that are permitted; this is the level of zuhd (asceticism), when one willingly gives up what is allowed in a bid to protect their nafs (ego) from desiring this world. Zuhd is a station that the pious of the past would readily try to build in themselves by renouncing worldly desires, contenting themselves with that which is sufficient to fulfil their needs rather than busy themselves attaining luxuries. It is to belittle the joys of this dunya, wiping away its traits from one’s heart.
Finally, the last level is when the mutaqqi fears that anything other than love of Allah will enter their heart. This is the epitome of taqwa: to have one’s heart so strongly attached to their Lord that they avoid anything else that could compromise such an attachment. It is an enduring awareness of Allah at all times, abiding by Islam not even for the desire for Paradise or fear of the Hellfire, but purely seeking His divine love. It is the manifestation of what it means to live this life purely for Allah’s sake, with His pleasure of the greatest priority in our minds.
Ramadan, and specifically the act of fasting, helps us to achieve this by stripping us of our basic needs, allowing us to choose love and obedience to Allah over our desires. The physical abstinence from food and drink in Ramadan, with the intent to obey and worship Allah, takes a higher and nobler dimension; it becomes the nourishment of the soul. It also makes it easier for us to aspire to greater levels of taqwa, placing our focus entirely on Allah by replacing our desires with time dedicated to recommended acts of worship.
Ramadan in a Godless Era
Today Muslims across the world struggle to maintain their remembrance of God, in a world compelling them to do just the opposite. Secularism is the order of the day, and whilst religiosity – or more so spirituality – may be tolerated to some degree, affirming the connection between all of our actions to Allah most certainly is not.
We are told to adhere to our worship of God because we choose to, not because it is the least we owe The Creator of the universe. We are encouraged to cherry pick those deeds that are easiest for us to fulfil, and queried when we sacrifice our desires for the sake of The One who provides us with everything.
In place of faith, commercialism and materialism are glorified. Popular culture, with an impact multiplied tenfold by social media, glamourises the rich, famous and beautiful, who similarly try to convince us to indulge ourselves at every opportunity. In such an environment, simply remembering to place our spiritual goals above our worldly ones is itself an immense struggle.
We are further called upon to secularise our religion – to restrict it to the private sphere and ritual acts of worship. This contradicts the basic premise of taqwa, as previously established, which should encompass our life holistically.
This conflict can be readily observed in numerous aspects of our life; from the persuasion of Muslims to adopt liberal values at the expense of our deen‘s position, to denying Islam’s contribution to socio-political discourse, to deeming it extreme or irrelevant to the modern world.
Yet, how can we profess to be people of taqwa if we readily place Islam aside when it comes to the epistemologies upon which our societies are run? If our search for solutions originates from structures fundamentally based on secularism? How can we not recognise what Islam has to offer the world, in times of rampant injustice, oppression and confusion?
This Ramadan, we must resist the societal imperative to solely see this month as a time to increase our ritual ‘ibadah, or even as an opportunity to disconnect and forget the troubles of the wider world.
True taqwa is attained through constant awareness of God through our struggles and recognising the role of Islam in all areas of our lives. Love of Allah ﷻ can only be fostered in hearts that have submitted themselves to Him entirely. This Ramadan, we must reaffirm the importance of looking at the world through an Islamic lens, making our Lord’s pleasure our greatest priority.