Taqwa is the root of all the virtues that adorn religious life, and the virtues in turn strengthen the root from which they grow. Without taqwa the motivation for religious life is clouded and confused, brittle, vulnerable to being distracted and destroyed.
Taqwa consists principally of two strands in the believer’s consciousness of God: awareness of being commanded by Him and awareness of being supervised by Him. How the believer responds to the command and supervision are the preparatory conditions both for the final judgement on the Day of resurrection and for the interim judgements throughout life, the believer’s own conscientious reflections, moment by moment, on how he or she is faring. These interim judgements should motivate the will to seek guidance and to live by it.
The state of being muttaqi, of practising taqwa, is a state of intellectual and religious health. It is the background state, the inner health on which you rely to cope with the trials and temptations of everyday life. Those trials and temptations are the equivalent of bodily ill-health, disease, infection, exhaustion, which can overpower you unless your body is in good health and able to fight off disease and recover quickly from exhaustion. In the same way, if the condition of your taqwa is poor the trials and temptations of life will lead you into disobedience, misguidance, doubt, melancholy, and passive or active rebellion against God.
Just as it is possible to take emergency measures to deal with ill health, so also it is possible to take emergency measures to counter the effects of rebellion and sin against God. In both cases the person must have a will resolved to restore bodily health or religious health.
If a person is addicted to a poison, or infatuated with a sin, then the chances of recovering health are slim. To restore an enfeebled taqwa the prescribed medicines are tawba and dhikr: repentance for any fault with strong and sincere determination never to repeat it and to undo those of its consequences that it is possible to undo; and remembrance of God, being mindful that He has said that He will forgive the sins of those who repent and that He will make right their actions, that is, He will watch over and manage their consequences towards a good outcome. Once more I should mention that the believer must resort to tawba and dhikr with a resolved will. Without the will to recover taqwa, there can be no recovery. Recovery cannot and does not happen without the desire and commitment for that. Just feeling bad about it, remorse and shame, are not enough.
The possibility of taqwa, the seed of taqwa, is planted in every living creature, with human beings having the particular honour that they can grow this seed or allow it to rot inside them. The initial markers of taqwa are the transience, limitation and contingency of all existing things and their awareness of these boundaries. They are aware of the vastness of the world which precedes and surrounds them, and which continues after their limited existence. The sun and moon glorify God by willingly and obediently following the courses through time and space that God has decreed for them. Animate and sentient creatures, plants and animals, glorify God, as the Qur’an says, in expressions and languages which human beings cannot hear or understand. However, human beings do see that living and non-living creatures co-exist, grow and struggle into and out of life, by inhabiting and responding to overlapping, mutually supporting niches in their local environment. Human beings, by contrast, are not limited to a niche, nor even to one continent or one climate. Rather, as God says, land and sea, time and space, and all other creatures on the earth, are made subservient to human beings. Yet, even with this vast scope – ideally, because of this vast scope –human beings should be most aware of the need for taqwa. That need first manifests itself in their awareness of dependence, on family and community, on the natural world and all that it provides of habitation, nourishment, utility, variety and beauty, and all the indications in it of direction, duration, the coming and going and return of events and entities. Through this awareness we build up knowledge of good and bad, of transient and permanent, in both the natural and human worlds. At the same time, as self-awareness deepens, human beings become conscious of the need to develop and express an understanding of the origins and purpose of their lives. Thus their dependency is understood for what it truly is, a dependency on the Creator’s care and beneficence, generosity, mercy, might, justice. In the absence of that need human beings lapse either into extreme indolence (a refusal to strive for anything worthwhile in their lives) or extreme despair (a refusal to trust that the indignities and injustices of this life will be made right hereafter) or extreme arrogance, the sin of Pharaoh and other tyrants, which is a refusal to recognise that we are dependent creatures, answerable to our Creator for how we have used the gift of life.
To avoid these sins, to help preserve and grow our taqwa, the Creator has instituted through His Messengers special rites and invocations. Just as, after you have overindulged in sweet foods, you need to restore the body’s balance by eating plainer foods, so too, when we have overindulged in temptations and distractions of worldly life, we can restore our religious balance by prayer and fasting and almsgiving and pilgrimage. Prayer is particularly valuable because it commands and demands the interruption of daily routines without necessarily interrupting the routine of bodily appetites. It is fasting which does that and teaches the will that it has the strength to regain command and control of the body’s appetites, needs and energies. The hold that possessions and wealth have over their owners is interrupted by sadaqa, the act of detaching ourselves from our wealth, so that our hands and minds are free. The hold of locality and community is interrupted by at least having in mind the duty of pilgrimage to the holy places of Makkah and Madinah. There the priority is being present before God and sharing with others in a sense of community defined only by the readiness to be judged finally by our Creator. Whenever we face the qibla in prayer, whenever we recite or hear the Qur’an with the attentiveness and faith owed to it, we are given an opportunity to remember that our true and final status, our true and final identity, does not come from what others think of us, how our community sees us, but from how God thinks of us and sees us.
In sum, the core of the meaning of the taqwa is being mindful, even fearful, that what most matters is the final judgement of God, to which we must submit on the Day of resurrection. An important part of this mindfulness is remembering that the final judgement is the prerogative of God absolutely: we cannot know, and certainly should never utter, any final judgement upon others or upon ourselves. Rather, we must reserve judgement, and thereby preserve hope for ourselves and for others. Without strong awareness of this, we are continually in danger of compromising our religious effort for fear of displeasing our fellow-creatures or for love of pleasing them and being favoured by them. But there is no salvation attached to the approval of any fellow creatures. Rather, salvation is entirely dependent on the approval of our Creator. There is, however, this solace: in His mercy God has allowed that some individuals (notably, His Messengers and Prophets, upon all of whom be peace) may be permitted to intercede for us and so lighten God’s judgement.