A wise man had three sons. He had taught them that Allah is present everywhere. He wanted to see which of his children had learnt the lesson. He gave them each an apple. He said, ‘eat this apple in a place where no one can see you’. The eldest child took the apple to his room. He closed the door, drew the curtains. He was sure no one could see him, so he cut the apple and ate it. The second child also took the apple to his room, opened the cupboard, went inside, and closed the door behind him. He was sure no one could see him there, so he cut the apple and ate it. The youngest son went to his room, but he could not cut the apple. He knew Allah was there. He went to the forest, to the top of a mountain, near the river but he knew Allah was there, everywhere. He went home, gave the apple back to his father, and said there is no place where Allah does not see me. The father was happy that his youngest son had learnt the lesson.
In Islamic tradition, the consciousness of God is referred to as taqwa and is considered to be the most central ethical concept of the Qur’an occurring over 250 times in different forms. Pious, virtuous, righteous, God-fearing, God-wariness, etc. have all been used to define this concept. It is this very consciousness of the Almighty that unites all believers in their devotion and prayer. It is the constant feeling of the presence of God within that a believer finds his source of morality. It is taqwa that pushes a believer towards righteousness. And it is this cognizance of the Most Merciful that becomes a source of comfort in times of need.
Taqwa – A Common Principle among all Believers
The heart is the temple where God resides. The idea of mindfulness of God is not unique to any single tradition. Followers in all faith-based traditions believe that the divine force is with them at all times. A medieval Indic poem beautifully presents the idea:
My Lord fills to the full every heart
Don’t you, O mindless one, deem Him far…1
My Lord to the truthful is ever-present
See Him as you see the pupil in the eye…2
Taqwa is described as the best garment one can wear (Q, 7:26) and it is the primary principle based on which nobility is appointed near Allah. The Qur’an, addressing all humankind, says: ‘We created you male and female and We made you [diverse] people and tribes so that you may come to know one another. Indeed, the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most mindful…’ (49:13). Before the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny), God had shared the exact standard with earlier nations ‘…Verily, We have directed those who were given the scripture before you and We direct you to be mindful of God…’ (4:131).
Taqwa – A Source of Morality
Being a believer does not only mean to hold a set of ideas as beliefs. Rather, it is a commitment that affects an individual’s worldview. In God-centric religions, the Almighty is seen as the source of all value. His presence in believers’ life gives meaning to it and that meaning is to live according to the Will of God. The Almighty says in the Qur’an: O you believers! If you are mindful of God, He will grant you a criterion (to judge between right and wrong) and He will wipe out your bad deeds and forgive you… (8:29). It is this criterion that allows believers to follow up on their pledges and the trust laid on them by the Divine. When a believer fails to discharge his trust faithfully or commits a wrong against anyone then according to the reflexive nature of injustice in the scripture, it is considered an injustice against oneself and it signifies the lack of taqwa. On the contrary, believers who excel in discharging their divinely granted responsibilities are said to be the most righteous and it is the righteousness (or the mindfulness of Him) that the Almighty has termed as the best provision for the future (2:197).
Taqwa – The Essence of all Rituals
The Almighty, through his beloved Prophet, has taught us rituals – some connect us to fellow humans and others to the Divine. Often times performing physical rituals becomes mechanical – we do it to discharge our obligations – and sometimes to boast our piety in front of others. We lose the meaning underlying those rituals, but God makes it clear that the spirit of rituals matters more so than the physical performance. The Qur’an speaking on the topic of annual sacrifice elucidates: ‘neither their meat nor their blood reaches God but your piety (taqwa)…’ (22:37) and fulfilment of rites should only be to show piety of their hearts (22:32). The story of Adam’s two sons depicts that although both had offered a sacrifice, yet it was accepted from one and not the other because God only accepts the sacrifice of those who are mindful of Him (5:27).
Taqwa – A Source of Comfort
Every individual experiences trials and tribulation during their life in this material world. Although the Almighty never puts anyone through more than what the soul can take (2:286), sometimes people may find themselves unaided. It is the mindfulness of God in the heart of a momin that becomes the source of comfort. The realisation that the Most Merciful will never leave or forsake His pious believers becomes a source of strength for many. The Qur’an says: ‘those who believe and are conscious of God for them there is good news in the worldly life and the hereafter…’ (10:63-64). The good news often manifests in this life in the form of tranquillity that believers experience in their hearts (48:4). As for the afterlife, there is already a promise for those who are mindful of God to be driven to paradise in groups (39:73).
Taqwa, being an essential element of our faith (iman), embodies the purely internal and contemplative attitude of heart. It leads us to righteousness, makes us moral, gives us comfort, and carries the spirit of all rituals. And it is only through taqwa (being mindful) we acknowledge the presence of the Divine in our lives and acknowledge Him being the creator and us being His faithful creation.