Taqwa: A Prerequisite for Understanding the Quran

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“The Prophet of Islam is the last of prophets, and his religion is the last of religions. However, no jurisprudent [faqih] and interpreter [mofassir] is the last of jurisprudents or interpreters. The last religion is already here, but the last understanding of religion has not arrived yet.”

“The month of Ramadhan is the one in which the Quran was sent down as guidance to Naas (Humankind) and the standard to distinguish between right and wrong.” (Al Baqarah-185)

ذَٰلِكَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبُ لَا رَيْب  فِيهِ هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِين

This is the book, there is no doubt in it, as it’s guidance for those who have Taqwa (Muttaqi).” (Al Baqrah-2)

Both these verses declare the Quran as a book of guidance, but in the second verse the scope of the guidance (Huda) has been limited to Muttaqi, unlike the earlier one. It says for the book to act as guidance and not create doubts – that there is a specific way it should be approached i.e., the way of Muttaqi (one who has Taqwa).

Reading the two verses together makes it clear that the Quran does invite all humans without any distinction of caste, colour, creed, or gender to take guidance from the revelations but before one takes guidance from the Quran, one needs another form of guidance, Taqwa

So, there are two forms of guidance, one before becoming Muttaqi and the other after it. The first step is to imbibe Taqwa and thereupon Allah raises the status by providing guidance of the Book.

The word “Taqwa” occurs in Quran as a noun and verb more than 250 times. Most English translations of the Quran like that of Abdullah Yousuf Ali translates “Taqwa” as fear of Allah, where Muttaqi becomes, one who fears Allah. Some also translate “Taqwa” as being “conscious” or “wary of Allah”. 

The term “Taqwa” comes from the Arabic root “wa-qa-ya” which means “protection” or “support.” Taqwa is not meant to mean “fear” or “avoidance”, but because being fearful is a prerequisite to protecting oneself from something and to avoid it, it may sometimes refer to “having fear”. 

Also, since protection from something requires a feeling of fear alongside it, it may in some cases metaphorically refer to “avoidance” or “fear”. Both meanings are accurate although there is no evidence to confirm that this metaphorically means “fear” or “restraint.”

In Al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Qur’an, the meaning of the word “wa-qa-ya” is to protect something against everything which may damage it and Taqwa means to put the soul under protection against whatever threatens it. Murtaza Muthari says because of the rule of using the cause instead of the effect and vice versa in Islamic theology, the words fear and Taqwa are used interchangeably.

Fazlul Rahman provides a beautiful definition of Taqwa, inclusive of all its connotations, and is also coherent with the other verses of the Quran regarding Taqwa and Islamic Ethics. Taqwa says Rahman, “Is a special fear, which is peculiar to humans and it’s a normative fear, an epistemic fear of ever falling short of the absolute. This is cognitive and moral dynamism, and a certain fearful appreciation of the inadequacy of the actual is a necessary condition of this dynamism and this applies to all forms, cognition, moral actions, etc. This dynamism of Taqwa presupposes a transcendent norm of judgement, an absolute point of reference, which is God.”

So, Taqwa is a form of apprehension or fear from an absolutist worldview, which comes as a result of reflection on the limitedness of our modes of cognition, knowledge, and actions. One who is Muttaqi, can never be absolutist or dogmatist in their approach. It’s the realisation of these limitations that leads to the development of other virtues like humbleness, tolerance, and respect for pluralism which are essential for being Muttaqi.

The Quran refers to Taqwa as best garment for human beings:

يَـٰبَنِىٓ ءَادَمَ قَدْ أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكُمْ لِبَاسًا يُوَٰرِى سَوْءَٰتِكُمْ وَرِيشًا ۖ وَلِبَاسُ ٱلتَّقْوَىٰ ذَٰلِكَ خَيْرٌ 

O children of Adam! We have provided for you clothing to cover your nakedness and as an adornment. However, the best clothing is righteousness.(Surah Araf-26)

Imbibing Taqwa means rising above hatred and being just and fair.

وَلَا يَجْرِمَنَّكُمْ شَنَـَٔانُ قَوْمٍ عَلَىٰٓ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا۟ ۚ ٱعْدِلُوا۟ هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَىٰ ۖ وَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ خَبِيرٌۢ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ

Do not let the hatred of a people lead you to injustice. Be just! That is closer to Taqwa. And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what you do.” (Al Maida-8)

The Quran in Chapter 22 verse 37 says, “Neither their meat nor blood reaches Allah. Rather, it is your Taqwa that reaches Him.”  

Shams Tabrizi in his biography says,

“What will you take to him who has no need? It’s need.” 

Similarly, what can one offer to someone who is limitless, except the realisation of his/her limitedness, Taqwa. This realization is submission (Islam). 

In a broader sense, Taqwa is a requirement for everyone who wants to live with human values, love, and follow the principle of justice and egalitarianism. It’s abandoning of this way of Taqwa, that has led to an absolutist approach in understanding the Quran, resulting in a demand for a monopolisation of specific interpretations creating divisions, hatred, dogmatism, and intolerance.

The Quran in chapter 3 verse 19 does say,

إِنَّ ٱلدِّينَ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ ٱلْإِسْلَـٰمُ

Religion (or the only way) in the sight of Allah is Islam.

But it also says,

وَلَوْ شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ لَجَعَلَكُمْ أُمَّةً وَٰحِدَةً وَلَـٰكِن لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِى مَآ ءَاتَىٰكُمْ ۖ فَٱسْتَبِقُوا۟ ٱلْخَيْرَٰتِ ۚ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ مَرْجِعُكُمْ جَمِيعًا فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ فِيهِ تَخْتَلِفُونَ

“Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But (his purpose) required He may try you by that which He has given you. So, take lead in all good works. To Allah shall be your return of you all, whereat He will inform you, concerning that about which you used to differ.” (Surah Maidah-48)

Reading the two verses together makes it clear that absolute unitary knowledge is only an attribute of Allah but when it comes to human beings, plurality is an essential part of creation leading to the formation of different identities, groups, approaches, interpretation,s and understandings.

Religion with God is sacred and heavenly, but the understanding of religion is human and earthly. This realisation is important for realising our limitations in interpreting the Quran which is an important part of being a Muttaqi.

As Abdolkarim Soroush puts it in his Theory of Contraction and Expansion of Religious Interpretations

“The Prophet of Islam is the last of prophets, and his religion is the last of religions. However, no jurisprudent [faqih] and interpreter [mofassir] is the last of jurisprudents or interpreters. The last religion is already here, but the last understanding of religion has not arrived yet.”

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