By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
July 10, 2012
- This is to dispel the myth of Islamic exclusiveness propagated by the foursome of its ignorant detractors - the Mullas, the orthodoxy, the propagandist scholarship and the Islamopath intellectuals.
- The work is inspired by the Poet Laureate Muhammad Iqbal’s outburst: 'phul ki patti se kat sakta hai heere ka jigar - marde nadan par kalame narm o nazuk be asar' [“The petal of flower may pierce the heart of the diamond – but the Noble Words have no effect on the ignorant.”]
Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009
Taqwa like good deeds (‘amale sualeha) and zakah is among the core functional trajectories of the Qur’an. As with good deeds, it assures those imbued with taqwa (muttaqi) of divine reward on Judgment Day. It likens the reward with Garden with spring and eternal delights and shade (13:35), gardens with streams of pure water, ever fresh milk, delightful wine, and purified honey (47:15), gardens and springs (51:15), gardens and bliss (52:17), gardens and streams (54:54), and shades and springs (77:41) – to quote a broad cross section of Qur’anic metaphorical allusions to the rewards of the muttaqin (pl. form of muttaqi). Accordingly, from the initial to the closing phase of the revelation (610-632), the Qur’an guides humanity, regardless of religion or non-religion, on the path of taqwa. Thus, a passage from early Mecca period (610-612/613) declares:
“God has intricately balanced human ego (nafs) (91:7) and imbued it with (the polarity of) moral depravity and moral uprightness (taqwa) (91:8) Only those will attain to a happy state who attain to zakah (purify their nafs by curbing their lowly desires) (91:9). And lost are those who corrupt it” (91:10).
Its verb and noun forms, attaqa, muttaqi and other common root (WQY) derivatives appear in hundreds of Qur’anic verses. Commentators have connoted it somewhat divergently as fearing God, heeding God/His guidance, being conscious of God (God consciousness), preserving or guarding against evil, self-restraint and piety - according to the context and personal vocabulary. As the Qur’an claims to be its own best interpreter (25:33), the best way to understand what the Qur’an actually means by this oft repeated umbrella notion is to probe the Qur’an as it prods us to (38:29, 47:24). This is attempted in following exercise.
1. Those imbued with taqwa can follow the guidance of the Qur’an.
The opening verse of the second chapter (Surah al-Baqarah), which follows an opening prayer (Surah al-Fatiha) introduces the Qur’an as follows:
“This is the Divine Writ, in which nothing is doubtful: it has guidance for the heedful (muttaqin)” (2:2).
At a later stage, the Qur’an reiterates that ‘it is a guidance and counsel for the muttaqin’ (3:138), ‘it is counsel for the muttaqin’ (24:34). It therefore follows that muttaqin are those who have the cognitive ability to follow the Qur’anic guidance. Accordingly, the Qur’an declares: the servants of God plead Him to make them models for the muttaqin (25:74), those:
• “who believe in the unseen, perform the prayers, spend out of what God provided for them” (2:3).
• “who believe in the divinity of revelations given to Prophet Muhammad and before him and are certain of the Hereafter” (2:4).
• “who deal justly even with those they may hate” (5:8)
• “(men) who are impartial with their wives if more than one” (4:129)
• “(women) who are not drawn into greed by seeking divorce from their husbands they suspect of adultery or desertion and mutually settle (the matter) amicably” (4:128)
• “(men) who give half the contracted dower if they terminate the marriage before consummation” (2:237)
• “(women) who forgo the contracted dower if they terminate the marriage before consummation” (2:237)
• “(men) who provide a reasonable maintenance to their divorced wives” (2:241)
• “(men and women) owning properties, who make a will in a just and fair manner for parents and near of kin” (2:180).
• “who are generous and enjoin what is good” (92:5).
• “who give from their wealth to become pure (92:18) seeking nothing in return (92:19), seeking only the acceptance of their Lord, the Most High” (92:20)
• “who eschew arrogance and do not commit excesses and do not obstruct others from worshipping in their own way (96:6-14).
The Qur’an privileges taqwa over the symbolism associated with some of its core spiritual tenets. Thus, it warns the Muslims undertaking the hajj and performing its slaughtering rite that: i) “Take provision for the journey, but the best of provisions is taqwa” (2:197), ii) “Neither their flesh nor their blood reaches God, but your taqwa does indeed reach Him…” (22:37). It also describes fasting as an austerity regime to help acquire taqwa (2:183, 2:187). While referring to the role of personal clothing in covering nakedness, it describes the cloak of taqwa as the best dress (7:26). It also declares that in God’s sight, those imbued with taqwa (attaqo) stand above those who obsessively acquire the good things of life (2:212, 47:36).
2. Broader notion of taqwa
The verses cited in the foregoing, with exception of 2:3/4 and those relating to hajj and fasting are not religion-specific – they are applicable for all humanity regardless of confessional adherence. In the closing years of the revelation, the Qur’an explicitly informs the universal character of this aggregate notion (49:13, 5:93), and most emphatically distinguishes it along with good deeds (‘amale sualeha) as the ultimate criteria for earning divine pleasure (5:93), regardless of what one ate or drank:
“O People! We have created you as male and female, and made you into races and communities for you to get to know each other. The noblest among you near God are those of you who are the most active in taqwa (atqakum). Indeed God is All-Knowing and Informed” (49:13).
“Those who believe and do good deeds shall not be blamed for what they may eat (or drink) so long as they practice taqwa (attaqu), and believe, and do good deeds; so long as they practice taqwa (attaqu), and believe; so long as they practice taqwa (attaqu), and do good (Remember,) God loves the compassionate” (5:93)
To avoid any exclusivist interpretation of this pivotal notion, the Qur’an describes some of the ‘People of the Book’ (Christians and Jews), as muttaqin (3:113-115).
“They are not the same: among the People of the Book is an upright community: they recite God’s messages through the hours of night as they bow down before Him (3:113). They believe in God and the Last Day; enjoin good, and forbid evil and hasten to good deeds - it is they who are among the righteous (114). Any good they do, they will not be denied it as God knows the heedful (muttaqin)” (3:115).
3. Every human being regardless of religion or godlessness is a repository of taqwa.
The Qur’an describes God as the wellspring of taqwa and forgiveness (74:56), and says that God, in the final stage of human’s creative process breathes into him some of the divine Spirit (15:29, 32:7-9, 38:72). Thus, from the Qur’anic perspective, every human being, regardless of religion or even if he claims to be an atheist, is a repository of taqwa that remains embedded in the deeper recesses of his subconscious self, and thus remains a shadow taproot of his moral values, his ‘nafsul lawwama’ or the self reproaching instinct/ conscience (75:2). But the divine creative scheme also vests humans with a counteracting instinct – the ‘nafsul ammara’, the base or animal instinct that prompts him to commit evil (12:53). Thus all human beings, regardless of religion can attain the height of the muttaqi or fall into the depth of moral depravity or evil as propounded in the verse 91:8, quoted in the beginning of the discourse. The Qur’an puts it succinctly in its cryptic vocabulary:
“Indeed We have created human being in the finest frame of taqwa (ahsani taqwim) (95:4), but then We debased him to the lowest of the low (95:5) - except those who believe and do good deeds: theirs is a reward unending” (95:6).
The Qur’anic broader notion of taqwa and its association with the deeper impulses of all humanity demolishes any distinction of people on religious ground. A Muslim person (regardless of gender) most visibly given to religious symbolism or devoted to religious rituals, may lag behind or even fail in taqwa and disqualify for divine rewards, while a non-Muslim person, probably even an atheist, who has no lesser share of divine inspiration in his/her subconscious soul, may excel in taqwa and earn divine reward despite his lacking in religious symbolism and visible or regimented devotion – though God knows best who all will earn divine reward.
4. Can Muslims pray for the forgiveness and good of non-Muslims?
The confluence of taqwa and forgiveness in the divine wellspring (74:56) that nourishes all humanity dispels any notion of restricting its blessings only to the Muslims. Therefore, the Muslim imams may include all humanity while invoking divine blessings at the conclusion of a prayer or Qur’anic recitation. Only the literalist Islamic scholars / imams could argue against it by quoting the verses 9:84 and 9:80 in isolation. On flat reading 9:84 forbids Muslims from praying at the grave of those who died in disbelief. 9:80 cautions the Prophet that even if he sought forgiveness for them (the hypocrites who died in a state of disbelief) seventy times, God will never forgive them. However, read as a passage, 9:80-84 irrefutably testifies to the purely existential and context specific character of the stipulations of these verses. Accordingly, in the spirit of the Qur’anic exhortation to following its clear and unambiguous commandments (3:7) and seeking the best meaning in it (39:18, 39:55), they can hardly be regarded a part of the Qur’an’s universal message to humanity.
Putting it simply, taqwa is emblematic of a person’s subconscious awareness to his universal social, moral and ethical responsibilities, or his ‘moral uprightness’, if one had to capture this multifaceted notion in a simple expression. It is an aggregate notion ingrained in all humans regardless of religion and even in those who consciously, though ignorantly, deny God. Since the divine approval is contingent to divine assessment of human’s deeds and taqwa, no human can claim purity over another regardless of each other’s religion:
“To God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. He will requite those who commit evil for what they did and will reward the compassionate for the good they did (53:31). (Therefore) those who avoid grave sins and abomination except for minor lapses (will) indeed (find) God Boundless in forgiveness. He knows you (well) as He caused you to grow from the earth and when you were hidden in your mothers’ wombs; so do not claim moral purity for yourselves. (Remember,) God knows best the morally upright (attaqa)” (53:32).
This fundamental Qur’anic principle bars any Muslim person from calling any other person, Muslim or non-Muslims a Kafir and militates against any division of the world between Muslim and non-Muslim blocks – one morally pure and the other morally depraved. The Muslims’ exclusivist attitude is bringing them and their faith and Prophet, contempt and disgrace, and creating a civilizational barrier contradictory to the Qur’an’s conclusive message on cultural and religious pluralism (5:93, 49:13, quoted in 2 above) . The earlier the Muslims dispel this notion, and embrace Qur’anic universalism, the better for them in this globalized world. And lastly, as honest witnesses to the Qur’anic message they claim to be the custodians of, the Muslim Ulema should include all humanity in their prayers, rather than praying restrictively for the Muslims alone as they traditionally do.
 This focused article on taqwa omits any reference to the scores of verses on good deeds and other themes (that also demonstrate Qur’anic pluralism). Those interested may look up at the following articles on this website by this writer.
1. Any punishment for apostasy – let alone capital punishment is anti-Islamic
2. The Qur’an espouses harmonious inter-faith relations with the Christians and the Jews and all other faith communities.
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.
The Qur’an regards salah purely as a spiritual
vehicle for praising and glorifying God, that can imbue the believer with
patience and fortitude in the face of adversity,24 and restrain people from abominable
deeds (29:45/Note 1/Ch. 29). Its various postures indicate the humbleness of
the believer before God. However, Muslims generally regard salah as an
all-embracing piety that is sufficient to earn divine blessings and forgiveness
for all sins. In light of the holistic message of the Qur’an, this may be
oversimplification, and misinterpretation of the essence of prayer.
Qur’an is a book of wisdom (Note 7/Preface) and a font of guidance for humanity
(Note 15/Preface). Its social, moral and ethical paradigms, its emphasis on
equity, justice, and use of reason, and its empowerment of individual human
beings, among others, are highly stimulating and provided the impetus for the
phenomenal rise of Islam and its subsequent successes in its early history.
Therefore, to regard prayer (salah), as all-embracing piety will be
tantamount to depriving Islam of its social, moral, ethical, intellectual and
Qur’an categorically forbids unlawful killing, stealing, all abominable deeds
(crimes) and terrorism, and enjoins exemplary punishments for grave crimes as
reviewed in the preceding chapters. Projecting salah singularly as a
means to earning God’s forgiveness seemingly dilutes the gravity of the
Qur’anic emphasis on eschewing the forbidden.
Nowhere does the Qur’an connect the
performance of prayer (salah) alone with divine rewards. Thus, its verse
on the virtues of the Prophet’s companions (48:29/Ch. 16.4) and its
exhortation to the Prophet’s wounded followers who chased the victorious
Quraysh army immediately after the Uhud expedition (3:172, Note 84/Ch. 3.4), connect
God’s promise of reward with their doing of good deeds, though as the Prophet’s companions, their devotion to prayer,
love of God and the Prophet and sacrifice for the cause of Islam remain beyond
The Qur’an devotes one full Sura (107/Ch.
7.1) condemning an observant of prayer who “rebuffs the orphan and
does not encourage feeding the poor” (107:2-3), (and those) who aim to be seen
(in public) (6) but hold back from helping (others)” (107:6-7). Thus, the Qur’an does not project prayer (salah) as an
ultimate safeguard against corruption and vices, as most traditional Muslims
tend to believe, though as mentioned above, Salat performed with
devotion can keep people away from abominations.
popular notion of a carte blanche blessings (thawab) of salah
offers the easiest path to earn forgiveness of sins and divine rewards – a path
that needs no sharing of wealth and no sacrifice of any material possession.
The steep path as the Qur’an describes is “freeing
a slave, or feeding during famine an orphaned relative, or the needy (lying) in
the dust” (90:13-16/Ch. 17.1).
In view of the foregoing considerations, the Qur’anic
injunctions on salah must be considered in conjunction with the functional and liberating aspects of its message to do
full justice to the holistic message of the Qur’an.
Historically, barring exceptions, Muslims have remained
divided in two diagonally opposite camps: one, the majority, seek the easiest
path and regard salah as the ‘key to the paradise.’ The other, a small
section, knowingly or unknowingly pursue the ‘steep path,’ use reason and
rationalism, and focus on the universal dimensions of the Qur’anic message,
notably good deeds and social, moral and ethical responsibilities. Both the
groups have to maintain a balance, and bear in mind the risks of tottering on
Pure rationalism or dynamism (that underlined the Islam's
successes) can open the door successively to gnosticism, agnosticism, through
to atheism, while singular emphasis on prayer can grout the Muslims to the
seventh century Arabia,30
and lead to intellectual stagnation and social and cultural mortification.
Prayer is somewhat like the fragrance of a flower (the soul of Islam), and the
dynamic forces of Islam its body. Without fragrance the body may not
have any value in the court of God and without the body, it is
a piece of fossil on the desert sand.
The yellow highlight in the following is for inclusion in the next edition.
Qur’an does not single out the followers of Prophet Muhammad in its command to
performing salah (regimented prayer). It attests that salah was enjoined on the Jews,25 the Prophet Jesus,26 and the followers of Ishmael,27 and that the Prophet Abraham was regular in
prayer.28 Thus the Qur’an treats salah
in similar light as its other universal virtues, notably good deeds, zakah
and taqwa. Accordingly, the Qur’an refers to pious people remembering
God and doing salah in all places of worship, morning and evening,29 and his name being regularly proclaimed in monasteries,
churches, synagogues and mosques (22:40). This calls for interpreting a broader notion of Salah
that could apply to and unite all humanity. This is attempted below purely as a
meditative exercise as God alone is the addressee in all prayers and He alone
will decide their merit for each of His servants.
is the attempt of human mind to rise beyond its categories and attain some form
of proximity with God at a spiritual level. A prayer, regardless of one’s
faith, when performed with utmost devotion and singular concentration can bring
peace and tranquility in day-to-day life, and more so during the travails of
life. Thus, the utterly hepless in mortal fear of the worst befalling any
moment – a ferocious act of God or man, instinctively pray for divine help.
Yunus Saheb, a question has been bugging me for some time. If you already have thought of this, I would
be grateful if he would let me know. I was reminded of this while writing my
last comment to Naseer Saheb or Observer.
is the meaning of prayer? What does God mean by this word? Please note the word
I am highlighting in yellow and you would know what I mean.
“It is not taqwa that you turn your faces toward East or West,
but it is taqwa to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the
Book and the Messengers, to spend of your substance out of love for Him, for
your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and
for the ransom of slaves; to
be steadfast in prayer and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts you have made; to be
firm and patient, in pain and adversity. Those are the truthful and those are
the muttaqun.” [Qur’an 2:177]
So "to be steadfast in prayer" is taqwa, but "It is not taqwa that you turn your faces toward East or West."