February 25, 2011


Karmakin, on the About "magic underwear" diary, wrote:

A good example is our cultural use of "god-fearing" as meaning a upstanding individual. (Ugly term really if you think about it)...

Now my purpose in writing this essay is not to call Karmakin out, but to give my reasons as to why "God-fearing" is, at least to me, a beautiful term.

One of the problems with the English language is that, although it is an extremely flexible language, it occasionally suffers from a blurriness of expression. The classic example is that of "hot." For example, your friend is eating Mexican food and he or she says the food is "hot." "Hot hot or spicy hot?" you might ask. But if you spoke Bahasa Melayu, the Malay language, the friend would have originally said that the food was either panas (of a hot temperature) or padas (spicy hot). There would have been no linguistic confusion to begin with.

Arabic has a similar differentiation with regard to the word "fear." In Arabic, the word for what could be considered normal "fear," the "emotion caused by [an] actual or perceived danger or threat" (per Wiktionary), comes from the root خ و ف (khā wāw fā). The word for "fear" that comes from this root is "khawf." (The only other primary word that comes from this root that is used in the Qur'an is "threaten.") An example of a Qur'anic verse that uses "khawf" is 2:62:

Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

The Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sabians and any others who meet the conditions listed in this verse would not fear the potential physical torment of hell because, insha'allah, they would be going to jannah (heaven) instead.

However, when the Qur'an talks about "fearing Allah (swt)," the root normally used is و ق ي (wāw qāf yā). The most prominent word that comes from this root is taqwa; however, the meaning of taqwa is somewhat more complex than simply "fear" in the sense of "extreme veneration or awe." According to the Quranic Arabic Corpus, a fantastic concordance of the Qur'an produced by the University of Leeds (UK), taqwa has a number of meanings, including "protect," "righteous" and "righteousness," "save," "piety," "God-conscious" and, of course, "fear."

But the word taqwa, even among Muslims, can be difficult to fully comprehend. A number of people over the centuries have tried to define or describe taqwa. Yusuf Ali (1872-1953), an Indian translator of the Qur'an into English, wrote that the fear with regard to the fear of Allah (swt) should be "the reverence which is akin to love, for it fears to do anything which is not pleasing to the object of love" (footnote 427 to verse 3:102).

Ali ibn Abi Talib (c. 598 - 661 CE), the fourth Caliph of the Muslim empire, defined taqwa as being "the fear of Jaleel (Allah), acting upon the tanzeel (Quran), being content with qaleel (little), and preparing for the day of raheel (journeying from this world)."

The Sufi Shaykh Hafiz Ghulam Habib (1904-1989) defined taqwa as "the shunning of everything and anything that causes a deficiency in one’s relationship with Allah."

However, the description I like the best comes from the following hadith:

Hadrat Umar ibn Khattab (R.A) once asked Hadrat Ibn Ka’ab (R.A) the definition of taqwa. In reply Hadrat Ibn Ka’ab asked, “Have you ever had to traverse a thorny path?” Hadrat Umar replied in the affirmative and Hadrat Ka’ab continued, “How do you do so?”

Hadrat Umar said that he would carefully walk through after first having collected all loose and flowing clothing in his hands so nothing gets caught in the thorns hence injuring him. Hadrat Ka’ab said, “This is the definition of taqwa, to protect oneself from sin through life’s dangerous journey so that one can successfully complete the journey unscathed by sin.”

So, for me, a God-fearing person is truly an upstanding individual. And there's nothing "ugly" about that.

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