Fears and Checks
Each day, we all make decisions that are informed by fear or influenced by it. Overt or subtle, palpable or hidden, fear counsels us all the time. Sometimes we ignore it, but more times we bow: fear of danger, death, illness, loss of wealth or job (we get to work on time); fear of disappointing others whom we revere; fear of tyranny, imprisonment, oppression, harassment; fear of rejection, failure, success; fear of invisibility, loss of renown; fear of fame, center stages, runaway egos; fear of getting caught; fear of pathogens; fear for our children, for society, for the environment, for the future; fear of infamy and scandal; fear of truth and honest reflection; fear of nuance; and, of course, for many, fear of God, His retribution, His gaze, His judgment, wrath, His power, and fear of how we will be received on His Day.
There are several words in the Quran that refer to the general classification of fear. One of them is closely associated with taqwa, one of the most often cited terms of Islam, which is derived from the root waqaya. Its original meaning is to shield and protect. Taqwa is not an easy word to translate, although fearing God is pretty much the standard fare. And personally, I think there’s not much we can do about it. I’ve read God-consciousness and Wary of God and the like, but these attempts draw attention to the strivings of the translator and not the meaning itself. So fear (fear God! or God-fearing or Godfearingness) still makes more sense in the larger scheme of things. But it’s good to keep in mind what taqwa is in relation to fear itself. The Arabic word khawf refers to a purer meaning of fear, the emotion itself, while taqwa is the result, the actionable, observable, deliberate reaction to fear. When one has taqwa, his or her fear or direct awareness of God is not hinged to the emotion per se and things like being startled, but is manifested in behavior, choices of conduct and course of action—criterion of morality and ethical living. While I respect the argument that love is a higher motivation than fear, and that's probably true in many respects that Islam upholds and champions, but fear and love are kin. Early on in our lives, we fear disappointing our parents, for example, not because of punishment but because we love them or, at the very least, acknowledge and recognize their authority over us.
The word taqwa is completely overtaken by its religious connotation, and rarely does one think of taqwa in terms of shield. And perhaps this is what religion is supposed to do to language. Words (like people) go through a conversion process. (There are instances in the Quran in which sister words of taqwa appear and that relate to protection, as in: "Our Lord, give us good in this life and good in the Hereafter, and save us (or protect us) from the torment of the Fire.")
A note on translation: Often a translator is unfortunately limited by what can pass muster among readers. It’s really too bad that a word like remembrance, for example, has lost its verbal meaning, as in the command, Remembrance your Lord, which is far stronger and meaningful than Remember your Lord. In this context, Remembrance evokes a deep and profound sacred use of “memory” and “remembering,” while Remember is dogged by the casual sense of “bringing to mind” or “recalling something” and other slapdash usages of this amazing human faculty. God have mercy on his soul, Martin Lings uniquely had the intellectual accoutrement and “guts” (for lack of a better word) to translate like this: Be a remembrancer, for remembrancing profiteth the believers (Quran, 51:55). (This is God’s command to His Messenger (Muhammad).)