Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fears and Checks

It is interesting to imagine life without fear. It is inconceivable for humanity to have survived more than a generation without it. The world would dissolve into utter chaos if one day we all wake up and find that fear and all of its checks have been completely extinguished from the human creation (an interesting movie idea). Civilization and dignity would be impossible: schools, libraries, marriage, families, education, property, fidelity, personal effects, ownership, monetary currency, traffic lights, deterrence, laws, religion, authority, respect for life (one's own and others) etc. All of these things would become meaningless without fear and its guidance. The fear of losing knowledge or the fear of ignorance, in itself, has propelled astounding institutions.

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).)


Blogger Mohammed said...

As-salaam 'alaykum brother Ibrahim,

Thank you for the nuanced understanding of the word 'taqwa adn khawf. This notion of "fearing God" isn't something that should be swept under the carpet in order to pacify readership, and you do a beautiful job of highlighting some of the depths of its meaning. The notion of "fearing God" challenges our modern assumptions about what religion should do for us. Even many of those who feel comfortable with religion these days (i mean largely in secular circles), are comfortable with it so long as "it does something for me." So the doctor says, hey, if religion reduces your stress levels and will improve your health, go ahead and do it, "whatever works for you." The idea of "fearing God" because we are indebted and utterly dependent on God, disallows us from faithfully holding such notions.

This being said, I can understand the attempt to by many in the Muslim community to highlight the powerful place of love in Islam, and its role as a motivator for worship. Many have right intentions, but lack a holistic understanding of our tradition, including those parts less palatable to a modern palate.

may Allah bless you, I really enjoy your posts, they always serve as a nice break for me from all my studying as a dental student,

wa salaam,


11/01/2007 12:17 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Well said, Mohammed. Thanks for your comment. So dentistry? Speaking of fear!

11/01/2007 1:14 PM  
Anonymous irving said...

Salaam Brother:

Abu Huraira reported that the Prophet said, “Renew your faith.” “How can we renew our faith?” they asked. The Prophet replied, “say always, ‘La ilaha ill-Allah’ (there is none worthy of worship except Allah).”.
Jabir reported that the Prophet said, “the best remembrance of Allah is to repeat La ilaha illa Allah and the best prayer is Alhumdu lillah (all praise is due to Allah).”.

These two hadiths do not tell of something which I read recently in Chittick's The Vision of Islam, that in the time of the Prophet (pbuh) very few of his companions and followers knew how to read or write, and so memorized the Qur'an. Memorization was common then, and remembrance took on a whole literal meaning.

Ya Haqq!

11/01/2007 9:30 PM  
Blogger UmmFarouq said...

The relationship between fear and love is undeniable. Fear keeps us on our toes in many ways, and knowing that there are consequences for our actions (both earthly and in the afterlife) has to keep us in check. But it doesn't always, and this is one of the reasons why we see the adab of the Ummah being whittled away. Owning one's behavior is part of taqwa, and I find this sorely lacking today.

11/03/2007 3:15 AM  

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