How Do We Fear God?
This post is about all the Quran’s verses reminding us to “fear God.” But what does this mean? Should we fear God like we fear a threat to our lives? If you’ve ever wondered about this, or wanted some clarity, then hopefully this post will benefit you.
Let’s start off with an incisive verse describing the context of “fearing God”:
“Indeed only those who fear God amongst his servants are those with knowledge. God is indeed Mighty, Oft-forgiving” (35:28)
This verse is saying that if you don’t have knowledge, then you won’t fear God. Only if you have knowledge will you fear him. That’s very important. There are two, different kinds of fear. The irrational fear of ignorance is one kind. It leads to paranoia, disease, and other destructive outcomes. Then there’s the kind of fear based on knowledge and truth. That is why the word for fear in 35:28, khasheya in Arabic, means “fear with veneration, respect, honor or awe.” 1 It does not mean the ignorant, destructive fear we commonly think of.
Fearing God has another context in the Quran: humility.
“Had We sent down this Quran upon a mountain, you would have seen it humble itself and split apart from fear of God. Thus do We provide examples to mankind so they may reflect” (59:21).
A form of khasheya was also used for fear here in the context of a mountain humbling itself and bringing itself low. We know what an evil seed arrogance is, right? An arrogant person wouldn’t humble himself from fear of God at all. But it is the humble that realize God’s majesty and crumble from the highest level to the lowest, prostrating upon the ground in awe of the Creator much like we do during prayer.
If “fearing God” in the ignorant sense were ever meant in the Quran, then the following verse wouldn’t make much sense:
“Do not be distressed for God is indeed with us” (9:40).
The word used above was not fear but distress. Distress comes from ignorant fear.2 Verse 9:40 repeats what Prophet Muhammad said to his friend Abu Bakr during their migration to Medina as they hid in a cave from approaching pursuers. Notice how being conscious of God makes all the distress, paranoia and ignorant fear disappear. If we were supposed to “fear God” in the ignorant sense, then the verse would say, “Be distressed for God is indeed with us!” But that, of course, isn’t the case 🙂
The following verse clearly marks the difference between the right and wrong kinds of fearing God:
“’Throw your staff (oh Moses)!’ But when he saw it undulating as if it were a snake, he turned away retreating and did not look back: ‘O Moses! Do not fear; indeed, messengers do not fear in my presence’” (27:10).
Notice how the closer you are to God, the more knowledge you have, and the less ignorant fear there is. In fact, it doesn’t exist at all since messengers have no fear of God in his presence. In this verse the Arabic word khaaf was used for fear. It is a synonym of khasheya. 3
There’s one more word used in the most common phrase translated as “fearing God.”
“Oh you who believe, be patient, vie with one another in patience, be steadfast and fear God so that you may prosper” (3:200).
Ittaqi Allah is the Arabic phrase in this verse. Ittaqi is translated as fear and Allah is translated as God. Ittaqi happens to be very closely related to the word taqwa: both are the same root word in different forms.
Taqwa has many meanings and is often translated as God-consciousness, righteousness, piety, and fearing God.4 The most basic root meaning is to guard or protect, and the derived form, ittaqi, literally means to “guard yourself.” That’s why it’s also translated as being mindful. In the phrase ittaqi Allah, it’s translated God mindfulness or fearing God. But the word has more meanings besides these. It also means to keep your duty or to take something in between you and another as protection, like armor.5
Let’s put all of this together, shall we? Ittaqi Allah can mean to fear God (not the ignorant fear), to respect your duty to God, to take God as your armor, thus guarding yourself with God. Ittaqi Allah does not mean to guard yourself against God. God is our true Helper and Protector, not our enemy (see 2:257).
Hopefully our discussion in this post has cleared a lot of things up. Let’s end with an insightful finale. Why did God create us?
“Oh Mankind, worship your Lord who created you and those before you so you may gain taqwa (God-consciousness)” (2:21).
“(He is) the one who created death and life to test you as to which of you is best in action. He is the Mighty, the Forgiving.” (67:2).
Looking at both of these verses together gives us a comprehensive answer. God created us to gain taqwa: the same word for fear and all the meanings mentioned previously. Fearing God in the Quran means to have awe of God in reverence through knowledge and humility, to take our Creator, The Truth, as a protector against wrong and to keep our duty to him by performing the most beautiful of deeds.
- See Lane’s Lexicon, Volume 2, page 745. It’s interesting to note that khasheya also means to hope.
- Fear and distress are used side-by-side in many verses. This is the common refrain: “on them (the righteous) shall be no fear nor will they be distressed” (2:112, 2:262, 2:274, 2:277, 3:170, 6:48, 5:69, 7:35, 7:49, 10:62, and many more). The word huzn means grief or distress. This frequent juxtaposition indicates the closeness of fear and distress in origin and effect.
- Reference is same as footnote 1
- Click here to read the blog post delving into the meaning of taqwa and its use as a magnificent symbol of a garment/armor.
- See Lane’s Lexicon Volume 8, page 3059
See you next post God willing.