Piety—taqwā, the most frequently mentioned theme in the Qur’ān, is derived from the Arabic word for protection—waqā.
Taqwā points toward the degree to which people protect themselves from erring from Allāh Almighty’s command while striving to remain obedient to Him. When Imām Ṣādiq u was asked to define piety he responded, ‘It is that Allāh does not miss you when He commands your presence — and that He does not find you where He has prohibited you to be.’ In elaboration Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī says, ‘The reality of piety is abstention from everything that displeases Allāh and avoidance of everything that He has prohibited.’ To him, such situations may be the outcomes of one of three different reactions — fear, hope or love. The majority of people comply with divine commands on the grounds of being fearful of His severe chastisement. In similar vein, the motivation of those who remain steadfast to His commands and prohibitions is hope to benefit from His rewards. However, those who sincerely believe in Him and His divine attributes are aware that as He is omniscient and omnipresent, they devotedly wish to communicate with, and to submit themselves to Him.’ As a consequence it is they who experience the contentment of feeling close to Him.
Imām Ṣadiq (a) explained this in saying:
-‘There are those who worship Allāh out of eagerness to be admitted to paradise — this is the customary practice of those who conduct businesses.
-Others worship Him out of fear of the fires of hell — this is the customary practice of those who infringe laws.
-The best of people worship Him, because to them He is the only entity worthy of worship — this is the customary practice of those who are free.’
The Distinctive Features that Characterize the Pious
A companion called Hammām asked Imām ʿAlī (a) to describe the properties and essential qualities that characterize piety in others so that he might comprehensively understand them. In response the Imām recited, ‘Allāh is with the pious and those who perform good deeds.’ Asked to provide further detail he delivered a comprehensive answer that is now presented as Sermon number 193 in Nahj al–Balāghah. I once referred to it as (The Most Pious speaks about the pious).
He begins by presenting 10 distinctive features:
1. Their speech is directly to the point. Those who talk for hours without the facility to present a clear idea of the subject they address, simply waste their own and their audiences’ time. The same is true of those who incessantly indulge themselves in inconsequential chatter. The Imām u also stated, ‘When wisdom attains perfection verbal communication is concisely expressed.’
Those who deliver lectures need to be aware of their responsibility regarding demanding the attention of others. For in wasting their audiences’ time they become as liable to making payments of compensation — as they would be if they were liable for laying waste to their property.
2. They present themselves in moderate attire. The essential requirement of clothing is to protect the body from heat, cold and exposure. Extravagance in meeting those needs via unnecessary expenditure is eschewed in Islām. Indeed, Allāh tells us, ‘The garment of piety is superior to immoderate dress.’
3. They walk with humble gait. Allāh condemned arrogance saying, ‘Do not strut the earth in triumph and arrogance for you can neither tear it apart nor match the grandeur of its mountains.’ Arrogance leads to enmity. People need to express mutual respect for one other as everyone is created equal regardless of their social standing and wealth. This āyah warns the arrogant that whatever they might think about their being superior, they like everyone else, are constrained by the laws of nature, the laws of man and Allāh’s divine rulings. The realization that life starts as an insignificant spermatozoa and ends as sustenance for worms, is sufficient a reminder to prick anyone’s pomposity. With this awareness, those who are pious deliberately eschew all manifestations of arrogant behaviour.
4. They close their eyes to that which Allāh has made unlawful. The Qur’ān describes believers as those who lower their gaze when encountering the opposite sex — so as to avoid all possibility of inexplicable attraction and concomitant temptation to infringe divine law. Those who are pious also consider it unacceptable to spy on others or invade their privacy.
5. They dedicate their hearing to matters that may further their knowledge. The pious strive to productively utilize every moment of their time and not to waste a single second of it. They do not contemplate ‘killing time’ by playing patience, other card games, or the pleasures of trips aboard cruise ships, for the Prophet s counselled, ‘Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave’. This ḥadīth points to there being no time restriction in seeking knowledge. Note worthily in another ḥadīth, the Prophet (s) encourages us to seek knowledge even if that necessitates our traveling to China.
The Prophet (s) claimed that the reward for striving to further knowledge is equal to that of martyrdom in defending the faith. He also said, ‘Angels spread their wings over those who seek knowledge and ask Allāh to forgive them.’ Thus it is that those who are pious do not accept any limit or restriction on the time that they spend in furthering their knowledge.
6. They disport themselves in times of adversity as they do in times of comfort. According to Qur’ānic teaching, trials are the means by which Allāh Almighty tests people’s sincerity. Thus Allāh asks, ‘Do people think that they will escape merely by claiming that they are believers and that there is no need for them to be tested? We did try previous nations as We do differentiate between those who truly believe and those who do not.’ However, people do not necessarily react reasonably to what they experience during calamities and adversity. This is explained in the following Qur’ānic statement, ‘When The Lord tries some human beings by favouring them they say, “My Lord has honoured me” but, when He tries them by restricting their sustenance they say, “My Lord has disgraced me.” In times of prosperity, instead of displaying humility and kindness to others, the selfish become arrogant and ignore Allāh’s bounty. While when they are in distress, instead of remaining calm and trying to logically deal with their problems, they display resentfulness and impatience. In this part of his speech Imām ʿAlī (a) describes the pious as being stable and content, both during times of adversity as well as during times of comfort.
7. Had there not been a fixed time span for each life their spirits would depart their bodies out of eagerness for reward and avoidance of chastisement. This temporary life is but a passage through which all people must journey en route to eternal life. For the pious, meeting the Lord is their most desired objective and most wished for destination. Only Allāh’s predetermined life span stops them from trying to hasten their journey.
8. The might of The Creator is so deeply seated within their hearts that all else appears to them to be insignificant. This is self–explanatory.
9. To them, paradise appears as though they are already enjoying its bliss.
10. Hellfire appears to them as though they are already suffering its awfulness. With regard to points 9 and 10 we recognise that most people may find it difficult to grasp the depth of the meaning of those Qur’ānic āyāt that point to the bliss of paradise and the severe chastisement of the fires of hell. It is only the pious that are able to visualise and experience the reality of what has been promised and what has been warned. Veils are removed from before their eyes as their sight sharpens to the reality of what is to be.
The Imām (a) continued to elaborate on the impact piety has on people’s behaviour, emphasising its role in defying evil desire and wrongdoing.
The Adornment of the Devout
In a paragraph of Supplication Number 20 of Al–Ṣaḥifah al–Sajjādiyah, Imām Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn u comments that while people do tend to use adornments, the devout and pious prefer to maintain only that which is most suitable to them. He then lists 20 moral values that have a significant role in spiritual, rather than physical enhancement.
1. Spreading justice;
2. Restraining anger;
3. Quenching hatred;
4. Reuniting the estranged;
5. Facilitating peace;
6. Encouraging good behaviour;
7. Concealing the faults of others;
8. Maintaining a mild character;
9. Being humble;
10. Excellence of conduct;
11. Avoiding the frivolous;
12. Being good–natured;
13. Striving for excellence;
14. Being generous;
15. Not confronting others with their faults;
16. Being kind, even to the unworthy;
17. Being truthful, even when it is painful;
18. Not bragging about one’s good deeds, even if there are many;
19. Acknowledging one’s evil deeds, even if there are insignificant;
20. Strengthening one’s bonds with the community.
Putting these into Practice
If one is determined to adopt the above values one might devote a solid week concentrating on establishing one of them as second nature — and when that is felt to have settled in one’s psyche, transfer one’s focus to the next one. In this manner people can make positive contribution to their spiritual advancement, expressed in Qur’ānic terms as purification — tazkiyah.
The Outcome of the Establishment of Piety
In the Qur’ān Allāh Almighty tells us of the benefits of piety. Here are a few examples:
1. ‘O you who believe, if you behave with piety He will grant you the ability to distinguish right from wrong, will eradicate all your evil deeds and will forgive you. Allāh is the Lord of Mighty Favours.’ Clarity regarding what is right and what is wrong is essential if one is to arrive at correct decisions. In the above āyah, we learn that it is via pious behaviour that Allāh grants clarity of vision to His servants — at levels that enable them to avoid confusion in their lives. Absence of contaminated moral values permits development of acuity of insightfulness and perspicacity, the foundations of wisdom. This is the reason why many exemplars of morality were able to penetrate the character of those who came to seek their advice and adept in ascertaining if they were sincere or not.
2. ‘If urban dwellers had believed and safeguarded themselves [from evil] We would have opened the blessings of the heavens and the earth for them. But as they declined We recompensed them with what they had earned.’ In elaboration Imām ʿAlī (a) said, ‘He who adopts piety will have dignity poured down upon him — after that had been uncommon, mercy inclined toward him — after that had eluded him, and blessings gushed down upon him — after that had been previously scarce.’
In describing the dreadful event of the companions denial of Imām ʿAlī’s leadership, The Lady Fāṭimah (s) quoted the above āyah and said, ‘Had they submitted themselves to ʿAlī’s leadership he would have led them to the right path. He would most certainly have transported them to a spring of pure, sweet, clear water whose continuous copious flow encourages luxuriance of vegetation, and he would have brought them back happy and content.’
3. ‘Allāh will make matters easy for those who are pious.’
To conclude, the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, the abundance of Allāh’s favours and bounties, and one’s worldly affairs being made easy, are but a few of the advantages that are to be received by those who are pious.
The Reward of Paradise that Allāh Promises the Pious
The bliss of paradise cannot be comprehended in worldly terms. Indeed the Prophet (s) said, ‘In paradise believers will enjoy everything that their ears never heard nor their eyes ever saw.’
Nonetheless, the Qur’ān paints beautiful pictures of what we are able to envisage, such as:
1. ‘The likeness of paradise promised to the pious are — rivers that flow below, everlasting shade and an endless supply of fresh fruit.’
2. ‘The pious will truly settle among fountains and gardens. [They will be told] enter the gardens with peace and security. We will remove all rancour that rests in their hearts and seat them in each other’s company on comfortable armchairs.’
3. ‘The pious, lavishly attired in fine silks and brocades, will dwell in each other’s company in peace and security among gardens and streams. We will pair them with fair maidens with lovely eyes and they will have every kind of fruit on hand to enjoy in peace and security.’
4. ‘The pious shall dwell among gardens and springs and receive what their Lord has promised them. Truly, they offered good deeds before this.’
5. ‘The pious shall have their desires fulfilled — orchards, vineyards, beautiful maidens of the same age, their cups filled to brim. They shall neither be exposed to vain discourse nor to lies.’
Provisions for the Eternal Journey
One of the essential beliefs of all divine religions is that humanity is en route to eternity. Death is not simply the end of life but is rather the means by which to access the hereafter. Vis–à–vis provisions required for this journey — the best is nothing other than piety, as is clearly stated in Qur’ān 2:197. In returning from the Battle of Ṣiffīn Imām ʿAlī (a) halted at the graveyard on the outskirts of Kūfah to address the interred. His then said to them, ‘Your property has been occupied, your wealth has been distributed and your wives have remarried. This is what we can report to you — tell us now what you can report to us?’ After pausing, he addressed those with him saying, ‘Had they been permitted to respond they would certainly have informed us that piety is the best provision for eternal life.’
Piety is the Sole Criterion of Superiority
Islām does not sanction race or gender discrimination as all of humanity is considered to be equal in the eye of the Almighty. No one social grouping is considered to have an advantage over any other. The only merit to distinguish people from one another is their level of piety.
Allāh Almighty tells us in the Qur’ān, ‘O humankind, we indeed created you as males and females and made you nations and tribes so that you may establish relationships with one another. The most noble of you in the sight of Allāh are the most pious.’
Piety is the Foundation of all Moral Values
It is only in striving to maintain piety that one is able to manifest moral values and ethical principles. Generosity, caring for people, pardoning the infringements of other’s, successfully managing one’s anger, honesty and trustworthiness, self–control and fairness, are but a few results that stem from a focus on piety. Allāh expresses this in the following Qur’ānic statements:
‘Hasten in competing with one another to obtain you Lord’s forgiveness [on your route] to paradise — as it is as wide as the heavens and the earth and is prepared to receive the pious. Those who spend in prosperous times and in straightened times, those who control their anger and pardon others — truly Allāh loves those who do good. Those who, when they commit shameful acts or are unjust to themselves remember Allāh and seek His forgiveness — for who else is able to forgive sins?’
 Biḥār al–Anwār, Vol. 70, p. 285.
 Al–Mizān fi Tafsīr al–Qur’ān, Vol. 14, p. 374
 Ibid., Vol. 11, p. 158.
 Al–Kāfī, Vol. 2, p. 84. A similar ḥadīth narrated from Imām ʿAlī (a) is found in Nahj al–Balāghah, Maxim 237.
 Qur’ān 16:28.
 Nahj al–Balāghah, Maxim 71.
 Qur’ān 7:26.
 Qur’ān 17:37.
 Kanz al–ʿUmmāl, Ḥadīth 28697.
 Al–Targhīb wal Tarhīb, Vol. 1, p. 97.
 Al–Amālī by Shaykh Ṣadūq, p. 166.
 Qur’ān 29:1–2.
 Qur’ān 89:15–16.
 Qur’ān 8:29.
 Qur’ān 7:96.
 Nahj al–Balāghah, Sermon 198.
 Fāṭimah al–Zahrā’ Ummu Abīhā, by the author, p. 123.
 Qur’ān 65:4.
 Biḥār al–Anwār, Vol. 8, p. 191.
 Qur’ān 13:35.
 Qur’ān 15:45-47.
 Qur’ān 44:51-55.
 Qur’ān 51:15.
 Qur’≈n 78:31.
 Nahj al–Balāghah, Maxim 130.
 Qur’ān 49:13.
 Qur’ān 3:133–135.