Bridging Our Gaps: Thoughts on Piety and Taqwa on the Cusp of Ramadan

First Khutbah – Main Points

Ramadan is a time of joy, happiness, reflection and purification for Muslims all around the world. But if we as Muslims are to truly benefit from this sacred time then we must extrapolate an Islam that is didactic, that is instruction in a complete and harmonious way, not simply a list of harām and halāl.

So I pose the question, what is it we should be reflecting on? The term itself suggests one is peering at or into something. For us, we must peer into our own souls, examining every deed, every strain of thought, every emotion. If we are to diagnose what maligns our souls, we must look at them in the mirror.

Yet, above and beyond the mundane prose lies a spiritual reality and awareness that demands more than just religiosity. Allah says in His Book:

شهر رمضان الذي أنزل قيه القرئان هدى للناس و نينات من الهدى  و الفرقان فمن شهد منكم الشهر فليصمه و من كان مريضا أو سفر فعدة من أيام اخر يريد الله بكم اليسر و لا يريد بكم العسر و لتكملوا العدة و لتكبروا الله على ما هداكم و لعلكم تشكرون

“The month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur’an was sent down, a guidance for mankind as well as a explanation on that guidance and a criterion on which to judge. Let the one who has borne witness to this fast. For the one that is sick or traveling, then count your days therein, as Allah desires to make it easy for you, not difficult. Therefore complete your days when able and proclaim Allah’s Greatness for the guidance He has bestowed upon you all so that you may properly show gratitude.” [Q: 2:185]

Many of us today suffer from a false sense of piety, that piety is either some exceedingly difficult task or lifestyle, or a mode of dress, or something else conjured up from our own sense of piety. This is at the crux of a major spiritual crisis going on in the Muslim world today. Yet, Allah and His Messenger [s] have given us clear signs and examples of what constitutes piety. The Prophet [s] said:

الكيس من دان نفسه و عمل لما بعد الموت
و الأحمق من اتبع هواه و تمنى على الله تعالى الأماني

“The astute man passes judgment on himself and works for what comes after death –
The imbecile is the one who follows his passions yet expects God, the Exalted, to realize his wishes.”

This malady is brought about in a number of ways, but one I will mention here is the distance that we as Muslims have placed between ourselves and Allah and His Messenger [s]. How can one who is remote from the Reality of lā ilāha illā Allah pass judgment on himself? How can that person have the presence of mind to work for the ākhirah, while not abandoning his duty in the dunyā? Indeed, we can look around us and see that the crises and issues the modern world faces are not sociological, biological, technological or economic in nature, but are brought about by removing the idea of the sacred from human life. In the West we call this secularism, and for modern Muslims, this is what I would call religiosity, or riyā: doing or performing “Islamic acts” for the benefit in this life, not because of the reality of lā ilāha illā Allah. In short, the problems the world faces [like the environmental crisis] cannot be fixed with technology and we see that truth here and now. It can only be fixed by human beings with sound minds and hearts that testify lā ilāha illā Allah.

So let us turn back to the topic of piety. Allah defines piety for us in His Book as:

ليس البر أن تولوا وجوهكم قبل المشرق و المغرب – و لكن البر من امن بالله و اليوم الآخر و الملائكة و الكتب و النبيئن

“Piety is not the turning of your faces to the qibla of East or West but it is sure faith in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Books and the Prophets…” [Q: 2:177]

We must guard against creating our own self-authored ideas of what piety is. In the end we may only kid ourselves, even doing our own souls and injustice. Even the Ansar were not immune from making this mistake. During the time of the Prophet [s], there was a practice amongst the Ansar and the Quraysh that when they would return from a state of ihrām [ritual purity], they would enter their houses from the back. The Prophet [s], returned home in a state of ihrām and entered through the front door and was followed by a sahabi [Qutbah ibn ‘Amir al-Ansari] followed after him, whereupon he was admonished. Allah revealed the following verse, correcting them that it is not their own made up ideas or aesthetics that constitute piety but rather that piety is taqwa:

يسألونك عن الأهلة – قل هى مواقيت للناس و الحج – و ليس البر بأن تاتوا البيوت من ظهورها – و لكن البر من التقى – واتوا البيوت من ابوابها – و اتقى الله لعلكم تفلحون

“They ask you [Muhammad] about the new moons – say to them, “they are rendered time markers for man’s needs as well as the pilgrimage”. And piety – it is not obtained by entering the houses from the rear, but piety is to have taqwā. Therefore, enter the houses from their front doors and have taqwa, in order that you can be successful.” [Q: 2: 189]

A quick note on taqwā, for we do not have much time today to go into it [see previous khutbah for more on it], but I will provide a quick summary.  Al-Tabrīzī, in his commentary, al-Hamasah, gives us a very concise definition of taqwa as it was known to the Arabs:

الإتقاء أن تجعل بينك و بين ما تخافه حاجزا يحفظك

 “Taqwa is the idea that you [A] place something [C] between yourself and that which you fear could destroy you [B].”

Taqwa, in a sense, is a type of self-defense or self-preservation system or technique to ward off destruction by placing something between yourself and that impending doom.  Let us also take a quick look at the meaning of taqwa in Jahiliyyah poetry. In the Mu’allaqah, Zuhayr states boldly:

و قال سأقضي حاجتي ثم أتقي * عدوي بألف من ورائى ملجم

Zuhayr says to himself, “I will satisfy my vengeance [on my brother’s killer by taking his life!], then I will defend myself from their reprisal with a thousand horses, all bridled in support of my cause!”

Taqwa is not simply “God consciousness”, but is a more sophisticated construct. Much of the Islam that we have been taught and practicing has been in the spirit of one-word translations. If we wish to embody the spirit of Islam, we will have to dig deeper than one-word aphorisms.

May Allah make us of those who reflect deeply upon His Book and the life of His Prophet.

Second Khutbah – Main Points

As we just heard, Allah says in His Book that piety is taqwa. We also saw that taqwa is a means of defending oneself. This is perhaps the most common context the word taqwa is use in the Qur’an. Let us see here:

و اتقوا يوما لا تجزي نفس عن نفس شيئا و لا يقبل منها شفاعة و لا يوخذ منها عدل و لا هم ينصرون

“Defend yourself against a day that will come where no soul shall be of assistance to another whatsoever – nor shall it put forth an intercessor in its place – no compensation will be taken from it – nor shall there be anyone to come to its aid.” [Q: 2:47]

If piety is taqwa, we see that Allah commands us to defend ourselves against His wrath, for on that day, there is no defense other than what we protected ourselves from doing in this life.

The question that we may ask ourselves now is, “how do we get from here to there”? The month of purification, of reflection is upon us. We must ask Allah to make us of those who utilize its time and its blessings to formulate both piety and taqwa so that we can be successful, both in this life, and the next.

We must re-attach ourselves to the tradition of Islam. This goes far beyond juvenile tendencies to make the whole of Muslim religious experience to bring out and live in accordance with the Shari’ah, which, in this context, has been reduced to a to-do or not-to-do list. The worst part is that many Muslims believe that they have achieved piety simply by doing and not doing. But we see in the life of the Prophet, an example that fills in all the gaps. An example that is all-encompassing. It is this attitude, this character, we must achieve if we are to truly grasp what Islam has to offer. And we all know the famous hadith from A’isha [rah], where she stated:

كان خلقه القرآن

“His character was the Qur’ān”.

Islam is sacred and thus we must re-establish the primacy of this sacredness in our lives. This is why the idea of secularism/separation of church and state, cannot exist in Islam as it is meant in the West: where “church” is a stand-in for that which is sacred: Allah/God, the Qur’an, the Prophet, both his self and his Tradition/Sunnah, as well as the attitude and world view which emanates from la ilaha illa Allah, the Ultimate Reality that which is Allah Creator, Benefactor, Judge, Expiator of sins, that which the heavens and earth proclaim His total Divinity:

و لله يسجد ما في السماوات و ما في الارض
و لله يسجد من في السماوات و الأرض طاعا أو كرها

“And everything in the heavens and in the earth is prostrating to Him” [Q: 16:49]

“And everyone in the heavens and the earth is prostrating to Him, obediently, or hating it” [Q: 13: 15]

If we are to fulfill our role as Muslims, as the khalifah, the inheritors of the Prophet’s Sunnah [s], those who know the value of piety, of taqwā, and of maintaining the sacredness, then we must reflect upon ourselves and ask Allah to have mercy on us and change our hearts, to purify them, our intentions and our deeds, and endure [sabr] with prayers and wisdom, the trials of the dunyā, proclaiming with dignity and intelligence, lā ilāha illā Allah, Muhammadun Rasuwlu Allah.

I will close with a du’ah from the Prophet Muhammad regarding our condition and that of acquiring sacred knowledge for the sake of salvation on the Day of Judgment:

اللهم إني أعوذ بك من قلب لا يخشع
ومن دعاء لا يسمع
و من نفس لا يشبع
و من علم لا ينفع
أعوذ بك من هؤلاء الأربع

“O’ Allah! I seek protection in you from a heart that has no humility,
And from a supplication that is not heard,
And from a soul that cannot be satiated,
And from knowledge that has no benefit.
I seek refuge in you from all four of these!

Amin.

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