The Qur’an speaks of God as dhu’l-ma‘arij: Lord of the ascending ways. [Q.70:3] Believers are expected to be climbers, so to speak, in their upward journey to God. The ascent, however, is not that simple and the old saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” must be the watchword. The iradah (“will”, “aspiration”, “spiritual ambition”) to find God is, unarguably, the best start. As such, the Qur’an praises those who aspire to the harvest of the Afterlife, [Q.42:20] and who aspire to the face of God. [Q.6:52]
The believer readily acknowledges it is not by his or her own effort that they ascend, but effort – nonetheless – must be put in. The believer seeks to live life in the awareness that one must climb or ascend: those who turn their backs on the ascent do no more than doom themselves to misery and wretchedness, according to God’s estimation. The Qur’an speaks frequently of this “awareness” by employing the notion of taqwa.
Taqwa is culled from the word wiqayah, which implies: “erecting a barrier to ward-off harm from oneself.” In its religious sense, taqwa is to shield oneself against sinfulness, disobedience and divine anger, by doing works of faith and acts of obedience.1
The essence of taqwa lies in obeying God wholeheartedly, whilst being keenly aware of His abiding presence and watchful gaze. No single word in English can adequately capture the full meaning of taqwa – although words like “piety”, “fear of God”, “God-consciousness”, “mindfulness of God” or “guarding against evil” are the usual ways translators have attempted to give life to it.
Moulding one’s life in the light of this awareness of God’s presence; that is, striving to become muttaqi (one who embodies taqwa), is of huge merit. In the Qur’an, we read: God is with those who fear Him. [Q.16:128] And: God loves those who are conscious of Him. [Q.9:4] Also: Whoever fears God, He shall appoint a way out for him, and will provide for him from whence he never expected. [Q.65:2-3] And: For the God-fearing are gardens of delight with their Lord. [Q.68:34]
Having cited these, and other verses on taqwa; and having explained the motivations for it (listed as: fear of divine punishment in this world and in the next, hope of being rewarded in both worlds, fear of accountability, modesty and a sense of shyness because of God’s watchful gaze, gratitude for the divine favours, and knowledge which begets reverent awe of God), Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi furnishes us with a delightful summary that distill the levels of taqwa – which, he says, are of five ascending degrees:
دَرَجَاتُ التَّقْوَى خَمْسٌ:
أَنْ يَتَّقِيَ الْعَبْدُ الْكُفْرَ، وَذَلِكَ مَقَامَ الْإِسْلَامِ، وَأَنْ يَتَّقِيَ الْمَعَاصِيَ وَالْحُرُمَاتِ وَهُوَ مَقَامُ التَّوْبَةِ، وَأَنْ يَتَّقِيَ الشُّبُهَاتِ، وَهُوَ مَقَامُ الْوَرَعِ، وَأَنْ يَتَّقِيَ الْمُبَاحَاتِ وَهُوَ مَقَامُ الزُّهْدِ، وَأَنْ يَتَّقِيَ حُضُورَ غَيْرِ اللَّهِ عَلَى قَلْبِهِ، وَهُوَ مَقَامُ الْمُشَاهَدَةِ.
‘The degrees of taqwa are five:
‘ That a person guard against disbelief; this is the station of Islam.  That one guard against sin and forbidden acts; this is the station of repentance.  That one guards against doubtful matters; this is the station of scrupulousness.  That one guard against what is lawful [but superfluous]; which is the station of worldly detachment.  That one guards the heart against other than God being present in it; this is the station of spiritually witnessing God.’2
1. Haytami, al-Fath al-Mubin Sharh al-Arba‘in, (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 350.
2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:98.