In depicting the believers, the Qur’an declares: They hope for His mercy yet fear His torment; the torment of your Lord is something to be avoided. [17:57]
It is said that the heart, in its worship of God, can be likened to that of a bird: love is its head, with hope and fear being its two wings. If the head and wings are sound, the bird flies gracefully. But if the head is severed, the bird dies; and if it looses one of its wings, it becomes a target for every hunter and predator.1
Like all spiritual states, it is knowledge of God that begets fear and hope. Knowledge of God’s might and majesty, and the punishment with which He threatens those who disobey Him, spawns a state of apprehension in the heart. This apprehension is called “fear”. The result is that one forsakes sin and guards against the path leading to divine wrath. For one who truly fears a thing, flees from it.
As for hope, its basis is the heart’s knowledge of God’s vast mercy and forgiveness, the magnitude of His generosity and kindness, and His gracious promise to all those who obey Him.
Ibn Juzayy, jurist and exegesist, wrote the following on the degrees of fear of God and peoples’ relationship to them:
‘Realise that fear (khawf) has three degrees: First, that it is weak. It enters the heart but has no effect, inwardly or outwardly. Its existence is as if it did not exist. Second, that it is strong, in that it awakens a person from heedlessness, helping him to be upright. Third, that it is excessive so as to cause despair or loose all hope: this is impermissible. And the best of affairs is the middle one.
People are at three stations in respect of fear: The fear of the generality is of sins. The fear of the elite is of destiny’s seal. The fear of the elect is of the pre-ordained decree; because destiny’s seal is based on it.’2
Having discussed fear of God, Ibn Juzayy then balances the equation by expounding on the reality of hope in a similar fashion:
‘Hope (raja) also has three degrees: First, to hope in God’s mercy by using the lawful means leading to it, [which are] doing acts of obedience and refraining from sins. This is praiseworthy hope. Second, hope while infringing God’s limits and acting sinfully: this is sheer delusion. Thirdly, it is where one’s hope becomes so acute that it lulls one into a false sense of safety [from God’s anger]: which is forbidden.
People have three stations with respect to hope: For the masses, it is hoping for God’s reward (thawab). For the elite, it is hoping for God’s acceptance and pleasure (ridwan). And for the elect, it is hoping in the meeting (liqa’) with God, out of love and yearning for Him.’3
Explaining their subliminal peaks of fearing God and hoping in His forgiveness and mercy, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:
‘The perfect state of fear or hope is when it is attached to God Himself, rather than to created things like Paradise or Hell. The sublimest degree of fear is fear of being made remote from God, or being the object of His anger, or of being veiled from Him. This is why God recounts this punishment to His enemies first, before warning them of the Fire: No! On that Day they will be veiled from their Lord; then they shall be exposed to Hell. [83:15-16] Dhu’l-Nun stated: “Fear of Hell compared to fear of separation from God, is as a droplet of water in an endless ocean.” The sublimest level of hope is also attached to God Himself: to hope for His good pleasure, to behold the beatific vision of Him, to be given to witness Him and to be drawn near to Him.’4
One of the spiritual masters said: If you wish for the doors of hope to be opened to you, look to see how God has been with you. If you wish for the doors of fear to be opened, look to see how you have behaved with God.
1. See: Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 2:145.
2. At-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-Asriyyah, 2003), 2:69.
3. ibid., 2:69.
4. Al-Takhwif min al-Nar (Beirut: Maktabah al-Mu‘ayyad, 1988), 26-7.