“Do not take two gods. He is only One God. So dread Me alone.” (Sura an-Nahl: 51)
Fear of God is one of the essential attributes of a believer. Because, it is fear of God that draws a person nearer to God, makes him attain a deeper faith, enables him to conduct himself responsibly towards God every moment of his life, and nurtures his dedication to values of the Qur’an. The fact that the good morals God expects from His servants come with the fear of God is reaffirmed by the Prophet Muhammad (saas) in these words:
Fear God wherever you are; if you follow an evil deed with a good one you will obliterate it; and deal with people with a good disposition. (At-Tirmidhi)
Failure to understand the real meaning of fear of God causes some to confuse it with other kinds of mundane fears. However, fear of God differs greatly from all other type of fear.
The Arabic word used in the original text of the Qur’an (khashyat) expresses overwhelming respect. On the other hand, the Arabic word used in the Qur’an to refer to worldly fears (hawf) expresses a simple kind of fear, as in the fear one feels when faces with a wild animal.
A consideration of the attributes of God leads to a better understanding of these two kinds of fear, both expressed by different words in Arabic.
Worldly fears are usually caused by a potential threat. For example, one may fear being murdered. However, God is the All-Compassionate, the Most Merciful and the Most Just. Therefore, fear of God implies showing respect to Him, the All-Compassionate, the Most Merciful and the Most Just, and avoiding exceeding His limits, rebelling Him and being of those who deserve His punishment.
The consequences that a fear of God has on people make this difference apparent. Faced with a deadly danger, a person panics; seized with hopelessness and desperation, he fails to exercise his reason and discover a solution. Fear of God, however, actuates wisdom and adherence to one’s conscience. Through fear of God, a person is motivated to avoid that which is evil, corruptive, and likely to cause either physical or mental harm to him. Fear of God fosters wisdom and insight. In a verse of the Qur’an, God informs us that it is through fear of God that wisdom and understanding is acquired:
You who believe! If you have fear of God, He will give you a criterion (by which to judge between right and wrong) and erase your bad actions from you and forgive you. God’s favour is indeed immense. (Sura al-Anfal: 29)
Worldly fears cause man anxiety. Fear of God, however, not only gives rise to increased spiritual strength, but also to peace of mind.
It is through fear of God that man avoids those evil actions displeasing God. A verse of the Qur’an states,
“… God does not love anyone vain or boastful.” (Sura an-Nisa’: 36).
A God-fearing person strives diligently to abstain from boasting, and to engage rather in actions to earn God’s love. For that reason, fear of God and love of God are mutually exclusive.
Fear of God, in fact, removes the obstacles to drawing nearer to God and earning His love. Foremost of these obstacles is one’s lower self. From the Qur’an, we learn that there are two aspects of the soul; the one inspiring evil and mischief, and the other, guarding against every inclination to evil.
… The self and what proportioned it and inspired it with depravity and a fear of God, he who purifies it has succeeded, he who covers it up has failed. (Sura ash-Shams: 7-10)
Struggling against this evil, and not giving in it, requires spiritual strength. This strength derives from fear of God. A God-fearing person is not enslaved by the selfishness of his soul. The awe he feels for God draws him away from thoughts and deeds unworthy of His pleasure. A verse of the Qur’an informs us that only those who fear God will take heed of the warnings imparted to them:
You can only warn those who act on the Reminder and fear the All-Merciful in the Unseen. Give them the good news of forgiveness and a generous reward. (Sura Ya Sin: 11)
Man’s striving must be to feel a more profound fear of God. To effect this noble sentiment, he must reflect upon God’s creation and recognize the supreme artistry and power represented in its every detail. His thinking must enable him to attain a better grasp of His grandeur and add to his awe. Indeed, God commands us:
You who believe! Have fear of God with the fear due to Him and do not die except as Muslims. (Sura Al ‘Imran: 102)
So have fear of God, as much as you are able to, and listen and obey and spend for your own benefit. It is the people who are safe-guarded from the avarice of their own selves who are successful. (Sura at-Taghabun: 16)
The more a believer fears God, the more loving he becomes. He better acknowledges the beauty of God’s creation. He acquires the ability to recognize the multitude of people, nature, animals, and in everything around him, as reflections of God’s sublime attributes. Consequently, he comes to feel a deeper love for such blessings, as well as for God, their Creator.
A person who grasps this secret also knows what love of God is. He loves God, over and above anything else, and understands that all beings are the work of His creation. he loves them in accordance with God’s pleasure. He loves believers who are submissive to Him, but feels aversion for those who are rebellious towards Him.
The true love that makes man happy, brings him joy and peace, is love of God. Other forms of love, felt for beings other than God, are, in the words of the Qur’an, love peculiar to idolaters, and consistently leads to anguish, sorrow, melancholy and anxiety. The idolaters’ love and the love believers feel for God are compared in a verse as follows:
Some people set up equals to God, loving them as they should love God. But those who believe have greater love for God… (Sura al-Baqara: 165)