Eat the sweets where no-one can see you
A man once gathered his three young sons together. He gave each boy a bag of sweets and the same simple instruction: “My sons, go each of you and eat these sweets in a place where no-one will see you and then return to me.”
Each of the sons took his bag of sweets and left. A short while later all three returned to their father. Seeing two of his sons with empty hands, the man asked each of them in turn where they had eaten their sweets.
One of the sons replied: “O my father! I went and hid in my room where I was all alone and ate my sweets. No-one saw me.”
Another son replied: “O my father! I climbed up a tree and hid there all alone amongst its branches to eat my sweets. No-one saw me.”
Then the man turned to his third son. The little boy still had his bag of sweets clutched in his hands. His father asked him why he had returned without eating his sweets as he had been instructed.
“O my father!” the little boy replied. “I tried to hide alone in my room like my first brother and then I tried to hide up a tree like my other brother, but wherever I hid I could not find any place where I could eat my sweets without being seen; wherever I tried to hide, Allah was always there watching over me.”
Even though I was told this story as a young child, I still remember it vividly to this day. Despite being a parable for young children, the tale of the boys and their sweets is an effective way for anyone to understand the basic meaning behind a concept in Islam which is hugely important, but which it is very difficult to translate into English. Taqwa.
The root letters that the word stems from in Arabic, wa qa ya, give meanings including to guard, preserve, shield and protect. In terms of being a religious concept taqwa is commonly translated as ‘God consciousness’ or fearing God, a quality which guards the one who possesses it from Allah’s displeasure and anger. For a Muslim to always be aware of Allah (like the little boy who couldn’t find anywhere to eat his sweets in secret), to be mindful of always seeking His pleasure and staying away from that which causes His displeasure, is the essence of taqwa.
Given the references to it in the Quran, taqwa is a must for anyone wanting to live the Muslim life. Allah says, for example:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَّقِينَ
God loves those who are mindful of Him (9: 4)
إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الَّذِينَ اتَّقَوا وَّالَّذِينَ هُم مُّحْسِنُونَ
For God is with those who are mindful of Him and who do good (16: 128)
إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ
In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him (49: 13)
When I heard the story of the boys and their sweets as a child, I solemnly took in the lesson that if I pilfered some of my siblings’ sweets and tried to eat them in secret Allah would know even if my parents and siblings didn’t. It was a sobering realisation. The child-like parable aside, how does taqwa practically manifest itself in a practising Muslim’s life? I’ll share a few examples from my own humble experiences
1. In my profession I use a lot of pens. They’re everywhere, from my desk to my handbag to my lunch box even! When I was leaving my last job I had a bunch of nice pens, some of which I had bought with my own money to use for work and some which were my employer’s property. As I’d let all the pens get mixed up during my time there, I decided to leave them all at work when I left, rather than accidently taking home even one pen that wasn’t mine. Taking someone else’s property is sinful so I didn’t want to take any chances, not even with a single pen.
2. Whenever the child-me was ever responsible for cutting up a cake or dessert, I would make sure I always cut myself the biggest slice on the sly. Nowadays if I’m serving something and a particular portion seems smaller than others I try to keep the small portion for myself, for fear of giving preference to myself over others, even if it is in pastry and cream.
And one weightier example…
3. If I ever meet a sister (in the Muslim sense, not a blood relative) who I find myself not particularly liking, perhaps because of a significant personality clash for example (yes, even Muslims can’t be best friends with absolutely everyone!), I try to make sure I make dua for her and ask Allah to grant her khayr, because I fear looking down upon my sister in Islam and allowing my heart to harbour any ill feeling towards her.
Taqwa is one of the harder concepts in Islam to explain. I hope that after having read this post you have a somewhat clear understanding of it, inshaAllah. As for the little boy who couldn’t find anywhere to eat his sweets, I’m inshaAllah looking forward to sharing his story with future little people in the family, just as it was shared with me so many years ago :).