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The Broader Notion of Taqwa (Heedfulness) and Universal Brotherhood of Humanity: Chapter 8 and 9, Essential Message of Islam

By Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah Syed

27 May, 2015

(Published exclusively on New Age Islam with Permission of the authors and publishers)

The word Taqwa and its noun form, Muttaqi, and other root words appear in hundreds of Qur’anic verses with the connotation of heeding God, as well as His guidance. Scholars have translated it varyingly as: fearing God, heeding God, being conscious of God, preserving oneself from evil, guarding against evil, warding off evil, and piety. However, based on the Qur’anic versatile usage (as indicated in this work), its meaning may be best expressed by the opening verse of the second chapter (Surah al-Baqarah):

“This is the Book, in which nothing is doubtful: it has guidance for the heedful (Muttaqin)” (2:2).

In other words, those who follow the guidance of the Qur’an are imbued with Taqwa, or are Muttaqin. (sing. Muttaqi) Thus, heeding God, without heeding His commandments; or heeding the physical book or cassette containing the Qur’anic text or audio-recording, but ignoring, or even defying its guidance, can hardly meet the Qur’anic criteria for Taqwa.

8.1.          Universal notion of Taqwa (Heedfulness)

The Qur'an offers a universal connotation of this word in scores of its verses, many of which appear in this work: it is best captured in the verse 49:13 from late Medinite period, which states:

“O People! We have created you as male and female, and made you into races and communities* for you to get to know each other. The noblest among you near God are those of you who are the most heedful (Atqakum). Indeed God is All-Knowing and Informed” (49:13). *[Lit., ‘tribes’]

The Qur’an also describes some of the ‘People of the Book’ (Christians and Jews), as Muttaqin (3:113-115).

“They are not the same: among the People of the Book is an upright community: they recite God’s messages through the hours of night as they bow down before Him (3:113). They believe in God and the Last Day; enjoin the good, and forbid the evil and hasten to good deeds - it is they who are among the righteous (114). Any good they do, they will not be denied it as God knows the heedful (Muttaqin)” (3:115).

Thus, in a broad sense, the term Taqwa and its other roots denote heedfulness of one’s universal social, moral and ethical responsibilities, with faith in God and the Last Day.

As the broader Qur’anic message is virtually centred around the concept of Taqwa – as underscored by its lead verse (2:2 above), we have indicated the Qur’anic exhortations to Taqwa in the listed verses in this book by showing its transliteration in bracket alongside the rendition.     

9.       Universal Brotherhood of Humanity

In a verse dating from the Medinite period, the Qur'an declares:

“Believers (Mu’minun) form a brotherhood; so reconcile your brethren, (whenever they are at odds,) and heed God, so that you may be graced with Mercy” (49:10)

Muslim scholars often cite this verse to claim a brotherhood of all Muslims, though strictly speaking, this verse is suggestive of the brotherhood of all believers in one God (Mu’minun). However, the Qur’anic universal notion of Islam (root – SLM) and Taqwa as reviewed in the preceding chapters (Ch. 7 and 8) and its pronouncements relating to (i) racial divergence, (ii) religious tolerance, (iii) plurality of faiths and (iv) the divine criteria of judgment, as explored below clearly and conclusively indicate its vision of a brotherhood of entire humanity - who are collectively appointed as God’s deputy on earth (2:30/Ch. 5.1).       

9.1.          Diversity of Race, Colour and Language

The Qur'an recognizes the diversity of human race, language and colour (30:22)1 and declares that if God willed, He would have made humanity into one community (10:19, 11:118),2 guiding them all (6:149).3 It further affirms that humanity was initially one community, but later people differed (10:19).4

 “Say (O Muhammad!): ‘With God (lies) clear argument. If He so willed, He would have guided you all’” (6:149).

“Humankind was but one community, but (later) they differed. Had it not been for an earlier decree from your Lord, their differences would have been settled between them” (10:19).

“If your Lord so willed, He would have made humankind into one community – (but He did not will so); so they will not cease to differ” (11:118).

“Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity in your languages and your colours. There are signs in this for those who know” (30:22).

9.2.           Religious Tolerance

The Qur’an forbids any compulsion in religion (2:256, 50:45, 88:21/22), and asks the Prophet not to compel people because if God so wished, everyone on earth would have believed (10:99).

“(There is) no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clearly from falsehood; so whoever rejects false deities and believes in God, has grasped a firm handhold, which never breaks. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Aware” (2:256).

“If your Lord so willed, everyone on earth would have believed, all together. Will you then compel people until they become believers” (10:99)?

 “We know best what they say; but you (O Muhammad,) are not to force them. So remind with the Qur'an those who fear My warning” (50:45).

“So remind (them, O Muhammad) – for you are one who reminds (88:21); and have no power over them” (88:22).

The Qur’an’s position on religious freedom is amply demonstrated in a verse (60:11) dating from the Medinite period allowing pagan women to leave for Mecca, if they did not opt to convert to Islam along with their husbands:

“And if any of your wives should go over to the pagans, and then you have your turn (as many converted wives of the Meccan pagans left their pagan husbands and came over to Medina), then pay to those whose wives had left the equivalent of what they had spent (on their dower). And heed God in Whom you believe” (60:11).

9.3.          No Discrimination against Non-Muslims

The Qur’an also commands Muslims not to discriminate against non-Muslims (4:94), nor to insult those whom they invoke besides God (6:108).

“You who believe, whenever you campaign in God's way, be discerning and do not say to anyone who offers you peace: ‘You are not a believer’ - seeking worldly gains (by exploiting him), for there are plenty of gains with God. (Remember,) you were like them before - till God favored you. Therefore be discerning. Indeed God is Informed of what you do” (4:94).

“Don’t insult those whom they invoke besides God, lest they ignorantly insult God in enmity. Thus We have made their action seem pleasing to every community; then their return is to their Lord, and He will tell them what they had been doing” (6:108).

9.4.          Plurality of Faiths

Towards the concluding phase of the revelation, when Islam was established as an historical reality and the pagans and the native Jews and Christians did not pose any threat the Qur’an expounds its message on the plurality of faith (49:13/Ch. 8.1; 5:48):5

“We have revealed to you this divine Writ (Kitab) setting forth the truth, confirming (whatever) remains of the divine writ (sent earlier), and determining what is true in it. Therefore, judge between them by what God has revealed, and do not follow their whims after what has come to you of truth. For each of you We have made a (different) code (Shir‘ah), and an open way (of action) (Minhaj). If God so pleased, He would have made you (all) into one community. Therefore vie (with each other) in goodness (so that) He may test you by what He has given you. (Remember, you) all will (eventually) return to God, and He will tell you in what you differed” (5:48).

This is a critical verse that needs explaining:

i. The Qur’an supplements the word (Shir’ah, or Shari’ah) with Minhaj (an open way), thereby adding a far broader dimension to the combined expression Shir‘ah wa Minhaj than to the rulings of the regional schools of Islamic law (Shari’ah laws) of the post Prophetic era (Appendix, 1.4/1.7).

ii. Since by definition, the term Minhaj (open way) incorporates a freedom of choice, a scope to choosing the best way and changing the course of things to meet the exigencies of life, the combined expression Shir’ah wa Minhaj has a dynamic connotation. In other words, the Shari’ah of Islam enjoins a dynamic system of law, and code of life, that is accommodative of change with space and time - a priori encapsulated in the Qur’anic pronouncements on the need to change for the upliftment of human society (8:53, 13:11/Ch. 2.5)   

iii. The Qur’an claims to represent the Shari’ah of Islam (45:18) revealed to Muhammad as insights for humanity (45:20).

iv. The Qur’an gives basic principles for a way of life individually and collectively (Ch.2.3), but leaves detailed laws for people to evolve to meet the exigencies of their lives according to time, place and needs.

v. While the verse does not spell out the differences in divine law (Shir’ah) and the way of action assigned to the divergent communities, it stresses on the common ground:  the divergent communities are reminded to ‘vie (with each other) in goodness’ (2:148/Ch. 16). This, together with its emphasis on good deeds as reviewed below brings across the Qur’anic principle of unity in diversity and its acknowledgment of the plurality of faiths.

9.5.          Good Deeds as a Common Criterion for Divine Approval  

The Qur’an repeatedly declares that the divine approval is contingent to doing good deeds with faith, regardless of one’s religion (2:62, 5:69, 22:17).6

“Those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Christians and Sabians - and (in fact) any who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good deeds - shall have their reward with their Lord. There will be no fear upon them, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).

“Those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Sabians and Christians - (in fact) any who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good deeds - there will be no fear upon them, nor shall they grieve” (5:69).

“Those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Sabians and Christians and Magians, and those who associate (others with God) - God will judge between them on the Day of Judgment. Indeed, God is Witness to all things” (22:17).

9.6.          God May Pardon Those Who Had No Means of Guidance

The Qur’an promises forgiveness to those people who were deprived of any true guidance because of their mental, physical, psychological or social conditions, or because they lived in mortal terror and were totally helpless in life (4:97-99):

 “When the angels will take the souls of those who wronged themselves, they will say: ‘How were you?’ They will reply: ‘We were helpless on earth.’ (The angels) will say: ‘Wasn’t God's earth wide enough for you to flee somewhere (for refuge)?’ As for those, the abode will be hell - an evil refuge (4:97); except those among men, women and children, who are helpless, have no means (for any guidance), and are not guided on (the right) way (98). Those God may pardon, for God is Most Forgiving and Pardoning” (4:99).

9.7.          Brotherhood of Humanity

Pieced together, the foregoing verses and those in the last two chapters bring across the Qur’anic vision of a universal brotherhood of humanity that will allow people of diverse faith, culture, colour and language to live together, to know each other and to assist each other to make life easy and peaceful for all human beings.

Some Muslim scholars, however, advocate that the non-Muslims (in its present day sense), who do not believe in the Prophet Muhammad, will not qualify for God’s mercy. They interpret the generic word Islam (submitting/ orienting oneself to God, Ch. 7) in the verse 3:85 (underlined below), in its popular restrictive sense as the religion of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad. This is misleading as the preceding verses (3:83-84), demonstrate the generic character of the word Islam appearing in 3:85.

“Do they seek any (religion) other than the din (religion) of God, to whom all in the heavens and on earth have submitted, willingly or unwillingly, and to whom they will all be returned (3:83)? Say: ‘We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us, and in what has been revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and to Jesus and Moses and (other) prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them; and surely to Him do we all submit (Muslimun)’ (84). If anyone seeks other than Islam as a din (religion), it will not be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be among the losers”(3:85).

The foregoing argument also holds for the identically worded verses 9:33 and 61:9 (Note 162/Ch. 3), some scholars quote to claim exclusivity of Islamic faith:

“He is the One who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth (Islam - submission to God), that he may distinguish it from all religions, however the pagans detested this” (9:33/61:9).[48:28 is identically worded except for the underlined remarks.]

To leave no doubts about the universality of its message, the Qur’an warns those who take a restrictive view of their faith that their desires will not prevail and that whoever does evil will be requited accordingly.

“Neither your desires, nor the desires of the People of the Book (can prevail): whoever does evil will be requited accordingly, and he will not find any protector or helper besides God” (4:123).

9.8.          The Case of Apostasy

There is a general belief that Islam prescribes capital punishment for apostasy. This is incorrect. The Qur’an does not recommend any temporal punishment for apostasy. It deals with the subject on several occasions, illustrated below, and makes it clear that apostates will be punished after their death (2:217, 16:106).7

“…Their deeds will be of no avail in this life, or in the hereafter; and they will be the inmates of hellfire and they will remain there” (2:217).

“…On them is the wrath from God and theirs will be a dreadful punishment” (16:106).

The Qur’an offers further illustrations against any temporal punishment for apostasy:

It does not prescribe any punishment for a person “who believes, rejects faith and then believes (again), and again rejects faith, and goes on increasing in unbelief.”8

It does not prescribe any punishment for the women who left their Muslim husbands during the Medinite period, and went over to the disbelievers renouncing their faith.9

It assures Muslims that “if anyone abandons his religion, God will replace him with others whom He loves and who love Him.”10

Thus there is no Qur’anic basis to legislate capital punishment, or, for that matter, any punishment for apostasy.

In the historical perspective, apostates joined the enemy and conspired against the Muslims, thus committing high treason; so the punishment for apostasy was in true sense the punishment for treason rather than for abandoning faith.  


1.       35:28.

2.       16:93, 42:8.

3.       32:13.

4.       2:213, 21:92, 23:52.  

5.       5:44-47.

6.       4:124/Ch. 2.4, 64:9, 65:11.

7.       3:90, 47:25-27.

8.       4:137.

9.       60:11.

10.     5:54.

[10 references]

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. KhaledAbou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.