What does the ‘fear’ of God really mean?

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In the Islamic tradition worshipping God means to know, love, obey and direct all acts of worship to God alone. Obeying God entails that one should fear Him. A believer should fear God if he wants to be in a state of servitude and obedience. This fear, however, is not the type of fear that is associated with being scared of an enemy, or an evil force. God is The-Loving and wants good for us. Rather, this fear is another type of fear which is associated with skin-shivering awe, loss, love and unhappiness. We fear God from the perspective of fearing losing His love and good pleasure. To explain this point, consider the following illustration:

Imagine you are walking through a mall. You notice a young child being told off by her mother. The child starts to cry and holds on to her mother’s leg. The child begs for her mother’s forgiveness and asks for a hug. The mother smiles and tells her child that she was telling her off to protect her and ensure she stays safe. The child’s fear is a fear of losing her mother’s love and pleasure. The child does not want to lose her mother’s love and make her unhappy. This is the type of fear we must have for God.

We should want to obey God because we fear the spiritual consequences of disobedience. These include losing God’s special love; including breaking the connection we have built with Him through our acts of worship. Disobedience is our way of running away from God’s mercy, and an absence of His mercy leads to a terrible abode of self-inflicted suffering; hell. Al-Ghazali summarises this type of fear by describing it as a fear of losing something that is loved: “Whoever loves something must fear to lose it. Hence love cannot be without fear, for the object of love is something that can be lost.”

The Qur’an mentions the fear of God, and this fear must be understood in the way I have just explained above. However, the Divine book also mentions God-consciousness, known as taqwaa in Islamic theology. A good translation of the Qur’an would distinguish the two terms. Their meanings are different, and they overlap. While fear of God entails fearing loss and the spiritual consequences of disobedience, God-consciousness refers to being mindful and aware of the Divine presence; He knows what we are doing and as lovers of God we should want to seek His good pleasure and love.

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