Untangled: Taqwa is the path to freedom

By Maram Behairy

If I’m honest, I haven’t always fully grasped what it means to be a person of taqwa. I always understood it to mean someone conscious of Allah’s rules and careful not to break them, which is accurate but definitely not the full story. We all mess up and being constantly on high alert is tough. Limiting taqwa to this definition makes it feel like a constant struggle, a suppression of freedom with all the “no’s” being center stage. Recently, however, I have come to see taqwa in a different light. Taqwa is self-awareness, clarity on what you want, and clarity on how to get it. It’s the epitome of free will and agency. It is deciding on who you want to be and creating a life that allows you to be exactly that, with grace and ease.

The word taqwa has a derivative word waqaya, which roughly translates as a protective barrier. For example, on a family trip to the Grand Canyon, my husband and I instituted a protective barrier of about 3 feet from the edge of the cliffs to ensure our kids don’t go tumbling off. It is a space between the danger zone and safe zone, a space to allow for a misstep without devastating consequences.

How does this apply to life? For example, a protective barrier to not drink alcohol may be to avoid going out with friends to a bar where everyone will be drinking. A protective barrier to prevent inappropriate gender relations may include not going out to work lunches one-on-one or not discussing personal life matters with colleagues of the opposite sex. Taqwa is creating protective barriers, or waqaya, so it is easier to be who you want to be.

We can also apply this concept of waqaya to our emotional challenges as well. For example, if someone has anger outbursts that emotionally harm family members or colleagues, the first step is to be curious and notice the triggers to anger. Is there a pattern to the types of scenarios that trigger your anger? If so, then waqaya is finding solutions during the calm moments. It may be that you lose your temper if the kids touch your things. A simple waqaya may be to buy a cabinet with a lock for the untouchables or, if the kids are older, a conversation on respecting property and clearly stated consequences for transgressions. In this way, you have a plan to avoid the outburst because you have decided that controlling kids through fear has long-term consequences on your relationship and their development. Also, you may notice the first signs of anger before the outburst. Do you get lightheaded, does your heart race, do your palms sweat? Waqaya may be that you take a time-out when you notice these signs of anger, isolate yourself in your room, make wudu, or take a shower. By creating these protective barriers to the outburst, we can prevent crossing that line.

Let’s take another example. You may find yourself resentful towards loved ones or friends, feeling that they do not equally reciprocate what you do for them. If you repeatedly wait until the feelings of resentment are overwhelming, you will behave in unhealthy ways. You may emotionally disconnect from important people in your life. You may have an emotionally charged outburst that leaves people confused and running for cover. You may also feel guilty and try to ignore your own emotions. These reactions are not because you are inherently a bad person, but simply because you have not prepared for normal human responses. Either way, you do not get what you actually want, which is a beautiful and mutually fulfilling connection. How can we untangle resentment using this concept of waqaya? The first step is to find out what you want from your loved ones. Often, we want the people we love to know what to do and when to do it. This is not realistic and it is unfair. Why leave the people who love us guessing when we can simply ask for what we want? I know it seems more painful to experience rejection versus resentment, but honestly, the risk is so worth the reward of having an open and authentic connection with other people. Therefore, a waqaya to avoid resentment would be to ask for what you want from others early on before they have a chance to mess up and before you have a chance to feel resentful. In this way, your tone of voice will be open and loving, rather than blaming. Give people a chance to rise up.

Overall, the concept of taqwa is far less elusive if we think of it as:

  1. being aware of the lines we do not want to cross,
  2. being aware of the steps to that red line, and
  3. creating protective barriers, or waqaya, between ourselves and that line.

In this way, a person with taqwa is not some magical being who has superhuman strength to just say “no” to haram or effortlessly be a good person. A person with taqwa is curious about themselves, notices their patterns, and creates simple rules to keep themselves away from the canyon’s cliffs. Taqwa is creating boundaries so that we can be the people we want to be. Referring to the last untangled post titled “The Community of Me,” taqwa is about self-regulation, not self-control.

May we all be people of taqwa who create the life we want with grace and ease.


Untangled: The community of me


An Arabic-English dictionary that is really useful for understanding words from the Quran with more depth and breadth. This is the link for the word “waqaya”


A great and comprehensive article about boundaries from a different lens


About the Author:

Maram Behairy is a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction and heads the writers’ group of South Florida Muslim Federation

‘I like to understand the bigger picture, deeper reasons, and nuanced connections. I have always been more interested in the roots under the ground than the fruit above. I complicate and explore in order to find the simple, deep truths. I live those with conviction. My dream is to use my gift for words to inspire and guide others to live with purpose and greater ease. So as I experiment on myself, I will share what I learn along the way. My roles in life (by default my areas of exploration) include being a Muslim, woman, wife, mother, writer, and youth mentor.’  

Have a question for the author or want to reach her? Email her at maram@soflomuslims.com.

Sana Saif
Author: Sana Saif

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