Awe of Allah
(khashyat Allāh)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Naseer Ahmad

Awe of Allah Most High (khashyat Allāh) is defined by al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. ca.502/1108), the author of the celebrated Mufradāt alfāẓ al-Qurʾān, as “Fear (khawf) mixed with magnification (taʿẓīm)”. “It generally arises,” he continues, “from knowledge of the one for whom one has khashya; this is why scholars (al-ʿulamāʾ) are especially identified with it in His saying: ‘of His servants, surely [those who] are endowed with knowledge have awe of Allah…’ (Q 35:28)” (Mufradāt, sub kh-sh-y).

Definitions and Usage

Khashya is the infinitive noun from the root kh-sh-y and appears eight times in the Qurʾān (Q 2:74; 4:77 twice; 17:31, 100; 21:28; 23:57; 59:21); the verbal form (khashiya) of this root appears forty times. The root carries several meanings, including awe, fear, dread, dislike, hope, and knowledge (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Zabīdī, Tāj; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān).

Some linguists consider it synonymous with fear (khawf) (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Azharī, Tahdhīb), while others hold that khawf and khashya are distinct from each other as well as from other words—such as wajal and rahba—used to denote fear. Al-Fayrūzābādī (729-817/1329-1415), for instance, says: “khashya (awe), khawf (fear), wajal (wariness)and rahba (dread) are close to each other in meaning, but are not synonyms.... Khashya is more specific than khawf, for khashya is [the characteristic of] scholars who have knowledge of Allah Most High. It is fear (khawf) associated and linked with gnosis (maʿrifa). (…) Khawf is movement [of the heart], khashya is cessation of movement: it is stillness [of the heart]” (Baṣāʾir 2:545-46). Abū Hilāl al-ʿAskarī (d. 395/1005) likewise distinguishes khashya from khawf: the latter, he says, relates to what one dislikes (makrūh), whereas khashya is related to the one who sends the dislikeable and not to the thing disliked (al-ʿAskarī, al-Furūq p. 241). Al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) provides an extensive differentiation between khawf and khashya in his commentary on Q 50:33, the one who stood in awe of the Most Merciful:

According to linguists, awe (khashya) and fear (khawf) are synonymous, but there is difference between them: awe is due to the augustness (ʿaẓama) of the one for whom one has awe. This is because the combination of the letters kh-sh-y, in their various sequences, inherently carries the meaning of reverential awe (hayba). [For instance,] shaykh (which has the same root letters, but in a different sequence) is used for someone who is a lord or a person of advanced age, both of whom are imposing (mahībān). Fear (khawf), on the other hand, is due to the weakness of one who is frightened, because the combination of the letters kh-w-f, in their various sequences, inherently point to weakness. (…) Allah Most High has used the word khashya in many places [in the Qurʾān] referring to fear (khawf), due to the augustness of the one for whom one has awe (khashya) [—examples include Q 35:28 and 59:21]. (…) The outcome of this discussion is that if you reflect on the usage of khashya, you will find that it is used for fear due [specifically] to the augustness of the object of one’s awe; and when you examine the usage of [the word] khawf, you will find that its usage is for fear due to the weakness of the one who is afraid. This is the most common usage, although at times it may be used otherwise. (Tafsīrsub Q 50:33)

While al-Zarkashī (745-794/ca.1344-1392) maintains that there is no linguistic difference between khashya and khawf, he nevertheless asserts that there is no doubt that the former is “higher” (aʿlā) and “more intense” (ashadd) than the latter. When used to describe vegetation, for instance, the former denotes a desiccated shrub (shajara khashiyya), whereas the latter used to describe a she-camel (nāqa khawfāʾ) denotes a creature that is parched but that has not yet died of thirst. This more intensive sense explains why the word khashya is specifically used for Allah, al-Zarkashī continues, as in Q 13:21: and they stand in awe of their Sustainer (wa yakhshawna Rabbahum) and fear the most severe reckoning (Burhān, Type 46: Alfāẓ yuẓann bihā al-tarāduf, 4:78).

From the Divine command to Mūsā, upon him peace , to go to Firʿawn and Say: “Are you desirous of attaining purity? Then I shall guide you toward your Sustainer, so that you may have awe [of Him]” (Q 79:18-19), Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. 546/ca.1151) extrapolates the necessary conditions for awe: knowledge comes after Divine guidance, and awe comes after knowledge; and of His servants, only those endowed with knowledge have awe of Allah (Muḥarrar). Al-Rāzī further comments: “The verse demonstrates that gnosis (maʿrifa) of Allah takes preference over [mere] obedience to Him, because Allah mentions guidance and makes awe (khashya) contingent upon it—other examples being Q 16:2 and 20:14. The verse also demonstrates that awe cannot be achieved without knowledge, as in His saying, ‘of His servants, surely [those who] are endowed with knowledge have awe of Allah’ (Q 35:28), those being the learned. The verse indicates that awe (khashya) is the root of all good deeds (al-khashya milāk al-khayrāt). For whoever stands in awe of Allah will do only good; and whoever has lost it, such a person will have the audacity to commit any evil” (Tafsīr). Al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) echoes al-Rāzī in his commentary on the verse, as he calls awe of Allah “the determinant” (milāk al-amr): “whoever has it, within him is all virtue; whoever does not have it has the audacity to commit any evil” (Kashshāf).

The Qurʾān uses the verbal form kh-sh-y for fear rather than awe, as in Q 18:80: And we feared (fa-khashīnā) that he would bring grief upon them by his wickedness and disbelief. Al-Azharī (d. 370/980), citing al-Farrāʾ, explains this usage as meaning “we knew” and therefore metonymically referring to the fear such knowledge yields. In accounting for the seemingly variant usage of the word, he also states that al-Zajjāj held this to be a statement of al-Khiḍr rather than of Allah, and that the subject of the verb may in fact be Allah, in which case the “fear” would be in the sense of “dislike” (karāha) (Tahdhīb).

The Qurʾān uses the word khashya with reference to: (i) awe of Allah, and (ii) awe or fear of other than Allah (khashya mā siwā Allāh). The former occurs in thirty-one verses: five times as the construct “awe of Allah” (khashyat Allāh) (Q 2:74; 4:77; 24:52; 35:28; 59:21); twice as “awe of the Most Merciful” (khashyat al-Raḥmān) (Q 36:11; 50:33);  seven times with Rabb (with different possessive suffixes: RabbahumRabbihim, Rabbahu) (Q 13:21; 21:49; 23:57; 35:18; 39:23; 67:12; 98:8) (see Beautiful Names of Allah); twice as an exception (i.e., referring to those who have awe of none but Allah; Q 9:18; 33:39); in twelve verses in verbal form with or without a suffix (Q 2:150; 4:9; 5:3, 44; 9:13; 20:3, 44; 33:37; 79:19, 26; 80:9; 87:10); and once as infinitive noun with a pronoun (Q 21:28). The latter occurs in nine verses (Q 3:173; 4:25; 5:52; 9:13, 24; 17:31; 18:80; 20:77, 94) (for these, see Fear). According to al-Zamakhsharī, correct faith requires that one have khashya of none but Allah (as in Q 33:39; Kashshāfsub Q 9:13). Believers are specifically enjoined (Q 5:3) to have no fear or awe of any disbeliever but only of Allah, because in doing so they recognize that He alone is the source of all benefit and harm (cf. Rāghib, Tafsīr and Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrarsub Q 5:3).

Exegetical Reflections

“Awe of Allah” is variously explained by exegetes as: “to abstain from sins and the unlawful and to have fear of the painful reckoning” (Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub Q 13:21); “the bridle that holds back a believer from running into the valley of passions, a rein which pulls him and keeps him steadfast on taqwā (God-wariness)” (Qushayrī, Tafsīr, sub Q 13:21); and “it is the source of all blessings, stops one from committing sins, and commands one to do virtuous deeds” (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Tafsīr, sub Q 98:8). In his commentary on Q 4:9 (and let them stand in awe [of Allah], those [legal heirs] who, if they had to leave behind weak offspring, would feel fear for their well-being—and let them be wary of Allah (fal-yattaqū Llāh) and let them speak [to the poor] in a just manner), al-Rāghib says that awe is the first stage of God-wariness (see Taqwā), while God-wariness is the last stage of awe: for awe is to be wary of a thing because of one’s knowledge of it (as the learned (ʿulāmā) are described in Q 35:28); and God-wariness is to guard against the object of one’s awe as one’s knowledge of it demands. Hence Allah enjoins care in all undertakings, both at the beginning and at the end, for the former is not beneficial without the latter and the latter cannot be achieved without the former (Tafsīr).

The passage from Sūrat al-Fāṭir, part of which was cited above in elucidation of the concept of awe, reads in full: Do you not see that Allah sends down water from the sky, whereby We bring forth fruits of many hues, and in the mountains there are streaks of white and red of various shades, as well as raven-black? And of men and crawling beasts and cattle, too, there are many hues. Of His servants, it is those endowed with knowledge who stand in awe of Allah. Verily Allah is Almighty, Most-Forgiving (Q 35:27-28). Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) comments that those who have fear of Allah, and who protect themselves from His punishment by obedience to Him, are those who know that Allah has power  over everything and that He does what He wills (see Will, Want, and Volition)—and that whoever knows this will have fear and awe of Allah, for he will have certitude that sins incur punishment (Tafsīr). Ibn ʿAṭiyya explains that the verse does not restrict awe to scholars but only specifies them without excluding others; the word innamā (“it is [those] who”) can be used to exclude or not, the context determining its usage (Muḥarrar). Al-Ālūsī (d. 1270/1854) states that “those endowed with knowledge,” that is, “the learned” (al-ʿulamāʾ), does not allude to those who merely possess knowledge of morphology and grammar but to those who have intimate gnosis of Allah, His attributes, and His actions. That knowledge is the basis of their awe, which is proportionate to their knowledge (Rūḥ).

Awe “of the Sustainer” or “of the Most Merciful” is qualified in four verses by the phrase bil-ghayb (“unseen”) (see Manifest and Hidden) (Q 21:49; 35:18; 36:11; and 67:12). This is explained by exegetes as having two possible valences, referring either to those who have awe of Allah without seeing Him or to those who have awe of Allah even when no one is watching them (Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub Q 50:33; Samʿānī, Tafsīr, sub Q 67:12; Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub gh-y-b). Ibn ʿAṭiyya elaborates the two possible meanings in Q 67:12: in the first sense, “the hidden (al-ghayb) here is that about which they have been told, such as Resurrection, the Path, the Scale, Paradise, and Hell. They believe in these and have awe of their Sustainer because of these. That is the opinion of Qatāda. The second meaning is that they have awe of their Lord when they are hidden from the eyes of other people... In this sense (wajh), the meaning is that they have awe in their prayers and in their worship and when alone. The first aspect praises them for sincerity  and belief, the second for [their] good deeds performed in private, for to do good in private is better than to do so publicly (because of the pride to which public deeds are subject)” (Muḥarrar). Abū Jaʿfar al-Naḥḥās (d. 338/ca.950) prefers the second meaning, since sins are often committed when one is hidden from others, and adds that whoever refrains from sins in private out of awe before Allah would not commit them when with others (Naḥḥās, Iʿrāb, sub Q 67:12).

In his commentary on the Prophetic supplication “O Allah, I ask for khashya of You in private and public (fī-l-ghayb wal-shahāda)…”, Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī (736-795/ca.1335-1393) states that it is a common observation that people show awe of Allah when in public, but what really counts is to have such awe when out of sight of others (as praised by Allah in Q 5:94; 21:49; 50:33; 67:12). Three factors giver rise to such overpowering awe: (i) strong faith in Allah’s promise of reward and punishment; (ii) continuous awareness of the severity of His power and reprisal (shiddat baṭshih wa intiqāmih), as in the question of al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728): “O son of Ādam, have you the power to fight against Allah? For whosoever transgresses, fights against Him”; and (iii) intense meditation on Allah: to truly believe that Allah is an all-seeing Witness to what moves in the hearts of His servants as well as what they do, and that He is with them wherever they are (see Q 4:108; 10:61; 58:7) (Ibn Rajab, Majmūʿ Rasāʾil p. 161-165).

The Qurʾān informs the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, that he can only warn those in awe of Allah (Q 35:18; 36:11—although his mission is described as general in Q 36:6). Yaḥyā b. Sallām al-Baṣrī (124-200/742-815) says that here the warning metonymically stands for its effect (accepting the divine message)—meaning that only those in awe of Allah will accept the Prophetic warnings (Tafsīr, sub Q 36:6 and 36:11). Al-Rāzī explains that the mission in Q 36:6 is generally to warn all, whether heeded or not; but Q 36:11 specifies that the warning benefits only those who follow the admonition and stand in awe of Allah (Tafsīr, sub Q 36:11; cf. Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 35:18 and Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 36:11). Ibn ʿĀshūr (1296-1393/1879-1972) understands those in awe (in Q 35:18: You can warn only those in awe of their Lord unseen…) to include believers as well as those ready to believe (Taḥrīr).

The reward of those in awe of Allah is the concealment of their sins on the Day of Judgment, and entrance into Paradise (Makkī, Hidāya 12:7597, sub Q 67:12). They achieve felicity in the Hereafter by attaining the pleasure of Allah and His protection from His just punishment (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 24:52).

Awe of Allah in Non-human Creations

Non-human creation is also described in the Qurʾān as possessing awe of Allah. Rocks crash down because of such awe (Q 2:74). Q 59:21 presents a graphic image of a mountain breaking asunder if it received the Qurʾān: Had We sent down this Qurʾān upon a mountain, you would indeed have seen it humbling itself and breaking asunder out of awe of Allah (min khashyat Allāh); We produce such similes (amthāl) for mankind so that they may reflect. Al-Samʿānī (d. 489/1095) asks, “If it is said that rocks are inanimate (jimād), they do not understand (lā yafham), so how then can they have awe (khashya)? We say that the people of the Prophetic Sunna (ahl al-Sunna) have explained that indeed Allah Most High has taught lifeless (al-mawāt) [objects] what He has not taught others” (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:74; Baghawī concurs: Tafsīr).

Al-Shirbīnī (d. 977/1569) also asserts that it is the belief of ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamāʿa (lit. The People of the Prophetic Sunna and the Congregation) that Allah Most High has granted a certain type of knowledge to those who do not possess intellect (siwā al-ʿaql)—inanimate objects (al-jimādāt) and all living creatures (sāʾir al-ḥayawānāt)—which He has not granted to others. Each of them has its own prayer (ṣalāt) and ways of extolling Allah (tasbīḥ). As He has said, The seven heavens extol His limitless glory, and the earth, and all that they contain; and there is not a single thing but extols His glory and praise; but you [mankind] comprehend not their glorification (Q 17:44); and as the Most High has said, Do you not see that all creatures in the heavens and the earth extol the limitless glory of Allah…(Q 24:41); the Most High has also said, See you not that unto Allah prostrate all that are in the heavens and all that are on earth and the sun, and the moon…? (Q 22:18). It is therefore necessary to affirm [that they have khashya], while relinquishing its nature to Allah (al-Sirāj al-munīr, sub Q 2:74).

The exegetes cite a number of verses and Hadiths that indicate an innate awareness of the Creator in inanimate objects. Qurʾānic verses adduced in support of this include Q 17:44 (the seven heavens, the earth, and all that they contain glorify Him);  Q 22:18 (Have you not seen that all that is in the heavens and the earth prostrate themselves before Allah; and so do the sun and the moon, and the stars and the mountains and the beasts and many of mankind…?); Q 24:41 (Do you not see that it is Allah that all in the heavens and the earth glorify, and the birds spreading their wings in flight?); and Q 38:18 (We subdued the hills to hymn the praises [of their Lord] (yusabbiḥna) with him (Dāwūd, upon him peace). Hadiths adduced to support this understanding, include the following two. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “Indeed, I know the stone which used to greet me before I was appointed a Prophet” (Muslim, Faḍāʾil, faḍl al-Nabī ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa-sallam wa taslīm al-ḥajar ʿalayh qabl al-nubuwwa); and the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said about Mount Uḥud : “This is a mountain which loves us, and we love it” (Bukhārī, Jihād, faḍl al-khidma fī-l-ghazw; Muslim, Faḍāʾil, fī muʿjizāt al-Nabī ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa-sallam). The commentators conclude that such verses and Hadiths establish that both the animate beings as well as inanimate objects have certain powers of speech and volition granted them by Allah (cf. Baghawī, Tafsīr; al-Shirbīnī, al-Sirāj al-munīr, sub Q 2:74).

The Muʿtazila reject these interpretations, as al-Rāzī reports, “because according to them a certain kind of structure (binya) and temperament (iʿtidāl al-mizāj) are necessary conditions to have the capacity to accept life and intellect. But they have no proof for these except their inability to grasp (istibʿād) the [contrary] idea; hence they do not deserve any attention” (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:74). Al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277) asserts that it is necessary to affirm because it is not rationally impossible for stones and the like to have been granted powers of discernment (tamyīz), and since there exist proof texts (naṣṣ) on the matter (Sharḥ Muslim 3:202).

Spiritual Dimensions

Many Sufi texts treat khashya and khawf as synonyms, and the “station of fear” (manzilat al-khawf) is said to encompass both awe and fear (al-Hujwīrī, Kashf; al-Qushayrī, al-Risāla). A representative passage is the section entitled “Station of Fear” in Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s (691-751/1292-1350) Madārij al-sālikīn bayna manāzil iyyāka naʿbudu wa iyyaka nastaʿīn (“The stations of the traveler between the stations of You alone do we worship and unto You alone do we turn for help”), a work that incorporates and comments on ‘Abd Allāh al-Anṣārī’s (d. 481/1088) Manāzil al-sāʾirīn. It is reproduced here at length for the way it includes material surveyed above from linguistic and comparative genres in characterizing a station on the spiritual path.

One of the stations of You alone do we worship and unto You alone we turn for help (Q 1:5) is the Station of Fear, which is the highest Station on the Path, most beneficial for the heart, obligatory for all [seekers of their Lord]. Allah Most High has said: Fear them not, but fear Me, if you truly believe (Q 3:175); and the Most High said: fear Me alone (Q 2:40); and He said: Have not awe of people, but have awe of Me (Q 5:44). He has praised those who have awe, saying: Surely those who stand in awe for fear of their Lord, who have full faith in the Signs of their Lord, who associate none with their Lord in His Divinity, who give whatever they give in charity with hearts trembling [at the thought] that they are destined to return to their Lord (Q 23:57-61). It is related in the Musnad [of Imam Aḥmad] and [Sunan of] al-Tirmidhī that ʿĀʾisha, may Allah be pleased with her, reported: “I asked the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, ‘O Messenger of Allah, the saying of Allah, who are faced with what they have committed with their hearts trembling at the thought that they are destined to return to their Lord—is it about a man who commits adultery, drinks and steals?’ He said, ‘No, O daughter of al-Ṣiddīq; rather, this is a man who fasts and prays and gives alms, but who fears that these [acts] will not be accepted from him.’” Al-Ḥasan [al-Baṣrī] said: they did righteous deeds and strove in the path of Allah, yet feared that they might be returned to them [unaccepted]; indeed, a believer combines excellence (iḥsān) with awe (khashya) whereas a hypocrite combines evil deeds with fearlessness.

Wajal, al-khawf, al-khashya, and al-rahba are words which are close to each other in meaning, but they are not synonyms. According to Abū al-Qāsim al-Junayd, fear (khawf) is the fearful expectation of grave punishment with the flow of one’s breath. It is also said that fear is perturbation (iḍṭirāb) and turbulence in the heart at the remembrance of the fearful; and it is said that fear is the confirmed knowledge about how the [Divine] decree will be passed; and this knowledge is the cause of fear… It is also said that fear is flight of the heart when something disliked (al-makrūh) occurs. Awe (khashya) is more special and specific than fear, because awe is characteristic of those who have knowledge of Allah, for He has said: Of His servants, it is those endowed with knowledge who stand in awe of Allah… (35:28). Awe, then, is fear combined with gnosis (maqrūn bi-maʿrifa); and the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “Truly I have the most fear of Allah among you and I have the most awe” (Muslim, Ṣiyām, bayān anna al-qubla fī-l-ṣawm laysat muḥarrama).

Fear (khawf) is movement, while awe (khashya) is stillness, gathering together, cessation of movement. Someone who comes upon an enemy or flood or something similar, has two states: one is flight, which is fear; the other is to station himself in a place out of reach, which is awe… Rahba is to run far away from something one hates... It is the opposite of raghba, which is to run toward what one loves… Wajal is trembling of the heart, by remembering one whose power and punishment, or the sight of whom, one fears; hayba is fear conjoined with [the awareness of] augustness and esteem and respect; and it is often [combined] with love, gnosis, esteem and respect (ijlāl); it is the awareness of augustness associated with love.

Fear (khawf) pertains to the generality of believers, awe (khashya) to the learned and those possessing gnosis (ma‘rifa), hayba is for lovers (muḥibbīn) [of Allah], and ijlāl is for those brought near (muqarrabīn), as in the saying of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: “I am the most knowledgeable of you about Allah, and I have the most awe (khashya) of Him.” According to another narration, it is “I have the most fear (khawf) of Him.” He also said: “By Allah, if you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much. You would not enjoy women in bed and you would go out on the wide paths, imploring Allah Most High” (Tirmidhī, Zuhd, fī qawl al-Nabī ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa sallam law taʿlamūn mā aʿlam la-ḍaḥiktum qalīlan).

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See also

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