إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
Inna akramakum ‘indallāhi atqākum; innallāha ‘alīmun khabīr
Surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the one who is most God conscious; and Allah is all-Knowing, all- Aware. Sūratul Hujurāt (No. 49), Āyat 13.
To be respected is one of the basic needs of the human beings. According to psychology there is a hierarchy of needs that need to be fulfilled for a person to function well. Esteem is part of those needs, although there are different types of esteem that people seek. It could be respect from people, self-respect, or, according to Islam, respect from the Creator.
There are two things we need to think about when we think of this desire for respect within ourselves:
1) Respect with God is the only form of respect that should be coveted. All other forms of respect are fickle and unreliable. When we seek respect from people it is like trying to get hold of a slippery eel. It keeps wriggling in and out of our hands. Imam Ali (a) has many Hadīths on the foolishness of thinking that the respect of people will last for long. He says: When this world favors somebody, it lends him the attributes and surpassing merits of others, and when it turns its face away from him it snatches away even his own excellences and fame. (Nahjul Balāgha, Saying No. 8)
2) Once we establish that what we want is respect from God, we need to know the criteria for that form of respect. What does Allah value in the human being? It is necessary to distinguish that carefully so that our efforts are directed towards the right goal. According to this verse the sole criteria for respect with Allah is God consciousness or taqwā. All other criteria such as wealth, lineage, knowledge, etc are void. The Holy Prophet (s) has said: Surely Allah does not look at your families or at your lineages, not at your bodies or your wealth, but He looks at your hearts. So whoever has a righteous heart Allah inclines towards him, for surely you are all the children of Adam and the most beloved of you to Him is the one who is most God-conscious!
God consciousness or taqwā is the ability to be aware of God at all times. According to Āyatullāh Mutahharī, taqwa is described in Nahjul Balāgha as a spiritual faculty which appears as a result of continued exercise and practice. This faculty strengthens and vitalizes the soul, giving it a kind of immunity. It allows a person to keep himself pure and uncorrupted, and results in control and command over the self. Taqwa helps you navigate through life with caution and full alertness. That is why it has been described as traversing through a thorny path with loose flowing clothes, all the while trying to make sure nothing gets caught in the thorns.
These and other definitions of Taqwa reveal its true worth. Aim at acquiring as much of it as possible, to be from among those whom God respects and honors.
Sources: Tafsīir Namune, Aytaullāh Nāsir Makaārim Shirazi (ed); Nahjul Balāgha, Imam Ali (a); Glimpses of Nahjul Balāgha, Aytaullah Mutahhari.