Linguistically Taqwa means forbearance, fear and abstinence, but in the Islamic terminology, Taqwa has a distinct meaning. Taqwa is a high state of heart, which keeps one conscious of Allah's presence and His Knowledge, and it motivates him to perform righteous deeds and avoid those, which are forbidden.
The essence of Taqwa is to make a shield (which guards) against Allah's anger and punishment. That shield is to obey His commandments and abstain from His punishment. [as explained by Ibn Rajab (rahimahullah) in Jami al-Uloom wal-Hikam (190/191)]
Allah says: "O you who believe! Have Taqwa of Allah, as you should have of Him and do not die except as Muslims." [Soorah aal-Imraan (3): 102]
Ibn Mas'oud (radhiallahu anhu) said speaking about this verse, Allah is meant to be obeyed, and not disobeyed; remembered at all times, and not forgotten; and to be thanked; and we are not to be ungrateful to Him."
Talq Ibn Habeed (a tabi'e) said: "Taqwa (piety) is that you act in obedience to Allah, and hope in His Mercy, upon a light from Him; and Taqwa is leaving acts of disobedience to Allah out of fear of Him, upon a light from Him." [(Saheeh) by Shaikh al-Albanee. Related by Ibn Abee Shaybah in Kitaabul-Emaan (no: 99)]
Taqwa alone is the criterion of greatness in the Sight of Allah
Allah says: "O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has Taqwa (God-consciousness, fearing Allah). Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware." [Soorah al-Hujurat (49): 13]
Allah has erased all distinctions of racism, cast and color and made all human beings equal. He has established a unique criterion for greatness and that is Taqwa. Taqwa is the essence of the teachings of Allah's Messenger (sallalahu alaihe wa-sallam).
Whenever Allah's Messenger (sallalahu alaihe wa-sallam) sent his Sahabah on a military expedition, he would advice them to have deep-rooted Taqwa of Allah and he would also advise the rest of his military party likewise.
The Pious Predecessors (salaf as-Saalih) continued this practice of giving mutual advice of Taqwa after Allah's Messenger r passed away. Umar Ibn Khattab (radhiallahu anhu) wrote to his son, Abdullah: "To proceed: 'Verily I advise you to have taqwa (fear) of Allah, the Mighty and Majestic, for whoever fears Him, Allah will protect him, and whoever gives a loan to Him, Allah will reward him, and whoever thanks Him, Allah will increase Him."
Some benefits of Taqwa
1. Taqwa is a means by which a believer performs righteous deeds and Taqwa causes the righteous deed to be accepted by Allah.
Allah says: "O you who believe! Have Taqwa (fear) of Allah and always speak the truth. He will direct you to do righteous and correct actions and will forgive you your sins and whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger has indeed attained a great achievement." [Soorah al-Ahzaab (33): 70] and: "Verily Allah accepts only from those who are the muttaqoon (those who posses Taqwa)." [Soorah al-Maaidah (19): 71-72]
2. Taqwa makes one deserving of Allah's Pleasure and Love. Allah says: "Verily, the most honorable of you in the Sight of Allah is that (believer) who has Taqwa." [Soorah al-Hujurat (49): 13] and: "Whoever fulfills his pledge and has Taqwa of Allah much, then indeed, Allah loves those who are muttaqoon (those who posses Taqwa)." [Soorah Aal-Imraan (3): 76]
3. Taqwa causes sins to be forgiven and increases rewards. Allah says: "And whoever fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him. He will remit his sins from him, and will enlarge his rewards." [Soorah at-Talaaq (65): 5]
4. Taqwa keeps one steadfast on the Straight Path and protects him from deviation.
Allah says: "O you who believe! Have Taqwa of Allah. He will give you a Furqaan (criterion to judge between right and wrong)." [Soorah al-Anfaal (8): 29]
How to achieve Taqwa?
Allah says: "O mankind! Worship your Lord, Who created you and those who were before you so that you may become al-Muttaqoon." [Soorah al-Baqarah (2): 21]
Thus, Taqwa is the fruit of Eebadah (worship) and and can only be achieved by performing acts of Eebadah. Therefore we often find Allah mentioning Taqwa with Eebadah, he said regarding the fasts of Ramadaan: "O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become muttaqoon (those who posses Taqwa)." [Soorah al-Baqarah (2): 183]
Who is the most righteous?
Allah says: "And whosoever honors the symbols of Allah, then it is truly from the piety of the heart." [Soorah al-Hajj (22): 32]
Thus, Taqwa inhabits the heart and it is only within the capability of Allah to know what the hearts conceal. Therefore, judging people's righteousness and spirituality is beyond the ability of the slave, Allah pointed out to this fact when he said: "There is among people, he whose speech will dazzle you in this life and he will claim that Allah is witness (to the sincerity of) what is in his heart, yet he will be among the most vicious enemies (of mankind)." [Soorah al-Baqarah (2): 204]
It is mentioned in the Qur'aan that Allah chooses His Awliya (singular 'wali' ling. meaning Friend) from His slaves based upon their righteousness.
Allah mentioned the characteristics of His Walee saying: "Verily, Awliya of Allah are those who are not overcome by fear of grief; they are those who believe and have Taqwa." [Soorah Yoonus (10): 62-63] and: "Verily, His close friends (Awliya) are only those with Taqwa but most of them do not realize it." [Soorah al-Anfaal (8): 34] Thus, a Walee of Allah is he, who has Eeman, Taqwa and fear of Allah.