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The Five Pillars of Islam

  1. The Profession of Faith. A Muslim is one who proclaims (shahada, witness or testimony): “There is no god but the God [Allah] and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This acknowledgment of and commitment to Allah and His Prophet is the rather simple means by which a person professes his or her faith and becomes a Muslim, and a testimony that is given throughout the day when the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. It affirms Islam’s absolute monotheism, an unshakable and uncompromising faith in the oneness or unity (tawhid) of God. As such, it also serves as a reminder to the faithful that polytheism, the association of anything else with God, is forbidden and is the one unforgivable sin:

    God does not forgive anyone for associating something with Him, while He does forgive whomever He wishes to for anything else. Anyone who gives God associates [partners] has invented an awful sin. (4:48)

    The second part of the confession of faith is the affirmation of Muhammad as the messenger of God, the last and final prophet, who serves as a model for the Muslim community. Molding individuals into an Islamic society requires activities that recall, reinforce, and realize the word of God and the example of the Prophet. The praxis orientation of Islam is witnessed by the remaining four pillars or duties.

  2. Prayer. Five times each day, Muslims are called to worship God by the muezzin (caller to prayer) from atop a mosque’s minaret:

    God is most great (Allahu Akbar), God is most great, God is most great, God is most great, I witness that there is no god but Allah (the God); I witness that there is no god but Allah. I witness that Muhammad is His messenger. I witness that Muhammad is His messenger. Come to prayer, come to prayer. Come to prosperity, come to prosperity. God is most great. God is most great. There is no god but Allah.

    Five times each day across the Muslim world, the faithful are called to prayer in Arabic by a muezzin.

    Facing Mecca, the holy city and center of Islam, Muslims, individually or in a group, can perform their prayers (salat, or in Persian, namaz) wherever they may be—in a mosque (masjid, place of prostration), at home, at work, or on the road. Recited when standing in the direction of Mecca, they both recall the revelation of the Quran and reinforce a sense of belonging to a single worldwide community of believers. Although the times for prayer and the ritual actions were not specified in the Quran, they were established by Muhammad. The times are daybreak, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and evening. Ritually, prayer is preceded by ablutions that cleanse the body (hands, mouth, face, and feet) and spirit and bestow the ritual purity necessary for divine worship. The prayers themselves consist of two to four prostrations, depending on the time of day. Each act of worship begins with the declaration, “God is most great,” and consists of bows, prostrations, and the recitation of fixed prayers that include the opening verse of the Quran (the Fatihah) and other passages from the Quran:

    In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate. Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe, the Merciful and Compassionate. Ruler on the Day of Judgment. You do we worship and call upon for help. Guide us along the Straight Path, the road of those whom You have favored, those with whom You are not angry, who are not lost. (1:1–7)

    At the end of the prayer, the shahada is again recited, and the “peace greeting”—“Peace be upon all of you and the mercy and blessings of God”—is repeated twice.

    On Friday, the noon prayer is a congregational prayer and should be recited preferably at the official central mosque, designated for the Friday prayer. The congregation lines up in straight rows, side by side, and is led in prayer by its leader (imam), who stands in front, facing the niche (mihrab) that indicates the direction (qibla) of Mecca. A special feature of the Friday prayer is a sermon (khutba) preached from a pulpit (minbar). The preacher begins with a verse from the Quran and then gives a brief exhortation based on its message. Only men are required to attend the Friday congregational prayer. If women attend, for reasons of modesty due to the prostrations, they stand at the back, often separated by a curtain, or in a side room. Unlike the Sabbath in Judaism and Christianity, Friday was not traditionally a day of rest. However, in many Muslim countries today, it has replaced the Sunday holiday, usually instituted by colonial powers and therefore often regarded as a Western, Christian legacy.

  3. Almsgiving (zakat). Just as the performance of the salat (prayer) is both an individual and a communal obligation, so payment of the zakat instills a sense of communal identity and responsibility. As all Muslims share equally in their obligation to worship God, so they all are duty-bound to attend to the social welfare of their community by redressing economic inequalities through payment of an alms tax or poor tithe. It is an act both of worship or thanksgiving to God and of service to the community. All adult Muslims who are able to do so are obliged to pay a wealth tax annually. It is a tithe or percentage (usually 2.5 percent) of their accumulated wealth and assets, not just their income. This is not regarded as charity because it is not really voluntary but instead is owed, by those who have received their wealth as a trust from God’s bounty, to the poor. The Quran (9:60) and Islamic law stipulate that alms are to be used to support the poor, orphans, and widows, to free slaves and debtors, and to assist in the spread of Islam. Although initially collected and then redistributed by the government, payment of the zakat later was left to the individual. In recent years, a number of governments (Pakistan, the Sudan, Libya) have asserted the government’s right to a zakat tax.

  4. The Fast of Ramadan. Once each year, Islam prescribes a rigorous, month-long fast during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. From dawn to sunset, all adult Muslims whose health permits are to abstain completely from food, drink, and sexual activity. Ramadan is a time for reflection and spiritual discipline, for expressing gratitude for God’s guidance and atoning for past sins, for awareness of human frailty and dependence on God, as well as for remembering and responding to the needs of the poor and hungry. The rigors of the fast of Ramadan are experienced during the long daylight hours of summer, when the severe heat in many parts of the Muslim world proves even more taxing for those who must fast while they work. Some relief comes at dusk, when the fast is broken for the day by a light meal (popularly referred to as breakfast). Evening activities contrast with those of the daylight hours as families exchange visits and share a special late evening meal together. In some parts of the Muslim world, there are special foods and sweets that are served only at this time of the year. Many will go to the mosque for the evening prayer, followed by a special prayer recited only during Ramadan. Other special acts of piety, such as the recitation of the entire Quran (one thirtieth each night of the month) and public recitation of the Quran or Sufi chantings, may be heard throughout the evening. After a short evening’s sleep, families rise before sunrise to take their first meal of the day, which must sustain them until sunset. As the end of Ramadan nears (on the twenty-seventh day), Muslims commemorate the “Night of Power” when Muhammad first received God’s revelation. The month of Ramadan comes to an end with a great celebration, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast, Id al-Fitr. The spirit and joyousness remind one of the celebration of Christmas. Family members come from near and far to feast and exchange gifts in a celebration that lasts for three days. In many Muslim countries, it is a national holiday. The meaning of Ramadan is not lost for those who attend mosque and pay the special alms for the poor (alms for the breaking of the fast) required by Islamic law.

    Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan. At dusk each day during Ramadan, families gather to break the fast and share a meal. This practice is called “breakfast.”

  5. Pilgrimage: The Hajj. Ramadan is followed by the beginning of the pilgrimage season. Every adult Muslim physically and financially able is expected to perform the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. The focus of the pilgrimage is the Kaba, the cube-shaped House of God, in which the sacred black stone is embedded. Muslim tradition teaches that the Kaba was originally built by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail. The black stone was given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel and thus is a symbol of God’s covenant with Ismail and, by extension, the Muslim community. The Kaba was the object of pilgrimage during pre-Islamic times. Tradition tells us that one of the first things Muhammad did when he marched triumphantly into Mecca was to cleanse the Kaba of the tribal idols that it housed, thus restoring it to the worship of the one true God.

    The pilgrimage proper takes place during the twelfth month, Dhu al-Hijja, of the Muslim lunar calendar. As with prayer, the pilgrimage requires ritual purification, symbolized by the wearing of white garments. Men shave their heads, or have a symbolic tuft of hair cut, and don two seamless white sheets. Women may wear simple, national dress; however, many don a long white dress and head covering. Neither jewelry nor perfume is permitted; sexual activity and hunting are prohibited as well. These and other measures underscore the unity and equality of all believers as well as the total attention and devotion required. As the pilgrims near Mecca they shout, “I am here, O Lord, I am here!” As they enter Mecca, they proceed to the Grand Mosque, where the Kaba is located. Moving in a counterclockwise direction, they circle the Kaba seven times. During the following days, a variety of ritual actions or ceremonies take place—praying at the spot where Abraham, the patriarch and father of monotheism, stood; running between Safa and Marwa in commemoration of Hagar’s frantic search for water for her son, Ismail; stoning the devil, three stone pillars that symbolize evil. An essential part of the pilgrimage is a visit to the Plain of Arafat, where, from noon to sunset, the pilgrims stand before God in repentance, seeking His forgiveness for themselves and all Muslims throughout the world. It was here, from a hill called the Mount of Mercy, that the Prophet during his Farewell Pilgrimage preached his last sermon or message. Once again, the preacher repeats Muhammad’s call for peace and harmony among the believers. Standing together on the Plain of Arafat, Muslims experience the underlying unity and equality of a worldwide Muslim community that transcends national, racial, economic, and sexual differences.

    The pilgrimage ends with the Feast of Sacrifice (Id al-Adha), known in Muslim piety as the Great Feast. It commemorates God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismail (Isaac in Jewish and Christian traditions). The pilgrims ritually reenact Abraham’s rejection of Satan’s temptations to ignore God’s command by again casting stones at the devil, here represented by a pillar. Afterward, they sacrifice animals (sheep, goats, cattle, or camels), as Abraham was finally permitted to substitute a ram for his son. The animal sacrifice also symbolizes that, like Abraham, the pilgrims are willing to sacrifice that which is most important to them. (One needs to recall the importance of these animals as a sign of a family’s wealth and as essential for survival.) Some of the meat is consumed, but most is supposed to be distributed to the poor and needy. In modern times, with almost 2 million participants in the pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia has had to explore new methods for freezing, preserving, and distributing the vast amount of meat. The Feast of Sacrifice is a worldwide Muslim celebration that lasts for three days, a time for rejoicing, prayer, and visiting with family and friends. At the end of the pilgrimage, many of the faithful visit the mosque and tomb of Muhammad at Medina before returning home. The enormous pride of those who have made the pilgrimage is reflected in a number of popular practices. Many will take the name Hajji, placing it at the beginning of their name. Those who can will return to make the pilgrimage.

    In addition to the hajj, there is a devotional ritual, the umra (the “visitation”) or lesser pilgrimage, which Muslims may perform when visiting the holy sites at other times of the year. Those who are on the pilgrimage often perform the umra rituals before, during, or after the hajj. However, performance of the umra does not replace the hajj obligation.

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