Five Pillars of Islam

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The religion of Islam consists of faith (al iman) and practice (al din). The Five Pillars of Islam is the term given to the five most fundamental obligations of a muslim under Sharia law, and which devout muslims will perform faithfully, believing them to be essential to pleasing Allah. In summary the five practices are:

  1. The acknowledgement of God (Shahadah)
  2. The ritual prayers (Salah)
  3. The paying of ritual alms ( Zakah)
  4. The fast during Ramadhan ( Siyam)
  5. The pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)

1. The first pillar is the acknowledgement of God (Allah).

According to the Qur'an there is no deity [worthy of worship] except God, and "Muhammad is His messenger." This declaration of faith is called the shahadah, a simple formula which all of the faithful pronounce daily. Intrinsic in this action is the acknowledgement of Muhammad, as "Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of God and the Seal of the Prophets. And God has full knowledge of all things." [Qur'an: Surah al-Ahzab 33:40].

2. The second pillar is the Salah, or regular prayer.

Muslims are expected to perform ritual prayers at least five times a day :

  • In the morning (al fajr)
  • At midday (ad dh hur)
  • midway between midday and sunset (al 'aser)
  • At sunset (al meghreb)
  • one hour after sunset (al 'asha)

Although it is preferable for men to pray together in a mosque, there is no strict requirement to do so, and a Muslim may pray almost anywhere, such as in a place of work or a school. It is customary for a muslim to face Mecca during the Salah, although this is not a rigid requirement.

The prayers must be performed in the Arabic language (even if the person neither speaks nor understands Arabic; the prayers are to be recited by heart). Before commencing each prayer session a ceremonial cleansing with water (or if not available, with sand) is required. The prayers include praises to Allah, the creed, a plea for forgiveness and various blessings, Chapter one (al Fatihah) and one or more other parts of the Koran (by heart) and an optional prayer of one's own. The entire session includes standing upright, bowing down, kneeling and prostrating oneself. The session ends with looking right and left to greet the angels muslims believe to sit on both shoulders (the angel on the right who records the person's good deeds and the one on the left recording the person's bad deeds). Finally the muslim says: "Peace be unto you, and on you be peace".

3. The third pillar is Zakah or the the paying of ritual alms.

A major principle of Islam is the belief that all things belong to God and that wealth is only held by human beings in trust. The word zakah means both purification and growth. Each Muslim calculates his or her own zakah individually, and for most purposes this involves the payment each year of two and a half percent of the capital in excess of one's basic needs. A muslim may also donate an additional amount as an act of voluntary charity (sadaqah), in order to achieve additional divine reward.

4. The fourth pillar is Siyam or fasting.

Observance of the Siyam involves abstinence from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse. This fasting is ordained in the Qur'an, and is observed throughout the daylight hours of the 29 or 30 days of the lunar month of Ramadhan. Because the lunar months drift slowly through the solar year (making a cycle approximately every 33 lunar years, or 32 solar years), every year Ramadan begins about nine days earlier than the year before. (see Islamic calendar).

The Siyam is intended to teach the believers patience and self-control, and to remind them of the less fortunate in the world. According to the tradition, the month of fasting is accompanied by increased efforts toward good manners and righteous deeds, and observers are admonished not to swear or utter vulgarities during the month of Ramadhan. The fast is also seen as a debt owed by the believer to God. Faithful observance of the Siyam is believed to atone for personal faults and misdeeds, at least in part, and to help earn a place in paradise. It is also believed to be beneficial for personal conduct, that is, to help control passions and temper. The fast is also meant to provide time for meditation and to strengthen one's faith.

To observe the Siyam, Muslims fast during the daytime, and can eat during the night. Traditionally, the time of fasting begins from the moment a white thread can be distinguished from a black thread. The daily period of abstinence lasts until sunset.

In addition to the restrictions already mentioned, during the Siyam, the believer is also prohibited from touching someone of the opposite sex, or playing games of chance. There is a dispute as to whether the Siyam prohibits the swallowing of the saliva. The night consequently is a time of pleasure and indulgence: then people can eat, drink, and do things forbidden during the day. The extension of these activities will of course vary from person to person, and from family to family. It is not uncommon for more money to be spent on food and drink during Ramadhan than in any other month of the year.

Exceptions to the general observance duty is made for children before the onset of puberty. Many of them will try to fast for a few days as long as they are able to keep it up. Furthermore, observing Ramadan is not required for soldiers on the battlefield, for a traveler in the desert, and for weak, elderly people. In case of pregnant women it usually is up to the woman to decide whether she participates in the fast or not. She is permitted to abstain from fasting if she feels it might endanger the well-being of the child. During menstrual periods women are permitted not to fast, although these days must be made up for during another period that same year.

5. The fith pillar is the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca

The final pillar of Islam is the pilgrimage to Mecca performed during the month of Ramadhan. Performance of the Hajj is obligatory by all who are physically and financially able to undertake it, and about two million people go to Mecca each year. Pilgrims wear a distinctive attire of simple garments to strip away distinctions of class and culture, so that all stand equal before God. Performance of the Hajj involves a series of rituals, including encircling the most holy shrine of Islam, the Ka'aba, a giant square stone covered with a black cloth that lies in the centre of a large square court. It also encludes throwing stones at a hill outside the court, which symbolizes driving away evil spirits.

In previous centuries the Hajj was an arduous and potentially hazardous undertaking, however with the advent of modern transport and adequate infrastructure, Saudi Arabia is now able to accommodate the millions of annual visitors. A shorter, simpler version of the pilgrimage can be made as well, but this does not 'count' as one of the five pillars.

In spite of the fact that the five pillars are obligatory and meant to be absolutely essential for every Muslim to keep, not all individual Muslims do, or are able to faithfully participate. This is due to a variety of reasons. For Muslims living in Western societies time and energy consuming duties such as Ramadan or the five daily prayers are practically difficult to observe. Secularized Muslims may have stopped participating in religious duties altogether, or have chosen to only participate in for instance the Ramadan fast. Such choices, however, are not only a matter of do's and don'ts, but also of belonging and not-belonging, since Muslim culture is a group culture. Participating in such religious duties therefore is not necessarily a criterion for the depth of each individual's religiosity.