The Five Pillars of Islam, By Jerald Dirks

The application of faith in daily life can be summarized into what has been called the Five Pillars of Islam:

1) The testimony of faith
2) The five daily prayers
3) Fasting the month of Ramadan
4) A mandatory charity
5) A pilgrimage to Mecca

1) Testimony of Faith
In simple English translation, the Shahadah consists of saying: ‘I testify that there is no god but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’. It would suffice to say that anyone who sincerely says the Shahadah with comprehension and understanding is a Muslim.

Given the previous discussion of the etymology of the word ‘Allah’, most Christians and Jews who bother to think about the Shahadah would probably conclude that they would have no difficulty saying and meaning the first part of the Shahadah, i.e. ‘there is no god but Allah’. However, those Christians who actually believe in a three-part godhead should be warned that the first part of the Shahadah incorporates by implication the concept of ‘La Sharika’, i.e. ‘no partners or associates’ with Allah. The Oneness of Allah is absolute, and there is no maneuvering room or ‘fudge factor’ with regard to this concept.

However, the sturnbling block in the Shahadah for most Christians and Jews consists of testifying to the fact that Muhammad was the messenger of Allah. While it must be emphasized that this phrase does not imply that Prophet Muhammad was the only messenger of Allah, this phrase still remains a gulf separating Islam from Christianity and from Judaism. Each Christian and Jew who is reading this essay may find his or her own way to bridge this gulf.
A final point needs to be made about the Shahadah. In accepting Prophet Muhammad as a messenger of Allah, one must by implication accept the Quran as the revealed words of Allah.

2) The five daily prayers
The second pillar of practice is to perform the daily prayers of worship, i.e., Salat. The importance of establishing regular prayer is repeatedly stressed in the Quran. A few of those Quranic injunctions are quoted below. And be steadfast in prayer; practice regular charity; and bow down your heads with those who bow down (in worship).

“Guard strictly your (habit) of prayers, especially the middle prayer; and stand before Allah in a devout (frame of mind).”

“Say: ‘Allah’s guidance is the (only) guidance, and we have been directed to submit ourselves to the Lord of the worlds to establish regular prayers and to fear Allah: for it is to Him that we shall be gathered together.’ And establish regular prayers at the two ends of the day and at the approaches of the night: for those things that are good remove those that are evil: be that the word of remembrance to those who remember (their Lord).”

“Therefore be patient with what they say, and celebrate (constantly) the praises of thy Lord before the rising of the sun, and before its setting; yea, celebrate them for parts of the hours of the night, and at the sides of the day: that you may have (spiritual) joy.”

“O you who believe! Bow down, prostrate yourselves, and adore your Lord; and do good; that ye may prosper.”

“So establish regular prayer and give regular charity; and obey the messenger; that ye may receive mercy.”

“So (give) glory to Allah, when you reach eventide and when you rise in the morning; yea, to Him be praise, in the heavens and on earth; and in the late afternoon and when the day begins to decline.”

“Turn back in repentance to Him, and fear Him: establish regular prayers, and be not among those who join gods with Allah.”

Several points need to be emphasized with regard to Salat. First and foremost, Salat is obligatory, not voluntary. Second, Salat is primarily a prayer of worship, and is not a prayer of supplication or of personal communication, which is called Dua, although Dua may be appended to or incorporated into the Salat. Third, Salat takes a set form. Fourth, there are five set-times every day during which Salat must be offered. In what follows, some of these points are further clarified.

Salat is obligatory on every Muslim who has reached ten years of age. However, there are certain exceptions to and modifications of this rule. Without going in-depth, it is noted that there are those who are excused from, and in some cases even prohibited from, performing Salat. These include the feeble minded, the mentally insane, and those in certain states of ritual impurity (eg. menstruating women, post-parturn women, etc.).

Further, the obligatory nature of Salat is eased for those upon whom Salat would be especially difficult, e.g. the traveler, the person who is in a state of personal danger from his or her surroundings, the seriously ill, etc. In such cases, if certain conditions are met, Salat may be shortened, or may be modified as to the nature of the ritual positions assumed in performing Salat, or two different Salat may be combined, meaning that they could be said consecutively, instead of waiting for the appointed time of each.

“When you travel through the earth, there is no blame on you if you shorten your prayers, for fear the unbelievers may attack you: for the unbelievers are unto you open enemies.”

Salat is a prayer of worship. It is an act of worshipping Allah, glorified and exalted is He. For Christians, who are used to conceptualizing prayer as a time of personal communication with the deity, Salat may seem somewhat impersonal and lacking in personal gratification. In this regard, it must be re-emphasized that Salat is an obligatory act of worshipping Allah.

However, Salat is not a substitute for personal communication with Allah, nor is it a replacement for supplicating to Allah. Such personal communication and supplication is known in Islam as Dua, and can be made at any time of the day or night. Salat is not a substitute for Dua. They are two different concepts and two different acts. The former is a required act of worship, while the latter is voluntary, and has a more personal meaning.

As repeatedly stressed earlier, Salat is an act of worship. Obviously, Salat is not the only act of worship that can and should be made, but it is an obligatory one. As noted in the Quran, the very purpose of man’s existence is to serve and worship Allah.

“Not a messenger did We send before thee without this inspiration sent by Us to him: that there is no god but I; therefore worship and serve Me.”

“Did I not enjoin on you, O you children of Adam, that you should not worship Satan; for that he was to you an enemy avowed? And that you should worship Me, (for that) this was the straight way?

That is Allah, your Lord! There is no god but He, the creator of all things; then worship ye Him; and He hath power to dispose of all affairs.
I have only created Jinns and men, that they may serve Me.”

3) Fasting the month of Ramadan
The third pillar of practice fasting, during the Islamic month of Ramadan. The Quran directly prescribes and addresses the issues of this third pillar of practice “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, so that you may (learn) self­restraint…Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Quran, as a guide to mankind, also clear (signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting…”

Ramadan and the Islamic calendar
Unlike the solar calendar of the West, the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar of 12 months. Of these lunar months, the eighth is Sha’ban, the ninth is Ramadan, and the tenth is Shawwal. Further, because the Islamic calendar is lunar, each Islamic year is approximately 11 days short of a solar year. Thus, every year on the Gregorian calendar, Ramadan occurs about 11 days earlier than the year before. Ramadan begins on the sighting of the first sliver of the crescent of the new moon following the month of Sha’ban. It continues for the next 29 or 30 days depending on the sighting of the first sliver of the crescent of the next new moon.

Why fast?
Why do Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan? There are a number of benefits from such fasting: A spiritual purification; potential health benefits, especially in a Western society tending towards corpulence; increased self-discipline and self-restraint; increased focus on and study of one’s religion; a heightened sense of Muslim community, with Muslims across the world fasting together and an increased empathy for the poor and hungry. However, none of these is the reason why Muslims fast during Ramadan.

They fast simply because it has been ordained by Allah. This directive is eloquently stated in the in the Quran as follows “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self­restraint-(fasting) for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill or on a journey, the prescribed number (should be made up) from days later. For those who can do it (with hardship), is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent but he that will give more, of his own free will-it is better for him. And it is better for you that ye fast, if ye only knew. Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Quran, as a guide to mankind, also clear (signs) for guidunce and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting. But if anyone is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful.

The fast
As to the fast itself, fasting begins each day at the first light of dawn, prior to the time of the first prayer (Salat Al-Fajr), and continues until the completion of sunset, i.e. the time of fourth prayer (Salat Al-Maghrib). As such, the day of fasting is longer when Ramadan occurs in the summer, and shorter when Ramadan occurs in the winter. During the time of fasting, food, drink, sexual activity, tobacco, gum, and the ingestion of any and all substances are prohibited. Frivolous and worldly talk is discouraged, and Muslims are to be especially vigilant in focusing on the spiritual aspects of their lives. Each day during Ramadan, a Muslim is encouraged to read some of the Quran, so that by the completion of the month of Ramadan, the entire Quran has been read with a receptive and meditative attitude.

Furthermore, throughout the entire month of Ramadan, it is preferable for Muslims to participate in a series of supplementary prayers called taraweeh each night, following the last daily prayer (Salat Al-‘lsha).

Revelation in Ramadan
Over and above fasting, Ramadan holds a special place in the Islamic calendar and history, for tradition holds that it was during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan that revelation was first given to the Prophet Muhammad. Within Islam, the time of this first revelation is referred to as the night of power. A chapter in the Quran by the name of Al-Qadr reads:

“We have indeed revealed this (message) in the Night of Power. And what will explain to thee what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by Allah’s permission, on every errand peace this until the down.”

Tradition further holds that every Ramadan following the initial Night of Power, and throughout the remainder of the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, the angel Gabriel would rehearse the Quran with him.

4) A mandatory charity
Zakat refers to obligatory charity. Both obligatory and voluntary charity are concepts that are repeatedly endorsed in the Quran as shown in the following quotations “And be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity… it is righteousness-to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the angels, and the Book, and the messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves… And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction;, but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good.”

“They ask thee what they should spend (in charity), Say: Whatever ye spend that is good, is for parents and kindred and orphans and those in want and for wayfarers. And what­ ever ye do that is good-Allah knoweth it well.”

“They ask thee how much they are to spend; say: ‘What is beyond your needs.’ Thus doth Allah make clear to you His signs: in order that ye may consider a ye who believe! spend out of the bounties We have provided for you … For those who give in charity, men and women, and loan to Allah a beautiful loan, it shall be increased manifold (to their credit), and they shall have (besides) a liberal reward.”

“And spend something (in charity) out of the substance which We have bestowed on you, before death should come to any of you and he should say, ‘O my Lord! why didst Thou not give me respite for a little while? I should then have given (largely) in charity, and I should have been one of the doers of good.'”

“So fear Allah as much as ye can; listen and obey; and spend in charity for the benefit of your own souls. And those saved from the covetousness of their own souls-they are the ones that achieve prosperity. If ye loan to Allah a beautiful loan, He will double it to your (credit), and He will grant you forgiveness: for Allah is most ready to appreciate (service), most forbearing.”

Zakat vs Titillng
Zakat has often been compared by Western writers to the Judeo-Christian concept of tithing. However, such a comparison is highly misleading for several reasons. In what follows, the concept of Zakat is explained by contrasting it with tithing, which was mandated in several passages in the received Torah. In making these comparisons, the following contrasts are generalizations, which ignore the special rules that apply to agricultural produce, livestock, etc.

However, these are considerations, which would affect few Occidentals:
Tithing is based upon one’s yearly income, while Zakat is based upon one’s financial surplus which has been held for one year. Tithing is obligatory on every Christian and Jew who has any income, although this is honored by Christians more as the exception rather than the rule. In contrast, Zakat is obligatory only upon those Muslims with a financial surplus. Tithing is based upon a formula of giving 10.0% of one’s income. In fact, the word ‘tithe’ comes from the Old English, meaning ‘the tenth part’. In contrast, Zakat is based upon a formula of giving 2.5% of one’s financial surplus.

Tithes are to be given to the relevant ecclesiastical authority, i.e., the church for Christians, where the money is used to support various building programs (e.g., bricks and mortar for new churches), to pay ministerial and staff salaries, and to otherwise cover the expenses of running the church. Only if the church has a financial surplus does some portion of the tithes go to charity. (In ancient Judaism, the entire tithe was meant for the support of the Levites and the priestly class169). In contrast, it is preferred that Zakat go directly from the hand of the one who is giving to the hand of the person in need. This implies that every Muslim has a responsibility to know those in need. In addition, there are certain approved programs to which Zakat can be given.

Two hypothetical examples may better illustrate the contrast between Zakat and tithing. As a first example, consider a Christian family consisting of father, mother, and three children, whose yearly income is $15,000. After deducting reasonable expenses, such as rent, food, medical bills, educational bills, etc., the family will probably have no economic surplus, and will probably be in debt.

Under a strict interpretation of the Judeo­Christian concept of tithing, the family is still obligated to turn over $1,500 each year to the church, thus increasing their debt load. In contrast, consider a Muslim family of five with exactly the same income and expenses. Under the rules of Zakat, since there is no economic surplus, no Zakat is due from the family. Further, because the family has incurred debt in maintaining a subsistence level of existence, the family is actually eligible to receive Zakat from those who have a financial surplus.

As a second example, take a Christian family consisting of a father, a mother, and two children, whose yearly income is $100,000. By the rules of tithing, the family should give $10,000, presumably to the church. In contrast, consider a Muslim family of four with exactly the same income and expenses.

Reasonable living expenses (rent, food, clothing, transportation, mandatory taxes, mandatory social security payments-assuming an American family, medical bills, etc.) might easily run up to $60,000, leaving an economic surplus of $40,000. I f the family were able to hold that financial surplus for one full year, they would then need to pay $1,000 in Zakat to someone in need.

Zakat vs Sadaqah
Besides the Zakat, which is obligatory charity, Muslims are prompted by the Quran to contribute an additional charity, called Sadaqa. But unlike Zakat, which is mandatory, Sadaqa is entirely voluntary.

5) A pilgrimage to Mecca
The fifth pillar of the practice of Islam is the pilgrimage to Mecca to perform the rites of Hajj at their appointed times during the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah. Performance of the Hajj is incumbent upon every adult Muslim, male and female, who has the financial and physical ability to do so. This obligation is specified in the following passage from the Quran, in which Mecca is referred to by an older variant of its name, i.e., Bakka “The first house (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka; full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings; in it are signs manifest; (for example), the Station of Abraham; whoever enters it attains security; pilgrimage thereto is a duty men owe to Allah-those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith, Allah stands not in need of any of His creatures.”

The prescribed pilgrimage to Mecca traces its origin to Prophet Abraham. Following the building of the Ka’ba (literally ‘cube’; the Ka’ba is also known as Sacred House and Ancient House) at Mecca by Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael!’, Allah prescribed on the Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca as an obligatory duty:

“Behold! We gave the site, to Abraham, of the (Sacred) House, (saying): ‘Associate not anything (in worship) with Me; and sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or stand up, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). And proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to thee on foot and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways; that they may witness the benefits (provided) for them, and celebrate the name of Allah, through the days appointed, over the cattle which He has provided for them (for sacrifice): then eat ye thereof and feed the distressed ones in want. Then let them complete the rites prescribed for them, perform their vows, and (again) circumambulate The Ancient House’. Such (is the pilgrim­ age): whoever honors the sacred rites of Allah, for him it is good in the sight of his Lord”.

Although the rites of the Hajj are rich in symbolic meaning, as will be seen below, the correct performance of the Hajj can never be reduced to mere ritual. One must also have the right attitude and conduct in performing Hajj. But above all, a correct intention should necessarily be the forerunner in the performance of Hajj.

“For Hajj are the months well known. If anyone undertakes that duty therein, let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling in the Hajj. And whatever good ye do, (be sure) Allah knoweth it. And take a provision (with you) for the journey, but the best of provisions is right conduct. So fear Me, 0 ye that are wise.”

The symbolic meaning of hajj
There are a number of rituals of Hajj (the major pilgrimage) and ‘Umra (the minor pilgrimage). Each ritual, the performance of the ritual, and the order or progression of the rituals is based upon the manner in which Prophet Muhammad performed Hajj in 632 CE. These rituals may seem foreign and somewhat incomprehensible to non-Muslims. However, most of these rituals have a symbolic meaning that can be traced back either to the events in the life of Adam or to events in the life of Abraham. In what follows, several of these rituals are explained, as well as their relevant symbolic origins. The rituals which will be considered are those of Arafat, Hadi, Maqaam Abraham, Ramy, Sa’e. Talbiyah, Tawaf, and Zamzam.