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Five Pillars of Islam

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 practices are:

  1. The acknowledgement of God (Shahadah[?])
  2. The ritual prayers (Salat[?] or Salah[?])

  1. The paying of ritual alms (Zakat or Zakah)
  2. The fast during Ramadan (Saum or Siyam)
  3. The pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj or Haj)

Some Muslims, mainly belonging to the sect of the Khawarij[?], hold that there is a sixth pillar of Islam, Jihad, meaning Holy War or Inner Struggle. This is disputed.

Table of contents

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 Muslims 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 'asr)
  • At sunset (al maghrib)
  • one hour after sunset (al 'isha)

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 prayer, although this is not a rigid requirement.

Before prayer, a ceremonial cleansing with water (or alternatively, with sand) is usually performed. If the cleansing was done using water, the Muslim is considered to have wudu, which means that he or she has cleansed him or herself from the physical manifestations of sin in a lasting fashion that extends between prayers. In other words, unless the Muslim does something to remove this cleanliness, the cleansing would not need to be repeated before the next prayer. When sand is used, the cleansing is only temporary and regardless of whether or not the Muslim commits any physical acts of uncleanliness he or she will need to undergo the ceremonial cleansing immediately before the next prayer.

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), and include praises to Allah, the shahada, 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 say "Peace be unto you, and on you be peace" in Arabic to both of the angels that Muslims believe sit on both shoulders (the angel on the right is said to record the person's good deeds and the one on the left is said to record the person's bad deeds).

3. The third pillar is Zakat or 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 one's 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 Quran, and is observed by devout Muslims throughout the daylight hours of the 29 or 30 days of the lunar month of Ramadan. There are some exceptions, for example for children and pregnant women.

As well as fasting, Muslims spend more time praying during this period. Siyam is intended to teach patience and self-control, and is seen as a debt owed by the believer to Allah.

5. The fifth 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 at least once in one's lifetime is obligatory to 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.

The disputed "sixth pillar of Islam" is Jihad

Some Muslims, mainly those belonging to the sect of the Khawarij[?], have taught that Jihad, or personal struggle, should be considered the sixth pillar of Islam. Since the fundamentalist Islamist movement began in the 20th century, this point of view has become more prevalent. In other groups, the term sixth pillar of Islam can also refer to "Allegiance to the Imam" or "Hajj" depending on who is using it, so "Sixth pillar of Islam" should not be considered to be synonymous with jihad. Muslims who speak of the "Five Pillars of Islam" may find the mention of a violent sixth pillar to be offensive. For more information, read the Sixth pillar of Islam article.

Modern Muslims and the pillars of Islam

Despite that the five pillars are obligatory for Muslims, not all individual Muslims can, or do, 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 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 or faith.

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