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Pillars of Islam
WHAT ARE THE “PILLARS” OF ISLAM?
The spiritual tempo of Muslim religious life is guided by certain rites worship and by the conviction one develops therein. In Islam, each Muslim is required to perform rituals known as the Five Pillars of Islam, obligations on every adult and able Muslim man and woman. What the pillars of Islam ensure is that one’s active consciousness of God is elevated and regularly nurtured. If left to his own devices, the human being is easily distracted by the rush and demands of earthly life. It becomes necessary, then, that we be often reminded of the ultimate purpose of life and our responsibilities in it, for misguidance is always preceded by distraction.
The pillars of Islam are also portals through which one seeks nearness to God and greater love for Him; one finds peace of mind, and develops spiritual maturity. The pillars are not the ends in themselves. Nor do they encompass all that a Muslim can do in terms of worship. Rather, they form the foundation upon which one moves toward God and elevates him- or herself in character and morality. The Pillars are as follows.
First Pillar: Testimony of Faith
This is a two-part testimony (called “shahada”) that is required of every person who chooses to be a Muslim. It is brief, simple, and sums up the heart and soul of the religion. The phonetic reading from the Arabic is: “La ilaha illa’Allah, Muhammadun rasulullah.” Translated: There is no deity worthy of worship except God. Muhammad is the Messenger of God. These twin statements are all that is required for a person to join the fellowship of Islam and find acceptance in the world Muslim community. There are no additional rites of initiation or administration.
There is no deity worthy of worship except God. This statement affirms without mystery or obscurity the reality of creation and our very existence. It is the answer to the timeless questions: Why do I exist? Where did I come from? And where am I going? It preserves in the heart a vivid awareness of our Creator, who decided with wisdom and purpose to create the universe and place humanity on this small planet for a while. It affirms categorically that none other than God is deserving of worship, and to Him is our return.
The second part of the testimony, “Muhammadun rasulullah,” answers other timeless questions: What is expected of me? What am I to do with my life? How do I fill my minutes and years? Acknowledgement of Muhammad as the Messenger of God goes beyond an affirmation of his authentic role as God’s Prophet, warner, and Messenger. (See more about Muhammad above.) It suggests that through his example and teachings, we learn how to fulfill our purpose. When we understand that we have a Creator and that He has certain expectations of how we should conduct our lives, the next aspiration is learning how do so: What is sinful or righteous; what is pleasing to God or what is displeasing; what is good for our souls or what brings ruin; what is wholesome or what is foul; what is corrupt or what is beneficial to human families and societies; and so on. This is what the Prophet Muhammad taught as an exemplar for Muslims. Also when one believes in Muhammad as a man raised to the office of Prophet of God, this implies acceptance and veneration of all those who preceded him and shared similar missions, which include Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, for the Quran makes frequent mention of previous Prophets.
Second Pillar: Prayer
The Muslim ritual Prayer (“Salat”) consists of specific postures accompanied by the recitation of passages from the Quran and phrases of glorification of God. The culminating position is called sujud, which is when the worshipper drops to his knees and places his hands and forehead to the prayer carpet supplicating God or simply praising Him. A Muslim performs the ritual Prayer five times a day, each Prayer for a specific time range in the day’s life cycle. The Dawn Prayer may be performed anytime between the first light of dawn and right before sunrise. The Noon Prayer time range begins shortly after the sun has reached its zenith in the sky until it begins its steep decent, at which point the time-range for the Afternoon Prayer commences. The Sunset Prayer may be performed anytime after the sun sets and when the last light of sunset disappears. Finally, the Evening Prayer comes in when the sky is fully dark, with no sign of the sun’s light. The length of each Prayer may range from five minutes to much longer, depending on one’s individual choice. The institution of Prayer forms the foundation of a believer’s day and his or her relationship with God. Of course, in addition to these formal Prayers, Muslim may call upon God anytime—out loud or silently, in Arabic or any other language. Prayer has always served as the sustenance of human spiritual life.
Third Pillar: Charity
Because we live in a community, our range of responsibility goes beyond our personal needs and includes the needs others, whether we know them personally or not. A sign of spiritual health is one’s willingness to give from his or her wealth so that others less fortunate may be served. A Muslim is therefore obliged to take a portion of his or her income for the benefit of the needy. This payment is called “Zakat,” which literally means “purification” and “gain”. When one offers wealth to alleviate the needs of the impoverished, then one’s wealth is purified and blessed and a bond of brotherhood is strengthened in society. A Muslim is obliged to pay at least 2.5 percent of his or her income that has been saved over a period of a year. One, of course, can offer more charity and is encouraged to do so. If one is unable to pay Zakat, he or she is exempt.
Fourth Pillar: Fasting
In Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Muslims are obliged to fast each day, that is, completely abstain from food, drink, and sexual intimacy from the moment of dawn to the moment of sunset. Because the Muslim voluntarily keeps himself from eating when hungry and from drinking when thirsty, he or she learns self-discipline and control. Fasting is a personal liberation movement that helps one enjoy freedom from one’s own whims and lusts, which can literally control a person and lower him or her in rank of honor. God gave human beings the power of volition, but He also provided guidance as to how to employ this authority in a way that serves one’s soul. Fasting helps one possess his desires and not be possessed by them.
Fifth Pillar: Pilgrimage
Once in a lifetime, a Muslim is required to make a journey to Mecca and its surrounding areas to perform the Pilgrimage, called the Hajj, if one is physically and financially able to do so. It is performed in the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar and involves a series of rites that take several days to complete. Men are dressed in two sheets of white cloth, one for the waist down and the other for the torso and shoulders. (The dress requirements for woman are not as regimented, though only her face and hands show.) During these days, a Pilgrim is one face among two and half million faces. One’s nationality is not important; nor is one’s race, status, or wealth. Much of the Pilgrimage involves following the footsteps of Abraham and his wife Hagar in and around Mecca. The rites of the Pilgrimage include walking seven times around the Ka‘ba (the house of worship that Abraham built) and walking seven times between two nearby hills. These practices were instituted by Abraham, who called upon people to perform them. The practice was revived and completed by Prophet Muhammad. Pilgrimage, in general, has been an integral part of human religiosity. Spiritual awakening is often found in traveling for no other reason than to perform a rite of worship and fulfill an obligation toward God.
Collectively, these pillars form a seminary in which one develops his or her individual spiritual relationship with God. They build resolve and consistency to live at peace with one’s purpose—ever keeping one’s spiritual eyes toward God, our loving and gracious Maker. We are creatures made of the earth’s clay but are also infused with a soul that clearly is not of this world. Islam recognizes this, not as a problem, but as the ultimate human challenge. Our choice has always been: what aspect of our humanity do we want to nurture? For the Muslim, the nurturing of the spiritual soul is guided and protected by these five pillars, essential rites of worship that Muslims believe have been passed down from the Prophet Muhammad who received them from God Himself.