The Five Pillars of Islam: An Overview

As we are in the midst of Ramadan, the month of fasting in the Islamic calendar, I thought it appropriate to look at some of the fundamental beliefs of Islam. Although I am not Muslim, I have Muslim friends, and I find the religion — and its history — fascinating. One of the best places to start when learning about Islam is the Five Pillars. These basic tenets can provide some insight into Islam. Here is an overview of the Five Pillars of Islam:

1. Declaration of Faith: Shahada

A Muslim declares his or her faith as a sign of true conversion. This declaration is known as the Shahada. The declaration is a fairly straightforward phrase, affirming the supremacy of Allah, and of acknowledging the Prophet Muhammad as the Messenger. There is, of course, more to it than just saying the words if you truly believe. However, a declaration of faith is the first pillar.

2. Prayer: Salat

In order to forge a direct link with God, Muslims are encouraged to pray five times a day. This ritual prayer is known as Salat. Prayers are said at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset and evening. It is appropriate to perform ablutions (ritual washing) prior to prayer. In cities with a large Islamic population, you might hear the call to prayer, issued from a mosque. Many Muslims also use the radio or other modern forms of communication if they want to be alerted in other ways. Salat makes use of different postures and phrases throughout. Muslims can also meet for institutional prayers on Fridays and the major holidays.

3. Charity: Zakat

Part of the responsibility of a good Muslim is to help provide for the less fortunate. This is done through charity. Zakat has the meaning of “growth” and/or “purification.” There is a belief that God provides all, and that wealth is held in trust. Muslims are expected to give of their wealth. In many cases, calculating the Zakat is done based on capital, usually to the amount of 2.5% of capital each year. It is also encouraged to give generously through sadaqa, or voluntary charity.

4. Fasting: Sawm

In order to help develop self-control, as well as break bad habits and overcome some of the vices that can afflict the body, a month of fasting is part of Islam. Observing the fast is an important of developing good character as a Muslim, and showing devotion to God, as well as developing empathy for those who may not be as fortunate. There is a lot that even non-Muslims can learn from the observation of Ramadan.

5. Pilgrimage: Hajj

Finally, the fifth pillar is the Hajj, or pilgrimage. The idea is to go to Makkah (Mecca), simply clad. The annual pilgrimage begins during the 12th month of Islamic calendar, and there are rituals — associated with Abraham and also with Hagar, one of Abraham’s wives (the mother of Ishmael). Hajj is only required of those who are physically and financially able to make the journey. Many Muslims, though, make it a point to go to Makkah at least once during life.

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