A Primer on Islam
Prepared by the students in
HON 313 Justice in Islamic Thought
Fall 2004 - Nazareth College of Rochester

Five Central Beliefs

Five Pillars

Hadith and Sunna


Marriage and Divorce

Daily Roles of Women



 "The Five Pillars of Islam"

 by Christie DeRoche


What is the purpose of the five pillars of Islam?
The pillars, better known in Islam as "acts of worship," are the message of God. They cannot be confused with the religion as a whole; rather they outline the minimal obligations required of a Muslim. "They are the framework for a Muslim life: faith, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able" (Badawi 1).


Why should we know about the five pillars of Islam?
Since September 11, 2001, some have cast Islam in a negative light. Media have portrayed Islam as a religion of violence and brutality, and made it seemingly impossible for our Christian American society to understand it. However, by becoming familiar with the five pillars of Islam (the central framework of the Muslim life), Americans can start to relate, and the communication process needed to bridge the two communities can begin.


1. Al-Shahada (Declaration of Faith)
All must pronounce their faith to enter into Islam. In front of witnesses, they are required to declare the following: "I testify there is no god but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God."  Pronouncing these words is not enough however; one must believe in his or her heart that it is true. "I testify there is no god but Allah" is meant to mean that there is no one or thing worthy of worship but Allah, since there are many things humans might worship instead of the One God ("Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadataan 1).  

The second portion, "I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God," refers to the Muslims' belief that Muhammad was the last in a series of prophets. The Angel Gabriel recited the Qu'ran to him, and Muhammad brought it to the people.  Once one has declared their faith they will be saved from hell, and be eligible to enter paradise (heaven).


2. Salat (Prayer)
Prayer is central to Islam, and it is required of all Muslim adults after they reach puberty. Prayer shapes and guides a Muslim's daily routine because of its strict schedule and requirements. Muslims are required to pray five times a day for five to ten minutes each time (on average). Prayer times are dawn, afternoon, late afternoon, after sunset, and at night. These are all times when most people fulfill some type of physical need, so they must sacrifice in the name of devotion. For instance at dawn most people want to keep sleeping and they must fight against themselves to get out of bed and remember the Creator (The Five Pillars of Islam: Salaah 2).

For salat to be valid there are several requirements. First, purification, both spiritually and physically is of the utmost importance. "The spiritual [purification] is achieved through an aware, dedicated life in which kindness, concern for others, gratitude and openness to God, and sensitivity to moral issues dominate (Denny 113)." Physically, purification is achieved through a complete, careful, and regulated bath (ghusl) and tooth brushing.

Secondly, the body must be sufficiently and properly covered during prayer. The covering is known as sitr. For females this means covering all except the face, feet, and hands. Males, however, must only be covered from the navel to the knees.

Finally, when performing salat, one must face Mecca. In mosques there is a marker showing them which way to face. This provides a unified focus for the Islamic nation.

When praying, Muslims must kneel and bow their heads to the ground in prostration. This shows their recognition of God's authority, and promotes equality among those praying.

The start of salat is signaled by the call to prayer (adh?n). It is recited, almost sung, by the mu'adjdhin from atop the mosque. The call is as follows:

1. Allahu akbar ("God is most great"), four times
2. Ashhadu an la ilaha ill? alla ("I testify that there is no god but God"), twice
3. Ahhadu anna muhammadan rasul allah ("I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God), twice
4. Hayya 'al? al-salat ("Hurry to prayer"), twice
5. Hayya 'al? al-falah ("Hurry to success [sometimes referred to as salvation"]), twice…
6. Allahu akbar ("God is most great"), twice
7. La ilaha illa allah ("There is no god but God"), once (Denny 120).


3. Zakat (Charity)
Muslims believe that all wealth belongs to God, and is only held by humans in trust. Therefore, Muslims are required to do with it what God wishes and God wishes for Muslims to be generous (Five Pillars of Islam: Zakaah 1).

Zakat is the required giving of a portion of one's savings to charity at the end of each year (a kind of savings tax). There is a minimum amount of assets (nisaab) that one must reach before they are required to pay zakat. The amount due depends on the types and amounts of one's assets.

If one does not meet the nissab amount, they are not required to pay zakat. However, they are still expected to be charitable. The Prophet Muhammad spoke about this:

"The prophet said: "Charity is a necessity for every Muslim.' He was asked: 'What if a person has nothing?' The prophet replied: 'He should work with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity.' The Companions asked;: What if he is not able to work?' The Prophet said: 'He should help poor and needy persons.' The companions further asked 'What if he cannot do even that?' The Prophet said 'He should urge others to do good.' The companions said What if he lacks that also?' The prophet said 'He should check himself from doing evil. That is also charity. (Badawi 1)"

Zakat may be collected by the government or it may be given in secret. Either way there are two major recipients of this charity: the working poor and the destitute.


4. Sawm (Fasting)
All Muslims are required to fast during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. (Since the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, the fast lasts for 29-30 days and occurs in different seasons.) Ramadan commemorates the first revelations of Muhammad.

The purpose of fasting is always to cleanse the body and soul, and shift the attention from bodily needs to spiritual needs. During times of fasting, Muslims are prohibited from eating, drinking, smoking and engaging in sexual intercourse from sunrise to sunset. Because of the difficulty of the fast it is only required of healthy adults. The elderly, sick, and nursing, pregnant, and menstruating women are permitted to break the fast and make up the time later. If anyone is simply physically unable to fast they must feed a hungry person for each day missed.

Ramadan can be a joyous time. When they break the fast, Muslims gather for food, singing, and entertainment. Ramadan is also a time of reflection when one should be grateful for what they have been given by God and remember those in need.


5. Hajj (Pilgrimage)
All Muslims, except for those physically or financially unable, must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life. Before performing the Hajj, all debts must be paid, one's will must be in order in case of death on the perilous journey, and there must be enough money to provide for one's family while gone.

The annual Hajj takes place from the eighth to the twelfth days of the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar, Dh? al-Hijja. The Hajj consists of two portions. First, pilgrims must circle the Ka'ba seven times. The Ka'ba is a cubical structure in the middle or the sanctuary that was built by Abraham to house the mother of his eldest son, Hagar. It is said to be "a true axis mundi, where heaven and earth and the aspirations of all Muslims meet" (Denny 131).

Second, Muslims must walk seven times between the mountains of Safa and Marwa. Traveling between Safa and Marwa is to commemorate when Hagar did this in search of water for Ishmael, her son.

Here is one prayer that pilgrims recite while approaching Mecca and throughout the hajj:

"I am here, O my God, I am here...
I am here, Thou art without any associate, I am here!
Praise and blessing belong to Thee, and Power" (Denny 132).

People come from every continent in the world to perform the hajj. This means all races, languages, and ethnic languages are represented. However, during the hajj, commonality and equality are promoted. Thus, men must wear two pieces of white cloth (ihr?m) to hide any markers of wealth and status. Women, however, are allowed to wear clothing of their home regions or a female version of the ihr?m.

Eid al-Adha is a festival that marks the end of the hajj. It is widely celebrated by Muslims with gifts and prayers.


Works Cited
Ahmed, Akbar S. Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1999.

Badawi, Jamal, Ph.D. "An Introduction to Islam." Islam in Your Life- About Islam. Muslim American Society. 23 September 2004
< http://www.masnet.org/aboutislam.asp>

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994.

"Five Pillars of Islam: Hajj" View Islam.com. <http://www.viewislam.com/pillars/pillar5.html>

"Five Pillars of Islam: Salaah" View Islam.com. <http://www.viewislam.com/pillars/pillar2.html>

"Five Pillars of Islam: Sawm" View Islam.com. <http://www.viewislam.com/pillars/pillar3.html>

"Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadataan" View Islam.com. <http://www.viewislam.com/pillars/pillar1.html>

"Five Pillars of Islam: Zakaah" View Islam.com. <http://www.viewislam.com/pillars/pillar4.html>