Christopher Cutting. Encyclopedia of Religious and Spiritual Development. Editor: Elizabeth M Dowling & W George Scarlett. Sage Reference, 2006.
The five pillars are the most important practices of Islam: the shahadah (profession), salat (prayer), sawm (fasting), zakat (charity), and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The shahadah, the profession Muslims make that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet, constitutes the core practice and belief of Islam. Islam literally means “submission to God,” and to fully submit oneself to God consists in submitting to God alone and embracing the message of his final and most important prophet. The Arabic word Allah is not a personal name of a particular God like Jesus, Buddha, or Krishna; rather, it designates for Muslims the one and only supreme divine creator being much like the English word “God.” Indeed, Arabic Christians and Jews praying in their native language invoke Allah when they pray. And even Jesus Christ whose native tongue was Aramaic would have referred to God as Allahah in his own language. The five pillars represent the practices that are the most influential in religious and spiritual development of Muslims around the world.
To declare that there is no god but God is known as tawheed. This is the central worldview of Muslims, and from it derives all Muslim action and belief. God is absolutely unified. God has no partners, children, or various manifestations or forms. The unity of God is reflected in the unity of, and therefore absolute equality of all people. To recite the shahadah is to bear witness to the most important Muslim belief, and the shahadah is recited during individual prayer, communal prayers on Fridays, and sacred holy times such as the eid festivals and the sacred month of Ramadan. Reciting, proclaiming, and embracing the tenets of the shahadah are expressed by Muslim children and adolescents both during special occasions and in everyday practice, and it establishes the very foundation of their religion.
Salat or prayer refers to the five ritual prayers Muslims pray daily. The shahadah is repeated numerous times during each of the five daily prayers. Muslims also may pray generally for specific needs, issues, or just to spend time with God, but salat refers to the five ritual prayers commanded by God to be prayed every day at designated times beginning before sunrise and ending well into the evening. Each salat has a name and specific time of day or night when it is to be prayed. Each day begins with the fajr prayer at dawn. The dhuhr prayer takes place just after the midday sun has reached its zenith. The asr prayer is offered in the middle of the afternoon. Some Muslims believe this should take place when one’s shadow is the same length as he or she is. Others believe the shadow should be twice one’s length. As a result some Muslims will pray earlier in the afternoon than others. Magrib takes place at sunset, and isha is prayed after dark when the light of the sun can no longer be seen.
Many Muslims perform an ablution or purification before the ritual daily prayers known in Arabic as wudu. This ritual cleansing involves washing one’s face including rinsing out the mouth and nose. Washing the hands and arms up to the elbows, then passing one’s wet hands over the head, and washing one’s feet completes the ritual. However, if one has been in contact with a dead body or human blood, engaged in sexual relations, or is menstruating, then a full-body wash known in Arabic as ghusl may be performed before prayer.
Muslim prayer is physical, verbal, and communal. Muslim prayer physically involves one’s body in bowing, kneeling, prostration, and genuflection or ritual hand movements. The prayer begins as one cups hands behind the ears as if to listen more intently. The hands are then folded in front of the body with the right arm over the left, over one’s chest or belly depending on his or her tradition. One then bows, hands on knees, and stands upright again. This is followed by a full prostration with legs folded underneath the body, and with one’s forehead placed gently on the floor between the hands, which are also pressed down flat on the floor. The Muslim then sits up at the waist and prostrates again. Having kept one’s toes in the same position as a kind of marker, the Muslim is then able to stand again in the same spot he or she was in before the prostration. Again the Muslim bows, stands upright, prostrates, sits up, prostrates, and this time sits up again (rather than standing). He or she then raises his or her right index finger either once or repeatedly depending on one’s tradition, and turns his or her face to the right, and then to the left before standing again. During each of these movements and gestures a Muslim will recite phrases from the Qur’an and other ritual prayers.
This entire cycle is called a rakah. The morning prayer is prayed with two rakahs; the two afternoon prayers have four rakahs, the sunset prayer three, and the night time prayer four. Many Muslims will perform extra rakahs, especially on special occasions such as the 27th day of Ramadan, which is believed by many to be the night of power, when the Qur’an passed from a higher heaven to a lower heaven on its journey to earth, signifying Allah’s decision to reveal the Qur’an to humanity. Although no one knows for sure which night is the night of power, it is believed that prayers offered on this night are worth more than a thousand prayers prayed on any other night.
The content of Muslim prayers is formalized, consisting mainly of the first surah (chapter) and other ayat (verses) of the Qur’an. These recitations are largely fixed and repeated in every prayer cycle. A helpful, albeit incomplete analogy, would be the Lord’s Prayer for Christians. Often Muslims will offer personal prayers after the obligatory ones, holding one’s palms open before one’s face as if holding an open book.
Muslim prayer is always communal as well. For if he or she is not praying immediately with a group of Muslims, one always faces Mecca when praying, and is conscious that millions of Muslims around the world are praying while facing Mecca at the same time.
Sawm or fasting is performed during the month of Ramadan. Sawm does not only consist in physically declining food, drink, smoking, and sex, but also includes abstaining from evil thoughts, actions, and speech. For a full month Muslims will eat a small meal before sunrise, followed by a full day fast, including abstaining from drinking water. The fast is broken after sundown traditionally by eating a few dates. Muslims then pray before gathering for an evening meal of family or communal celebration called an iftaar. Because the Muslim calendar is lunar based, the month of Ramadan recedes a number of days each solar calendar year, and thus Ramadan will at times take place in winter, and at other times in the heat of summer. Winter fasts are relatively tolerable because of the short days, but Ramadan in the heat of summer can be quite a challenge. Muslims who live near the planetary poles where at times the sun never sets have had to make specific arrangements to account for the exceptional solar patterns. The month of fasting ends with one of the two greatest festivals of the Muslim calendar: Eid al-Fitr. During this 3-day celebration, people exchange gifts, spend time with family, friends, and loved ones, and share many feasts.
Zakat or charity is the divine command to give to those in need rather than merely a generic admonition to be generous. Often an annual percentage is offered from one’s savings and income as zakat. Because of the unity of God and his creation, all people have equal right to the resources of this world. Zakat aims to achieve a more equitable distribution of resources in accordance with Allah’s original design. The zakat is paid once annually and consists of 2.5% of one’s accumulated wealth. This does not only include one’s income, but savings, and many forms of personal assets. In a number of Muslim countries this is an obligatory tax, but in many immigrant communities it is a voluntary act of religious observance.
Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca is a special honor in Islam. Muslims are required to perform at least one hajj in a lifetime if they are able. Hajj involves a series of ritual submissions to God in which a person suspends his or her normal everyday activities to converge with the Muslim community on the most holy Muslim places in the world. Muslims hold that Abraham instituted the hajj after Allah had commanded Abraham and his son Ishmael to build the ka’bah. The ka’bah is a large black stone housed in a cube brick structure in the center court of the great mosque of Mecca.
The pilgrimage begins as soon as one leaves one’s home to journey to Mecca. Just outside the sacred city of Mecca, Muslims will trade their regular clothes for two pieces of unadorned white cloth, symbolic of burial clothes. These plain clothes symbolize the equality of all people regardless of class, wealth, race, or ethnicity. Pilgrims proceed to the grand mosque in Mecca where they ritually circle the ka’bah seven times. Pilgrims then travel to a long enclosed hall in the southern part of the great mosque where they walk briskly back and forth seven times, ritually reenacting the story of Hagar and Ishmael in which they had been turned out of their home by Abraham. In the story, Hagar ran back and forth between the two hills al-Safa and al-Marwa in search of water for her son Ishmael who was dying. After her seventh run, water began to gush up from the earth from what is regarded by Muslims as the sacred well of Zamzam. After pilgrims perform the running ritual they travel to the actual well of Zamzam for a drink from the sacred waters.
The main part of the pilgrimage begins on the eighth day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the month of pilgrimage. On this day Muslims venture out into the desert about 20 kilometers (13 miles) east of Mecca to the plain of Arafat. The Mount of Mercy is located on the plain of Arafat where pilgrims spend the afternoon standing together in solemn prayer. This ritual is analogous for Muslims to judgment day when they will stand before Allah to give an accounting of their lives. According to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad gave his farewell sermon here, and the last revelation of the Qur’an was revealed on this mount.
At sunset the pilgrims move on to Muzdalifa, a short distance from Arafat on the way back to Mecca. Here pilgrims celebrate and share their experiences together, as well as collect pebbles for the ritual stoning of stone columns to take place the following day. On the 10th day of the month of pilgrimage, the Muslim travelers move on to Mina where a single brick column represents Satan, and three other columns represent Satan’s temptations. Pilgrims stone these columns, ritually reenacting the story of Abraham, who threw stones at Satan to drive him away when Satan was tempting Abraham to abandon Allah’s command to sacrifice his son Ishmael. The entire pilgrimage ends with the other of the most important Muslim festivals: Eid al-Ahda, the festival of sacrifice, which echoes the sacrifice of the animal that Allah provided in place of Ishmael. These 4 days of celebration are often enjoyed in and around Mecca at the conclusion of the hajj. One who has performed to full hajj is ritually named a hajji, and is authorized to include an initial before one’s name to signify this high honor.
Children are taught to proclaim the Shahadah at a very young age, and Muslims continue to develop their understanding and practice of all the implications of that concise yet profound statement throughout their adolescence and adulthood. For children of Muslims who encourage observance of the daily prayers, salat marks out the sacred moments of every day when the Shahadah is proclaimed, and one’s body is prostrated in supreme humility and worship to Allah. Children are not required to fast during Ramadan, but many consider it a great honor when they reach the age that they may participate in sawm during this sacred month. Children are also not required to pay zakat, and hajj too is something most Muslims participate in as adults. However, Muslim children of economically disadvantaged families and orphans are to benefit from zakat according to Islam, and all Muslim children likely look forward to participating in the hajj when they are old enough and able.