ISLAM: THE FOUNDATIONS

The Five Pillars of Islam

Written by Tim Winter (Lecturer in Islamic Studies, Cambridge)
Edited by Jamie Jamal Al-Nasir

The religion is based on simple foundations says Tim Winter

Islam, the Prophet (pbuh) said, is built on five pillars. They do not define the religion, because its essence is traditionally taken to be its spiritual life, rather than its formal practices. They are, however, regarded as its foundations and, more than anything else in Islam, they give Muslim societies their unmistakeable rhythm and texture.

On worship:

God's outpouring to man in the form of His gifts and the bility to use them, now counterpoints man's corresponding praise of his Maker. But this praise is not easy. However strong the motivation behind it maybe, it is hard for us to express ourselves in a manner worthy of addressing God. Just as when an ordinary man addresses an aristocrat, he expresses his respect most fully by using certain protocol, so when we turn to God, we must find some was of presenting what we feel in a way befitting the presence of the Lord of creation, who has given us all we possess. This protocol we call "worship." While we may find many ways of worship which afford us some satisfaction, the finest and most devotional forms cannot be dreamed up by man, and are best granted directly by God. Worship is complex and subtle activity, relying heavily on symblism; a complete science, in fact, involving not only a profound understanding of the human mind, but also a direct knowledge of the kingdom of God.....Although in the Islamic vision all human activity can be (and ideally should be) a form of worship, four specific forms of devotion are laid down and particularly emphasised. Chief among these is the regular Prayer, followed by the month of Fasting, the similarly purifying experiences of systematic Almsgiving, and the great Pilgrimage to the sacred precints at Mecca.

"Those who have faith in the Unseen and establish the Prayer and spend out of what We have bestowed upon them; and those who believe in that which is sent down to you [O Muahmmad] and that which was sent down before you [the Books and the prophets] and have certain faith in the Hereafter. These are on true guidance from the Lord, and these are the successful."
<Quran al-Baqara 2:2-5>

Thus God sets out at the opening of His Book a brief yet utterly comprehensive summary of what of what the prcatical implementaion of the Book will engender: faith, which encourages man to pray; Prayer, which encourages him to gave and to serve; and finally service, which increases him in faith.


La ilaha illah'Llah: There is no deity save God
Muhammadun rasulu'Llah:
Muhammad is the Messenger of God.

These two phrases which punctuate and transform the Muslim life, sum up fully the theology of the Islamic religion. By implication more than by statement, the first testimony declares the unity of the metaphysical, while the second is the gate to what that unity implies.

Religion, when seen in the context of the two testimonies, recognises man's essential inability to deal with his world.

Through the second testimony of Islam: Muhammad is the Messenger of God the believer confirms what was taught by every prophet before him and that

[The First Pillar, and the most fundamental, is called the "Two Testimonies" (shahadatayn). These function as a sort of miniature creed. Every Muslim is required to affirm that "there is no god but God". and that "Mohammed is the messenger of God".

The first assertion, announcing that Islam is strictly monotheistic, might be compared to the Old Testament's: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is One." The second of the Two Testimonies tells the believer that this One God wishes to make his preferences known to his erring creatures, and has chosen a prophet like Moses in the Bible - to do this.

Muslim theology claims that God has sent prophets to every people, and that Mohammed was the last of them. After him, according to orthodox Muslim doctrine, the believers are to expect not another prophet, but the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

In Essence the first Pillar of Islam is the acceptance of the testimony that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.

and establish the Prayer

Five times in every day the Muslim turns his back on whatever has been proccupying him and bows and prostrates in submission before his Creator. The regular act of Salat is a powerful aid to the constant, unceasing remembrance of the eternal presence of God. Through it, the believer constantly pulls back to the remembrance of God and acquires the ability to see the hand of the Lord in everything which befalls him. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once compared it to a stream running by a house. "If a person were to wash in the stream," he said, "five times a day, would any dirt remain on his body?" "None," replied his Companions. And he remarked, "So it is with the five daily prayers, with which God wipes away faults." These five daily acts of devotion, which are said at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and in the eveing, are best prayed in the company of others, but quite acceptable to pray alone

Each of the Prayers is announced vocally in the Call to Prayer, or Adhan. The muezzin (caller to Prayer), who may be anyone from the local community, stands in an elevated place, usually the tall graceful tower known as a minaret, and sings forth the following declaration:

God is Most Great. God is Most Great.
God is Most Great. God is Most Great.
I testify that there is no diety save God.
I testify that there is no diety save God.
I testify that Muahammad is the Messenger of God.
I testify that Muahammad is the Messenger of God.
Come to the Prayer. Come to the Prayer.
Come to the success. Come to the success.
God is Most Great. God is Most Great
There is no diety save God.

In its directness and stark simplicity the call evokes an instant response in those that hear it. To them it serves as a reminder that through their daily existence, with its hopes and its disappointments, there runs a thread of Divine remembrance which calls them to make their every act affirm the unity and omnipresent nature of God. And at the Dawn Call, sent forth just as light begins to show on the horizon, the muezzin adds, "Prayer is better than sleep! Prayer is better than sleep!" to rouse us from our lazy slumber to stand before our Creator at that blessed hour, thanking Him for our lives and the good things of Hid providing and asking Him for fuller participartion in His light and for forgiceness and joy on the Day of Judgement.

The Second Pillar of Islam is the duty to pray five times daily. It is seen as more meritorious for a Muslim to pray in a mosque and with a congregation, but quite acceptable to pray alone. All men and women are required to participate in the rite, which happens at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and at The prayer is virtually identical everywhere, and has not altered in its form since the earliest days of Islam. Muslims often proudly claim that they are the only people who pray exactly as the founder of the religion prayed.

As the years pass and the discipline of regular wotship begins to take effect, every prayer will become more and more absorbing, more and more powerful and awesome until our whole lives become infused with the awareness of God's grace and protection. By the smae token, every moment in which we are not at prayer will become a form of Prayer itself, and we will find that in our spare time nothing seems so fulfilling and moving as facing God anew, declaring His name in humility and wonder. Thus the world in which we live will thus change in meaning for us. from being a space of taking and profit into a realm of pure service to God and to our fellow men, for as our spiritual horizons widen we will learn to take delight in selflessness.

The Muslim form of prayer involves a series of bowings and prostrations, evoking the Islamic notion of the close bonding of body and spirit. There is no priest to conduct the ceremony, because there is no concept of a sacrament, in the sense of a visible sign of God's saving intervention that needs to be administered by a hierarchy. Every believer is alone before God, even when worshipping shoulder to shoulder with others.

For a beginners guide to performing the prayer click here.

As God says, Prayer distances us from evil, corruption and agressiveness. The mechanism of this is complex, but it is neverthelss clear that as the inward voyage progresses, the one embarked upon it finds himself simultaneously drawn both into and away from the society which surrounds him. He is drwan into it in the sense that he feels himslef to be overflowing with the delight of closeness to God and longs to bring something of this to others, thereby consolidating further its hold within his soul as he begins to live in the service of his fellows. On the other hand, as he discovers that the best things in life are within; so he finds less and less satisfaction in pursuing those thing which the lower reaches of gispersonality crave: good food, fast cars, power, reputation - the list is familiar.

These two oppposing forces do not, in fact, clash, as secular crtics of religion would claim. Rather, they create a new and radical syynthesis in the human personlaity. For the man or woman wh is transformed by regular Prayer is also undergoing a basic change in his or her socai lfunction. No longer is such a person essentially a consumer, sleepily sucking at the teat of the materilalistic golden calf; instead he shows himself concerned with improving society. This exaplins why to take a walk down any old street in Cairo or Damascus is to notice not only ancient and imposing mosques, but also public water founatins, schools, hospitals, and aqueducts, which are the direct result of the presence of those mosques.

The life of Prayer as understood in Islam is a fundamental challenge to the modern attitude to the individual's role in society, which is defined mainly as his contribution to the utilitarian, soulless contract of production and consumption. The Muslim life rises above this mechanical estimate of man, for Islam is founded, as it always has been, on the selfless pursuit of sanctity and of what is in society's interests, regardless of the possibility of reward.

[The meaning of sura al fatiha?]

For prayer times from around the world click here.

and spend out of what We have bestowed upon them

"Even a smail can be charity." Saying of the Prophet

The word Zakat means both 'purification' and 'growth'. Our possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in need, and, like the pruning of plants, this cutting back balances and encourages new growth. Thus the Zakat is the amount of money that every adult, mentally stable, free, and financially able Muslim, male and female, has to pay to support specific categories of people. It is a proportionately fixed contribution collected from the surplus wealth and earnings of the Muslim. The Prophet (pbuh) was concerned that believers should show solidarity with the poor, and since his time, every Muslim has been expected to donate a minimum of one-fortieth of his wealth in charity every year. Traditionally an informal practice involving discreet handouts to indigent neighbours, the zakat is often administered through charities nowadays. The largest Muslim charities, such as Islamic Relief, have become important international aid agencies. Although it is a proportionately fixed contribution, the Muslims understanding of zakat is to give out as much as possible and as frequently as he is able to.

The most obvious implication of the above ayat is the traditional provision of public works by private individuals. But in addition there in the institution of the waqf, the inalienable endowment, whereby some commercial project has its profits turned over wholly or partly to a particular school or hospital in perpetuity, either by charter or through making the endowment in a written leagacy. Needless to say giving to others also exists on a more modest scale. Not everyone is able to build or dontae a school or a bridge. Begging as a professiojn is hat5eful to Islam,.

Islam distinguishes between two categories of charity: the optional form, generally termed sadaqa

Hardly less important is the Third Pillar - the practice of regular almsgiving, known in Arabic as Zakaat.

[Insert zakat calculator here]

"O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was for those before you, so that you may learn self-restraint "
<Qur'an al-Baqarah 2:183>

Many people are aware that Muslims observe an annual fast, during the month of Ramadan. Why they do so however, is not always so well known. Fasting, in the various forms men have observed throughout history, is known to have beneficial effects on one's health. But in a religious context, it is primarily a technique of seeking proximity to God. It seems that every religious dispensation before Islam knew the practice of fasting in one form or another. In the archaic practices of Hinduism there were certain days of the year set aside for Fasting by women, and others for men. In our day, the Brahmin caste in India still observes a complete abstinence from food and drink on the eleventh and twelfth days of every Hindu month.

Fastin was also known to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Similarly, the ancient scriptures of Persian advocate Fasting and affirm its value as a means of spiritual purification. The Jews of the Old Teastament were known to observe fasts on days of danger and misfortune and on several fixed days in their calendar, of which the best known to non-Jews in the fast of Yom Kippur.

Jesus is said to have fasted forty days and nights before his final entry into Jerusalem. The early Christians, most of hom observed the Mosaic law, also fasted on the Day of Atonement. But as history rolled on, less emphasis was placed on exact adherence to the practices observed by Jesus, and the Lenten fast assumed a largely symbolic role, involving abstention from certain types of food only.

Fasting, then, is as old as religion itself. When Islam appeared, its scripture acknowledged and continued this ancient practice. The Quran taught the early Muslims to fast on and day, but stated that as a minimum they were to observe the month-long fast of Ramdan.

The fast of Ramadan is Islam's Fourth Pillar. Between first light and sundown, adult Muslims in good health abstain from food, drink, cigarettes, and sex. Vices, such as lying and backbiting, are regarded as particularly abhorrent during Ramadan, which is also a traditional time for charity and visiting the sick and the poor. The fast lasts for an entire lunar month of between 28 and 30 days, and ends with one of the religion's major festivals, Eid al-Fitr.


The Final Pillar is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Every believer who is physically and financially able is required to make it at least once. The rites begin and end at the Kabah the square shrine built as Muslims believe, by Abraham and his elder son Ishmael. However, the culminating moment unfolds eight miles away, where Muslims stand and pray near the Mount of Mercy, a desert place where the Prophet is believed to have preached.

A spectacular annual assembly of several million people, the ha jj is seen
as a symbolic journey to God. But it is also thought to represent the equality of believers, and their sense of distinctive identity as a community. The hajj ends with the second of the great festivals, the Eid al-Adha, which last three days.

These religious duties are fairly simple, but also fairly demanding, and it is far from clear how many Muslims observe them. In many villages, observance - at least in public - can appear to be total. In Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, the duties are enforced by law. In the cities of very secularised countries, such as Turkey, the percentage of who pray at the approved times is probably as low as 10 per cent The Ramadan fast is more commonly observed than prayer, and although the hajj is undertaken only by the minority who can afford it it is not unusual for quite secular individuals to make the journey to Mecca towards the end of their fives, in the hope that the pilgrimage will atone for past misdeeds.

The meaning of the Five Pillars varies in the souls of different believers. For the mystically inclined, they are all methods of spiritual transformation. As the Koran says, "Remembering God is what makes hearts find peace".

Recently, however, some Muslim thinkers have focused on the rites as symbols and guarantors of Muslim identity and unity. While the spiritual life is not denied, religion is used by the minority of believers who favour the radical agenda as a badge of Muslim difference against the West's global culture.

Most believers regard that transformation with suspicion. For them, the Five Pillars have only one purpose, which is to help the notoriously absentminded human race to remember its Maker - and they remind us that the word "Islam" means "surrender to God".

Pillars : 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5


(Sources: Abdul Wadod Shalabi - Islam: Religion of Life; T. Winters - Islamic Supplement, The Daily Telegraph, London; http://islamicity.com/mosque/zakat/#learn