Pillars of Islamic Practice
In the words of the Prophet Muhammad, the house of Islamic practice stands on the following five pillars.
- Uttering the creed of Islam
- Daily prescribed prayers
- Paying alms as charity
- Fasting in Ramadan and
- Pilgrimage to Mecca
1. Proclaiming the Creed of Islam
“He is God, there is no deity but He…” (Qur’an, 59:23);”Muhammad is the Messenger of God…” (Qur’an, 48:29)
This is simply to testify in one’s heart and speech that ‘there is no deity but God and Muhammad is His Messenger’. A person is said to be Muslim, when he or she proclaims this statement in the audience of witnesses. The statement signifies a verbal commitment to Islam and an announcement to people that the person is Muslim. Apart from a ritual ablution performed by the individual in private, no public baptism or any other initiation is required. This was practiced every time a person wanted to convert to Islam at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The same practice continues till today.
It is important to note that in Islam there is no forced or coercive conversion. The Qur’an itself says that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256). Instead, people are encouraged to investigate Islam and accept it of their own free will. At no time throughout the entire Muslim history did forced conversions take place. Those people who chose not to convert lived happily as ‘protected citizens’ under Muslim rule who were exempt from Muslim law and military drafting although they paid a special tax for the exemption.
2. Prescribed Daily Prayers – Salat
“Who believe in the Unseen, and perform salat (prayers) and spend out of what We have provided for them.” (Qur’an, 2:3)
Daily-prescribed prayers (salat) are central to personal practice of Islam and occur five times a day. For Muslims, salat is the most important act of worship and is a direct way to communicate with God. One who is praying is supposed to rid his mind of worldly concerns and focus solely on God. In fact, the word ‘salat’ literally means ‘hot connection’. So, prayer in Islam is an act of worship that enables the individual to get intimately close to God. This act completes the relationship with the individual and God, as God is closer to one than one’s own jugular vein (Qur’an 50:16, see also 2:186 for God answering prayers.)
The meaning of worship is this: Man, as a servant of God, being aware of his limitations, weakness and poverty, prostrates himself in love and wonderment before the perfection of His Lordship, Majesty and Compassion. The essence of worship is to glorify, exalt and praise God with the heart, tongue and body. The movements and recited phrases during the prayer have profound meaning:
- Firstly, the prayer is an index involving all ways of worship: During prescribed prayers, the worshipper repeats the creed of faith to reaffirm his covenant with God. He does not eat, so, it is like fasting. He faces in the direction of Ka’bah, so it is like pilgrimage. He reserves about 1 hour a day, so, it is like giving alms withhis primary capital, time.
- Secondly, collectively the prayer is an act symbolising submission to God: The physical movements in prayer show progressively increasing levels of submission to God. In the standing position with hands crossed in front of one’s body, the worshipper is as if saying ‘my hands are tied, I submit to You and Your will’. The bowing down position is a higher level of submission. Breaking the defence mechanisms of self, she is as if saying ‘I bow down only to You, I cannot see what’s in front of me. My God, I stand defenceless in front of You’. The prostration is the ultimate level of submission. She is as if saying, “My God, I am lowering my head to the same level as my feet. With respect to you I am negating myself. I am completely defenceless before Your will.”
- Thirdly, the prayer is a sacred map indicating all diverse ways of worship of creatures in nature: The Qur’an states that everything in the universe worships God in a manner that we do not readily understand (Qur’an, 57:1). Humanity, being the most comprehensive creation of God, represents the worship of all creation. A worshipper represents plants in standing up position, animals in bowing down position and the earth and creatures on the ground in the position of prostration.
Prayer five times a day may seem excessive to some people. In reality, it only takes maximum forty minutes in a day. Just as we eat three or four times a day and we never complain because we need physical nourishment to survive, we also need spiritual nourishment for our soul. Salat at spaced intervals throughout the day provides such spiritual nourishment. Some of the benefits of salat are…
- Remembrance of God during daily prayers enables a person to get closer to God. Prophet Muhammad said “a person is closest to God during prostration”. Hence, it provides spiritual contentment in fulfilling the purpose of man’s creation – worship.
- Salat raises the awareness of being in the presence of God and hence prevents a person from doing wrongful acts.
- All enjoined prayers are performed within groups where shoulders touch each other, hence building social cohesion and solidarity. Congregational prayer multiplies the spiritual benefits.
- The focus and meditation during prayer clears the mind, while giving regular breaks at key times during the day prevents stress.
- Ablution before the prayer cleans external limbs of the body several times a day as well as removing static electricity of the body and provides relief and comfort.
- The physical movements during prayer stretch every muscle in the body and provide vital movement in the joints that prevents arthritis.
3. Alms Giving – Zakat
“But those among them who are well-grounded in knowledge, and the believers, believe in what has been revealed to you and what was revealed before you: And (especially) those who establish regular prayer and practise regular charity (zakat) and believe in God and in the Last Day: To them shall We soon give a great reward.” (Qur’an, 4:162)
The minimum amount of alms (zakat) obligatory for a Muslim is 1/40 (2.5%) of excess personal wealth. Once collected, zakat can only be distributed to poor, needy and other rightful beneficiaries.
God Almighty is the only true sustainer of life, however God does not directly hand out sustenance to the hands of creation. Divine Will is to foster movement and activity within the creation through the search for sustenance. When we look at the natural and human domains, the main force behind activity is the need to earn one’s living. However, this reason only serves as a ‘bait’ because, only in this way, the exhibition of God’s works of art can be discovered and viewed by as many of His creatures as possible. In addition, life becomes more interesting and enjoyable for the participants. Divine Wisdom has also made us depend on each other so that human progress and development can be stimulated. Human civilisations that we have seen are a product of this dependency and struggle to earn a living. However, one consequence of this scenario is that the acquisition of wealth is gathered disproportionately by individuals.
Yet God provides enough sustenance on earth to satisfy everyone. Minimum living standards including sufficient food, clothing and shelter are the basic human rights. This rightful portion is included within the excess wealth of every one of us. Consequently, Muslims are enjoined to give alms and it is for this reason that alms or, zakat, are called the purifying alms and considered more than a charity, but rather the rightful portion of the less fortunate.
The following two attitudes are the root cause of much of the social unrest, corruption and unjust treatment of wealth and people in the world. They are:
1. “You work, I’ll have it”, and
2. “I don’t care if you are hungry, as long as I am full”.
While Islam’s regulations on interest deal with the first, alms in Islam solve the second idea by fostering compassion from rich towards poor instead of exploitation and oppression, and love and respect from poor towards the rich instead of hatred.
The history of Islam shows that there were periods when poverty was totally eradicated in Muslim lands through the state administration of alms. So much so that they did not have any poor citizens to give alms to and ended up giving alms to neighbouring Christian countries. During the Ottoman reign, people would knock door to door trying to find poor to give their alms. There were alms-boxes placed in public places so that the poor would take money freely without feeling the stigma of receiving money from someone else. Some of the benefits of zakat are…
- The human self (nafs) inherently wants to own and control unlimited amounts of wealth. By paying zakat a Muslim breaks this insatiable appetite for wealth. This detachment from wealth builds the spirituality of a believer.
- Through zakat a person exhibits her compassion for other less fortunate people and this in turn develops her sense of compassion and conscience. Zakat deals with the social problem of the ‘don’t care’ attitude of the rich.
- By observing the command of God to pay zakat a Muslim acknowledges that he is not the true owner of the wealth and that he is only a temporary holder.
- A person paying zakat has a settled state of mind and conscious knowing that he has contributed positively to the lives of individuals and society as a whole.
- A person whose greed is checked through zakat works much more sensibly and in a balanced way. He has more time to control and improve his physical health, hence he is also to avoid all physical ailments associated with overwork.
4. Fasting in Ramadan – Sawm
“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you that you are expected to be truly obedient.” (Qur’an, 2:183)
Fasting is the fourth pillar of Islam. Muslims are required to fast consecutively for a whole month in the lunar month of Ramadan. From dawn to sunset the practising Muslim abstains from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse with one’s partner while spending time in reflection, doing good deeds and being careful of one’s conduct. From sunset to dawn the next day practitioner is free to eat, drink and have sexual intercourse with one’s partner if desired. This cycle continues for the whole month.
What may seem to be a self-inflicted ordeal has profound meaning for man and God, and their reciprocal relationship. God exhibits the perfection of his Lordship, Grace and Mercy through the creation of the surface of this world as a table of blessing and placing all kinds of his blessings and sustenance on that Divine table for us to take advantage of. Most people forget the fact that the source of all sustenance is God Almighty. The causes are only agents of delivery. In Ramadan, believers show a collective act of worship in the presence of the mighty and universal Mercy as they wait for the Divine invitation to the table of blessings at the time of breaking the fast. As the earth revolves around its axis the jubilant timeframe is repeated in a continuous manner for the whole month.
We pay a price for everything we have in the form of money. But, the price expected for the innumerable divine endowments granted is not money. Instead God wants and expects the price of thanksgiving for the sustenance he has provided for us. True thanksgiving is to know that all sustenance comes directly from God, to acknowledge its value and to feel our own need and dependence to that sustenance. A fasting person feels the value and their need for basic sustenance when they feel the pangs of hunger. Since a believer fasts for the sake of God, he or she acknowledges that the sustenance that may be taken for granted actually comes directly from God. Therefore, fasting in the Islamic way is said to be the best way to show true and sincere thanksgiving. Fasting offers great benefits for the practitioner.
- The human self (nafs) inherently wants to be free and thinks about how it may gain that freedom. Fasting reminds the nafs that God is its true owner and that it does not have absolute sovereignty. This realisation opens the door of spiritual growth for a believer.
- Fasting reminds the nafs that it is weak and poor and how much it depends on God for the provision of basic needs. Through this realisation, a believer faces the Creator in supplication and ascends in spirituality.
- The spiritual and physical aspects of a person compete to exercise their dominance over that person. If one dominates, the other subsides. Hunger through fasting gives the spirit a chance to get out of the physical dominance of the body and develop.
- Through fasting, the rich would feel what it means to be hungry and not able to buy the food that they desire. Hence, the rich will be more inclined to give charity when they fast. This builds up a relationship between rich and poor and helps build social harmony.
- In Ramadan, Muslims get together to break the fast. They invite each other to join in the celebration of breaking the fast. Rich organise dinners for the poor. All this improves social cohesion and the social skills of people involved.
- In Ramadan, Muslims go to the mosque every night for a special prayer. This enables them to strengthen personal relationships. End of Ramadan celebrations (Eid) further enhance these relationships as Muslims visit family members, elders and each other.
- Fasting is the best form of exercising will power. As it is done consecutively every day for one month, effective self-control becomes a habit.
- It is a proven fact that most diseases, such as obesity, heart disease etc, are caused by overeating and a bad diet. By fasting 30 days in a row, one acquires the habit of controlling eating habits.
- One month of fasting rests the digestive system and other related organs especially the liver. This recuperation benefit is only achieved if all bodily intake is stopped for a long enough period.
5. Pilgrimage to Mecca – Hajj
“Verily, the first house (of worship) appointed for mankind was that at Bakkah (Mekkah), full of blessing, and a guidance for His creatures. In it, are manifest signs, the Station of Abraham; whoever enters it attains security. And Pilgrimage to the house (Ka’bah) is a duty mankind owes to God, those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith, Allah stands not in need of any of His creatures.” (Qur’an, 3:96-97)
Once in a lifetime, pilgrimage to the holy lands is the fifth pillar of Islam obligatory for all Muslims who are rich and healthy enough to make the journey. Pilgrimage consists of visiting a number of sacred places, circling Ka’bah and being present in the plains of Mt Arafat at a specific time in the lunar year.
As indicated in the verse, “All that is in the heavens and on the earth extols and glorifies God, for He is the Tremendous, the Wise,” (Qur’an, 57:1) all creatures of God worship and praise Him in the language of their natural disposition. Just as this occurs individually when creatures display the wonders of the Creator and live in accordance with the purposes of their creation, they also worship collectively by obeying the call of God in large numbers. All great animal migrations numbering in millions and synchronised blossoming of all plants in springtime are examples of collective acts of worship seen in nature.
Believers also obey to the call of God by turning up in millions at the time of pilgrimage. The central aims of worship exalting, glorifying and praising God occur individually and collectively. Muslims exalt God by being present en masse, as though saying ‘You are greater than my self and above the whole of humanity; here we are ready to worship you in masses.’ They glorify God by going around the Ka’bah, as though saying ‘just as we are circling the one and only Ka’bah, the oldest place of worship on earth, we only obey you the Absolute One worthy of worship.’ They praise God through remembrance at Mt Arafat.
Mt Arafat has a very significant place in the history of humanity. According to Islam, this is the place where the first man, Adam and his partner Eve sincerely repented and received forgiveness for their mistake. Similarly, Muslims turn up in millions at the same place and time, as Adam and Eve did, to repent for their sins and ask forgiveness. The plea and petition of millions of people at the same time is compelling. According to Prophet Muhammad, sincere pilgrims will rid themselves of their sins and attain the sinless state of a newborn.
Another common act of worship observed in the universe is that certain entities orbit a central point. For example, electrons orbit the nucleus in an atom. The earth and planets orbit the sun. Solar system orbits the centre of Milky Way and so on. Muslims join in this mode of worship and synchronise with the universe and all existence by circling the Ka’bah, which is the pivotal point for Muslims because it is the first temple built for the purpose of worshipping the One God.
Pilgrimage is a total human experience and has great outcomes for a Muslim. It simulates the Day of Judgment when masses gather in one place wearing only a two-pieced white garment without any stiches. In addition, this uniform dressing is an expression of the absolute equality of human beings. Muslims also realise the universality of Islam when they witness Muslims from all races and nationalities worshipping the One God. It is this manifestation that transformed Malcolm X. After witnessing the equal and peaceful stance of all races and all nationalities before God, he denounced his extreme ideas towards ‘white man’. Pilgrimage has many other benefits for a Muslim.
- The certainty of the faith of a Muslim increases through Hajj. Seeing millions of people worship one God is powerful testimony for the existence of God. Visiting places where Muslim history was shaped and Mt Hira where the Qur’an was first revealed increases his/her attachment to the Holy Book and the Prophet.
- Hajj is the greatest social annual event in the world. It brings together millions of Muslims all around the world.
- Many spiritual and mental faculties such as determination, perseverance, patience and control of human will are exercised and developed in trying conditions.
- Inner peace and contentment reach their peak.
- Leaving everything behind for a long period of time provides the effect of true recreation for the mind and spirit.
- Hajj is very much a physical event. Going around the Ka’bah seven times and the fast walk between Safa and Marwah remind Muslims of the need to be physically fit and also of the value of good health.