Cultural History Themes

The Five Pillars of Islam

Those who have chosen Islam as the basis for their existence have agreed to meet a number of basic obligations both to God and to their fellow man. These obligations are often called the Five Pillars of Islam.

The first of Islam’s pillars is the pronouncement of the profession of faith (shahada): “I witness that there is no god but God and I witness that Muhammad is His messenger.” Since the profession of faith is an integral part of daily prayer, the practicing Muslim recites it repeatedly. In parts of the world where Islam is especially widespread, the profession of faith is often found in the form of calligraphy on buildings and treasured objects. A shorter, informal version of the shahada is commonly called the kalima.

The second pillar is the daily prayers themselves (salat). Each Muslim should pray five times a day: in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon, after sunset, and early at night. These prayers can be said anywhere, but in keeping with Muslim tradition, prayers that are said in the company of others are better than those said alone. For this reason, public places of prayer (mosques) play a central role in daily life.

The third pillar is the giving of alms, or a special tax, to the needy (zakat). Islamic law has devised detailed rules for exactly how much the individual Muslim should pay annually. Traditionally, this tax is paid in conjunction with the large celebration held when the month of fasting is over.

The fourth pillar is the fast (sawm) kept each year in the ninth month in the lunar Muslim calendar, Ramadan. While the fast lasts, neither food nor drink may be taken from sunrise to sunset, but they are allowed at night. One of the Islamic world’s major religious holidays, Id al-fitr, is celebrated when the end of the month of fasting is over.

The fifth pillar is the pilgrimage (hajj). At least once in his or her lifetime, every Muslim whose health and finances permit should make the pilgrimage to Mecca to carry out various rituals, including walking seven times around the Kaaba. After making the pilgrimage, a Muslim may use the honorific hajii (for men) or hajjiyya (for women).