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An essay donated by Professor Hafiz Ikram Ullah

An Extensive Study of the "Pillars of Practice" in Islam

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There are certain ritual practices that are required of all pious Muslims. These practices are the Shahada, Prayer, Fasting, giving Charity, and the Hajj pilgrimage. 1 Even though they recognize the importance these rituals, many Muslims do not observe all of them, or they observe them only partially. Islamic law provides extensive guidelines on the circumstances under which someone is not obligated to engage in ritual and on how one makes up for ritual responsibilities that he or she has missed.

It is very important to make a formal intention to engage in a ritual before actually doing it, otherwise the ritual obligation will not have been fulfilled. For example, Muslims are obligated to donate a percentage of their wealth in a form of charity called zakat. If you were to give away money without first making the conscious intention of fulfilling your zakat obligation, it would still be a good deed but would not count as zakat.

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Bearing Witness: Shahada

"Shahada" literally means “witnessing” and is a shorter form of the term "Kalimat al-shahada," the statement of bearing witness that forms the creedal formula of Islam. The statement literally translates as:

“I bear witness that there is no god except Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah!” 2

This formula is often broken into its components in order to show what the central beliefs of Islam are, especially the nature of the Islamic understanding of Allah. The whole formula is framed as affirmation or assertion. In other words, it is supposed to be a voluntary and conscious declaration of a Muslim's beliefs.

  • Uttering the first half of the Shahada (“…. There is no god except Allah) makes a person a monotheist but not necessarily a Muslim; it is something that could be said just as faithfully by Christians or Jews.

  • The second half of the formula (“… Muhammad is the messenger of Allah!”) distinguishes Muslims from other monotheists, because belief in the finality of Muhammad’s prophetic mission is what sets Muslims apart from followers of other religions.  

The Shahada so perfectly encapsulates the essence of Islamic faith that it is often referred to as the foundation stone on which the Pillars of Faith and Pillars of Practice stand. It is the first thing that is whispered into a baby’s ears at birth, and it is the utterance that Muslims try to have on their lips at the moment of death. It is also the formula by which someone converts to Islam. Many people believe that simply uttering the Shahada makes one a Muslim.

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Prayer: Salat

Sunnis and Twelver Shi’is (dominant in Iran) together account for the overwhelming majority of all Muslims. They are ritually required to pray five times a day. This kind of prayer, called Salat in Arabic and Namaz in many other languages, is very formal and ritualistic, and is not to be confused with the informal, private prayer that most Muslims engage in anytime they feel like asking God for something or when simply conversing with Him.

Salat prayers are performed just before daybreak, just after the sun has reached the highest point in the sky, in the middle of the afternoon, just after sunset, and after dark. It is worth noting that although all the prayers are linked to the sun, none of them is performed precisely at the moment of a sun-related time (for example, at sunrise or sunset). This is consciously to disassociate Islam from any form of sun worship. Special arrangements are made in those areas of the world where the sun does not rise or set daily during parts of the year -- for example: areas north of the Arctic Circle.

Muslims are not required to pray communally, although it is considered better to pray with other people when possible since this helps strengthen social bonds. You can pray at home or anywhere else, as long as the place is not unclean. Cleanliness is more a matter of ritual purity than of hygiene, although an obviously filthy place (such as a sewer or public restroom) is not appropriate for prayer. Ritually impure places are normally associated with death, be it human or animal (for example, a slaughterhouse).

Before prayer, a person is supposed to perform the ritual called wudu (or wuzu), which involves washing one’s hands, face, and feet in a prescribed way. Once again, this is a “ritual” purification rather than a matter of hygiene. No soap is used, and when water is unavailable, one can simply go through the motions of washing them with “dry” hands. After entering such a state of ritual purity, the Muslim stands facing Mecca and makes the formal intention to pray.

There is little latitude in what one says during the salat; the majority of verses or phrases are set, being derived from the Qur'an. There are certain points in each cycle when the individual Muslim can select a passage from the Qur'an to recite, but he or she cannot choose anything else to incorporate into the prayer (that is, a non-Quranic prayer or hymn). Furthermore, the salat prayers are always to be performed in Arabic, even by those Muslims -- who form the majority of the population worldwide -- who do not understand the language. As such, salat is not prayer in the sense of a personal conversation with God but rather a ritual obligation that must be fulfilled to reaffirm one’s relationship with Allah.

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Fasting: During Ramadan

Muslims are supposed to fast during the lunar month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The fast consists of abstaining from eating, drinking, smoking, violence, and engaging in sex from before sunrise until after sunset for the entire month. Not only are you supposed to refrain from these things but also from thinking about them. Going hungry and thirsty and avoiding violence or sexual thoughts is supposed to teach self-awareness, and also make one more sympathetic toward those who are less fortunate -- those who not only have to go without food and water through necessity, but also who have to hide their anger and desire because they always live at the mercy of others.

Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic year, and fasting is one of the most social of Islamic rituals. In countries with an Islamic majority, the entire daily schedule changes during Ramadan to accommodate the fast. Most families wake up before sunrise to eat a substantial breakfast and to pray. The beginning of the fast is either announced by a siren blast or else by drummers walking through the streets beating drums.

Restaurants either close completely during the day or else are very discreet about serving customers. In some conservative societies it is illegal to eat or drink in public, and only certain restaurants are allowed to stay open in order to feed non-Muslims or travelers. Many Muslims break the fast in a simple way by drinking water and eating either some salt or a few dates, in imitation of Muhammad’s practice. Supper tends to be more lavish than it would be at other times of the year. The entire month has a festive atmosphere combined with a great sense of piety. Children often insist on fasting, because the practice is associated with growing up; the first time a child is allowed by his or her parents to fast for a whole day or for the entire month is a major event in many Muslim’s lives and serves as an informal rite of passage.

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Alms-giving: Zakat

The giving of charity is considered an extremely meritorious act in Islam. Just as in the case of prayer, a particular kind of alms-giving is differentiated from others because it is done ritually. Known as zakat, it consists of giving away a certain percentage of one’s wealth in charity. The percentage given away varies by sect, ranging from 2.5% among Sunnis to 10% in some Shi’i groups. There is also a great deal of variations in what forms of wealth and income are considered taxable for zakat; for example, whether or not income (as opposed to assets) is taxable, and in how one calculates the tax for agricultural products.

In some modern Islamic societies, the zakat tax is collected by the government in the same way as other taxes. This tax income is used exclusively for religious purposes or for social welfare, such as the building of hospitals or schools. In other societies, people are responsible themselves to making the charitable contributions to causes of their choice. Some Muslims give the entire sum to their local mosque or to a respected religious leader, who applies it to good use. Other Muslims divide the money and gives some of it to charities and the rest directly to needy individuals.

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Pilgrimage: Hajj

Hajj is the name of the pilgrimage to Mecca, which all Muslims are supposed to perform once in their lives if they have the means to do so. The Hajj must be undertaken at a specific time of year, from the first few days of the pilgrimage month (the last month of the Islamic calendar, known as Dhul al-hajja) up to the tenth of the same month. If the pilgrimage to Mecca is carried out at some other time of year, and thus does not include an important set of rituals that take place at sacred sites outside the city, it is called an umra; it is still a good deed but does not fulfill a Muslim’s duty to perform the Hajj.

For 1,400 years, the Hajj has replayed the pilgrimage performed by Muhammad after Mecca had surrendered to the Muslims. Participants enter a state of ritual purity and wear a special pilgrim’s dress before arriving in Mecca and for the entire period of the Hajj abstain from paying attention to their appearance. They begin by walking seven times around the Kaaba, the focal point of Islamic faith. The Kaaba is a simple brick building believed to have been built by Abraham as a temple for God and now serves not only as the focus of the Hajj but also as the direction in which Muslims pray, regardless of where in the world they may be.

After completing their circuits around the Kaaba, the pilgrims run between two small hills named Safa and Marwa. This ritual recalls an episode in the life of Abraham and his family, in which Abraham had abandoned Hagar and her infant son Ishmael (Isma’il in Arabic) in the desert. When Ishmael cried out in thirst, Hagar ran seven times back and forth between Safa and Marwa looking for water. In the meantime, Ishmael is believed to have kicked his heels into the sand, miraculously causing a spring to appear. This spring, called Zamzam, is believed to possess spiritual powers, and pilgrims takes its water as souvenirs at the completion of the Hajj. The water is also frequently used for anointing bodies during funerary rites.

After completing the rounds between the two hills, the Hajj pilgrims then travel to two towns near Mecca to commemorate other events in the life of Abraham. The last part of the Hajj involves spending an afternoon in the plain of Arafat, where Prophet Muhammad delivered what came to be called his farewell Sermon. The Hajj comes to an end on the third day, when the pilgrims sacrifice sheep and goats (and occasionally bulls and camels) in memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and God’s substitution of a ram in his stead. This sacrifice ends the Hajj and the pilgrims are then free to resume their regular dress and grooming.

Before the advent of air travel and modern shipping, the Hajj was an arduous undertaking that required a great deal of preparation. The slowness of the journey and dangers involved also meant that pilgrims had to settle their affairs and make provisions for their families because of the genuine possibility that they might never return. For these reasons, the departure of the Hajj caravans was a major event in all Islamic towns, and remains so to this day.

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About the Author:

Hafiz Ikram Ullah is an Islamic scholar. He holds a Master’s degree in Islamic jurisprudence and is a distinguished professor in Islamic law at International Islamic University at Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also the founder of Learn Read Quran, a leading online Qur'an academy which helps people learn and understand the Qur'an with live Qur'an tutors.

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Notes:

  1. Most Muslim are obligated to go on at least one Hajj Pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia during their lifetime. However, this is not necessary if they are physically or financially unable to make the pilgrimage.
  2. Many non-Muslims believe that "Allah" is the name of God. In reality, it is the Arabic translation of the word "God," just like "Dieu" is the French translation of "God."

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