Islam: the five pillars

This week the faith column is devoted to Islam beginning with a brief overview of the religion

Islam is one of the great Abrahamic religions of the world with over 1.3 billion followers. Islam - whilst the culmination and clarification of the divine message that came before it - historically begins in 610 CE with the revelation of God’s words to the Prophet Muhammed over a 23 year period. The revealed words form the sacred book, the Qur’an. Taken alongside the life example (sirah) of the Prophet they form the fundamental sources of Islam.

The Qur’an describes itself as a guidance and a message for all of mankind, urging its readers to observe, ponder and ask questions of life and universe. The Qur’an stresses knowledge and reason as the valid ways to attain closeness to God. Interestingly, it contains very few legal injunctions.

To become a Muslim is extremely straight forward. It consists of making the following two-part declaration (shahadah) freely and sincerely: "There is no god but God; and Muhammed is the messenger of God". A rejection of false deities and affirming belief in the One God; and that the Prophet Muhammed is the great exemplar of how to attain God-consciousness.

The Qur’an specifically names 25 other Prophets including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. It states that all nations have been sent a messenger. Muslims are required to give equal respect to all of God’s Prophets.

There are five "pillars" or fundamentals of Islam. The first is the declaration or shahadah (described above).

The second is prayer (salat), adult Muslims are required to pray at five different times during the day, and wherever possible in congregation led by an imam, as a way to remember God during one’s busy daily routine. Anyone can be an imam and lead the congregational prayers subject to some basic knowledge of Islam. Prayers can be performed anywhere that is clean. Prayers consist of reciting verses from the Qur’an and a pattern of movements established by the Prophet.

The mid-day prayer on Friday is compulsory to do in congregation, bringing the entire Muslim community together for worship and social interaction. Prayers are performed in the direction of the Sacred Mosque in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, which houses the Ka’aba, the large cubed stone structure covered with black cloth. Originally established by God through Adam as the first place of worship for mankind, it was lost through the passage of time. The Ka'aba was re-built under Divine instructions by Abraham, and later cleansed of false gods by Muhammed. The Ka’aba symbolises the simplicity, unity and common sense of purpose of all Muslims.

The third pillar is fasting (sawm) for healthy adults during the hours of daylight during Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Fasting is a spiritual and physical discipline teaching self-control and empathy with those less fortunate in the world. Muslims are required to make greater efforts in charity, worship and spreading of peace during the month. Ramadan ends with the celebratory day of Eid al-Fitr.

The fourth pillar is the religious alms (zakat) which is the giving of 2.5% of one’s annual savings. Zakah means to purify; to purify one’s wealth by giving a proportion to the poor and for general welfare of the community. Zakat instils a sense of concern and welfare.

The fifth and final pillar is the pilgrimage (hajj) to Makkah, an obligatory once in a lifetime journey for those who are physically and financially able to do so. (People are free to go more than once). Considered the supreme spiritual experience of a Muslim’s life where God has promised the cleansing of all sins for the sincere repentant. With the availability of cheap flights, travelling to Makkah is no longer as arduous as it once was. Millions flock there every year making it the largest gathering of people anywhere in the world. Hajj ends with the celebratory day of Eid al-Adha.

Described as the five “pillars”, they provide the support structure upon which the Muslim character and society is based.