We began our “Understanding Islam” study with a brief overview of its history, beginning with Muhammad becoming a prophet and receiving his angelic revelations in the 7th century AD. Those revelations were written down and collected by his followers into the book known as the Quran, which they revere as the very words of God dictated to the world through Muhammad. We looked at some of the basic content of the Quran, as well as a few of the divisions and schools of thought within the Islamic world.
Almost all presentations of Islam include what they call their “Five Pillars.” The five pillars of Islam are mentioned in a saying of the prophet Muhammad in the Hadith collection, in which he says that Islam is based on these five things. These five core commitments or acts constitute the basis of what Muslims consider their basic duty to God. One can see that in some ways these religious duties may overlap with those of Christians or other religions, but the unique way in which they are carried out become the very essence of what it means to practice Islam.
Called Shahadah, this creed is a simple sentence: La ilaha ill Allah; Muhammad ar Rasul Allah—“There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is the messenger (prophet) of God.” In the first line we see the strong commitment of Islam to monotheism and the worship of God/Allah alone. The second line stresses the belief that Muhammad brought the message of God to the world. Muhammad’s name is so revered that a devout Muslim will always say the phrase “peace be upon him” after uttering his name, and this even appears in printed books with the abbreviation “pbuh” (and similar expressions are used for all the prophets as well). Repeating and sincerely believing the Shahadah is the first step in being a Muslim. It is the first thing whispered into a baby’s ear when born, and the last thing whispered into the ear of a person at death.
Muslims are called to pray (salat) five times every day—just before sunrise, just after noon, mid-afternoon, just after sunset, and one hour after sunset/night time. An optional sixth time during mid-morning may be observed for personal devotional concerns. Men are encouraged to pray at a mosque, especially on Fridays when they generally gather for other religious activities as well (women are not required to go to mosque, but they may go, and are kept separate from the men in a different room). Daily prayers may be performed anywhere. The calls to prayer have traditionally gone out from the minarets on mosques in Islamic areas, though today they typically use p.a. systems. The call to prayer begins with the phrase, Allahu Akbar, “God is the greatest.”
Muslims are required to perform ritual washings before prayers, known as wudu. The face and hands are washed, including a rinsing of the nose and mouth. Prayers are directed toward Mecca, with shoes off. The posture of prayer includes bodily gestures while uttering or thinking certain prescribed prayers, and begins by standing, then raising hands to the ears, placing hands on the chest, then bowing down, standing again, then prostrating oneself on the floor or ground, which is to be covered with a prayer mat or carpet, then sitting upright with knees bent and palms on knees, before rising again.
Zakah is a contribution that is intended for the poor. It is given once a year, and is paid at the rate of 2.5% of one’s cash, savings, gold and silver. There are also separate rates for other forms of wealth or net worth.
Fasting (Sawm) is required during the month of Ramadan. Devout Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex during the daylight hours. Other fasts may be observed according to one’s own devotional life.
The Hajj is a journey to the great mosque, called Al-Kabah, in Mecca, to be performed by everyone who can afford it at least once during one’s life. There are a number of rituals associated with the hajj, including the wearing of a simple dress made of two sheets of unsewn cloth. Millions of Muslims gather in Arabia for the annual hajj, and it is a powerful experience for them. After returning home, certain differences in clothing or hats are worn, and that person is thereafter referred to as “Haji…”.
Jihad is the Muslim term for “struggle.” According to mainstream Islam, Muslims are to struggle against their own evil impulses, and seek to live an upright life. It can also extend to society, in which there is an exertion of energy to establish the Islamic way of life. When Muslims come into conflict with other societies, that can also be described as jihad, a term which has become familiar in recent years due to the clash of cultures between Western society and some of the Middle East. Most Muslims do not see themselves engaged in jihad against the West, but a sizeable and radical element have taken to violent jihad in this manner.
Diet and dress—Muslims are required to eat only food considered halal, or approved. This is very similar to Jewish kosher rules, especially pork, but also includes alcohol. The dress code for women requires that a woman not call attention to herself. This is interpreted in various ways, but usually requires the wearing of a headdress or veil, or in more strict countries, a complete body covering.
In comparison to Christianity, one might observe that Islam can seem quite focused on religious behavior. Seen from the perspective of grace, this can seem rather legalistic. But one can hardly help but admire their deep commitment to a way of life that can be quite intense, and governs all of one’s thoughts and actions.