Islam is based upon five (pillars/principles).
—Muhammad (Hadith of al-Bukhari)
At times scholars of religion have described Christianity as a faith that is focused on orthodoxy, while Islam is concerned with orthopraxy. While it is true that following Islam requires a believer to perform a set of five perfunctory practices, saying that Islam is merely concerned with orthopraxy is painting with too broad a brush. While this current question focuses on Islamic practice, it should be considered in tandem with the following question that investigates the essentials of Islamic belief.
Despite the fact that this book has labored to demonstrate the impropriety of discussing Islam as if it were monolithic, this chapter and the next comprise what is considered to be the most universal description of Islamic faith and practice. As indicated by the hadith cited above, Islam is based upon Five Pillars of practice. In addition to these five practices, however, Muslims are committed to the Six Articles of Faith that will be the subject of the following chapter.
The Five Pillars serve to remind Muslims throughout the rhythms of their daily lives that they are to live in submission to God. These pillars are not found listed in the Qur’an as such. However, the Sunnah provides the details and description that the Qur’an lacks in order to guide the faithful toward the proper fulfillment of each pillar.
Islamic Confession (Shahadah)
The first pillar of Islam is the confession of faith (Shahadah), which every Muslim must recite. This confession consists of two distinct claims, both of which are essential components in the process of becoming a Muslim. The first part pertains to the God of Islam, while the second identifies his final messenger.
In Arabic, the confession is “La ilaha illa Allah, wa Muhammad ar-rasul Allah.” Translated into English, the confessor testifies, “There is no god but The God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” This phrase is ubiquitous throughout the Muslim world. It is part of the public announcement heard five times per day as an announcer (muezzin) calls the faithful to prayer. In modern majority-Muslim societies, this call is amplified by loudspeakers, and can be heard for miles around. It is a phrase that binds the community together in their shared confession while also summoning them to put their faith into practice.
On an individual level, the Shahadah also plays an important role as part of the initiation rite into the community of believers. In places like Egypt, it is tradition for the patriarch of the family to recite the Shahadah into the ear of every baby born into the family. This practice seeks to ensure that the first statement the child hears outside of the womb is the testimony of Islamic faith.
Likewise, personal confession of the Shahadah is the rite by which a new Muslim officially enters the Ummah. In most cases, even when a new Muslim speaks another language, the confession is made in Arabic in order to adhere directly to the traditional version recorded in the hadith. Beyond this initiation, Muslims will often display the Shahadah in their homes, places of business, or on their cars in decorative Arabic calligraphy. It is a defining statement.
Five Daily Prayers (Salat)
The second pillar of Islam is the observation of five daily prayers (salat). As noted above, five times per day the Shahadah is recited as part of the public call to gather for prayer (adhan). Shortly after the adhan, a second announcement (iqama) signals the beginning of the prayers. Muslims are to perform the compulsory prayers, preferably in the mosque, sometime before the next call to prayer. In the Middle East this often results in shops closing for fifteen minutes to an hour in the middle of the workday. Some regularly gather in a local mosque while others will find a corner or a back office in which to perform their prayers.
The exact timing of each of the prayers depends upon the position of the sun, thus they change throughout the year and according to where one resides on the globe. However, the general times of day that these prayers occur are just before sunrise (fajr), noon (dhuhr), afternoon (‘asr), at sunset (maghrib), and at night (isha’a).
Prior to performing the prayers, faithful Muslims perform a ritual washing (wudu). Water is provided at the mosque, usually in a separate room with multiple spigots so as to accommodate many worshipers at once. The ritual involves pouring water over the hands and forearms, feet and ankles, in the mouth and nose, and over the head. Symbolically, this cleanses the Muslim prior to voicing prayers to God.
These prayers are different than what Christians think of when hearing the word “prayer.” The prayers are not petitions or supplications. Rather, each prayer consists of a certain number of ritualized motions (rakat) and a scripted prayer including citations from the Qur’an.
Instead of viewing these prayers as cold, lifeless habits, Seyyed Hossein Nasr highlights the spiritual rejuvenation they provide for those who view them correctly:
The life of the practicing Muslim is punctuated ever anew by the daily prayers, which break the hold of profane time upon the soul and bring men and women back to a sacred time. . .The prayers are a rejuvenation for the soul, protection against evil acts, and a shelter for believers amid the storm of the life of this world.
Seen in this light, these ritualized prayers serve an admirable and noble purpose through this regular interruption of the mundane with a reminder of the divine.
Ramadan Fasting (Sawm)
The third pillar of Islam is keeping the fast of Ramadan. Annually, for a period of thirty days, Muslims disrupt their daily rhythms by fasting from sunrise to sunset during a month called Ramadan. This fast consists of abstaining from food, drink, tobacco, and sexual relations for thirty days each year. Families will wake and gather before the sunrise to feast for the day. Then, each night, families, neighborhoods, and communities gather together to celebrate the breaking of the fast (iftar) at sunset. In the places I have lived, the atmosphere during the iftar is festive, welcoming, and hospitable for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The reason this month is remembered is that Ramadan is the month during which Muhammad began receiving the Qur’an. In addition to the heightened spirituality of the month as a whole, the last ten days of Ramadan are intensely spiritual as many Muslims remain in the mosque for extended prayers throughout the night. These ten days are believed to include one night known as the Night of Power (Laylat al-Qadr) on which God pours out additional blessings, forgives sins in abundance, and is extraordinarily inclined to answer one’s prayers.
Usually practiced in abundance during the month of Ramadan, the fourth pillar of Islam involves acts of charity (zakat). In Islam it is customary that one should give two and a half percent of one’s wages throughout the year. This money can be given to the mosque, to Islamic charities, or directly to the poor.
The zakat is viewed as an opportunity for Muslims to recognize that their wealth ultimately belongs to God. Furthermore, zakat reminds believers of their duty to care for the less fortunate within the Ummah. The Qur’an reminds believers of this duty to steward what God has given them in Qur’an 2:267, which states, “You who believe! Contribute from the good things you have earned, and from what We have provided for you from the earth.”
During Ramadan especially, increased numbers of beggars tend to congregate in Muslim cities so as to avail themselves of people’s charity. Begging is often considered a reciprocal act whereby the needy are cared for and the faithful are able to fulfill their duties during a month of additional merit. Qur’an 2:271 speaks of the rewards of giving, promising, “If you make freewill offerings publicly, that is excellent, but if you hide it and give it to the poor, that is better for you, and will absolve you of some of your evil deeds. God is aware of what you do.”
Another common time for increased almsgiving is approximately seventy days after the end of Ramadan, during the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha). This festival will be the subject of Question 29, “Who is Abraham in the Qur’an?” However, it is pertinent to mention at this point that the meat of the sacrificial animals is divided into quarters and distributed to family members, neighbors, and the poor as an act of charity.
Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)
The celebration of Eid al-Adha is connected to the final pillar of Islam: the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). While the previous four pillars are daily and annual features of Islamic practice, the pilgrimage is obligatory only once in a person’s life, and then only if the individual is able to afford it. Those who do not have the resources to make the journey are excused from the obligation, though it is usually the dream of observant Muslims to visit the birthplace of Islam.
The centerpiece of the hajj journey is the circumambulation of the black granite temple known as the Ka‘ba, which is located in the middle of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. Qur’an 22:26–27 instructs believers to walk around the Ka‘ba, while later tradition records various other elements of the ritual connected to Ibrahim’s precedent. Following in Ibrahim’s footsteps effects purification and blessing for Muslims during the hajj.
The traditional hajj journey is taken approximately seventy days after the end of Ramadan, during the month known in the Islamic calendar as Dhu al-Hajja, from the eighth day through the thirteenth. Observation of Eid al- Adha occurs on the tenth day of Dhu al-Hajja. Sacrificial animals are ritually slaughtered at daybreak all around the world on this day.
This feature of the hajj celebration serves as a rehearsal of Ibrahim’s sacrifice as recorded in Qur’an 37:107 and the surrounding verses. This passage in the Qur’an is understood to draw on Genesis 22, where Abraham ascends Mount Moriah with his son. Contemporary Islamic scholarship nearly unanimously contends that the son was Ismail. This allows Muslims to maintain ethnic connection between Muhammad and the Arab peoples who trace their lineage through the son of Ibrahim and Hagar.
While there are many additional practices shared by most of those throughout the Ummah, these five are recognized nearly universally as irrevocable components of what it means to practice Islam. It might be noted that some expressions of Islam—especially Twelver Shia Muslims—make the practice of jihad obligatory such that it has at times been referred to as a sixth pillar. Post-September eleventh, the word jihad will likely trigger alarm bells in Western ears, yet it is not always understood to refer to physical violence. Many Muslims wage a form of internal holy war when they seek to eradicate sin within themselves. In other words, the call to jihad can be added to the necessary duties of a Muslim who is intent on struggling to follow the straight path of divine guidance despite sinful inclinations and the human tendency to forget the ways of God.
In many ways, the practice of Islam can be summed up by this final pillar of jihad as it is understood in its spiritual sense: struggling to remember Allah. From the daily prayers to the annual fast, Islam is a system of reminders to walk on the straight path. In fact, as Question 16 will discuss, the great problem that Islam recognizes is not an issue of a sinful nature. Instead, it is a problem of weakness of memory.
Muhammad Khan, trans., Summarized Sahih al-Bukhari (Riyadh, KSA: Darussalam, 1996), 59 (§8).
 John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 85.
 The traditional source of the Five Pillars comes from al-Bukhari’s volume of hadith. It is cited at the beginning of this chapter.
 Khan, Sahih al-Bukhari, 215–16 (§371).
 Clinton Bennett, ed., The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 363.
 Khan, Sahih al-Bukhari, 116 (§128).
 This is not to say that Muslims do not pray in spontaneous, unscripted fashion. The word for this type of petition to God in Islam is du’a, but it is unrelated to the salat.
 Seyyed, Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 131–32.
 Carole Hillenbrand, Introduction to Islam: Beliefs and Practices in Historical Perspective (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 103.
 Bennet, Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies, 373–74.
 Hillenbrand, Introduction to Islam, 99.
 Hillenbrand, Introduction to Islam, 101.
 Bennet, Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies, 338.
 F. E. Peters, The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 7–9.
 William Montgomery Watt, Islam: A Short History (Oxford: Oneworld, 1996), 85–86; cf. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? (New York: Gallup, 2007), 17, who argue that it is improper to speak of jihad as a sixth pillar.
This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Islam written by Matthew Aaron Bennett. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
A much anticipated new addition to the very popular and practical book series that answers real questions on key topics in contemporary Christianity
Islam is one of the most significant forces shaping the world today, but most Christians are confused about its key beliefs and practices. Many wonder about the apparent similarities and obvious differences between Christianity and Islam, and want to reach out to Muslim friends or neighbors with the gospel but don’t know where to begin. Having spent several years living in North Africa and the Middle East, missions professor Matthew Bennett guides readers through Islam’s key tenants and provides answers to critical questions, such as:
- What is the Islamic view of salvation?Is Islam inherently misogynistic?
- What is shariah law?
- What are the differences between the Qur’an and the Bible?
- Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
- Who was Muhammad and what was his message?
- What happens in the mosque?
- How should a Christian share the gospel with Muslims?
Helpful summaries at the end of each chapter encapsulate important information, followed by discussion questions useful for personal or small-group study. Whether you want to understand Islam better or reach Muslims for Christ, 40 Questions on Islam is an indispensable primer and reference book.
Want to learn more about the 40 Questions Series? Visit the new website 40Questions.net!