During the ten years between his arrival in Medina and his death in AD 632, Muhammad laid the foundation for the ideal Islamic state. A core of committed Muslims was established, and a community life was ordered according to the requirements of the new religion. In addition to general moral injunctions, the requirements of the religion came to include a number of institutions that continue to characterize Islamic religious practice today. Foremost among these were the five pillars of Islam, the essential religious duties required of every adult Muslim who is mentally able. The five pillars are each described in some part of the Qur'an and were already practiced during Muhammad's lifetime. They are the profession of faith (shahada), prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (hajj). Although some of these practices had precedents in Jewish, Christian, and other Middle Eastern religious traditions, taken together they distinguish Islamic religious practices from those of other religions. The five pillars are thus the most central rituals of Islam and constitute the core practices of the Islamic faith.
(1) The Profession of Faith
The absolute focus of Islamic piety is Allah, the supreme, all knowing, all-powerful, and above all, all-merciful God. The Arabic word Allah means the God, and this God is understood to be the God who brought the world into being and sustains it to its end. By obeying God's commands, human beings express their recognition of and gratitude for the wisdom of creation, and live in harmony with the universe.
The profession of faith, or witness to faith (shahada), is therefore the prerequisite for membership in the Muslim community. On several occasions during a typical day, and in the saying of daily prayers, a Muslim repeats the profession, "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet." There are no formal restrictions on the times and places these words can be repeated. To become a member of the Muslim community, a person has to profess and act upon this belief in the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. To be a true profession of faith that represents a relationship between the speaker and God, the verbal utterance must express genuine knowledge of its meaning as well as sincere belief. A person's deeds can be subjected to scrutiny by other Muslims, but a person's utterance of the profession of faith is sufficient evidence of membership in the Muslim community and cannot be challenged by other members of this community.
(2) The Five Daily Prayers
The second pillar of Islam is the religious duty to perform five prescribed daily prayers or salat. All adult Muslims are supposed to perform five prayers, preceded by ritual cleansing or purification of the body at different intervals of the day. The Qur'anic references also mention the acts of standing, bowing, and prostrating during prayers and facing a set direction, known as qibla. The Muslims were first required to face Jerusalem during prayer, but already during Muhammad's lifetime they were commanded to face the Kaaba, an ancient shrine in the city of Mecca. The Qur'an also refers to the recitation of parts of the Qur'an as a form of prayer. However, even with its numerous references, the Qur'an alone does not give exact instructions for this central ritual of prayer.
The most detailed descriptions of the rituals for prayer derive from the example set by the prophet Muhammad and are preserved in later Islamic traditions. Some details of these rituals vary, however all Muslims agree that there are five required daily prayers to be performed at certain times of day: dawn (fajr or subh), noon (zuhr), midafternoon (asr), sunset (maghrib), and evening (isha). The dawn, noon, and sunset prayers do not start exactly at dawn, noon, and sunset; instead, they begin just after, to distinguish the Islamic ritual from earlier pagan practices of worshiping the sun when it rises or sets.
A prayer is made up of a sequence of units called bowings (rak'as). During each of these units, the worshiper stands, bows, kneels, and prostrates while reciting verses from the Qur'an as well as other prayer formulas. With some variations among different Muslim sects, at noon, afternoon, and evening prayers, these units are repeated four times, while during the sunset prayer they are repeated three times, and at dawn only twice. The opening chapter of the Qur'an, al-Fatiha, is repeated in each unit in a prayer sequence. Each prayer concludes with the recitation of the profession of faith followed by the greeting "may the peace, mercy, and blessings of God be upon you."
Wherever Muslims live in substantial numbers throughout the world, the call to prayer, or adhan, is repeated five times a day by a muezzin (crier) from a mosque, the Muslim place of worship. Muslims are encouraged to pray together in mosques, but group prayer is only a religious obligation for the noon prayer on Friday. Women, travelers, sick Muslims, and those attending to the sick are granted license not to attend the Friday congregational prayer, although they may attend if they wish.
The Friday noon prayer is led by an imam, who is simply a prayer leader; this prayer differs from the usual noon prayers of the other days of the week. As a required part of the ritual at this congregational meeting, two sermons precede the prayer. On other days, Muslims can pray anywhere they wish, either individually or in groups. They must observe the rituals of praying at certain times of day, facing in the direction of Mecca, observing the proper order of prayers, and preparing through symbolic purification. Depending on the situation, this last ritual of ablution requires either total washing of the body or a less elaborate ritual washing of the hands, mouth, face, and feet.
In addition to the five required daily prayers, Muslims can perform non-obligatory prayers, some of which have fixed ritual formats and are performed before or after each of the five daily prayers. Others are performed at night, either individually or with other Muslims. These additional formal and informal prayers give expression to the primary function of prayer in Islam, which is personal communication with God for the purpose of maintaining the abiding presence of the divine in the personal lives of Muslims. The more formal aspects of prayer also serve to provide a disciplined rhythm that structures the day and fosters a sense of community and shared identity among Muslims.
The third pillar of Islam is zakat, or almsgiving. A religious obligation, zakat is considered an expression of devotion to God. It represents the attempt to provide for the poorer sectors of society, and it offers a means for a Muslim to purify his or her wealth and attain salvation. The Qur'an, together with other Islamic traditions, strongly encourages charity and constantly reminds Muslims of their moral obligation to the poor, orphans, and widows; however, it distinguishes between general, voluntary charity (sadaqa) and zakat, the latter being an obligatory charge on the money or produce of Muslims. While the meaning of terms has been open to different interpretations, the Qur'an regularly refers to zakat, identifying specific ways in which this tax can be spent. These specific uses include spending zakat on the poor and the needy, on those who collect and distribute zakat, on those whom Muslims hope to win over and convert to Islam, on travelers, on the ransom of captives, to relieve those who are burdened with debts, and on the cause of God.
The Qur'an provides less-detailed information about the kinds of things that are subject to the zakat tax or the precise share of income or property that should be paid as zakat. These determinations are provided in the traditions of the prophet Muhammad and have been the subject of elaborate discussions among Muslim legal experts, or jurists. For example, one-fortieth (2.5 percent) of the assets accumulated during the year (including gold, silver, and money) is payable at the end of the year, while one-tenth of the harvest of the land or date trees is payable at harvest time. Cattle, camels, and other domestic animals are subject to a more complex taxation system that depends on the animals in question, their age, the numbers involved, and whether they are freely grazing. Traditional zakat laws do not cover trade, but commercial taxes have been imposed by various Muslim governments throughout history.
The fourth pillar of Islam is sawm, or fasting. Clear Qur'anic references to fasting account for the early introduction of this ritual practice. The Qur'an prescribes fasting during the month of Ramadan, the 9th month of the 12-month Islamic lunar year (see Calendar). The month of Ramadan is sacred because the first revelation of the Qur'an is said to have occurred during this month. By tradition the month starts with the sighting of the new moon by at least two Muslims. For the entire month, Muslims must fast from daybreak to sunset by refraining from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse. Menstruating women, travelers, and sick people are exempted from fasting but have to make up the days they miss at a later date.
According to various traditional interpretations, the fast introduces physical and spiritual discipline, serves to remind the rich of the misfortunes of the poor, and fosters, through this rigorous act of worship, a sense of solidarity and mutual care among Muslims of all social backgrounds. Thus Muslims usually engage in further acts of worship beyond the ordinary during Ramadan, such as voluntary night prayer, reading sections from the Qur'an, and paying voluntary charity to the poor. Muslims may even choose to wake before daybreak to eat a meal that will sustain them until sunset. After the fasting ends, the holiday of breaking the fast, 'id al-fitr, begins, lasting for three days.
At any time of year fasting is also required as a compensation for various offenses and violations of the law. Many Muslims also perform voluntary fasts at various times of the year as acts of devotion and spiritual discipline. However, such additional fasting is not required by Islamic law.
(5) Pilgrimage to Mecca
The fifth pillar requires that Muslims who have the physical and financial ability should perform the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. The ritual of pilgrimage was practiced by Arabs before the rise of Islam and continues from the early days of Islam. The hajj is distinct from other pilgrimages. It must take place during the 12th lunar month of the year, known as Dhu al-Hijja, and it involves a set and detailed sequence of rituals that are practiced over the span of several days. All of the pilgrimage rituals take place in the city of Mecca and its surroundings, and the primary focus of these rituals is a cubical structure called the Kaaba. According to Islamic tradition, the Kaaba, also referred to as the House of God, was built at God's command by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles) and his son Ismail (see Ishmael).
The Qur'an provides detailed descriptions of various parts of the ritual, and it portrays many of these rituals as reenactments of the activities undertaken by Ibrahim and Ismail in the course of building the Kaaba. Set into one corner of the Kaaba is the sacred Black Stone, which according to one Islamic tradition was given to Ibrahim by the angel Gabriel. According to another Islamic tradition this stone was first set in place by Adam.
Once pilgrims arrive in Mecca, ritual purification is performed. Many men shave their heads, and most men and women put on seamless white sheets. This simple and common dress symbolizes the equality of all Muslims before God, a status further reinforced by the prohibition of jewelry, perfumes, sexual intercourse, and hunting. After this ritual purification, Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times, run between al-Safa and al-Marwa, two hills overlooking the Kaaba, seven times, and perform several prayers and invocations. This ritual is a reenactment of the search by Hagar for water to give her son Ismail.
After these opening rituals, the hajj proper commences on the seventh day and continues for the next three days. Again, it starts with the performance of ritual purification followed by a prayer at the Kaaba mosque. The pilgrims then assemble at Mina, a hill outside Mecca, where they spend the night. The next morning they go to the nearby plain of Arafat, where they stand from noon to sunset and perform a series of prayers and rituals. The pilgrims then head to Muzdalifa, a location halfway between Arafat and Mina, to spend the night. The next morning, the pilgrims head back to Mina, on the way stopping at stone pillars symbolizing Satan, at which they throw seven pebbles.
The final ritual is the slaughter of an animal (sheep, goat, cow, or camel). This is a symbolic reenactment of God's command to Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail, which Ibrahim and Ismail duly accepted and were about to execute when God allowed Ibrahim to slaughter a ram in place of his son. (In the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Abraham is called to sacrifice his son Isaac rather than Ishmael.) Most of the meat of the slaughtered animals is to be distributed to poor Muslims. The ritual sacrifice ends the hajj and starts the festival of the sacrifice, 'id al-adha. The festivals of breaking fast ('id al-fitr) at the end of Ramadan and 'id al-adha are the two major Islamic festivals celebrated by Muslims all over the world.
During the pilgrimage most Muslims visit Medina, where the tomb of the Prophet is located, before returning to their homes. If the pilgrimage rituals are performed at any time of the year other than the designated time for hajj, the ritual is called umra. Although umra is considered a virtuous act, it does not absolve the person from the obligation of hajj. Most pilgrims perform one or more umras before or after the hajj proper.
Many Muslims pilgrims also travel to Jerusalem, which is the third sacred city for Islam. Muslims believe Muhammad was carried to Jerusalem in a vision. The Dome of the Rock houses the stone from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven and Allah in a night journey. Some Muslims perform pilgrimages to the Dome of the Rock and to other shrines where revered religious figures are buried. Some of these shrines are important primarily to the local populations, whereas others draw Muslims from distant regions. There are no standard prescribed rituals for these pilgrimages nor are they treated as obligatory acts of worship.
Many polemical descriptions of Islam have focused critically on the Islamic concept of jihad. Jihad, considered the sixth pillar of Islam by some Muslims, has been understood to mean holy war in these descriptions. However, the word in Arabic means "to struggle" or "to exhaust one's effort," in order to please God. Within the faith of Islam, this effort can be individual or collective, and it can apply to leading a virtuous life; helping other Muslims through charity, education, or other means; preaching Islam; and fighting to defend Muslims. Western media of the 20th century continue to focus on the militant interpretations of the concept of jihad, whereas most Muslims do not.