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Islam: beliefs and practices

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 15, 2001

This weekend, Muslims around the world mark the holiest month of the Islamic calendar as they begin the fast of Ramadan. On this occasion, the Monitor takes a brief look at the foundational beliefs and practices of the world's second-largest religion, which has about 1.2 billion adherents.

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It was during Ramadan that the prophet Muhammad received the first of what are believed to be his revelations from God, later written down in the Koran. The Islamic holy book calls on the faithful to fast for the entire month to learn self-restraint, and to gain spiritual guidance.

Beginning Nov. 17, Muslims will be expected to abstain from all food, drink, and conjugal relations from the first light of dawn until sundown. Those who are sick, elderly, pregnant or at war, however, may fast at another time. At the close of each day, families and friends gather to break the fast together with water and dates and a special dinner.

Ramadan is also traditionally a time to extend forgiveness and to reach out with charitable acts. The good gained from fasting can be lost, though, if one engages in such acts as lying or slander. The month will end Dec. 16 with communal prayers and one of the two cherished Islamic holidays - the feast of Eid al-Fitr.

Fasting is one of the "five pillars" of Islam, the special obligations expected of all Muslims.

The Five Pillars

In Islam, practice is of greater importance than doctrine, and the "five pillars" represent the framework for a responsible and good life.

1. The declaration of faith - the shahada: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." One becomes a Muslim by formally making this declaration, which represents the belief that the purpose of life is to serve and obey the one God, and that it is achieved through the teachings and practices of Muhammad.

2. Prayer (salat). Muslims are to perform formal prayers five times a day, involving verses in Arabic from the Koran, thus structuring their lives around God. Congregational prayer is traditionally on Friday. Personal prayers are offered at any time.

3. Almsgiving (zakat). A principle of Islam is that everything belongs to God, and wealth is held by people in trust. Muslims also have a responsibility to care for the less fortunate. The zakat calls for annual giving of 2.5 percent of a Muslim's capital, calculated by the individual.

4. Fasting during Ramadan.

5. Pilgrimage (the hajj). The pilgimage to Mecca is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for every Muslim able to do so. During 10 days of rites, pilgrims from around the world don simple garments to remove distinctions of class and culture, showing that all stand equal before God. The close of the hajj is marked by the other major festival celebrated by all Muslims, Eid al-Adha.

Five articles of faith

Islamic teachings include five foundational beliefs:

1. One unique, infinite, all-powerful and merciful God (Allah) is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Everything is contingent upon God, including all of nature. Yet there is nothing like Him - an unqualified difference exists between the divine and the human. Man is God's creature, created out of clay, and orthodox Muslims have criticized Islamic mystics for affirming their experiences of oneness with God. The Koran gives 99 names for God, but His essence is unknowable.

2. The angels of God play an active part in human life. Muhammad received the revelations in the Koran through the angel Gabriel.

3. God's revelations have been sent to humankind through prophets and messengers. He has spoken through prophets to all peoples in history, but messengers - such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad - have universal significance. Jesus is revered as the greatest of all before Muhammad, but he is not the son of God. Muhammad did not preach a unique faith, but summed up all previous revelations, and is thus the Last Prophet for all humanity.

4. God has spoken His eternal message through holy books, to Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. Jews and Christians have special status in the Koran as "people of the book." The truths in those books included some distortions, however, and the revelation had to be sent one last time in the Koran.