Islam: Five pillars explained

A brief primer on Islam's fundamental tenets.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Muslims consider it an obligation to exalt, glorify, and give thanks to Allah in prayer five times a day at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Here, in December 2013, women attended a Friday prayer at an Alexandria, Va. gathering of MakeSpace, which was created to bring Muslims together outside the formal mosque setting.

"Prayer is the act that is most mentioned in the Quran," Zayneb Sayiljan, a doctoral candidate in religious studies and chaplain at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., tells a group of Muslim women in Alexandria, Va. They gather every two weeks for a meeting coordinated by MakeSpace, an organization that aims to sidestep sectarian and cultural differences to help Muslim Americans grow in their faith.

A disagreement over the prophet Muhammad's rightful successor split Muslims soon after his death in 632. Further sectarian divisions have occurred over interpretations of the Quran and of the hadith, a collection of sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad. All Muslims nevertheless recognize "the five pillars of Islam" as fundamental.

The first is the belief in a single God, the God of Abraham shared by Jews and Christians and for whom the word in Arabic is Allah. This pillar also demands the belief that Muhammad is a messenger to whom God made successive revelations. Followers later transcribed these into the holy book known as the Quran. The name means "recitation," a reminder that in the early years Muslims transmitted the text orally.

MakeSpace's guest speaker, Ms. Sayiljan, focuses on the second pillar: the obligation "to exalt Allah, glorify Allah, and give thanks to Allah" in prayer five times a day. As she explains it, it is not only a duty toward God but an enriching act for believers. At dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall, they step away from worldly concerns and focus on the spiritual in a transformational act that is prayer.

The remaining pillars consist of performing acts of charity, fasting during the ninth lunar month of Ramadan, and, if feasible financially and physically, making a pilgrimage, or hajj, to the holy site of Mecca. This ancient city near the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula is the site of a 43-foot-tall cuboid structure Muslims believe Abraham originally built on the orders of God. This is the Kaaba, the holiest Islamic site, where millions of men and women come together as pilgrims and toward which, every day, Muslims turn and bow in prayer.

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