Islam is a house built on the rock of submission and supported by these five pillars: Witness, Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, and Pilgrimage. Though all five pillars are generally seen as a unit, and a believer must do all five, one pillar, the Shahadah, stands in the middle. It is the pillar around which all the rest revolve.
Witness to the Faith (Shahadah)
The first pillar is a profession: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” There is nothing more important than this testimony; it is sufficient for conversion and makes a Muslim a Muslim. So it is chronologically first because it is foundational and all else-the rest of the pillars, ethics, the entire Muslim’s life depends on this declaration of faith. This affirmation constitutes acceptance of the whole message of Islam. Shahadah is a capsule version of the Fatiha which is an abbreviation of the Quran.
Probably the visual image most non-Muslims have of Islam is rows of men in a mosque or in a large outdoor space, rhythmically bowing and prostrating in unison. This is Salat, which really means worship, of which prayer is an essential ingredient. This worshipful prayer is pure devotion; it is unconditional praise of God where nothing is asked for, nothing is sought but God alone. There are two specific words for prayer: dua, which refers to petitions and supplications; and dhikr, the word for “remembrance” used by the Sufis in mystical meditation. These prayers may be spontaneous, unrehearsed, and uttered at any time.
Fasting is primarily reserved for the month of Ramadan. Even the most assimilated Muslim will observe this fast for the ninth month of the lunar year. In Sura 2:183-185, the Quran spells out the rationale for fasting and what is required of the Muslim during this time of self-purification. The month of Ramadan was chosen for the annual period of personal spiritual renewal because it was in the last ten days of Ramadan that Muhammad experienced his “Night of Power” and first received revelations from Allah which were to become the Quran. Ramadan punctuates the year with a holy time in much the same way prayer time sanctifies each day.
Zakat is a tax of two-and one- half percent of one’s annual savings-what remains after personal and business expenses. This tax is beyond what one might donate to charity and the many different state taxes which become a part of a public fund to be used for the general welfare and a number of human services. Almsgiving is an act of worship, very much like prayer and fasting, and is ear marked for the poor, needy, disabled, and other deprived people. It represents the universal religious impulse in people to share their wealth with those who are less fortunate. Zakat literally means “purification”; it purifies the giver and what is given.
This last pillar is the crowning experience of a Muslim’s life and moves his or her heart as nothing else. Once in a lifetime, if health and material means permit, a Muslim is expected to make a religious journey to Mecca. The pilgrimage usually involves a good deal of personal sacrifice-time, effort, and perhaps a life’s savings. It is imperative that money for the pilgrimage be earned by the pilgrim. A Hajj is invalid if one has to go in debt to make the trip. But for the Muslim, the journey to and presence in Mecca is the ultimate act of worship.