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Pillars of Islam

Mahmoud M. Ayoub
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Pillars of Islam

The foundations (arkān) upon which the religion of Islam rests are known as the five pillars, a belief based in a saying of the Prophet, reported in both Sunnī and Shīʿīḥadīth tradition, “Islam is built upon five [fundamentals].” The five are the profession or witness (shahādah): “There is no god except God and Muḥammad is the messenger of God”; regular observance of the five daily prayers (ṣalāt); the offering of welfare alms (zakāt); performance of the pilgrimage (ḥajj); and fasting (ṣawm) during the month of Ramaḍān.

Islam is a system of religious acts, obligations, intentions, service, and human interactions. These essential principles are succinctly expressed in the terms ʿibādāt (rituals or acts of worship) and muʿāmalāt (human interrelations). The five pillars constitute the basis of worship, of the sacred law that governs social interrelations, and of theology.

The Qurʿān presents the five pillars not as a creed but as a framework of worship, a commitment of faith, and a moral responsibility. Thus, regular worship and the giving of alms (sūrah 2:43, 83; 4:77) are presented both as acts of worship and moral imperatives; prayers, the Qurʿān asserts, “dissuade from lewdness and indecency (29:45),” and almsgiving is also an act of purification (9:103).

Muslims believe that the five pillars were fully instituted during the Prophet's life. In a momentous Qurʿānic verse revealed after the farewell pilgrimage in which the Prophet led the Muslims shortly before his death, God says: “Today have I completed your religion for you, fully bestowed my favor upon you and accepted Islam as a religion for you (5:3).” The word dīn (religion) in this verse is taken to signify all the essential religious and legal institutions of Islam.

The five daily prayers are not strictly fixed in the Qurʿān; their times are only generally indicated (17:78, 11:114, 24:58). Frequent zakāt is enjoined but not fixed; but the fast of Ramaḍān and the ḥajj are clearly stipulated. The shahādah does not occur in the Qurʿān, but its early use is indicated by its inclusion in the call to prayer (adhān) and the five daily prayers.

Neither the Qurʿān nor the Prophetic tradition presents the five pillars together in a fixed sequence in any creedal definition of Islam. However, subsequent developments in the interpretation and application of the five pillars occurred in law, theology, and popular piety. Their centrality in the sharīʿah is evidenced by the general agreement of both Sunnī and Shīʿī legal schools (madhhābs) on the essential details of the duties (   farāʿid) legislated in the five pillars. The Qurʿān distinguishes between islām and īmān, the former understood as the outward adherence to Islam and the latter as the inner faith of the heart (49:14). The Qurʿān also uses the term islām to designate a religious system that includes both faith and practice (3:19, 85). This seeming theological contradiction became an issue of great debate soon after the first generation of Muslims.

The crisis of succession following the Prophet's death, and the vast conquests that resulted in the deterioration of the ideal of the caliphate into a monarchical autocracy, led to the rise of various sects and movements whose beliefs diverged from what came to be accepted as Sunnī orthodoxy. Chief among these were Shīʿah, Khawārij, Murjiʿah, and Muʿtazilah. Orthodox formulations of the five pillars, particularly the shahādah, were therefore attributed to the Prophet, or one of his prominent companions, and used as arguments against such religio-political movements.

In an early tradition reported by both Bukhārī and Muslim, the Prophet is said to have asserted: “I have been commanded to fight with all peoples until they say there is no god except God. When they say this, they protect from me their lives and their possessions except for what is due [as zakāt], and their final reckoning is with God.” This tradition and other similar ones indicate that the five pillars very early served as a creedal formula signifying a person's admission into the Muslim community. They were also used as polemical arguments against the Khawārij, who held that the profession of faith in God alone is not sufficient grounds for true Islam. In several important traditions reported by Bukhārī, the duties of Islam are defined as faith in God's oneness, observance of regular prayers, paying the zakāt alms, and fasting during the month of Ramaḍān. Some traditions add the duty of jihād, or fighting in God's way.

The rise of various schools and sects caused sharp disagreement among Muslims concerning the reality of islām and īmān as expressions of faith. The angel Gabriel, according to a well-known tradition reported by Muslim, came to the Prophet in human form and asked about islām and īmān. Islām, the Prophet said, “is to bear witness that there is no god except God and that Muḥammad is the messenger of God, to establish regular worship and give the zakāt, to observe the fast of Ramaḍān, and to perform the ḥajj if you are able to make your way thither.” Īmān means “that you believe in God, His angels, His Books and messengers and the last day, and that you believe in Divine decree (qadar), be it good or evil.” Belief in qadar was no doubt added later to counter the Muʿtazilī belief in free will and that human beings are alone responsible for their actions.

Through popular Ṣūfī piety, the five pillars were personally internalized as acts of devotion and spiritual exercises. Thus the shahādah became a constant recollection (dhikr) of God and the obligatory prayers became a life of continuous prayer and meditation.

Shīʿī tradition regards faith in God's oneness (tawḥīd) not as one of the foundations of Islam, but as its essence. Therefore, for Shīʿī Muslims, the fifth pillar is jihād or striving in the way of God, which can be realized fully only under the guidance of a divinely appointed imam. For Muslims of every legal school or theological persuasion, however, the five pillars have been the fundamental principles of both personal and collective faith, worship, and social responsibility.

See also ḤAJJ; ISLAM, subentry OVERVIEW; ṢALāT; ṢAWM; SHAHāDAH; and ZAKāT.


Primary Works

  • Bukhārī, Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-. The Translation of the Meanings of Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. 9 vols.4th ed.Translated by Muḥammad Muhsin Khan (with Arabic text). Beirut, 1405/1984. See especially Vol. 1, Book 2, The Book of Belief (faith), and Vol. 9, Book 93, The Book of Tawhīd (monotheism).
  • Ibn Bābawayh al-Qummī, Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn (known as al-Shaykh al-Ṣadūq). Iʿtiqādātu al-Imāmīyah (A Shīʿite Creed). Translated by Asaf A. A. Fyzee. Tehran, 1402/1982. Important work, one of the earliest creeds, written by a foremost Shīʿī traditionist.
  • Muslim ibn Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī Ṣaḥīḥ. Muslim (with Nawawī's commentary). 18 vols.3d ed.Beirut, 1978. Especially relevant is Nawawī's commentary on Kitāb al-Īmān (The Book of Faith), which heads Muslim's work. See also Arkān al-Islām (The Pillars of Islam) at the end of Kitāb al-Īmān in vol. 1. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim has also been translated into English by ʿAbdul Hamid Siddiqi (Lahore, 1972); see Kitāb al-Īmān (The Book of Faith).

Secondary Works

  • Bianchi, Robert R.Guests of God: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World. New York, 2004.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. “Worship and Cultic Life: Muslim Worship.” In Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 15, pp. 454–463. New York, 1987.
  • Cragg, Kenneth, and R. Marston Speight. Islam from Within: Anthology of a Religion. Belmont, Calif., 1980. Useful anthology of primary materials in English translation. See in particular chapter 2.
  • Esposito, John L.Islam: The Straight Path. 3d ed.New York, 1998.
  • Esposito, John L.What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam. Oxford and New York, 2002.
  • Esposito, John L., ed.The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford and New York, 2000.
  • Poonawala, Ismail Kurban Husein, ed.The Pillars of Islam. Ibadat, Acts of Devotion and Religious Observances, Vol. 1.New York, 2006.
  • Wensinck, A. J.The Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development. London, 1965. Very useful presentation of the genesis and development of the Islamic creed. Draws parallels and possible relations with Eastern Christian developments. See especially chapter 2.
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