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Pillars of Islam

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Pillars of Islam

    Five required practices unite Muslims in a single worldwide community of believers and distinguish Islam from other religions. Known as the Pillars of Islam, these practices include: pledging one's faith; praying five times each day; setting aside a portion of one's wealth for the poor; fasting during the month of Ramadan; and making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (for every Muslim who is both physically and financially able) at least once in a lifetime. These are the basic principles of personal and collective faith, worship, and social responsibility. Both Sunni and Shi'i legal schools agree on the essential duties of the five pillars. Some Muslim groups consider jihad, or striving to accomplish God's will, to be a sixth pillar.

    The profession of faith, or shahadah (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God”), marks a person's entry into the Islamic community. It affirms Islam's absolute monotheism and the acceptance of Muhammad as the messenger of God and the last and final prophet. With the acceptance of the shahadah, Muslim males at the age of 15 and females at the age of 9 are required to perform the other pillars of Islam.

    Prayer (salat) is an integral part of daily life. Islam requires Muslims to pray five times each day: at daybreak, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening. Before prayer, Muslims must perform ritual ablution, or cleansing of the mind and body. Muslims can pray alone or together, in the mosque, outdoors, or at home. Praying with other believers is preferable, however, as it demonstrates equality and solidarity. On Fridays, Muslims perform the noon prayer communally at the mosque, if possible.

    The third pillar is zakat, setting aside a portion of one's wealth for the poor. All Muslims who are able must give 2.5 percent of their net worth annually. Forms of wealth that may be subject to zakat include gold, silver, livestock, crops, currency, or other items that can be converted to cash, such as stocks and bonds. Other types of charity are recommended, but zakat is a formal duty.

    Zakat serves both spiritual and practical functions. Those who give and those who receive zakat are bound together by the sharing of wealth. Fulfilling this duty challenges affluent Muslims to confront and reject the human tendency to be selfish, greedy, and excessively interested in material possessions. Because Islam discourages begging, zakat enables poor people to receive economic support without humiliation. Zakat also reduces the resentment the poor might harbor toward the rich.

    Historically, the collection and distribution of zakat was often a function of the state. With the advent of colonial rule and the introduction of secular political systems, the practice became a matter of individual choice. In recent years, some Muslim countries, including Sudan and Pakistan, have restored the state's role in zakat transactions. Elsewhere, Muslims may contribute to organized charities that distribute zakat according to Islamic principles. These organizations fund mosques, schools, libraries, and hospitals.

    The fourth pillar requires Muslims to fast during Ramadan, the ninth month of Islam's lunar calendar. From sunrise to sunset, Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, or engage in sexual relations. Fasting reminds believers of their dependence on God and it promotes spiritual self-discipline. The fast of Ramadan ends with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr.

    Islam requires every adult Muslim to perform the hajj at least once in his or her lifetime. The pilgrimage takes place during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar. During the hajj, Muslims perform rituals that are meant to symbolically reenact events from the life of the Prophet Abraham and his family. The hajj celebrates the reunion and the renewal of the entire Muslim community. See also Creed; Hajj; Islam: Overview; Jihad; Pilgrimage; Prayer.

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