Islam: The Five Pillars
Islamic piety is commonly understood in terms of five practices, which are referred to as “pillars” of the Muslim religion. The “pillars” are: 1. Confession; 2. Prayers; 3. Fasting; 4. Alms; 5. Pilgrimage.
The basic Islamic confession of faith may be translated: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Apostle of God.” By saying this confession in Arabic, with faith, a person becomes a Muslim. Many Muslims believe that saying the shahada with faith- along with an atom’s worth of good works- is a sufficient basis for a person to (eventually) gain entrance to Heaven, if Allah so chooses.
Faithful Muslims say prayers at five set times per day while facing Mecca. These prayers are accompanied by wudu: ceremonial washing. Though many Christians- somewhat understandably- envy Muslims for being so faithful in prayer, we must note that for many Muslims these “prayers” consist of simply reciting memorized passages of the Qur’an; in other words, salat tends to be more about external ritual than attempted communion with God.
Fasting (during the month of Ramadan):
Faithful Muslims fast during the lunar month of Ramadan: abstaining from food, water, and other luxuries from sunup to sundown during this month. Those who have medical conditions that prevent fasting are supposed to be exempt from this practice. Because Muslims are able to eat during the nighttime hours during Ramadan, I have heard a few Christians criticize this practice, saying that it is not true fasting, but how many of us fail to regularly abstain from even one meal for the purpose of spiritual focus?
Faithful Muslims give 2.5% of their net income per lunar year to charitable causes. Those collecting and distributing the zakat also receive some of this money. From the Christian perspective this amount seems rather low, as we are used to the tithe: 10% of income- usually understood as gross income- given to the church, with additional charity given to the needy, when possible.
Pilgrimage (hajj to Mecca):
Every Muslim who is physically and financially able to do so is expected to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia at least once in his or her lifetime. Many Muslims who undertake the hajj receive respect in their own communities, and Muslims who take the pilgrimage regularly report being impressed with the grandeur and seeming universality of Islam. However, I have heard from some Christian missionaries that there are other Muslims who take the trip to Mecca and who return to their homes with a sense of disappointment: because the hajj had been built up in their minds to be a kind of ultimate spiritual experience, they may feel a bit let down after it is completed. This may be an opportunity for gospel proclamation.