Islam is one of the world’s major religions. It shares with Judaism and Christianity a belief in a single god. The Arabic name for God is Allah. The word Islam means “surrender (to God).” The followers of Islam are called Muslims, which in Arabic means “one who surrenders to God.”
While Islam is mainly associated with the Middle East, its roughly one billion followers are found throughout the world. The largest Islamic communities exist in the nations of Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are also sizeable communities throughout West Africa, India, and in parts of China.
Central to the beliefs of Islam is the idea of one, omnipotent God who transcends class, race, and national differences. Muslims believe in the word of God contained in the holy book called the Koran (sometimes spelled Qur’an or Kur’an), as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel between 610–623 CE in Arabia. They also follow practices known as the “Five Pillars of Islam.”
The Five Pillars of Islam
Central to the Islamic faith are the essential duties and practices known as the Five Pillars of Islam. These are:
The profession of faith or shahada
The duty to perform five daily prayers or salat
The obligation to provide alms or zakat
Fasting during the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar)
Pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)
Profession of faith (shahada)
The profession of faith is known as the shahada. It is the prerequisite for membership in the Muslim community, and an affirmation of the faith. Muslims are required to declare this profession in public at least once in their lifetime, but most Muslims recite it daily as part of their prayers. In Arabic, the shahada is as follows: “Ashhadu al-la ilaha illa-llah was ashhadu anna Muhammadar rasulu-llah” translated as “ I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Messenger” or more simply, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.”
The profession of faith is designed not only for public affirmation, but also to encourage true conviction and sincerity of mind on the part of the worshipper. The phrase is absolutely central to the practice of Islam. Muhammad is reported to have said, “These few words are equal to one third of the Koran.”
Prayer is an essential duty of every Muslim, and the second Pillar of Islam. It is performed five times a day. These times are dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening. Before prayer, there is ritual cleansing and purification. Typically this means washing one’s hands, mouth, nose, face, ears, forearms, head, and feet three times with the right hand. If there is no water is available, sand may be substituted. Prayer itself consists of three or four cycles of ritual bowing and prostration along with recitation of parts of the Koran and other prayers in Arabic. All end with the phrase, “May peace, mercy and blessings be upon you.”
Muslims can perform prayer just about anywhere, but the most favored place is in the mosque. A crier (muezzin) calls the faithful to prayer (adhan). The holy day each week is Friday. The congregation of worshippers at the mosque is led by the religious leader or imam. Prayers, wherever they take place, must be performed in the direction of Mecca. This direction is indicated by the kiblah, a word meaning “direction of prayer.” It is indicated in a mosque by a wall (referred to as the kiblah wall) that is usually marked by a niche called the mihrab.
The third Pillar of Islam is a call to charity. There are two categories: compulsory and voluntary. Compulsory almsgiving resembles a tax for all Muslims, payable to either the community or state. It is calculated on the basis of one’s possessions and income, and usually equates to 2.5% of a person’s annually accumulated wealth. This system ensures that the poor will be at least partly provided for and encourages a sentiment of sharing among the various social classes. Almsgiving also has spiritual value, as a way of atoning for one’s sins and ensuring salvation in the afterlife. Voluntary almsgiving (sadaqa) should be performed freely and spontaneously, with discretion and sincerity.
Fasting (sawm) is a ritual observance during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual activities between sunrise and sundown. Nursing and pregnant mothers, the sick, and children up to the age of puberty are permitted to break the fast. Ramadan is important, because it marks the time in the year when the Koran began to be revealed to Muhammad.
Pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)
All Muslims who have the physical and materials means to do so are encouraged to visit Mecca at least once in their lifetimes. The pilgrimage occurs during part of the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. Modern transportation allows millions of Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, where the focus is the structure known as the Ka'ba. Pilgrims wear white, symbolizing the equality of all Muslims before God.
Having arrived at Mecca, each pilgrim typically walks around the Ka'ba seven times. This is followed by a set of other ritual observances such as walking between the hills overlooking the Ka'ba, standing on Mt. Arafat, and traveling to nearby Minah, all sites that commemorate aspects of Islamic history and faith. Pilgrims also frequently visit the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Both the month of pilgrimage to Mecca and the month of Ramadan end in festive celebrations.
Learn more about the arts of the Islamic world on the Asian Art Museum's education website.