Introduction to 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)
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.”
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.
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.