The Five Pillars of Islam
Allah says in the Koran that Islam is His chosen religion for the people. To believe in Him makes one a good person, but may or may not satisfy requirements for Heaven. A Muslim who is familiar with the Koran knows that she can't live her life simply believing without doing anything about it. In fact, a Muslim is expected by Allah to fulfill all of the Five Pillars of Islam. Those five obligations may seem like a lot of worship, but true Muslims perform them diligently with a wholehearted love of Allah.
Declaration of Faith
The very first step a new convert takes is a Declaration of Faith. The English translation of the declaration is “I testify that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is His slave and messenger.” After the convert utters these words from the heart, Allah embraces the new convert into Islam.
The declaration is not limited to new converts, however. Prophet Muhammad stressed that Muslims must repeat the declaration regularly throughout their life. Muslims repeat it in prayers by obligation, and voluntarily throughout the day to affirm their submission to Allah. Every time a Muslim utters the declaration, he or she gains reward. According to the Koran, it is also essential that a dying person utter those words before his soul departs (unless he dies suddenly, of course).
The word Islam comes from “salam,” which means peace and submission. Allah gave the religion this name to imply that the people submit to His will, respectfully worshipping Him as the only Lord. “Islam” also describes the essence of the faith as being very much based on peace rather than violence.
The Hajj (Pilgrimage)
The Hajj to Mecca is an exhausting and expensive mission done at the end of every Ramadan by a few million pilgrims. Approximately a week or two is needed to complete the physically strenuous rituals. Because of its tremendous difficulty, Allah mercifully accepts it if performed once in a lifetime. According to Islam, people who can't perform it due to serious restrictions, such as financial or health problems, are excused and will not be punished in the afterlife.
Pilgrims at the Hajj are similar to monks at a monastery. Pilgrims cleanse their hearts and free their minds of worldly concerns in the rituals of Hajj, devoting themselves entirely to Allah. Muslims recall never feeling as close to Allah as they do at the Kaaba. At that sacred place, even amidst the chaos of millions of pilgrims, not a foul word is spoken, not a sin committed, and not even a creature as small as an insect is killed, as these actions offend the holy sanctity of the Kaaba and its surrounding land. This is in compliance to the instruction of the Koran.
Before arriving within the boundaries of Mecca, men must be wearing only an Ihram—two white cloths wrapped around their bodies to symbolize their birth into a towel. Women wear traditional Islamic dress in modest colors, revealing only their hands and faces. The Hajj begins with seven laps walked around the Kaaba and concludes with a visit to Prophet Muhammad's tomb in Medina (which is not obligatory but performed as a sign of respect to the Prophet). The Koran describes most of the rituals of the Hajj.
From the beginning of time, the distribution of wealth throughout the world has never been even. Poverty is widespread and people die of hunger every day. To counter this, Allah demands in the Koran that people give a certain amount of their savings to charity. Muslims believe that if this duty is neglected, their wealth will be condemned to remain of little value, as money will disappear as quickly as it is gained.
Of course, the amount of obligatory charity—known as Zakat in the Koran—is not at the discretion of the individual. Very specifically, the Sunnah defines the amount as 2.5 percent of a person's total savings accumulated during a one-year period. Every year a person must calculate the exact amount and give it to charity if he or she is to be a righteous Muslim.
It is very inappropriate for a person to publicize his or her generosity in giving to charity. Islam advises people to be as discreet as possible when giving to charity, as their goal should be reward from Allah, not praise from other people.
Five Prayers a Day
Islamic prayer is discussed numerous times throughout the Koran to stress its importance. Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Each prayer typically lasts five minutes, leading to twenty-five minutes of prayer every day. The Koran makes it clear that neglecting prayer is a grievous sin that will be punished in Hell, making prayer compulsory for every Muslim.
Praying is probably the most important, and unfortunately most neglected, form of worship prescribed for Muslims. Prayer is mentioned often in the Koran; for example, “And they are ordered naught else than to serve Allah, keeping religion pure for Him, as men by nature upright, and to establish prayer and to pay the poor-due. That is true religion” (98:5). Muslims agree that regular prayer purifies the mind and soul and serves as a constant reminder of Allah, deterring people from committing sin.
Allah asks Muslims to pray five times a day at specific times according to the sun: dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. No guesswork determines prayer times; mosques announce the exact time for each prayer through microphones by an announcement called the Adhan. People can perform the designated prayer at any time before the next Adhan, meaning that when the midday Adhan is announced, a Muslim technically has until the afternoon Adhan to perform the midday prayer. However, Islam strongly urges that every prayer take place as close as possible to its Adhan. If one prayer is missed, it is excusable to complete it along with the next prayer as long as it wasn't missed due to mere negligence.
Prayer is performed in accordance with a strict set of rules set by the Koran and Sunnah. First, one must cleanse his or her body and soul through ablution. Each prayer is composed of several Rakaas—a prescribed set of rites. In each Rakaa, Surah Al Fatiha is read as well as some verses of the Koran, then the person bows and prostrates while uttering specific words of devotion. Wishing peace upon the two angels recording the deeds concludes prayer: one Salam (an uttered greeting) to the left, and one to the right.
Every Friday, Muslims gather in mosques to perform the midday prayer together. The Friday group prayer is compulsory in Islam, while group prayers in general are highly rewarded. In a group prayer, one person called the Imam stands in front of the other worshippers and leads the prayer.
Angel Gabriel taught Muhammad how to pray, and the Prophet relayed the instruction to the people. Muhammad was so dedicated that he always offered voluntary prayers before and after compulsory ones, and he taught additional types of prayers that a Muslim can offer. Prayers that are outside the standard form do not include any reciting of the Koran; these are the kinds of prayers that speak directly to Allah, seeking His guidance and assistance, such as, “Allah, please help me get through this.”
Fasting the Month of Ramadan
Ramadan may be known as the month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims don't eat, but there is much more to it than fasting. The holy month of Ramadan presents thirty days of intensive worship in addition to fasting, such as an increase in the number of prayers, reading the Koran, or spending time in solitude at the mosque. Additionally, Muslims have to avoid committing sins and must stay away from certain worldly pleasures. All this happens in Ramadan because it is the month the Koran descended to the lowest Heaven, and when the first few words were revealed to Muhammad.
According to Islamic teaching, Muslims begin their fast after a meal called Suhoor just before dawn, and break it at the sunset Adhan with a meal called Iftar. In those approximately thirteen hours between dawn and sunset, they may not eat or drink, smoke, or even swallow anything but their own saliva. According to Islamic law based on the Koran and Sunnah, swallowing blood from a bleeding gum or even licking a postage stamp may result in breaking the fast. Other things that break a fast are inhaling strong odors that reach the throat, menstruation, foul speech, and any form of courtship between unmarried men and women.
Missing a day's fasting in Ramadan is a major sin according to the Koran, unless it is excusable for reasons such as illness, travel, or menstruation. Every day missed with a suitable excuse must be made up for outside the month of Ramadan. Days missed with no excuse have different rulings.
Menstruation prevents women from fasting or praying because blood is considered unclean, and a state of purity is a prerequisite to being involved in worship. Once menstruation is over, a woman showers and performs ablution to enter the state of purity once more.
Based on the teachings of the Koran and Sunnah, Muslims understand that the wisdom of fasting is to learn patience, engage in worship, avoid sin, and remind oneself of the people less fortunate in the world. Also, serving Iftar meals to the poor is dearly appreciated by Allah and earns a person tremendous reward.