Islam is based upon five “pillars” that represent the bedrock upon which all else is based. The first pillar, which makes one a Muslim, is called the shahadah, meaning, “testimony” or “witnessing.” It is fulfilled by declaring to two witnesses the foundational creed of Islam: This means, “I witness that there is nothing worthy of worship except God and that Muhammad is God’s messenger.” The first part of the testimony is a belief that God is unique with no partners. Thus, nothing in creation can be associated with God, as creation has no real substantiation without the sustaining power of God. Indeed, creation is not God nor does it have any eternal qualities of the divine that are worthy of worship. Rather, creation is a theater of divine manifestations. Creation is seen as a place where analogies of the divine reveal themselves. The intellect of a person is the vehicle given by God to discern this truth about creation as indicated by several verses in the Qur’an.
The second part of the declaration, Muhammad is the messenger of God, acknowledges the means through which this understanding of God has come. All prophets are special human beings capable of refracting divine light, acting like prisms that allow others to see it. The intensity of direct divine light is something only a prophet can bear. Muslims believe that the revelation given to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is like a refracted green light, which lies in the middle of the light spectrum. Muslims consider Islam to be the most balanced of the prophetic dispensations, the “middle way.” The Prophet Muhammad’s life is considered to be moderate and exemplary for both men and women. He abhorred extremes saying, “Beware of extremism in your religion.” After the Qur’an, the Prophet’s practice, or sunnah, is the second most important authority in Islam.
The second pillar of Islam is prayer. While people may supplicate anytime they wish to do so, there is a specific prayer every adult Muslim, female and male, is obliged to perform five times a day. The times are determined by the perceived movement of the sun as a way of reminding people of the temporal nature of the world. Thus, each day is considered to be a microcosm of one’s own life: the dawn prayer as one’s coming into the world, the midday prayer as the end of youth, the afternoon prayer as old age, the sunset prayer as death, and the evening prayer as the beginning of the descent into the darkness of the grave and returning to the dawn prayer as the awakening and resurrection of the dead. After the testimony of faith, prayer is considered the most important pillar.
The third pillar of Islam is paying zakah, an obligatory alms given once every lunar year from the standing capital of every responsible adult. It is one-fortieth of a person’s liquid assets. According to the Qur’an, zakah is distributed among eight categories of people, the two most important recipients being the poor and the needy.
The fourth pillar is fasting the entire lunar month of Ramadan, and it begins with the sighting of the new crescent for that month. Fasting entails abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations from dawn to sunset and is obligatory on adults healthy enough to do so.
The fifth pillar is the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah. Muslims believe Makkah to be the site of the first house of worship built by the Prophet Adam and his wife Eve and then restored millennia later by the Prophet Abraham and his son, the Prophet Ishmael. At the end of his mission, the Prophet Muhammad restored its monotheistic purpose by destroying the 365 idols in it that the Arabs had been worshiping prior to Islam. The rituals performed in the pilgrimage follow the footsteps of Abraham and his second wife Hagar. The Hajj culminates on a vast desert plain where approximately 3 million pilgrims from almost every country on Earth gather every year and prepare for standing before God on the Day of Judgment.