Common to all of Islam are the Quran and the Five Pillars. The Quran holds a higher place in Islam then does the Bible to Christianity, or the Old Testament to Judaism, based primarily on pre-Islamic tradition. In the absence of the concept of one all-powerful and loving God, who cared for his creation, involving himself in their lives on an individual basis, on dark nights in the deserts of Arabia, terrified and confused souls sought solace and direction from the kahin, a kind of soothsayer or fortuneteller, who in turn would consult the jinn, spirits with some degree of power, who occupy the atmosphere (think, genie). When consulted about the meaning of a dream, the location of a lost flock, or whether to take a certain bride, the kahins invariably provided their direction in the form of Arabic prose. And the answer to the question of the agonized seeker required no small amount of interpretation on their part.
The words of the Quran are delivered in similar fashion, as deeply contemplative prophetic musings in the form of beautiful Arabic prose. When pressed for an exhibition of miraculous powers as validation of his status as the Messenger of God, Mohammed’s consistent response was that his only miracles were the prophetic recitations. The second of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, Umar, is said to have been so powerfully affected by the beauty and power of the prophetic words that, upon confronting Mohammed with sword drawn at the home of his own sister, who had become a follower, and hearing the recitations, he immediately dropped his sword in amazement at their beauty and profundity, and became a follower. As Reza Aslan so profoundly points out, similarly to Saul of Tarsus, who ceased his persecutions of the early followers of Christ when he was transformed by a vision of the Savior, “Umar was transformed by divine intervention: not because he saw God, but because he heard God.” (Reza Aslan, No god but God, P 158).
As such, the power of the Quran is not limited to its meaning. Baraka, or blessing, is derived from the sound of the words themselves. Regrettably, for those who don’t speak Arabic as their first language, it is virtually impossible to experience and appreciate this element of the Quran. In many mosques around the world to this day, Quranic readings are conducted exclusively in Arabic, regardless of the language of the listeners. The veneration of the words of the Quran reached such great heights, that, as mentioned earlier in the history of the Umayyad dynasty, a vigorous doctrinal controversy arose as to whether the Quran was eternal and coexisted with God, or was created, and the scholars of the time were even tortured, exiled, and executed depending on their position in this controversy.
The Holy Quran contains over 6000 verses arranged by chapter, each chapter corresponding to a specific recitation. Each chapter has a cryptic one–word title, and chapters are ordered, curiously, according to length rather than chronology, from longest to shortest, with the exception that the first chapter is a short preamble. Each chapter begins with the words, “in the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful”.
Of the over 6000 verses, only 600 are directive in nature, with all but 80 of these directives pertaining to rituals and prayers. With only 80 verses giving direct commands about issues that arise in daily life, it is clear to see that the Quran is not a book of law. Much of the Quran consists of prophetic messages describing the nature of God as one, as all-powerful, yet gracious and merciful, providing people with everything that they need. In return, man is expected to worship God, not simply by acknowledging his greatness, but by living a life that is worthy of his greatness. In the Quran there is no separation between the worship of God and one’s deeds. Indeed, one’s deeds are a reflection of one’s attitude towards God. The deeds that are required proceed from a heart of integrity and compassion – fairness in business dealings, compassion towards those who are in need, respect for one’s elders and family, and the equality of men and women in the eyes of God.
The Five Pillars
I have not familiarized myself with the approximately 78 sects of Islam, let alone studied them. But it is a safe bet to assume that, along with the Holy Quran, the five pillars of Islam are common to them all.
- The Profession of Faith (shahada)
- Ritual Prayers Five Times per Day (salat)
- Alms Giving (zakat)
- The Fast of Ramadan (sawm)
- The Pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)
Clearly, the five pillars address devotion to God. As much as the Western concept of compartmentalization would distinguish the third pillar as addressing sacred responsibility towards our fellow man, Arab thought, and Mohammed’s prophecies make no such distinction. All are considered acts of devotion to God.
Pillar 1 – The Profession of Faith (shahada)
The profession of faith is the single entrance requirement into the Islamic faith. “There is no god, but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God.” Plainly and simply, this is an acknowledgment of the oneness of the all-powerful Creator. There is no other god. Mohammed absolutely considered his God, Allah in Arabic, to be the same God as the Hebrews and the Christians.
The second phrase is an acknowledgment that the words of Mohammed, and thereby of the Quran, are the direct words of God.
Making this proclamation makes you a Muslim.
Pillar 2 – Ritual Prayers Five Times per Day (salat)
The required ritual prayers take place five times a day, as dramatically summoned by the haunting cries of the muezzin from minarets piercing the heavens. Preferably performed in community, the ritual prayers are recited word for word, with associated postures of standing, bowing, and kneeling, always towards Mecca.
On Fridays (juma), large congregations gather at the mosque for the noon prayer, which also includes a sermon from the Imam.
Pillar 3 -Alms Giving (zakat)
All Muslims who are able are required to pay an annual tax of 2 ½% on all of their income and assets. The tax is to be used to help orphans, widows, the poor, and for the propagation of Islam. In general the zakat tax is considered an individual matter, but in a handful of nations, the tax is collected by the government.
Pillar 4 – The Fast of Ramadan (sawm)
A month-long fast is declared for Muslims during the ninth month of the Islamic year, the month of Ramadan. From sunrise to sunset for the entire month, Muslims are to abstain from food, drink (even water), and sex. Intended to be a time of personal reflection, there are daily special meetings at the mosque during the month of Ramadan. After the sun sets, families gather for a light meal. At the end of the month the fast is broken with a feast known as Eid al-Fatr, a national holiday in most Muslim countries, the equivalent of Christmas in the West.
Pillar 5 – The Pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)
Every Muslim who is financially and physically able is required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, to take part in the annual festival there involving circling the Kaaba, which has been taking place since before the life of Mohammed.