Overview: The Five Pillars

The Five Pillars of Islam is the term given to the five duties incumbent on every Muslim.

List of the Five Pillars

  1. Shahadah (declaration of faith)
  2. Salah (ritual prayer)
  3. Zakah (charity)
  4. Sawm (fasting during Ramadan)
  5. Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca)

These five practices are essential to Sunni Islam.

The concept of five pillars is taken from the Hadith collections, notably those of Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. The Qur’an does not speak of five pillars, although one can find in it scattered references to their associated practices.

1. The Shahadah (Declaration Of Faith)

The Shahadah is the basic creed or tenet of Islam (Submission):

“‘Ašhadu ‘al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu wa ‘ašhadu ‘anna muħammadan rasūlu-llāh”
“I testify that there is no god but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad ﷺ is the messenger of Allah”.

As the most important pillar, this testament is a foundation for all other beliefs and practices in Islam. Ideally, these are the first words a newborn will hear, and children are taught as soon as they are able to understand it, and it will be recited when they die. Muslims must repeat the shahadah in prayer, and non-Muslims wishing to convert to Islam are required to recite the creed. Technically the Shi’a do not consider the Shahadah to be a separate pillar, but connect it to the beliefs.

2. Salah (Obligatory Prayers)

Salah (Prayer) is performed facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca. Salah is intended to focus the mind on Allah; it is seen as a personal communication with Allah, expressing gratitude and worship. According to the Qur’an, the benefit of prayer is that:

“Restrains [one] from shameful and evil deeds.”
Quran 29:40

Salah is to be performed five times a day and it is compulsory but some flexibility in the specifics is allowed depending on the circumstances. For example, in the case of sickness or a lack of space, a worshipper can offer salah while sitting, or even lying down, and the prayer can be shortened when travelling. The salah must be performed in the Arabic language to the best of each worshipper’s ability. The lines of prayer are to be recited by heart (although beginners may use written aids), and the worshipper’s body and clothing, as well as the place of prayer, must be cleansed.

3. Zakah (Charity)

Zakah, or alms-giving, is the practice of charitable giving by Muslims based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all who are able to do so. It is considered to be a personal responsibility for Muslims to ease economic hardship for others and eliminate inequality. Zakah consists of spending a fixed portion of one’s wealth for the benefit of the poor or needy, including slaves, debtors and travellers. A Muslim may also donate more as an act of voluntary charity (sadaqah), in order to achieve additional divine reward.

There are two main types of zakah

First, there is the zakah on traffic, which is a fixed amount based on the cost of food that is paid during the month of Ramadan by the head of a family for himself and his dependents.
Second, there is the zakah on wealth, which covers money made in business, savings, income, and so on. In current usage zakah is treated as a 2.5% levy on most valuables and savings held for a full lunar year, as long as the total value is more than a basic minimum known as nisab (three ounces or 87.48g of gold). As of 16 October 2006, nisab is approximately US$1,750 or an equivalent amount in any other currency. Many Shi’ites are expected to pay an additional amount in the form of a khums tax, which they consider to be a separate ritual practice.

4. Sawm (Fasting In Ramadan)

Three types of fasting (Sawm) are recognized by the Qur’an: Ritual fasting, [2:183-187] fasting as compensation or repentance, [2:196] and ascetic fasting. [33:35] Ritual fasting is an obligatory act during the month of Ramadan. Muslims must abstain from food, drink, and sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk during this month, and are to be especially mindful of other sins. The fast is meant to allow Muslims to seek nearness to Allah, to express their gratitude to and dependence on him, to atone for their past sins, and to remind them of the needy. During Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam by refraining from violence, anger, envy, greed, lust, harsh language, gossip and to try to get along with each other better than normal. In addition, all obscene and irreligious sights and sounds are to be avoided.

Fasting during Ramadan is not obligatory, and even forbidden in some cases, for several groups for whom it would be dangerous or excessively problematic. These include pre-pubescent children, those with a medical condition such as diabetes, elderly people, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. Observing fasts is not permitted for menstruating women. Other individuals for whom it is considered acceptable not to fast are those in combat and travellers. Missing fasts usually must be made up soon afterwards, although the exact requirements vary according to circumstance.

5. Hajj (Pilgrimage To Mecca)

The Hajj is a pilgrimage that occurs during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah to the holy city of Mecca, and derives from an ancient Arab practice. Every able-bodied Muslim is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it. When the pilgrim is around ten kilometers from Mecca, he must dress in Ihram clothing, which consists of two white sheets. The main rituals of the Hajj include walking seven times around the Kaaba, touching the Black Stone, traveling seven times between Mount Safa and Mount Marwah, and symbolically stoning the Devil in Mina.
The hajj also includes a visit to Madinah, the second holiest city of Islam.

The pilgrim, or the haji, is honoured in their community. For some, this is an incentive to perform the Hajj. Islamic teachers say that the Hajj should be an expression of devotion to Allah, not a means to gain social standing. The believer should be self-aware and examine their intentions in performing the pilgrimage. This should lead to constant striving for self-improvement
A pilgrimage made at any time other than the Hajj season is called an Umrah, and while not mandatory is strongly encouraged.

Hadith Quotes

I heard the Messenger of Allah say: “Islam has been built upon five things – on testifying that there is no god save Allah, and that Muhammad ﷺ is His Messenger; on performing salah; on giving the zakah; on Hajj to the House; and on fasting during Ramadhan.”
Sahih Bukhari and Muslim, Narrated by Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar bin al-Khattab