This Muslim creed is seven words in Arabic and made up of two declarations: The first, “There is no god but God” (Surah 9:31; 47:19) demonstrates strong belief in one divine being (tawhid). The second, “Muhammad is the messenger of God” (Surah 33:40; 48:29), clarifies how Islam differs from other monotheistic beliefs. The shahada signifies submission to God by accepting his message as revealed to mankind through the prophet Muhammad. Essentially, it is a rejection of polytheism, a function of monotheism, a requirement for anyone converting to Islam and the way one becomes part of the community (umma). Moreover, considered a source of power and blessing, it is whispered in the ear of newborns and those who are dying (as is the Call to Prayer).


Salah, the second pillar (five daily prayers) is a public indication of one’s adherence to Islam. Prayer times: just before dawn, at noon, in midafternoon (prior to sunset), and late evening. Worshipers must be in a state of ritual purity (ablutions or ritual bath), face Mecca, and find a clean place (often prayer rug). Believers bow and repeat the Qur’an’s first chapter. Then they repeat other Qur’anic verses, kneel, and touch the ground with their forehead (three times). The entire prayer cycle (rakah) is repeated again. After every two cycles, and after the third cycle (sunset prayer), the worshiper sits back and repeats the shahada. Each salah entails 2-4 rakahs, making a total of seventeen rakahs daily. Finally, believers can offer private petitions (dua).


The third pillar, zakah (alms) is Islam’s social system (tax), paid to a religious official, or to the representative of a local mosque. Traditionally, it amounts to one-fortieth, or 2.5 percent of all liquid assets and income-generating properties a Muslim owns. The recipients: Allah’s servants, religious leaders, pilgrims, jihad workers, Muslim seekers, charitable groups. It is not given to dhimmis (Jews and Christians), relatives, spouse, self, slaves of rich, or to the prophet’s family. This pillar reminds believers they belong to–and have responsibilities toward–a community. It is referred to in the Qur’an 82 times, for example, 2:43, 110, 177; 9:11; 4:77; 22:78 and other types of alms (sadaqa), or righteousness, is also mentioned in the Qur’an (2:276). Giving is important in Islam.


The fourth pillar is a monthlong fast (sawm) during Ramadan (9th month of lunar Islamic calendar) from first light in the morning (before sunrise) until just after sunset–no food or drink, no sex, no smoking. This pillar demonstrates ethical awareness and is meant to purify the body from all desires. It is a time to remember the poor, to abstain from fighting, arguing, gossiping, bickering and bitterness. Additionally, believers are to forgive others and ask forgiveness themselves. In the evening, after sunset, they pray and often break their fast by eating dates, but Ramadan is also a time when certain traditional foods are eaten. During this month, many Muslims become more spiritually minded and more serious about their faith.


The fifth pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca during the first ten days of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar (Dhu al-Hijah). Every Muslim who is physically and financially able is required to make the trip. There are nine essential rites: wearing ihram (unsewn cloth), circumambulating Kaaba, waiting expectantly on the plain of Arafat, spending the night in Muzdalifa, throwing stones at three symbols of Satan, sacrificing an animal at Mina, circling the Kaaba again, drinking water from the Zamzam well and performing two prayer cycles at the Station of Abraham. Muslims believe it originated from Abraham (Surah 22:26-30). Since this pillar symbolizes entering into the divine presence, during hajj, believers should think of nothing else than the remembrance of God and pilgrimage rites.

Both Sunnis and Shi’ites basically agree on the details in regard to the five pillars above. For Shi’ites, rules differ on recipients for zakah and Shi’ites pray three times a day but perform the same number of rakahs. For Sufis, these pillars are personally internalized in devotion to God. For example, the shahada is repeated (dhikr) as a way to remember him and live a life of prayer and meditation. For more on this topic, view the Field Guide to Sunni and Shia.