The Five Pillars of Islam

The Meaning of Zakat, Salat, Shahada, Fasting and the Hajj

Muslims attend Friday prayer services at the Islamic Center of Southern California on September 14, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The five pillars of Islam are the five duties required of every practicing Muslim. Sunnis believe in the Five Pillars. Shiites do as well, though they add two or three. The Five Pillars, or rukn, in Arabic, are as follows:

Shahada, or Profession of Faith

The most important duty of every Muslim is the recitation of the creed, or profession of faith, in one version or another: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.

Muslims will also preface the profession with the words, I bear witness that… and favor the word messenger over the more westernized and Judeo-Christian idea of a prophet.

The profession of faith takes its origins from Muhammad’s destruction of all deities and idolatrous objects, including money and luxury, from the Arab pantheon except the “One True God.”

But the profession had an equally significant socio-political implication. Tribes were the most important unit of political and economic power in the Arab world of Muhammad’s time. To be a member of a given tribe, one had to be born into it, or, less likely, to marry into it. To become a member of the Islamic umma, or community, one only had to make the declaration of faith. It was a momentously consequential end-run around old strictures of power and convention, immediately giving Muhammad in particular and Muslims in general a means of increasing their numbers and powers rapidly while shattering old expectations and driscriminations.

Salat, or Prayer

Salat is the Arabic word for prayer. Every Muslim is expected to pray five times a day, always facing Mecca, and by prostrating herself or himself in utter humility. It wasn’t always so: During Muhammad’s time, Muslims initially were required to pray facing Jerusalem, in recognition of the religion of Abraham, and to do so twice a day, then three times a day.

When Muhammad decreed the switch to Mecca, following one of his “revelations,” he also decreed the five-times-a-day requirement, though reluctantly so: Muhammad thought the requirement excessive.

Ibn Ishaq, the 7th century Muslim historian and collector of oral traditions about Muhammad that sourced his first biography, tells the story of Muhammad bargaining with God on the number of times Muslims should be required to pray. Initially, according to Ibn Ishaq’s retelling, God told Muhammad that Muslims should pray 50 times a day. On his way down from the throne, Muhammad encountered Moses, who suggested to Muhammad to go back to God and get the number lowered. Muhammad did so, again and again, until the requirement was reduced to five. Muhammad still thought the number too high, but by then he was too ashamed to return to God to ask for one more reduction. Five it would be.


Zakat is the Arabic word for charity, or alms-giving. Unlike Jesus Christ, Mohammed never condemned wealth or possessions of this world. He himself had become rather wealthy, working for Khadiga, the wealthy merchant-trader who would become his first wife. Muhammad always respected industriousness and never required individuals to give away their possessions.

Muhammad did, however, oppose hoarding and the amassing of fortunes for fortune’s sake. To counter the impulse, he required Muslims always to set aside a portion of their wealth for the poor—a self-imposed and regular tax on income. Zakat is at the root of Islam’s egalitarian principles, a constant reminder that ostentation is against God’s will.

Sawm, or Siyam—Fasting

Aside from the five-times-daily prayer, fasting during the month of Ramadan is the most visible and recognizable of Muslim acts the world over. During the 30-odd days of Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast during daylight hours, drinks included, and abstain from bodily pleasures like sex or other forms of sensual abandon. The focus is on humility, spiritual oneness with God and social oneness with the umma, or Islamic community, across the globe.

Fasting in Islam has its origins in Judaism, Christianity and the pre-Islamic Arab world. Although Ramadan is when Muslims fast most, they may fast voluntarily the rest of the year, or fast three days a month, or six days during the month of Sawwal, which follows the month of Ramadan, or fast on Mondays and Thursdays. Each of these proscriptions is recognized in Islam.

Traditional Muslims may also fast to atone for specific sins, the way Catholics recite rosaries or follow their priest’s instructions to atone. For example, failing to honor an oath or accidentally killing a Muslim may be mitigated by fasting. Sufis, as rigorous in their spiritual exercises as Jesuits, consider fasting part of their religious calisthenics.

Hajj, or Pilgrimage to Mecca

An able-bodied Muslim is expected, at least once, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Pilgrims prepare by entering the state of Ihram (symbolized by a form of clothing and a humbled demeanor) and converging together, by the throngs, indistinguishable one from the other either by race, creed or social standing, on the Kaaba for the required circumambulations.

Symbolically, the hajj is as much a return to God as a evocation of the return of Muhammad to Mecca as a conqueror—of the city’s “infidels” as well as of the “true faith.” It is a reclaiming of roots, a realization of belonging.

The pilgrimage also includes going to the slops of Mount Arafat, 16 miles outside of Mecca, in recollection of the covenant between God and Adam, and throwing stones at three pillars in Mina, less than three miles east of the city.

The ritual represents the stoning of the devil—or, more accurately in Islamic beliefs, the stoning of the shaitan, as the devil is known in Arabic.

Arabs had been making the pilgrimage to Mecca—to the enormous granite Ka’aba, the old shrine at the center of the city—for hundreds, possibly thousands of years before Islam to pay tribute to 360 gods represented inside the Kaaba’s walls. Muhammad destroyed all but two frescoes—that of the Virgin Mary and that of Christ, though eventually even those representations would be banned under Islam’s subsequent prohibition of images. (The prohibition was not endorsed by the Prophet.)