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Understanding Islamic Doctrines and the five Pillars of Islam

In a climate where the demonization of Islam is all too prevalent, clarification of the basic tenets of this faith might help to increase understanding. In the hope of raising awareness and tolerance, deepening understanding, the following sets out to examine doctrines of the faith and the Five Pillars of Islam, in simple terms. This is undertaken from the view of a non-Muslim, a human just looking to understand fellow human beings and their beliefs. We are one in the spirit of humanity.

First, it will help to state that everything hinges on the belief that there is one God, a Divine Unity, if you like, and that Mohammed is His Prophet. Within Islam’s basic doctrine of God’s Divine Unity, the faithful seek to achieve a human, unified, religious community and a moral society. This is achieved by following the teachings of God, as given through His prophet Mohammed, and set out in the Qur’an. Next, there is a belief in angels as helpers, appointed by God to reveal His messages. Third, prophecy, prophets and sacred books form part of belief, particularly the Qu’ran as the last revealed prophecy in history. The fourth belief is that of the Last Day, the Day of Judgement, when the dead will rise, and God will accept the good into eternal happiness in Paradise, but cast the unbelievers into Hell for eternity. Finally, Divine Decree and predestination is the belief that, although the doctrines are a mystery to mere man, man has been given free will to make moral decisions and to live in the faith.

After examining these tenets of Islamic faith, any Christian will already see amazing parallels with his or her own beliefs. For example, Christianity accepts one God, with Jesus as His Prophet. The words of the prophet are contained in sacred scriptures, the Bible; the Book of Revelations aligns with a basic belief in prophecy. Many Christian sects accept the existence of angels, in similar roles to those cited in Islam. Judgement Day, Heaven and Hell, following God’s will (Divine Decree) and living by one’s moral conscience, all equate; the similarities and connections are uncannily clear.

So what exactly are the Five Pillars of Islam? In simple terms, they may be described as putting beliefs into practice by carrying out devotial and ritual duties, something every Muslim is required to do. They are as follows:

SHAHADA: This is how one becomes a Muslim, simply stating the words, with true and heartfelt sincerety – “I bear witness that “There is no god but God; I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God.” The Islamic community welcomes those who have a true belief and who express it by stating these words, a prayer, a public witness of faith, in fact. Most Christians recognize that they too, witness to God and Jesus, and indeed Judaism has similar witnessing to God, though without the one Messenger, while honoring many prophets.

SALAT: This is formal worship, set down as prayer five times a day, and of course at other special times such as funerals, as stated in the Qu’ran. Any male can lead prayers at the mosque, so must know the words, the order, the positions and the rituals, and all must face Mecca, Islam’s Holy Place. The prayers are said at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon and after sunset. Christian and other faiths follow rituals and prayer with similar order and commitment. Bathing before Salat is necessary, but think how preparing to go to church, meeting, or synagogue involves washing and cleanliness.

ZAKAT: If you think of the principle of tithe, collection plates, donations to your church, charitable giving, then the Third Pillar mirrors these elements somewhat. It is rather more formal, described as ‘legal almsgiving’, donated annually to help various people in need. These include poor Muslims, new converts, prisoners, those who work as missionaries, spreading the faith. But Zakat is deemed a sharing of wealth, not precisely charity and Islam sees it as a religious obligation, a directive from God that, when followed, helps the wider community while doubling as an act of worship. It could also be interpretated as a way to atone for sin, or, if a cynical view is taken, buying oneself into God’s favor. But then, making reparation for wrongdoing is a Christian tenet that suggests such action will help to “get right with God.” Once again, in Judaism and Christianity, two name but two major world religions, there are echoes of the Islamic Pillar of Zakat.

SAWM: This Fourth Pillar relates to fasting, and so the month of Ramadan springs to mind, a lunar month in the Muslim calendar, just as Easter and preceeding Lent are determined in the Christian faith. Like Lent, Ramadan is a time of reflection, for examining one’s spiritual life, for making sacrifices and improving how one will live. It is not just a preparation for the festival of Eid, but an opportunity to take stock and resolve to do better. A Muslim friend told me that it made him think of how fortunate he is in his life and to understand the sufferings of others; he ends by giving help to those less fortunate and feels that the fasting focuses his mind and makes him a better person. Meals can be eaten before dawn and after dark, and the sick, old and very young do not have to fast. This all reminds me of my Catholic childhood; one Lent, 40 years ago, I gave up sugar in my tea and coffee; I still do not use sugar in drinks. Just as Ramadan has special prayers and fasting, so does Lent.

THE HAJJ: This last Pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca and is not a total requirement for devout Muslims; very sensibly, economic and personal circumstances can be taken into account. After all, not every Christian can afford to attend holy places, such as Rome or Lourdes or the Holy Land, not every Jew can go to Jerusalem, and so on. But visiting Mecca, or indeed any place held sacred to a faith, takes the believer in person to that reality. It is the Muslim belief that Adam and Eve lived there, Abraham and Ishmael built a temple to the One True God, and that Mohammed led his followers in prayer at Mecca. Taking part in the Hajj is special. Ritual, prayer and sacrifice, cleansing body and spirit, a way towards being a better person, all these are components of the pilgrimage experience. It calls to mind those who visit Lourdes seeking physical and spiritual healing.

Looking at Islam’s doctrines and the Five Pillars, I cannot help but recognize that those of us who are not Muslims may be much closer in our religious and ethical beliefs and behaviours than we might have thought. My own knowledge and experiences lie in the Catholic faith, but I see so many links that I have to conclude, we are much the same. That has deepened my understanding I feel. The one harsh truth that must be expressed is how the basic goodness, the moral principles, are distored by fanaticism. Words from the Qu’ran, or the Bible, are taken and interpreted by some, to the detriment of the rest of the faithful. Is every Muslim a threat, is every fundamentalist Christian a bigot, does every Catholice wish to replicate the Spanish Inquisition? I think not. We as individuals, can only “speak as we find” when offering opinions or personal experiences. For me, I have many Muslim friends who would harm nobody, as hurting others is not what their beliefs dictate. Religion is a deeply personal matter, sacred to each individual.

Sources: Denny, F. M. “The Realization of the Goal of Islam in Faithful and Observant Communal Life. The Five Pillars of Islam” Available from: