In Islam, the formal acts of worship are commonly referred to as the Five Pillars of Islam. These are the acts on which the foundations of the practice of Islam are based. While Islam is not comprised exclusively of these acts of worship – there is elaborate guidance on ethics and character building – these acts are obligatory and an integral part of Islam. Let us examine what these acts of worship are.
The testimony is uttered in the following words, or a variant of these words: I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad ﷺ is the servant and messenger of Allah.
The testimony thus consists of two components. The first is the declaration that none deserves to be worshipped, or unconditionally obeyed, other than Allah. This concept of the oneness of Allah (called Tawheed in Arabic) is the most significant and reiterated one in the Qur’an, and forms the basis of many other Muslim practices. Muslims must act upon this part of the testimony by worshipping Allah exclusively, calling upon Him for help without any intermediaries, and prostrating to none other than Him. No religious authority, or anyone else, should come between a person and the only true God.
The second component of the testimony is the declaration that Muhammad ﷺ is a messenger –and simultaneously no more than a messenger – of Allah. Many other messengers were appointed by Allah for guidance of nations in the past, including Nuh (Noah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), and Isa (Jesus), but Muhammad ﷺ is the last of the prophets, and the message entrusted to him, in the form of the Qur’an, is universal and for all time to come. Muslims are required to follow and love Muhammad ﷺ which necessitates undertaking a study of his life.
Formal Prayer (Salat)
The formal prayer consists of standing, sitting, bowing, and prostrating, as a means of worshipping Allah and expressing gratitude to Him. A short portion of the Qur’an is recited while standing, and in the other postures, Allah is praised, glorified, and supplicated to. The Salat (or Salah) is offered facing the direction of the Ka’abah (the Sacred House) in Mecca, although, the purpose of prayer is not to revere the Ka’abah but to exalt Allah. Salat is offered five times a day: before sunset, in early afternoon, in late afternoon, right after sunset, and at night. Hence, offering these prayers in a timely manner requires discipline in one’s life. Each Salat is preceded by the Call to Prayer (Adhan), and it is much more preferable for men to offer each Salat at the mosque.
The formal prayer is a means of exalting Allah, an expression of our position as His servants, and a symbol of submission to His will. It is important to focus one’s attention towards Allah during the Salat, and engage in His remembrance, rather than simply going through the motions.
Helping the poor and those in need is an essential part of Islam, and a recurring theme of the Qur’an. Those possessing a certain minimum amount of wealth are required to give two and a half per cent (2.5 %) of their money, saved over the past one year, in charity. Obligatory charity is also due on other commodities such as gold and livestock, subject to certain conditions. Zakat, at a personal level, is meant as a safeguard against greed and an excessive love of worldly possessions; at the societal level, it helps to alleviate poverty, reduce hostility between different classes of society, and increase the flow of money in the economy.
Islam encourages people to give in charity beyond what is obligatory. The Qur’an states that Allah loves a charitable attitude and selfless devotion to the needs of others; it equates giving in charity to giving a loan to Allah: “Who is it that would loan Allah a goodly loan so He will multiply it for him and he will have a noble reward?” (Qur’an 57:11)
Fasting from dawn to dusk, throughout the lunar month of Ramadan, is an obligation on all Muslims, with certain exemptions such as the sick and the travellers. Fasting imposes a complete prohibition on eating and drinking, and further stipulates abstinence from sexual relations, and all forms of misconduct and demeaning behaviour. The basic purpose of fasting, as the Qur’an elaborates, is to teach self-restraint to people. It further motivates them to experience the plight of the hungry and to help the needy, as well as to express sincere gratitude to Allah for His many blessings upon them. Voluntary fasts may be observed on almost any day of the year, and have been encouraged by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a means of attaining closeness to Allah, and restraining from wrongdoing.
Hajj consists of a set of rites, performed in and around Mecca (in modern-day Saudi Arabia), to commemorate the life of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his family. Anyone who can afford the journey to Mecca, physically and financially, must perform Hajj at least once in his or her lifetime. The rites of Hajj include, amongst others, circumambulation of the Ka’abah – the symbolic House of God built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and Ismail (Ishmael); walking between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa to pay tribute to the motherly instincts of Hajar (Hagar); and stoning the pillars that symbolize the devil as a reminder of Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) resolve against Satan. Hajj is a great test of one’s patience, steadfastness, and willingness to distance oneself from the world at Allah’s command.