Islam requires that all adherents perform five central duties, which are believed to strengthen their faith in and service to Allah. These duties are the 5 Pillars of Islam – the basic tenets of the faith, which all Muslims strive to perform, regardless of where they live or what sect they belong to.
Shahada (Shahaadah) (testimony of faith)
The testimony of faith is the most important pillar of Islam. To perform the testimony of faith, one is required to say with conviction at least once in his or her life: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” In order to convert to Islam, one must utter the shahaadah with complete conviction.
Muslims pray five times daily, at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and night. Prayer often occurs in a mosque, but Muslims may pray anywhere: inside or outside, in their office, home, school or elsewhere. While praying, one faces Mecca and strives to recite his or her prayers from memory. Ideally, saalat are recited in Arabic.
Charitable giving, or Zakat, is a requirement of faith for all Muslims. Used to benefit the poor, Zakat represents a fixed portion of one’s wealth and assets. Beyond this requirement, one may also perform an act of charity (sadaqah) by donating additional funds to the needy. Historically, the zakat was collected by Muslim caliphate at the end of each year. In modern times, almsgiving is incumbent upon the individual Muslim – except for in Saudi Arabia, where Zakat is strictly enforced by the rule of Islamic law.
Siyam (Sawm) (fasting)
Sawm literally means any ritual fasting, but is generally understood to refer to ritual fasting during the month of Ramadan. From dawn to dusk for the entire month, Muslims must refrain from eating, drinking and engaging in sexual relations. Through this physical abstinence, Muslims are able to focus intently on their spiritual selves, atoning for their sins and recommitting to serving Allah.
During the last month of the Islamic calendar, Dhu al-Hijjah, some two million Muslims ascend to the holy city of Mecca for the Hajj, or pilgrimage. Every able-bodied Muslim is required – if their finances permit – to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. If performing the hajj will put an undue burden on one’s family, he or she may appoint a proxy to fulfill this duty in his or her place. Once one completes a pilgrimage, he or she is able to add the title Haajj to his or her name. Islamic teachers are careful to warm, however, that the Hajj must be performed as an expression of devout faith – and not as a ploy to gain social status.