The Realization of the Goal of Islam In Faithful and Observant Communal Life

The Realization of the Goal of Islam In Faithful and Observant Communal LifeMuslims believe that they have been called by God to establish a righteous human political and social order on earth. The only way to live gratefully as God’s caliphs is to make full use of what he has bestowed on humankind. The fundamental Islamic doctrine of the divine unity requires a unified human religious community as well. Tawhid is the Islamic name for this unity. But it is not a matter of mere number, in the sense that one is different from two and three and so forth. Rather, tawhid means “unification”; it has verbal force. Muslims declare God to be One and reinforce, indeed embody that declaration with strenuous efforts at unity in their doctrinal, ritual-devotional, and communal lives, which are regulated by the Qur’an and Muhammad’s teaching and example as contained in his Sunna.


The elements of Islamic faith, known as iman, can be briefly summarized, even though there has never been anything like a universal uniform creed in the sense of a formal statement that Muslims have been required to recite and endorse. The closest thing to such is the Shahada, the “witnessing” both to the unity of God and the messengerhood of Muhammad. But this two-part utterance does not have sufficient specific detail to be a comprehensive creed; rather it provides a crisp summary of the two vast areas of theological awareness and reflection: God and humankind, the vertical dimension being belief in no god but God and the horizontal dimension being the recognition that Muhammad has been chosen to be God’s messenger on the human historical plane. But nothing is said in the shahada about the Qur’an, or about the Last Judgment, or other central elements of Islamic faith.

The first basic doctrine of Islam is the belief in the divine unity, tawhid. This belief is easy to declare but difficult to understand and apply; indeed, the whole edifice of Muslim religion is dedicated to realizing tawhid. The second great doctrine is belief in angels as the divinely appointed agents of God’s revelatory activity and helpers in myriad other tasks. The third is belief in prophecy and sacred books that have been revealed to prophets in the past and, especially, acceptance of Muhammad and the Qur’an as the final “seal” of the cycle of prophecy in history. The fourth belief is in the Last Day, when all the dead will be raised and humankind shall be gathered before the Judgment Seat of God, the righteous to be saved in eternal heavenly bliss and the unbelievers to be cast down guilty into hell. The final doctrine is the Divine Decree and Predestination. Its workings are a mystery to humans, who nevertheless are given sufficient freedom and responsibility to make genuine moral and spiritual decisions.

The Pillars of Islam

Islam is a religion with an emphasis on orthoprax issues; that is, the acting out of basic beliefs and attitudes is central. This orthoprax character of Islam can best be seen in the five basic devotional-ritual duties called the Pillars of Islam, required of every Muslim; these work together to form a potent inner structure for the Umma and at the same time demarcate it from and defend it against outsiders.

Muslims have a strong sense of distinction between themselves and non-Muslims. The universal Islamic greeting as-salamu ‘alaykum, “Peace be upon you!” is normally used only between Muslims. It is forbidden for female Muslims to marry outside the faith and male Muslims who do are restricted to monotheistic spouses, and children of such a union are considered Muslim and must be brought up so. The closed community of the Umma is not inhospitable to outsiders in the sense of being cold or indifferent to common human needs and problems. Rather, the Umma is closed in the sense that it does not permit its members to stray outside the fold and still be considered Muslim.


As far as welcoming outsiders into the fellowship of faith is concerned, the gates are wide open at all times and there is always hearty rejoicing when a person responds to the call of Islam, pronounces the Shahada, and becomes a brother or sister in the faith. It is necessary only to perform the first pillar of uttering the Shahada (“I bear witness that ‘There is no god but God’; I bear witness that ‘Muhammad is the messenger of God.’”) once, with sincere conviction, to become Muslim.

Once, in a university class on Islam, one of my students was inspired to utter the Shahada in the middle of my lecture. He had evidently been thinking about his potential commitment to Islam for some time, but when he felt the call of God in the classroom, he could not resist. Two Muslim students in the class embraced the student and together the three performed a joyful prayer prostration while the class looked on in surprise, awe, and respect lightened by cheerfulness.

Salat: Worship

The Pillars of Islam begin with the Shahada, which is both a doctrinal declaration and an act of public witnessing. As soon as this brief confession has been uttered, the appropriate next expression is formal worship, known as Salat. This act of worship is the most frequently performed and pervasive of Islam’s devotional duties; it is required five times daily and also at other times such as funerals and eclipses. The Salat is highly formalized and minutely regulated in its precisely observed cycles of spoken formulas and bodily postures. Prescribed in the Qur’an and developed by Muhammad for the earliest Muslims, the Salat has bound the Umma together across the ages and geographical frontiers of Islam at a more nearly uniform level of performance than the practice of any other world religion. There is no priestly clergy in Islam, so all adult Muslims must know the Salat and be able to lead it if called upon.

Muslims learn early how to perform the Salat as they are trained to form straight rows behind the imam, the prayer leader who serves as a pattern and pacer for the series of standings, bowings, prostrations, and sittings that make up a cycle within the service. All eyes are directed straight ahead, with the heart and mind focused on precisely what is to be done during the service. The entire congregation faces in the direction of Mecca and the sacred Ka’ba there. The Salat is observed at dawn, at noon, during the mid-afternoon, just after the sun has set, and in the evening. A prescribed number of cycles is required at each of these times, but each worshiper may also perform additional ones.

A prime prerequisite for performing the Salat is ritual purification for every individual; usually (unless there is major impurity) purification is achieved by means of simple washing of the face, head, ears, mouth, nostrils, hands and arms to the elbows, feet, and ankles, while uttering certain invocations for purity and guidance. However, if the individual has experience what is considered a major impurity, such as sexual intercourse or contact with foul substances such as pig’s or dog’s saliva, then she or he is obliged to perform a major ablution in the form of a ritualized full bath of the entire body. Purification is of such great importance for Muslims that they constantly distinguish between a pure state and an impure state. This distinction stems from the closed nature of the Umma and protects it. Closely associated with purity and avoidance of categories of permitted and forbidden. Not only is it forbidden to perform the Salat without first becoming purified, it is understood that if one observes the Salat while impure, the performance is invalid. The Salat is both an individual and a communal ritual act that strongly symbolizes the specialness of the Muslim community and sets it apart from profane and impure objects and associations. “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is as pervasive an ideal among Muslims as it has been among pietistic Protestants.

The English word mosque is based on an Arabic word (masjid) that simply means “place of prostration.” A mosque, then, is not primarily a building, but a ritually dedicated space. The exclusive nature of the Umma is sometimes symbolized in some countries by forbidding non-Muslims to enter a mosque (e.g., Morocco, Iran). Even Muslims must leave their shoes at the door and in all ways deport themselves fittingly.

Muslim religious and aesthetic inspiration have come together in two supreme expressions in the art of Qur’anic Arabic calligraphy and sacred architecture. The mosque as a building has reached heights of symbolic expression in testimony to the divine unity by means of its simplicity, spaciousness, and manner of drawing the eyes, ears, and hearts to meditation on God. Sometimes mosque architecture has symbolized the vision of the garden of the afterlife in heaven, with pillars resembling tree trunks, and fountains and pools bubbling and spreading out as cool invigorating streams under the trees and domed heavens of the mosque as a miniature paradise.

The first requisite for a mosque is proper placement: The location should be free from pollution (e.g., not next to a tannery or brewery) and the main prostration area must be situated so that the worshipers face toward Mecca (Indonesian Muslims face west, whereas Syrians face south, and so forth). Mosques always have a niche (or other suitable marker) in the wall that faces Mecca, indicating the proper direction of prayer. The niche may be plain and unadorned or lavishly decorated, but the ritual purpose is unvarying. Next to it is a raised pulpit, with a stairway leading up and a canopy over the top. This pulpit is used whenever a sermon is preached, as at Friday congregational Salat, when Muslims are required to assemble together in a major mosque. The floor must be clean and clutter-free. There are no chairs or benches in mosques; the worshipers perform their services on carpeted or matted floors. Usually there are lamps, a clock, and a library corner with copies of the Qur’an and other religious books available for study. Adjacent to the worship area is a properly outfitted ablution area, one for males, another for females, with running water (ideally), toilets, and privacy. Usually there is a minaret next to or atop the mosque, from which the call to prayer is chanted. The minaret next to or atop the mosque, from which the call to prayer is chanted. The minaret, in fact, is a universal symbol of Islam. The word comes from the Arabic word for “lighthouse” and the symbolism is obvious it guides people to the Straight Path of Islam. The call that comes from this lighthouse is God’s summons to righteousness and truth: “God is most great! I bear witness that there is no god but God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Hasten to Salat! Hasten to success! God is most great! There is no god but God!”

Zakat: Almsgiving

The third Pillar of Islam is legal almsgiving, called Zakat. Zakat is a kind of religious tax on certain types of property and wealth, provided a minimum level is already owned. It is believed that Zakat purifies the remaining property for the giver.

This almsgiving is rendered at the end of each year for the support of various people: for poor Muslims, for converts who need help getting on their feet (in many societies, leaving a religious community for another has entailed a radical break, sometimes even social and economic “death”), for Muslim debtors of necessity, for Muslim wayfarers in dire straits, for Muslim prisoners of war, for Muslims engaged in the defense of or propagation of Islam, and for those whose job it is to collect Zakat.

Zakat is not considered charity. Rather, it is a religious obligation and placed right alongside the Salat as primary act of service to God. The Salat strongly symbolizes the total submission of the Muslims to the one, almighty God; the Zakat symbolizes the solid communal-mindedness of the Muslims, who support each other with their wealth and thus increase not only the cohesiveness and security of the Umma but also render it purer. The Qur’an likens the Zakat to a good loan paid to God, which he will repay multifold. God thus enjoins the Muslims to participate with him in sustaining the righteous community of faith. Human caliphal activity is a real responsibility and possibility, exercising stewardship of earth’s resources. God has endowed his creatures with wealth, and humankind is asked to return it through works enhancing the community. To support the community by Zakat, then, is to worship God.

Sawm: Fasting

Fasting, known to Muslims as Sawm, the fourth Pillar of Islam, is also prescribed for Muslim for the whole month of Ramadan, one of the lunar months of the Muslim calendar lasting either twenty-nine or thirty days. No food, drink, medicine, smoke, or sensual pleasure may be taken from dawn until dark. In the evening it is permitted to eat and enjoy marital relations, and before dawn a meal is eaten to provide sufficient strength for the coming day’s activities. The ill, children, the aged, and certain other classes are excused from the fast, although those who can should make it up later.

Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an first came down upon Muhammad and it is considered auspicious for other reasons, too. Muslims try to improve their spiritual and ethical lives during this holy month. Evenings are spent in special prayer gatherings in mosques, where cycles of pious exercises are recited, some twenty in all. There is congregational recitation of the Qur’an, as well as increase individual recitation. Some people observe a retreat during the last ten days of Ramadan by residing in the mosque.

Ramadan is a time of sober reflection and, depending on the season and region, it can be a difficult discipline. But experienced fasters soon get into the rhythm of the observance and testify to physical as well as spiritual benefits of rhythm of the observance and testify to physical as well as spiritual benefits of fasting. One of the major benefits is a shared feeling of common humanity, with differences of rank, status, wealth, and other circumstances that distinguish people from each other minimized. With all the effort that the fast entails, Ramadan is not a sad or anxiety-ridden period. Evenings are usually joyful occasions and people strive to be at their best at all times and to be especially aware of the dangers of crossness and hasty, angry words. There may be weariness for some, but there is also keenness of perception and self-scrutiny.

At the close of the Ramadan fast comes one of the two canonical festivals of the Muslim year, the Feast of the Fast-Breaking, when Muslims send greeting cards to each other, enjoy special foods, and travel to be with family. A special Salat service opens the festival.

The Hajj: Pilgrimage

The fifth and final Pillar of Islam is the pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca during the special month established for it. This is the only Pillar that is not absolutely obligatory. It is to be performed only if personal, financial, and family circumstances permit. Completing the Hajj confers on the pilgrim the honorific title Hajji, which may then be attached to the person’s name for the rest of his or her life.

The Salat is a continuous exercise in worship and communal strengthening, with ritual concentration directed toward Mecca. The Hajj permits the worshiper to travel in body to the sacred center, where Muslims believe that Adam and Eve lived, where Abraham and his son Ishmael erected the Ka’ba as the first house of worship of the One True God, and where Muhammad often raised up the Salat and led his fellow believers, even when they were persecuted cruelly as they prostrated in prayer and praise. Prostration was ridiculed as craven by the proud pagan Arabs, but it became a new symbol of pride for Muslims in submission before their Lord.

Pilgrims experience the thrill of seeing, hearing, and meeting fellow believers of all races and languages and cultures from the corners of the glove. Male pilgrims are required to don a two-piece, white, seamless garment, symbolizing their entry into the ritually pure and consecrated state of ihram. Women may also wear a white garment that covers their entire body and head, but they are also allowed to wear clean, modest clothing in their national styles. When men wear the ihram garment and women their national dress, Muslims rejoice at this dual symbolism of Muslim unity and equality alongside rich and creative cultural diversity. The Umma, thus, is both strongly focused in its common dedication of God, and brilliantly diffuse in its variegated cultural forms, all of which are turned toward the common task, which God commanded in the Qur’an, of “enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong.”

Although Islam knows no rite of passage into the Umma, the Hajj can be compared to a ritual of passage marked by separation from one spiritual status and movement of a higher one. The first step in this separation is formal leave-taking and the writing of one’s last will and testament. In Mecca, the dedicated state of ihram requires abstention form sexual relations, from shaving the beard or cutting one’s head or body hair, wearing scent or precious ornaments, hunting animals, and uprooting vegetation. The pilgrim is thus separated from everyday life and placed in a special ritual state, a common feature of rites of passage the world over. The actual time of the pilgrimage rites, in Mecca near the Ka’ba and in several locales outside, includes ritual reenactments of primordial spiritual events: Pilgrims pray where Abraham prayed; they run in frantic search of water as Hagar did for her defenseless son Ishmael, when they were cast out into the wilderness; they circumambulate the Ka’ba seven times on three occasions, just as the monotheistic worshipers of old were believed to do and as Muhammad prescribed by his example; and they perform a blood sacrifice of consecrated animals in commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram when God had tested his faith and then released him from the awful command to sacrifice his son (who the Qur’an identifies as Ishmael).

The climactic event of the Hajj is a standing ceremony on the Plain of Arafat, several miles from Mecca, near the Mountain of Mercy, where Muhammad sat astride his camel as he delivered his farewell sermon to the assembled pilgrims in the last year of his life. The standing ceremony begins at noon with a special Salat and continues until sundown. The pilgrims observe a reflective afternoon, seeking God’s forgiveness of their sins and resolving to spend the remainder of their lives in renewed and more intense service of God and the Muslims. There may be as many as three million pilgrims gathered in the vast plain for the standing ceremony, ample witness to the great worldwide community of Muslims. If one misses the standing ceremony, for whatever reason, the entire pilgrimage is thus rendered invalid and must be repeated in another annual season. Notice that the standing ceremony focuses on the individual pilgrim’s own recommitment, which is renewed in light of the reenactments leading up to it. In ritual studies terminology, this is a “betwixt and between” time when a spiritual transformation and the graduation of the new status occur definitively, the status of Hajji.

After the standing ceremony comes the blood sacrifice that extends symbolically back to Abraham. This sacrifice of sheep, goats, camels, cattle is of double significance. Not only is it a high point of the pilgrimage, a sort of liturgical release just as it was for Abraham and Ishmael; it is also the one point in the Hajj when Muslims around the world also participate by means of a Festival Salat and animal sacrifices at home. This observance is known as the Great Feast and with the Feast of Fast-Breaking completes the annual canonical observances of Muslim festivity. The performance of the sacrifice is done by pointing the animal’s head toward the Ka’ba in Mecca, saying “God is great” and “In the Name of God,” and then slitting its throat quickly and cleanly. The blood is thoroughly drained before the meat is butchered, in a way similar to the Jewish practice of koshering meat. Again, this is a kind of ritual separation and believed to render the flesh pure as well as wholesome. The meat is divided into portions, at least in the case of Muslims not on pilgrimage, and usually given to the needy, and to neighbors, with the third portion remaining for the use of the sacrificer and his or her family. Only males may perform the slaughter; females have it done on their behalf by a male relative or special agent.

During the final days of the Hajj and after the sacrifice, the pilgrims gradually emerge from the state of ihram by having their hair cut and beard shaved, by donning everyday clothes, and by beginning to focus on the tasks ahead beyond Mecca. Sexual relations are still forbidden until after certain final rites have been completed, like the ritual stoning of the devil and a farewell circumambulation of the Ka’ba. If they have not done it before the Hajj, pilgrims usually try to visit Medina, the City of the Prophet, some 280 miles to the north. Medina, like Mecca, is a forbidden city, open only to Muslims. Although the visit to Medina is not obligatory, it is meritorious and always deeply meaningful, because it provides an opportunity to pay respects at the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb and to visit other holy places nearby in this oasis city where the Umma was first organized under the guidance of the Qur’an and God’s Prophet.

Emergence from the pilgrimage, symbolized by the lifting of the requirements of ihram, departure from Mecca, and being welcomed home by relatives and friends (there is typically a large crowd of greeters at airports and seaports) marks the return to normal life in a new status, which ritual studies experts call “reincorporation.” Not only is the Hajji permitted to bear that title before his or her name, but in some places there are additional marks of the new status. In Egypt, for example, it is common for pilgrims to have special Hajj paintings applied to the exterior walls of their homes. Typically, these paintings depict scenes of the journey — a steamship, airplane, camel, or horse with rider (some traditionalists like to enter Mecca as Muhammad did, on a mount) — and they always contain a representation of the holy Ka’ba and usually also the Prophet’s tomb in Medina. Such Hajj art can be interpreted at various levels, but the main meaning, according to recent field analyses, centers in Egyptian ideas of saintly persons and the blessings and spiritual power that they provide in a community. The returning pilgrim is, as it were, a living saint who resides in a sacred house marked by the symbols of the supreme centers of Islamic sacral power, Mecca and Medina.


The five Pillars of Islam witnessing to God’s oneness and Muhammad’s messengerhood, worship through the Salat service, almsgiving, fasting in Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca constitute only a minimum structure of Muslim orthopraxy. There are also many additional practices both at the individual and communal levels that make up the total way of life that is Islam. The Muslim term for worship is ibada, a word that literally means “service” in the same sense Christians mean it when they say worship service. God is served through worship, and worship is reserved for God alone. One additional form of service to god in Islam is jihad, whose meaning must be carefully explained. Jihad is often mentioned in news releases from the Middle East in which Muslims have proclaimed “holy war” against evil and Islam’s enemies, whether Western countries or fellow Muslims with whom they disagree (the extremist “Islamic Jihad” movement in Lebanon is an example). But jihad properly speaking means “exertion” in the way of God. It may mean fighting against Islam’s enemies or even attempting to spread the religion by force (although Muslim opinion on the latter differs sharply); but a famous teaching of Muhammad’s holds that the “greater jihad” is the spiritual struggle each individual has with her or his own faith and need for repentance, whereas jihad as armed conflict is called the “lesser” exertion. Whatever the prevailing opinion or practice, jihad has sometimes been considered a sixth Pillar of Islam, and thus a form of worship, or service according to specified rules. (

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