Pathways of Faith

'Five Pillars of Islam' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article by Vincent J. Cornell provides background information on the five pillars of Islam.  The article is reprinted from The Oxford History of Islam in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


The Five Pillars of Islam (arkan al-Islam), which are presented systematically for the first time in the Hadith of Gabriel, are relatively simple to carry out and can easily be learned by the person who wishes to convert to Islam. The first pillar of Islam is to openly proclaim and bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. This is known as the Shahadah (the act of bearing witness). It may also be called al-Shahadatayn (the two witnessings), because it consists of two separate acts of bearing witness. The first witnessing, “There is no god but Allah,” affirms the acceptance of the divine reality by the human intellect. As a formal proclamation of divine singularity (tawhid), it is the creedal equivalent to the “knowledge of certainty” discussed earlier. The second witnessing, “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” affirms one's submission to God, which is the meaning of the word islam itself. Here, the human being responds to the divine will by acknowledging the Prophet Muhammad as both the vehicle of the Quranic revelation and the paradigmatic muslim or “submitter” to God. By stressing the sources of both the theoretical and the practical knowledge of religion (i.e., Allah and the Prophet), the “two witnessings” of the Shahadah thus reaffirm the complementarity of faith and practice in Islam.

The second pillar of Islam is to make the required five prayers each day in the direction of the Great Mosque (al-Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca. These prayers, collectively known as al-Salat, are performed just before dawn, at noon, at mid-afternoon, just after sunset, and in the evening, from an hour after sunset to around midnight. In the hadith, prayer is depicted as the quintessential act of submission to God and the main proof of Islam. In Jami al-Tirmidhi, the Prophet is quoted as saying: “Prayer is the proof [of Islam].” The central importance given to prayer in Islam is due to the recognition that the performance of al-Salat forces the human body to respond to the reality that has first been acknowledged by the heart and the tongue in the Shahadah. In addition, the essential contrast between the absolute independence of God and the ontological dependency of the human being is reaffirmed in the actions and attitudes of the prayer.

To perform the prayer, the believer must first put herself in a state of purity by performing either a ritual ablution (wudu) or a bath (ghusl). The symbolic nature of the ablution is illustrated by the fact that either clean water or clean sand may be used to perform this ritual. The full bath, in which water is poured over both the body and the head, is needed only in cases of serious ritual pollution or after sexual intercourse. In general, the ablution should be seen as an expression of respect for God's majesty and as a means of preparing the believer for meeting and addressing the Lord and Creator.

The movements of the Muslim prayer are patterned after attitudes of obeisance that were associated in late antiquity with entering into the presence of a great ruler. To visualize how the prayer movements correspond to the act of greeting such a ruler, imagine a petitioner standing outside a king's throne room. The first thing that the petitioner is likely to do before entering the royal presence is to summon the resolve to enter the throne room. This corresponds to the act of affirming the intention (niyyah) that precedes not only the canonical prayer but all other ritual observances in Islam as well. Next the petitioner enters the throne room itself. After stepping over the threshhold she stops, raises her hands to her ears, and proclaims the glory and majesty of the ruler for all to hear. This corresponds to the act of “magnification” (takbir), which begins the prayer. To perform the takbir, the Muslim worshipper raises her hands to her ears and proclaims in Arabic, “Allah is most great!” (Allahu akbar!).

The petitioner then bows before the king in an attitude of reverence and uses a ritual formula to address the king. This corresponds to the next stage of the prayer, in which the worshipper recites Surat al-Fatihah, the Quran's opening discourse. This surah, which is translated below, has often been described by Muslim theologians as summarizing in a few lines the essential message of the Quran:

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds; the Beneficent, the Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone do we worship and from You alone do we seek aid. Show us the Straight Way, the way of those upon whom You have bestowed Your grace, not of those who have earned Your wrath or who go astray (Quran 1:1–6).

After reciting the Fatihah, the worshipper recites another verse from the Quran, which is chosen at her individual discretion. Although any verse from the Quran may be used, this second recitation is often used by Muslims to further magnify God by recounting some of the divine attributes. After greeting the king from the threshhold of the throne room, the petitioner next approaches halfway to the throne itself. At this points, she stops, bows, and utters another ritual formula. This corresponds to the third part of the prayer, which is called the “bowing” (ruku). After again saying “Allah is most great!” the worshipper bows from the waist and proclaims three times, “Glory to the Greatest Lord!” After raising herself to an upright position, she next utters: “Allah hears the one who praises Him.” After this the worshipper immediately adds, “Our Lord, all praise belongs to You!”

In the final act of approaching the king, the petitioner is summoned to the foot of the throne and falls prostrate before the ruler. This expression of submission—which the secular individualist often sees as both repellant and antithetical to the concept of personal dignity—was common practice in late antiquity. When Islam first appeared in the Middle East, petitioners were expected to prostrate themselves before both the Byzantine emperor (a Christian) and the Shah of Persia (a Zoroastrian). This was because these rulers performed the dual role of king and high priest, exercising political authority as heads of state and religious authority as heads of their respective religious institutions. In both cases as well, they were thought to be the vicegerents of God on earth: the Byzantine emperor ruled over the lands of “New Rome” (the only “Rome” known to Muslims) as both Caesar and Vicar of Christ, while the Shah of Persia ruled over his kingdom as the semidivine representative of the god Ahuramazda.

In Catholic Christianity it is still required for those joining monastic orders to prostrate themselves before the altar of Christ. This religious attitude of humility is in full agreement with the perspective of the Islamic prayer. If a person is willing to humble himself before the secular kings of the world, is it not more fitting to humble himself before God, who is the King of Kings? Because Muslims readily prostrate themselves before God, however, it does not mean that they are similarly inclined to submit to worldly authority figures. In the first century of Islam, Muslims were notably stubborn in their refusal to prostrate before anyone or anything but Allah. The arrival in the mid-seventh century of a Muslim delegation to the emperor of China was recorded as a remarkable event in T’ang dynasty chronicles, because these Arab or Persian visitors (called Ta-Shih by Chinese historians) refused to prostrate themselves before the emperor, who was believed to be the “Son of Heaven.”

Before commencing the act of prostration (sajdah or sujud), the worshipper must first repeat the takbir, “Allah is most Great!” At this point she falls to her knees and prostrates herself before God, placing both hands flat on the ground and touching her forehead between them. While in the bowing position she recites three times, “Glory to the Lord Most High!” After once again saying “Allah is most Great!”, the worshipper sits back on her heels and asks for God's mercy, saying, “Oh God, forgive me and show me mercy.” Repeating the formula “Allah is most Great!” one more time, she again resumes the attitude of prostration and recites three times, “Glory to the Lord Most High!” After this, she stands up and repeats the entire cycle of prayer, starting with another magnification of God.

Each cycle of the Muslim prayer—from the initial takbir through the recitation of the Quran, the bowing, the prostration, the sitting, and the second prostration—is known as a rakah (pl. rakat). Every canonical prayer requires from two to four rakat to complete: two for the dawn (fajr) prayer, four for the noon (zuhr) prayer, four for the mid-afternoon (asr) prayer, three for the sunset (maghrib) prayer, and four for the evening (isha) prayer. In all, the total number of cycles performed for the prayers is seventeen. After every two cycles and after the third cycle of the sunset prayer, the worshipper sits back on her heels in an attitude known as the “sitting” (jalsah). While in this position, she addresses God with a formula known as the “greeting” (tahiyyah). At this time she also calls forth God's blessings on the Prophet Muhammad. Although the actual words of this greeting vary slightly according to the different schools of Islamic law, the meaning is essentially the same in all cases.

After all of the cycles of the canonical prayer have been completed, the worshipper sits back on her heels once again and recites a formula known as the “witnessing” (tashahhud), because it contains the words of the “profession of faith” (Shahadah). Outwardly, this witnessing acts as a formal reaffirmation of the truth of Islam. Inwardly, it is the point at which the worshipper engages in her most direct communication with God. Muslim scholars consider this to be the most intimate part of the canonical prayer, where the worshipper privately petitions the favor of her lord, who responds by sending down divine mercy as a relief for her worldly cares.

The witnessing is followed by a formal supplication that asks God's blessings for the Prophets Muhammad and Ibrahim (Abraham), the last and first of Allah's messengers, whose purpose was to bring salvific truth to humanity through a revealed book. Finally, the prayer is ended with an invocation of peace (salam). To make this invocation, the worshipper turns her head first to the right and then to the left, uttering, “May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be upon you.” Although the most probable objects of this invocation are the fellow believers who sit at the worshipper's right and left during the congregational (jamaa) prayer, Muslims have long believed that with this formula they are also addressing their guardian angels, who hover over their shoulders as they pray.

The third pillar of Islam is to pay the yearly tithe to a religious official or a representative of the Islamic state. This tithe is known as al-zakah (the purification) and is levied on each individual believer. The official level of this tithe, which is set at one-fortieth (2.5 percent) of the value of all liquid assets and income-generating properties in the worshipper's possession, is based on a hadith text and was confirmed by Muslim scholars following the usage of the Prophet's Companions and their successors. According to the Quran, the tithe may be used to feed the poor, to encourage conversion to Islam, to ransom captives, to relieve debtors of their burden, to help wayfarers, and to support those who devote themselves to the cause of God (Quran 9:60). It may also be used in defense of the faith and for any other purpose deemed appropriate by the ruler of an Islamic state. In Shiite Islam another tithe, called “the fifth” (khums), is also required of believers. This consists of a 20 percent tithe on all new income for the year and is used to support the juridical and educational institutions of the Shiite community.

The fourth pillar of Islam is to observe the month-long fast of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During the twenty-nine or thirty days of the fasting period, the believer must abstain from food, drink, and sex during daylight hours. This pillar is known as al-Sawm or Siyam Ramadan and is seen by Muslims as both a purificatory act of sacrifice and an affirmation of ethical awareness. The sacrificial aspect of Ramadan is reflected in the Sahih Muslim hadith mentioned earlier. Just after stating that prayer is the proof of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad adds that “fasting is [the key to] heaven.” The Ramadan fast is a key to heaven because it involves the sacrifice of a person's bodily desires and is performed for the sake of God alone. By also denying himself drink, the believer further ensures that the sacrifice will be felt by the body. The pain that is felt by the believer during the Ramadan fast acts as a bridge that links the sacrifice to a larger sense of social responsibility. Inwardly, the believer purifies the body by consecrating it to God. Outwardly, the believer uses the fast to recall the responsibility that must be felt toward his fellow human beings. By undergoing the pain of hunger and thirst for an extensive yet limited period of time, the believer recalls the pain of the person whose “fast” never ends because his stomach is never free from want.

The fifth pillar of Islam is the pilgrimage to Mecca. This takes place in the first ten days of the month of Dhul-Hijjah (the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar) and is obligatory for every believer who is physically and financially able to make the journey and perform the prescribed rites. This pillar of Islam is called al-Hajj. Its nine essential rites are as follows:

1. To put on the “garment of consecration” (ihram), which consists of two pieces of unsewn cloth for men and covers all parts of the body except the face, hands, and feet for women. While in the state of ihram, it is not permissible to have sexual relations, to kill animals or insects, or to remove any hair from the body.

2. To circumambulate the Kaaba (literally, “cube”), also known as the House of God (Bayt Allah), at the center of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. This is done seven times in a counterclockwise direction. While circumambulating the Kaaba, many pilgrims also attempt to touch the “Black Stone” (al-Hajar al-Aswad), a meteorite considered to be sent from heaven and originally placed by the Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail (Ishmael) in one of the corners of the Kaaba. Pilgrims may also perform the act of “running” (say) seven times along a corridor of the Grand Mosque, in commemoration of the Prophet Ibrahim's slave woman Hajar (Hagar), who searched for water for her infant son, the Prophet Ismail. Although these last two rites are performed by many if not all pilgrims, they are not official parts of the pilgrimage.

3. To stand at Arafat, a plain southeast of Mecca, on the ninth day of the month of Dhul-Hijjah, even if it is only for a short time. Those who have staked out a place for themselves and are able to remain for a longer period listen to a sermon delivered from the heights of Mount Arafat. This commemorates the final pilgrimage of the Prophet Muhammad, who delivered his farewell sermon from this site.

4. To spend the night at an encampment near Mecca called Muzdalifah.

5. To throw stones at the three places where, according to Muslim tradition, Satan tried to tempt the Prophet Ismail. This is to be done once before the sacrifice at Minah, and then again on the two days following the sacrifice.

6. To sacrifice an animal (usually a sheep or a goat, but sometimes a cow or a camel) at the place called Minah. This commemorates God's acceptance of a sheep as a sacrifice in place of the Prophet Ismail. Muslims disagree with Biblical traditions about Ismail, which assert that this ancestor of the Arabs could not have been the “first-born” son and heir of the Prophet Ibrahim because he was born from Hajar the slave rather than from Ibrahim's free wife Sarah. In Islam, unlike either Christianity or Judaism, the child of a female slave and the child of a free woman are equally legitimate and both can claim shares of their father's inheritance. For this reason Muslims believe that it was Ismail, the Prophet Ibrahim's first-born son, and not his second son Ishaq (Isaac), whom Ibrahim intended to consecrate to God as a sacrifice. They further believe that the Kaaba was a temple that Ibrahim and Ismail built for God in Mecca when Ismail had reached adulthood.

7. To repeat the circumambulation of the Kaaba seven more times.

8. To drink the water from the well called Zamzam (literally, “bubbling”) in the precincts of the Great Mosque of Mecca, where Muslims believe God provided water for Hajar and her infant son Ismail during their wanderings in the desert.

9. To perform two cycles of the canonical prayer at a place known as the Station of Abraham (Maqam Ibrahim), where the Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail are believed to have prayed together after building the Kaaba.

The minimum requirements of the Hajj are the wearing of the ihram, the standing at Arafat, and the second circumambulation of the Kaaba. Although the Hajj may be completed without performing the remaining rites, the pilgrim is required to pay expiation (kaffarah) for his failure to complete them. During the entire Hajj the pilgrim must avoid thinking about anything other than the remembrance of God and the rites of the pilgrimage itself. This is because circumambulating the Kaaba, like the canonical prayer, symbolizes the believer's entry into the divine presence. The earthly House of God (Bayt Allah) that the pilgrim visits in Mecca is believed by many Muslims to replicate the cosmic House of God in the Seventh Heaven, which contains the divine throne and is circumambulated by the angels and all of the archetypes of creation.


Cornell, Vincent J. "Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge." In The Oxford History of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #242: 'Five Pillars of Islam' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 18, 2024