Carlos Armstrong: An Analysis of Islamic Elements Through the Five Pillars

The fundamentals of Islam are based on a feeling of unity with God through submission to His plan and will. The key component in participating in this submission is through the religious practices of Islam, ranging from recitation of daily prayer to pilgrimage to Mecca. Because Islam is built on the idea that “people are as united by common practices as they are by common ideals” (Murata and Chicta 9), the Five Pillars of Islam are built on two core concepts: the submission of God through ritualistic practices and a collective social responsibility to one another. The Islamic worldview, ethics, and rituals are then born from these core concepts, creating the Islam religion as it is known today.

The primary paradigm of the Islamic worldview is built around the idea of achieving oneness with God, which is initiated through the Shahadah. By professing the Shahadah, one is proclaiming that they are bearing witness to God’s unity, an act that brings one closer to God as it imitates both God and the angels who also perform it. This performance serves two functions: to declare that there is only one God, and to accept and submit to the will of God through the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. From the submission to God’s will, Muslims are able to begin to bring His will from the heavenly realm to ours, literally giving His will a physical form. Through the recitation of the Shahdah, Muslims bring God’s will to life as they bear witness to the power of His creation and submit to His infinite knowledge.

The significant elements of Islamic ethics can best be viewed through the pillar zakat. Since zakat is the alms tax by which one gives a percentage of their wealth to those in need if they are able, it creates a form of social responsibility and accountability through which one is able to provide aid for a neighbor while also checking that they are able to provide for their own family. The key ethical element in this charity process is how one must know their own neighbors in order to know who is in need, forcing the charity process to be dependent on social interaction (Murata and Chicta 16). The process of zakat purifies one’s possessions and sets up the relationship between the individual and God, but because it requires social interaction and communal responsibility the zakat binds Muslims to a code of ethics in which everyone is first responsible for themselves and their family, then to each other.

The first element of Islamic ritual is the hajj, which serves to both connect Muslims to God and to connect Muslims from around the world to each other. Although the journey to Mecca used to be so long and perilous that people would have to ensure that all their debts were paid off and that those they were responsible for had provisions in the event the traveler died, modern forms of transportation have alleviated the travel process somewhat, allowing more Muslims from all over the world to travel to the house of God. Traditionally, the hajj is viewed as a form of death since death is defined in Islam as meeting with God, and entering the Kaaba is entering the house of God. Because of this belief, the hajj is an intensely religious experience in which the individual becomes one with God and is reborn in their return from His house. Additionally, because the hajj has a limited window of time in which is can be done and must be done by all Muslims who are able to, it has become an event of great festivity for all those who make the journey, connecting the greater Muslim community and celebrating the highest form of Islamic ritual.

Ramadan also exemplifies a devotional ritual that both brings a unity with God and produces social responsibility and reward. Because the process of fasting between sunrise and sunset creates a ritual that is strictly between the individual and God, it is a strict contract with God in which the individual submits to His will through heightened attention to the rules of ethical conduct and suffering during the daytime hours. Although the contract may be between the individual and God, the faster is rarely enduring alone; those who live together usually keep each other accountable during the fasting hours. At night and before sunrise, however, people partake in large feasts and festivities together, making Ramadan a time of both suffering and celebration. This devotional ritual combines the unity and submission with God with social and community accountability, forming a perfect blend of key elements of Islam.

The ultimate element in both achieving unity with God and holding social responsibility is ritual prayer. The process of performing the traditional Islamic prayer five times a day forces those who pray into a position of physical submission (prostrate) as a show of the spiritual submission to God’s will. This combined with the requirements for ritual purity strictly enforce a connection to God and His will by asserting a physical aspect to the submission that must be adhered to in daily living. However, because ritual prayer performed in congregation is rewarded so much more than a prayer performed alone, it serves to benefit the individual more to perform the prayer in a group setting- be it in the home or in a mosque- than it does to perform it alone. This incentivizes social responsibility, as everyone is held accountable for their participation in every prayer throughout the day. By holding everyone socially accountable for their participation in prayer, everyone involved is rewarded more for their submission and have their prayer community to bear witness to their submission to God, bringing them closer to unity with Him.

The Five Pillars of Islam serve as key guiding features in defining the Islamic worldviews, ethics, and ritual practices as those that seek to bring unity with God and create social responsibility. Achieving oneness with God serves as the idealistic goal of follow the Islamic belief system because it serves as a literal connection to a higher state of being in the afterlife; conversely, holding social accountability serves a connection to those around us in this life. Both concepts, when working together, are representative of the core of Islamic beliefs from which Muslims can build their codes of daily living and an understanding of the unseen spiritual realm.