The Five Pillars of Islam: How and Why?
Islam, as explained, is a title for the message revealed to Prophet Muḩammad, the seal of the prophets; the message of the previous prophets conveyed Islam partly for the people of their times. Therefore, the true religion is actually one. Islam represents the culmination of religious messages. In other words, the religion has been completed with all its aspect by the advent of Islam. This is the difference between the message of Prophet Muḩammad and the messages of the past prophets. It is important to explain the quinary structure of Islam.
The branches of faith and the aspects of submission are about seventy. These seventy elements are extracted from the Qur’ān and Sunnah. They are set for individuals, societies, or states. Moreover, they tackle several moral, social, economic, and political issues. That is why the Prophet (Allah's peace and blessings be upon him) did not say, “Islam is composed of five” or “consists of five.” He rather said, "Islam has been built upon five pillars.” Like a tent which is built in camps of scouts, it rests on poles and ropes. We know that the human body consists of organs, muscles, ligaments, nerves, bones, senses, etc. However, there are main systems that are the pillars of this delicate entity. According to biology, these are five as follows: 1. Nervous System; 2. Circulatory System; 3. Digestive System; 4. Respiratory System; 5. Reproductive System. Mentioning these systems and their functions does not exclude the other components of the human body.
The five pillars upon which Islam is built are as follows:
1. Shahādah (testifying that there is no Allah but Allah and that Muḩammad is the Messenger of Allah).
2. Şalāh (prayers)
3. Zakāh (obligatory charity).
4. Şawm (fasting) of Ramadan
5. Ḥajj (pilgrimage).
It is similar to a house or a building with pillars, other than walls, ceiling, doors, windows, and other facilities. Shahādah mentioned above expresses the faith of the heart. The faith refers to that decisive knowledge that begets certainty, firm belief, and total submission to Allah. By testifying that there is no Allah but Allah and that Muḩammad is the Messenger of Allah, a person declares openly to people and to Allah that he willingly and joyfully chooses that religion, strictly adheres to it, and intently follows the leader (Prophet Muḩammad). This Shahādah is not acceptable except with a firm belief in the heart. This entails moral conscience to avoid committing what incurs Allah's punishment. Fear of Allah is a byproduct of understanding Allah's sayings:
“Know that Allah knows what is in your minds; therefore beware of Him, and know that Allah is Forgiving, Forbearing” (Qur’ān, 2:235).
“Allah makes you cautious of (retribution from) Himself; and to Allah is the eventual coming.” (Qur’ān, 3:28)
“Indeed, there is only one Allah; so of Me alone should you be afraid.” (Qur’ān, 16:51)
“But do not fear them, and fear Me if you are believers.” (Qur’ān, 3:175)
It also implies the support of Islam and Muslims against their enemies. This is the essence tawakkul (reliance on Allah), which is based on strong belief in Allah with absolute determination. Allah says,
“Upon Allah then put your trust if you are believers.” (Qur’ān, 5:23);
“If Allah assists you, then there is none that can overcome you, and if He forsakes you, who is there then that can assist you after Him? And on Allah should the believers rely”. (Qur’ān, 3:160)
Faith requires loyalty to brothers in creed and displeasure with the opponents to the truth. Thus, believers' love and hate should be according to what pleases Allah. Besides, they should not be blind followers of immoral or atheist people:
“Had they believed in Allah and the prophet and what was revealed to him, they would not have taken them for allies.” (Qur’ān, 5:81)
The shahādah is a symbol for spiritual meanings with great effects on guiding the entire society.
The second pillar is şalāh. It is a sign of being ingratitude not to give some time for the remembrance of Allah while receiving all graces from Him, e.g., sight, hearing, food, and drinks. Sorrowfully, some people waste much time in fun and games but are reluctant to spend a little time in worship. The blame lies with the modern civilization for bringing out material frenzy driving people to satisfy their desires and behave like rapacious wild beasts. They chase personal desires and lusts day and night paying no attention to knowing Allah or fulfilling religious duties.
How trivial is this life! How disastrous would it be! However, a Muslim mostly responds to Allah and repeats “Allāhu ˀAkbar (Allah is the Greatest),” standing in submission to worship Him. The Islamic prayer is not merely an individual practice. It is a social feature that controls the believers, encouraging them to visit mosques and meet repeatedly in congregations. The Qur’ānic command on prayers stresses, ˀiqāmatu ş-Şalah (i.e. keeping up the prayers) not just performing it. It supports a social practice of congregation, individual concentration, and humility as well as respecting and revering prayers as a right solely done for Allah.
Here, we will discuss the pentad of Islam in general and defer other three pillars: zakāh, şawm and ḩajj. The number of pillars is not the core of the question. Suppose they are four or seven, the same questioning remains the same. However, an outstanding scholar Sheikh Abdullah Drāz sets forth an answer to the question of specifying those five pillars. He said that these five pillars are the distinguished symbols and signs of Islam, especially şalāh. Other religious ethics may be adopted by followers of other religions, such as the Jews and the Christians. It is true that some Islamic acts of worship have no match in other religions, but they are not compared to those five pillars in value and effect.
According to Drāz, şalāh, şawm, zakāh, and ḩajj are specifically chosen to be the most prominent and matchless symbols of belief in Islam as a heavenly message. This finds further support in the literal meaning of Islam, i.e. absolute submission to Allah's commandments regardless of public and private interests. As for the other acts, they are not as influential signs or symbols as these five.
It is true that some religious acts are subtle, such as sincerity, trust, contentment, goodwill, and other morals. This type does not form a manifest sign of religion or a basis for the various acts of worship and dealings. Conversely, the manifest acts of Sharia are divided into certain categories:
- Some fulfill the interests of good nature, like protection of life, cleanliness, covering one's body, seeking provision, chastity, building families, and fighting to defend human life, dignity, and rights.
- Some fulfill interests perceived by mental recognition or experience, such as laws of transactions, codes of ethics, i.e. truthfulness, honesty, justice, helping the needy, promoting good, and deterring evildoers. These two types do not prove that a person is a Muslim. Such values may be adopted by people adhering to false religions due to their good nature or to instinct and without receiving guidance from heavenly directions.
We also have the ritual acts of worship; they are certain religious rites unperceived by instincts and minds. They include prayers at appointed times with specific sets and manners. The same goes for different types of zakāh in certain proportions and at certain times and so are şawm of a specific time, ḥajj rituals, sacrificing animals, kaffarāt (expiations), the inheritance system, the ḥudūd (prescribed penalties), among other rites inflexible for change through personal judgment or reasoning. Those matters are religious Islamic rites. The basis of doing them is the religious incentive, in addition to natural instinct and mental guidance. As such, no followers of other faiths share Muslims with such rites. Some of them are obligatory and others are not. Some are contingent upon some violations, such expiations and prescribed penalties.
Note that ḥudūd and the inheritance-system, although ritual, aim to achieve some worldly interests. Some non-Muslims may even adopt them, because of their rational benefits. Now, only the four pillars and the shahādah, among the many branches of religion, remain the outstanding features of Islam. They are matchless and obligatory upon each Muslim. Moreover, the Lawgiver enacts them for primary essential benefits for religion and life as well. As such, they come prior to other rites. Finally, these four pillars and the shahādah build the pentad of Islam. This explains the quinary structure of Islam.
 Muḩammad El-Ghazāli, “A Hundred Questions on Islam”, Al-Azhar Center for Translation (ACT), 2017, p. 12.