Islam emphasizes deeds over doctrine. What a person does (din) is more important than what he or she believes (iman).
For the Muslim, all activities fall into one of five categories: obligatory, recommended, permissible, reprehensible or forbidden. However, there is no universal consensus on a great number of behaviors given variations among diverse forms of the religion.
As with most religions, there are disagreements among adherents on how to interpret the different religious literatures and traditions. In Islam, the dispute revolves around the interpretation and application of the Qur’an, Hadith and Sunnah (the latter two refer to traditional beliefs regarding the words, actions and approvals of Muhammad).
Despite diversity within Islam, all forms tend to center around “The Five Pillars.” These acts constitute the foundational works of a Muslim. To be a Muslim is to perform these particular deeds.
The Five Pillars of Islam include:
- Shahadah: The Confession - “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” With a single recitation of this simple profession of the Islamic creed, a person can convert to Islam. It contains the two foundational beliefs of the Muslim: the unity of Allah and the authority of Muhammad as his messenger.
The unity of Allah is foundational to Islamic faith. The Christian understanding of the tri-unity of God is considered shirk, an unforgivable sin. Formed from a root meaning “share,” shirkis used broadly to represent any form of blasphemy from idolatry to polytheism. To equate any person or thing with the singular Allah (as Christians do in confessing the deity of the Son and Spirit) denies the Islamic understanding of monotheism (tawhid).
- Salat: Ritual Prayer - Five times a day Muslims face Mecca in prayer. The prayer typically consists of a profession of the words Allahu Akbar (“Allah is most great”) followed by bows, prostrations and recitations of the Qu’ran. This form is then followed by the shahadah and a greeting of peace repeated twice.
- Sawm: Fasting - Each Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, all Muslim adults are expected to abstain from food, drink and sexual activity from dawn to sunset. This is a time for reflection and discipline ended by a three day “Feast of the Breaking of the Fast” (Id al-Fitr), a holiday in many countries in which gifts are exchanged.
- Zakat: The Giving of Alms - Originally attempting to address economic inequalities, a tithe of accumulated wealth and assets (not merely income) is expected. The practice of zakat differs greatly in various contexts. In some countries it is governmentally imposed, while in other areas it is more voluntary in nature. In addition, the distribution of alms is diverse: ranging from providing for the needs of the poor, to zakat collectors themselves and to those fighting for a religious cause.
- Hajj: The Pilgrimage to Mecca - Each year millions of Muslims undertake the journey to Mecca. All devout Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. It is an event filled with various ceremonial activities beginning with a visit to the kaaba (a large cube-shaped monument which is the holiest site in Islam). The hajj is officially ended by a three day “Feast of Sacrifice,” though many pilgrims then continue on to Medina to visit the mosque and tomb of Muhammad.