The Five Pillars of Reality

With a piercing cry of pain, a young woman delivers her baby into the hands of a midwife. It is a boy, a son. Immediately, the infant's umbilical cord is snipped, his eyes, ears and mouth swiftly daubed with cotton, and he is passed into the arms of his anxious father, who kisses the child and whispers into his tiny ear the first words he will hear in his life on Earth: "La ilaha ill’ Allah wa Muhammad rasul Allah.”

"There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." This declaration of faith marks the child's indoctrination into Islam, the beginning of a lifetime of submission to God. As he grows, he will learn to speak these words himself; one day, when he is old enough to repeat this declaration with sincerity, he will have performed the first of the Five Pillars (practices) of Islam. These Five Pillars provide the structure of Muslim life the maturing man can accept and follow with unquestioning devotion, or explore to discover ever-deepening revelations of their meaning. Even the symbolism of the word "pillar" conveys surprising depth: its nature is not just to support but to stand upon, revealing the pillar’s source of strength as both intrinsic and external. Such is the influence each of the Five Pillars will exert upon the man's life, permeating his personal and communal experiences with a theocentric consciousness that will shape his perspective of himself and the world, and ultimately define his understanding of reality.

The young man begins his life as a Muslim ("one who submits to God") the moment he performs the first pillar: the declaration of faith known as Shahada. In the opening statement of this declaration, he identifies God as the source and sustainer of all creation (himself included), recognizes his total reliance upon God, and enthusiastically embraces his role as God's servant. With this outlook on the world, his self-awareness, as well as his perception of others, can no longer be measured in the relative notions of wealth, power, or beauty, but is lived with the absolute certainty of mankind's affinity under God. The Shahada's second statement, expressing the authority of Mohammed, makes the Prophet an example of spiritual perfection, and renders the Qur'an the singular intact Word of God, imparting a special link of brotherhood with the man's fellow Muslims.

Now, as a servant of God, the Muslim man welcomes the obligation of the four remaining pillars, each of which contain an element of "sacrifice" (a Middle English word derived from Latin, meaning "to make sacred"), and encourage his personal and communal awareness of God. The statement of Shahada is included as a component of the second pillar, Salat (Prayer), which must be performed five times a day -- a sacrifice (or consecration) of time. When the call to prayer issues from the minaret of the mosque, the faithful man puts down his work, performs ritual ablutions to purify his body, then turns himself toward Mecca to devote himself to God for an interlude of praise. Five times a day, he is reminded that time itself is God's creation, and is encouraged to keep the Creator foremost in his mind, heart and actions. Every Friday, if not more often, he performs his prayers at the mosque, in congregation with his brethren. Here, as the author Peter J. Awn writes, "Each Muslim is acknowledged to be the equal of every other Muslim when he or she stands shoulder to shoulder with other community members to perform identical ritual movements and prayers …" (9).

Everything the man can possess becomes symbolically sacralized in the third pillar, Zakat (Almsgiving), which requires him to contribute as much as ten percent of the fruit of his labors to the neediest members of his community. This act of charity serves as another reminder that all things ultimately belong to God, and requires the recipient of God's blessings to not just acknowledge the indigent, but to interact with them. While the other pillars seem designed to draw man's attention away from the temporal world, the pillar of Zakat instructs the faithful to look upon the world with an informed perspective, and address the needs of others. "The individuals who make up the society are the primary focus of attention,” write Murata and Chittick, “but their religious well-being demands that they accept some measure of social responsibility" (16).

The human body is symbolically consecrated during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, called Ramadan, an observance of the fourth pillar known as Sawm (Fasting). From the onset of puberty, the man will observe the month of Ramadan by refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, or sexual activity. His constant, nagging feelings of need remind him of the true sacred nature of the human body, a production of God that cannot be controlled by man. "Fasting confronts the believer squarely with his or her physical dependencies," writes Awn. "The individual becomes aware of the extent to which various needs (food, sex, emotional fulfillment) actually control his or her life. Has one become a slave to one's instincts? With this stark realization of physical dependency comes a renewed awareness of one's need for God..." (10). As with all the Five Pillars of Islam, the practice of fasting places God at the forefront of man's attention. It also serves to connect him with family and the community through mutual sacrifice, and the celebrations that follow the breaking of the fast.

Additional sacrifices of time, money and personal comfort are combined within the fifth and final pillar, Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). The man of faith longs for at least one opportunity in his lifetime when his health and finances enable him to make the journey to visit the House of God, the Kaaba, said to have been built by Abraham. After arriving in Mecca, he removes his clothing and jewelry, performs ablutions to purify his body, and dons the white, unhemmed robes of a pilgrim. Countless enthralling stories of the hajj have supplied him with an almost instinctive knowledge of the ritual acts he is to perform. In the stifling Saudi Arabian heat, he will retrace the steps of Abraham, Hagar, and Mohammed, like millions upon millions of faithful individuals have done for centuries and will continue to do long after he has passed away.

He has practiced theocentric consciousness all his life: on an immanent level, as a grateful and reliant creation of God; and on a transcendent level, as God's devoted instrument. Now, as he is swept into the miasma of humanity, these aspects of his lifetime of worship -- the personal and communal, the finite and eternal, the known and unknown, become indistinguishably united. In this tremendous unity, "...the hajj provides a unique opportunity to experience for a time what the ideal Islamic umma [community] is envisioned to be: multiethnic, egalitarian, and dedicated to the human and religious values embodied in the divine revelation" (Awn, 13). For a brief time, at least, he and his fellow Muslims produce a microcosmic representation of creation, all in universal submission to God. As he circumambulates the Kaaba among a joyous tide of humanity, he fully lives the reality he has known and professed since birth.

Works Cited

Awn, Peter J. "Faith and Practice." Islam: The Religions and Political Life of a World Community. Ed. Marjorie Kelly. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. St. Paul: Paragon
House, 1994.

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