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Our pillars of Islam, our purpose in life

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Witnessing the month of Ramadan is a tremendous blessing for every conscious Muslim. Many Muslims respond by dedicating their time in this month to various acts of worship. While such actions are commendable, quiet often the most important part of Ramadan that is being missed: the reason fasting is an obligation upon every capable Muslim and fasting the month of Ramadan is regarded as a pillar of Islam.

As we know, Islam was founded upon only five pillars. As Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:

بُنِيَ الْإِسْلَامُ عَلَى خَمْسٍ عَلَى أَنْ يُعْبَدَ اللَّهُ وَيُكْفَرَ بِمَا دُونَهُ وَإِقَامِ الصَّلَاةِ وَإِيتَاءِ الزَّكَاةِ وَحَجِّ الْبَيْتِ وَصَوْمِ رَمَضَانَ

Islam is built upon five: to worship Allah and to disbelieve in what is worshiped besides him, to establish prayer, to give charity, to perform Hajj pilgrimage to the House, and to fast the month of Ramadan.

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 8

The five pillars are the bedrock upon which all actions in life are to be based. Thus, they are named as pillars since Islam could not stand without them. The selection of those pillars by the Creator is no arbitrary choice, as the story of life can be found in them.

The first pillar, called the kalimah (“the word), is the articulation of monotheism that commits a servant to his Almighty Lord: there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger. This commitment is required in its verbal form as the word must precede any action that follows. This word has the capability to transcend time and space and is even exempt from the natural law of entropy, or decay, if it is uttered with sincerity. In other words, it is a commitment whose fruits will endure.

We know from revelation that all of our souls testified to the Oneness of the Creator before the world came into being:

وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَنِي آدَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ ۖ قَالُوا بَلَىٰ ۛ شَهِدْنَا ۛ أَن تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَٰذَا غَافِلِينَ

And your Lord took from the children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants and made them testify of themselves: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes, we have testified. Thus, lest you should say on the day of Resurrection: Indeed, we were of this unaware.

Surat al-A’raf 7:172

This is why people intuitively and instinctually know that God exists, what the Quran calls the fiṭraḥ, yet many of us fail to follow our intuition due to the distractions of worldly life.

To ensure a continuous reminder of this word, prayer (ṣalāt) has been made the second pillar of Islam. Ṣalāt in its deeper linguistic meaning refers to the uninterrupted awareness of the Creator, the fire or fuel in the innermost part of the human being. When ṣalāt comes from the Creator, it refers to His mercy. To signify these aspects, the prayer was first ordered to be done fifty times a day but was then reduced to five by the mercy of Allah. Such a large number of daily prayers is very difficult to achieve, yet this initial command was meant to signify to the believer that he or she should always be conscious of Allah all day long.

Although the first pillar of Islam is the most important, its effectiveness depends on our ability to remember it throughout the day and night and our prayer is the means to remember it. For this reason, the prayer has a very special status in Islam and it will be among the greatest things for which we are held responsible on the Day of Judgment.

As the Prophet ﷺ told us:

إِنَّ أَوَّلَ مَا يُحَاسَبُ بِهِ الْعَبْدُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ مِنْ عَمَلِهِ صَلَاتُهُ فَإِنْ صَلُحَتْ فَقَدْ أَفْلَحَ وَأَنْجَحَ وَإِنْ فَسَدَتْ فَقَدْ خَابَ وَخَسِرَ

The first action for which a servant of Allah will be held accountable on the Day of Resurrection will be his prayers. If they are in order, then he will have prospered and succeeded. If they are lacking, then he will have failed and lost.

Sunan al-Tirmidhī 413

These first two pillars deal with our relationship to the Creator. If our relationship to the Creator is good and healthy, then it follows that our relationship with people will be good as well. Hence, the third pillar of Islam, zakāt, defines our duty to others: to grow and sustain everything around us by contributing beyond ourselves. It is responsibility we have towards everything around us to be manifest in a life of charity, as Allah has made humankind a “successor” or “vicegerent” (khalīfah) on the earth.

The remaining two pillars, the fast of Ramadan and the Hajj pilgrimage, reinforce the message of the first three pillars in different ways. For example, among the purposes of fasting is to develop mindfulness of God, to strengthen self-control, and to experience empathy with the poor. The Hajj pilgrimage connects us to the lives of the Prophets, specifically Abraham (Ibrāhīm), and to each other as a universal community of believers and human beings.

As we commit to our creator through these pillars, we will run into two main obstacles.

First, we will face out temptations, desires, emotions, and negative thinking. To overcome this obstacle, Allah has ordered every Prophet throughout the ages to teach his people to fast, not only from food and drink during the daytime, but also from bad words, deeds, and thoughts:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you that you may become righteous.

Surat al-Baqarah 2:183

Allah tells us that faith is first and foremost a matter of the intellect and consciousness, as the quality of taqwa, which means a sense of righteousness and a healthy fear and mindfulness of God, can be attained by strengthening our will power through fasting.

The Prophet ﷺ described fasting as a shield of self-control from negative temptations, desires, and sins:

وَالصِّيَامُ جُنَّةٌ وَإِذَا كَانَ يَوْمُ صَوْمِ أَحَدِكُمْ فَلاَ يَرْفُثْ وَلاَ يَصْخَبْ فَإِنْ سَابَّهُ أَحَدٌ أَوْ قَاتَلَهُ فَلْيَقُلْ إِنِّي امْرُؤٌ صَائِمٌ‏

Fasting is a shield. If one of you is fasting, he should avoid intimate relations with his wife and arguments. If somebody should fight or argue with him, he should say: Indeed, I am fasting.

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1805

And in another narration, the Prophet ﷺ said:

الصِّيَامُ جُنَّةٌ وَهُوَ حِصْنٌ مِنْ حُصُونِ الْمُؤْمِنِ

Fasting is a shield and it is a fortress among the fortresses of the believer.

Musnad al-Shāmīyīn 3381

Self-control and will power are necessary for believers to fully implement the values and virtues upon the path to salvation:

حُفَّتْ الْجَنَّةُ بِالْمَكَارِهِ وَحُفَّتْ النَّارُ بِالشَّهَوَاتِ

Paradise is surrounded by things that are disliked and Hellfire is surrounded by lusts.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2823

The second obstacle that impedes the message of monotheism is collective prejudice. When believers commit to faith, charity, and self-control, the message lives inside of them. However, the message cannot truly extend outward unless the environment is free of prejudice and resistance.

To understand this point, part of the Hajj pilgrimage is to retrace the steps of Abraham and the way he established his wife Hagar and son Ishmael in a new land that would pave the way for Prophet Muhammad. Many Prophets and righteous people sacrificed everything in the service of divine values, yet the message did not go beyond their small group of followers until it developed in a safe environment. This is also why Prophet Muhammad emigrated with his companions to Medina to escape the persecution of the Meccan aristocracy.

Establishing this safe environment is a collective responsibility for Muslims, as Allah said:

يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنَّ أَرْضِي وَاسِعَةٌ فَإِيَّايَ فَاعْبُدُونِ

O My servants who have believed, indeed My earth is spacious so worship only Me.

Surat al-Ankabut 29:56

In safety, the Muslims can enjoin good and forbid evil as it was meant to be done with gentleness, compassion, and wisdom. At the same time, the experience of the early Muslims with religious persecution compels us not to treat other religious communities in the same way, as there is no compulsion in religion. Many Muslim scholars and leaders have declared the imperative to protect minorities in the modern Muslim world.

In fact, the absence of justice in some parts of the Muslim world is a clear indication that the pillars of Islam, in their deeper meanings and purpose, are being ignored. If justice is abandoned in this way, it will not be long before society as a whole feels the pain and prayers will be rejected.

As the Prophet ﷺ said:

وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَتَأْمُرُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَلَتَنْهَوُنَّ عَنْ الْمُنْكَرِ أَوْ لَيُوشِكَنَّ اللَّهُ أَنْ يَبْعَثَ عَلَيْكُمْ عِقَابًا مِنْهُ ثُمَّ تَدْعُونَهُ فَلَا يُسْتَجَابُ لَكُمْ

By the one in whose hand is my soul, you must enjoin good and forbid evil or else Allah will soon send punishment upon you. Then you will supplicate to Allah and it will not be accepted from you.

Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2169

Amazingly, we can see by this how the pillars of Islam are interconnected. If we fail to fulfill our duties to society, then our prayers will be rejected. And if we fail to truly commit to Allah as embodied in prayer, then we will see vices permeate in society. Again, each pillar need and reinforces the others.

Our response as Muslim to the five pillars of Islam has often been reduced to rituals and not action items upon which life will be shaped. It is through understanding the reinforcing inter-relationship between the five pillars that we can understand better why they have been selected as the foundation for our practice of Islam.  Faith and prayer are the commitment and conscious reminder; charity is our role in life to live beyond ourselves, to help others grow and prosper; Ramadan and Hajj confront the obstacles we face in fulfilling our commitment.

To understand the power of those five pillars, the Prophet ﷺ informed an inquirer that he will be granted Paradise even if he does nothing more than these pillars. We can infer from this that every problem in life can be traced back to one of those pillars being weakened or removed. We will face a crisis in our faith if we do not commit to Allah, or if we forget that commitment, or if we do not live selflessly ourselves, or we are slaves of our own desires, or we live in an environment of prejudice. If we can be aware of the power of the pillars and their deeper purposes and objectives, then our life will be much more meaningful as we build ourselves up over this solid foundation.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.