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10 Common Questions About Islam, Answered


How Do Muslims Practice Their Faith?

Hajj, pilgrims
Pilgrims shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas during hajj in February 2003 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Over five days, pilgrims walk for miles, resting and praying between religious landmarks. Muslims are required to perform hajj at least once in their lives. Reza/Getty Images

Muslims around the world live out their religion according to the Five Pillars of Islam, some of which concern daily spiritual practice like prayer, and others that aspire to once-in-a-lifetime experiences like the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The first Pillar of Islam is a profession of faith (shahadah). This two-part testimony is required for entry into the broader Muslim community [source: Oxford Dictionary of Islam]. The first part expresses faith in God: "There is no god but Allah." And the second part expresses faith in the Prophet Muhammad: "Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."

The second Pillar of Islam, ritual prayer (salat), is one of the faith's most visible and distinguishing practices. Muslims are required to perform ritual prayers five times a day facing in the direction of Mecca: predawn, midday, late afternoon, just after sunset and at night.

Ritual prayers involve a set of proscribed movements (standing, kneeling bowing), scriptural recitations, prayers for the prophets Muhammad and Abraham, and personal supplications. Before starting to pray, Muslims purify themselves through a ritual washing that includes one's hands, face, nose, arms and feet.

The third Pillar of Islam is charitable giving (zakah), a requirement that all Muslims not living in poverty give a small portion of their wealth annually to support those in need. The fixed amount paid annually to the needy is equal to 2.5 percent of the person's excess wealth.

The fourth Pillar of Islam is fasting from sun up to sundown during the month of Ramadan (sawm), which usually falls between May and June. Not only must Muslims refrain from eating or drinking, but they can't engage in any "sensual activities," which includes smoking and sex [source: BBC]. The intention of fasting is to learn self-discipline, develop more empathy for the poor and hungry, appreciate Allah's gifts, and celebrate the revelation of the Quran, which began on the 27th day of Ramadan.

Many Muslims wake before dawn to have a meal before beginning the fast (suhur). The daily fast is broken every evening after sunset (iftar) followed by the evening prayer and dinner. At the end of Ramadan is a community-wide celebration called Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of Breaking the Fast, during which children often receive gifts, money and new clothes.

The fifth Pillar of Islam is to make a religious pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) during the first 10 days of the final month of the lunar year, usually September or October. All physically and financially able Muslims must travel to Mecca at least once in their lives and complete the essential rites of the hajj, which Muhammad performed during his final pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj represents the highest spiritual and communal experience in Islam.