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The Principal Duties of Islam


1. The Kalimah - The Confession of Faith.

As we have seen, Islam is divided into iman, the belief of a Muslim, and din, the practice of his religion. Just as there are six articles of faith, so there are five compulsory works, generally known as the "Five Pillars of Islam". Muhammad is alleged to have defined these pillars according to the following tradition:

Narrated Ibn Umar: Allah's Apostle said: Islam is based on (the following) five (principles):

    1. To testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and Muhammad is Allah's apostle.
    2. To offer the (compulsory congregational) prayers dutifully and perfectly.
    3. To pay Zakat (i.e. obligatory charity).
    4. To perform Hajj (i.e. Pilgrimage to Mecca).
    5. To observe fast during the month of Ramadan.

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, p. 17).

It is somewhat surprising to find the first pillar among the works of Islam as it is really a testimony of faith, but the recital of this creed has become one of the deliberate acts of piety in Islam, indeed its foremost duty, and anyone wishing to become a Muslim need only recite the creed, known as the Kalimah (the "Word"), or the Shahadah (the "Testimony" of Faith), with an express intention to personally profess what he is reciting (this intention is known as the Muslim's niyyah) to be admitted to the faith.

The whole of the religion of Islam is briefly summed up in the two short sentences, La ilaha ill-Allah, i.e. there is no god but Allah, or, nothing deserves to be made an object of love and worship except Allah, and Muhammad-un Rasulullah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. It is simply by bearing witness to the truth of these two simple propositions that a man enters the fold of Islam. (Ali, The Religion of Islam, p. 110).

The actual testimony is a single creed - La ilaha illullah Muhammadur-Rasulullah - and whereas the whole confession does not appear in this exact form in the Qur'an, its two constituent parts appear in Surahs 9.31 and 33.40 respectively. It can truly be said that this brief declaration is the equivalent of the Apostle's Creed in Islam. It is written above the mihrab in many mosques or above their entrances, on letterheads, pendants and posters, and indeed can be found inscribed almost everywhere in the Muslim world. As one writer has aptly said, "On these two phrases hang all the laws and morals of Islam" (Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God, p.15).

As soon as a child is born into a Muslim family these words are whispered into his ears and every effort is made to get a dying Muslim to repeat the testimony. This is hardly surprising as Muhammad is said to have claimed that whoever actually professed this testimony would never be touched by the Fire of Hell, though he was apparently unwilling to publish this abroad lest his followers relied on it alone for their salvation. On a journey Muhammad conversed with his companion Mu'adh as follows:

He (the Holy Prophet) observed: If anyone testifies (sincerely from his heart) that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is His bondsman and His messenger, Allah immured him from Hell. He (Mu'adh) said: Messenger of Allah, should I not then inform people of it, so that they may be of good cheer? He replied: Then they would trust in it alone. (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 1, p. 25).

Another tradition states that on the Judgment Day, even though ninety-nine scrolls listing a Muslim's sins should be produced, each scroll stretching as far as the eye can see, yet even a fragment the size of an ant bearing the Kalimah, recited during his lifetime, would outweigh the scrolls and guarantee his admission to Paradise (Jeffery, Islam: Muhammad and his Religion, p. 157) - justification by faith of a very different kind to that which Christians profess! Nevertheless all these traditions and practices show how prominent the Kalimah is in the exercise of the Muslim's faith.

2. Salaah - The Prescribed Ritual of Prayer.

Five times a day a Muslim is bound to perform the Salaah, the fixed ritual of the Islamic prayer-worship. He should properly go to the nearest mosque to offer his prayers together with the whole congregation. Each of the five periods is preceded by the adhaan (or azaan as it is more commonly called). The muezzin (more correctly mu'adh-dhin) calls out on each occasion:

Allaabu Akbar (four times - "Allah is Most Great").
Ash'hadu an laa ilaaha illallaah (twice - "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah").
Ash'hadu anna Muhammadar-rasulullaah (twice - "I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah").
Haya 'alas-salaah (twice - "Come to prayer").
Ilaya 'alal falaah (twice - "Come to the good;').
Allaaku Akbar (twice - "Allah is Most Great").
Laa ilaaha illallaah (once - "There is no god but Allah").

After the call to the good during the Fajr prayer (just before dawn), the crier calls out twice: "Prayer is better than sleep". Then follows the actual performance of prayer itself in which anything between two or four rituals (each one known as a rak'ah - a "bowing") are performed. The worshipper begins with the qiyam, the standing posture. He raises his hands to his ears and then folds them, right over left, upon his breast. Following this is the ruku in which he bows down and places his hands on his knees, thereafter returning to the standing position. Then comes the sajdah, the prostration of the whole body on the ground. This is performed twice with a brief sitting in between. He then comes back to the sitting position, the qa'dah and passes the greeting as-salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah - "peace on you and the mercy of Allah". It is known as the taslim and it is said that the worshipper is greeting his fellow Muslims (though some say he is greeting two angels who sit on his shoulders recording his good and bad deeds).

In between these postures various expressions and passages of the Qur'an (especially the Suratul-Fatihah) are recited. These include the takbir ("Allah is Most Great"), the tahmid from the Fatihah ("Praise be to Allah"), the tahlil ( There is no god but Allah") and the tasbih ("May Allah be Glorified ). There are variations of these, for example subhaana rabbiyyal Adhiim - "Glorified be the Lord, the Most High . This fixed ritual of prayer is so rigid in Islam that there may be no departure from it and the pious Muslim will slavishly follow it day after day. It is far removed from the spirit of true Christian worship.

Prayer is reduced to a gymnastic exercise and a mechanical act; any one who has lived with Moslems needs no proof for this statement. (Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God, p. 100).

Muslims say that the whole process is a necessary discipline to bring the remembrance of God constantly before the minds of those who otherwise would soon forget him. One such Muslim writer thus comments:

The truth is that the grand idea of holding communion with God or realizing the Divine within man, which is so essential to the moral elevation of man, could not have been kept alive unless there was an outward form to which all people should try to conform. In the first place, no idea can live unless there is an institution to keep it alive. Secondly, the masses in any community, even though it may be educated, can be awakened to the recognition of a truth only through some outward form, which reminds them of the underlying idea. (Ali, The Religion of Islam, p.299).

How different this is to Christian worship which stipulates no fixed form, purely because the believer, born of the Holy Spirit, has the constant witness of the Spirit of God within him to call to mind the presence of God. Many writers have seen fit to draw this distinction between the slavish ritual of the Islamic Salaah, where many non-Arabic-speaking Muslims perform their prayers not even understanding the meaning of what they are saying in Arabic, and the freedom of worship in Christianity which is in spirit and in truth. One writer says of the Salaah:

It will be seen that this ritual is, in reality, almost solely a service of praise. Indeed, to use the word prayer to describe it gives most English-speaking people a wrong impression. The whole service does not contain a single petition, unless the phrase, "Guide us in the straight path", from the Fatiha be considered as such. (Glubb, The Life and Times of Muhammad, p. 134).

Another writer comments: "The dominant feeling connected with the five daily prayers is probably that of a prescribed religious duty being duly performed" (MacDonald, Aspects of Islam, p.345), and yet another says:

In the whole Qur'an and in all the Traditions I do not know of a single passage which teaches that prayer to be efficacious must be in spirit and in truth. (Tisdall, The Religion of the Crescent, p.80).

Before going into the mosque the worshipper must perform an ablution, known as wudhu (or, in certain circumstances, a washing of the whole body known as ghusl), the ritual of which is set out in the Qur'an:

When ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows) rub your heads (with water), and (wash) your feet to the ankles. If ye are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body. Surah 5.7

Later in the same verse it is said that the worshipper may use sand or earth, a ritual known as tayammum, where water is not available. Once again the performance is purely an external act of ritual purity, an ablution which is solely a regulation for the body "which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper" (Hebrews 9.9). Christian writers have been constrained to comment negatively on this aspect of Islamic worship as well:

If, however, we carefully compare all the passages of the Qur'an which speak of purification and purity, it becomes evident to every unprejudiced reader that in none of them is there any reference to inward moral or spiritual purity of the heart, but that what is required in them is the outward, bodily cleansing by means of ablutions and washings. (Klein, The Religion of Islam, p. 132).

For by washing the body the impurity of the heart cannot be cleansed, and so it is evident that this corporeal purification was a type of the spiritual cleansing wrought by the Gospel ... Thus it will be evident to every man of spiritual discernment, that although one whose spirit is untainted by the impurities of the flesh may pay every attention to personal cleanliness, yet such cleanliness of the body has nothing to do with his salvation. (Pfander, The Mizan ul Haqq; or Balance of Truth, p. 6).

On the other hand, in all fairness it must be pointed out that the Qur'an itself warns against the dangers of ritual exercises becoming an end in themselves. It says:

It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards East or West; but it is righteousness to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers. Surah 2.177

The great emphasis placed on the outward form in Islam however, not only tends to lull dull worshippers into a sense of complacency and reliance on the rituals themselves, but also implies that the true knowledge of God and witness of the Holy Spirit is absent in Islam for, when these are present, there is no need for a strict outward form, a regulation to compel the devotion of men who otherwise would probably go astray.

In addition to the five daily prayers there are the tahajjud prayers, a late-night ritual practiced by Muhammad but not commanded by him, as well as tarawih prayers after the last prayer, salautal-isha, during the month of Ramadan. Furthermore on Fridays the great congregational prayer dust after midday, the Juma prayer, replaces the midday prayer. In all of these the ritualistic performance of raka'at continues but, apart from these prescribed prayers, Muslims also have a more extemporaneous form of prayer, the dua. This takes the form either of set Arabic phrases or of personal devotions which may also be in Arabic or in the worshipper's language.

3. The Origins of the Five Daily Prayers.

The growth of Islam as a religion of established rituals and practices did not stop at the death of Muhammad. On the contrary much development was still required before the rough edges could be smoothed out into the fixed, carefully defined system that we find today. Nowhere is this process more obvious than in the defining of the forms of prayer and their times of observance.

The five-times-a-day Salaah is perhaps the fulcrum around which all else rotates in ritualistic Islam. The times are fajr, the morning prayer just before dawn; zuhr, the prayer just after midday; 'asr, the afternoon prayer; maghrib, the prayer just after sunset; and 'isha, the evening prayer. All Muslim jurists hold that the observance of these prayers is fardh, that is, compulsory. Nevertheless, while the forms of ablution are defined in the Qur'an, neither the five times of prayer nor the procedure of each rak'ah is prescribed in the book. The Qur'an does mention both the salaatal-fajr and salaatal-ishaa in Surah 24.58 by name but in this case it is improbable that these were actual titles of prescribed prayer - times. It is far more likely that the expressions simply mean the "morning prayer" and the "evening prayer" respectively. This interpretation is supported by the form of the only other prayer mentioned as such in the Qur'an, namely salaatal-wusta in Surah 2.238, which means simply the "middle prayer". Even though the Qur'an only mentions three times of prayer, Muslim writers endeavour to make the Qur'an prescribe the five fixed periods of prayer and resort to ingenious and none-too-successful methods to achieve their objective. The Qur'an does indeed urge believers to set up regular prayers at stated times (Surah 4.103), but it is quite loose in its treatment of the daily prayers. Apart from the three times it actually specifies it has a variety of exhortations regarding prayers, for example:

Celebrate (constantly) the praises of thy Lord, before the rising of the sun, and before its setting; Yea, celebrate them for part of the hours of the night, and at the sides of the day: that thou mayest have (spiritual) joy. Surah 20.130

And establish regular prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approaches of the night. Surah 11.114

It is hard to define the exhortations in these two passages, let alone make them fit the five-times-a-day ritual outlined above. Muslim commentators who seek to realise this end come up with a variety of interpretations. It is agreed that "before the rising of the sun" in Surah 20.130 refers to the morning prayer, but the exhortation to pray "before its setting" is interpreted by Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Ali as the asr prayer, to which Daryabadi adds the zuhr prayer. "Part of the hours of the night" is extended by these commentators to specifically mean the maghrib and isha prayers, though Muhammad Ali adds the late-night tahajjud prayer as well. "At the sides of the day", a vague expression, is nevertheless specifically taken to mean the fajr and isha prayers by Daryabadi, zuhr by Yusuf Ali, while Muhammad Ali adds a voluntary dua to the zuhr prayer. These inconsistencies show how hard it is to read the five daily prayers into the somewhat loose Qur'anic terms found in these verses. Surah 11.114 is also interpreted in various ways by Muslim commentators. In his major work on Islam, however, Muhammad Ali openly states:

The Qur'an does not explicitly state that prayer should be said at such and such times, but it does give indications of the times of prayer. (Ali, The Religion of Islam, p.334).

Another writer is even more to the point and seems to have a far more balanced and objective approach to the Qur'an than those who would make it yield later developments:

The fact, however, that the prayers were fundamentally three is evidenced by the fact that the Prophet is reported to have combined these four prayers into two, even without there being any reason. It was in the post Prophetic period that the number of prayers was inexorably fixed without any alternative at five, and the fact of the fundamental three prayers was submerged under the rising tide of the Hadith which was put into circulation to support the idea that prayers were five. (Rahman, Islam, p. 36).

It is indeed only in the Hadith that we find the five times specifically fixed. It is said that when Muhammad came into the presence of Allah during the Mi'raj, he was commanded to pray fifty times a day. On relating this to Moses, the latter urged him to get it reduced by ten, which Allah duly allowed. The narrative continues (Muhammad speaking):

Again I passed by Moses and he said the same again; and so it went on until only five prayers for the whole day and night were left. Moses again gave me the same advice. I replied that I had been back to my Lord and asked him to reduce the number until I was ashamed, and would not do it again. (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p. 186).

God is then said to have stated that those who observed the five prayers would have the value of fifty counted to them. In another work of Hadith it is said that Gabriel specifically came to Muhammad one day and performed the fajr, zuhr, asr, maghrib and isha prayers with Muhammad and told him he was ordered to demonstrate them to him so that he would know when and how to perform the prescribed prayers (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, p.297).

We have already seen, however, that the whole story of the Mi'raj is a myth founded primarily on Zoroastrian sources and the possible genuineness of the five fixed times of prayer is hardly enhanced by the claim in the Hadith that their authority derives from this speculative tale. More than one author has suggested that the five periods themselves are of Zoroastrian origin:

In the Koran itself only three daily prayers are known, and it is no doubt due to influence from the Persian side that their number in the oldest Islam is increased to five. (Buhl, "The Character of Mohammed as a Prophet", The Muslim World, Vol. 1, p.356).

A reference to the Avesta will show that the Zoroastrians are instructed to observe prayer five times a day . . . . the day is divided into five periods, during which the gains, or prayers, which belong to each period should be recited. (Blair, The Sources of Islam, p. 127).

We may conclude that the definition of five daily prayers in Islam is a typical example of the way in which the religion of Muhammad, still growing towards maturity at the time of his death, was rounded off in later years.

4. Zakaah and Saum - Alms and Fasting.

The Qur'an constantly enjoins on believers the duty of paying Zakaah, a prescribed almsgiving. The book often links the duty of charity with the observance of Salaah (e.g. Surah 9.5) and refers to it as an act of piety to purify the believer (the word comes from the same roots as zakiyya considered in the previous section) and as an act of gratitude to God.

There is no duty to which more frequent reference is made in the Qoran than that of almsgiving. In almost every Sura is this duty urged upon the believers; and in some Suras, indeed, the prophet returns again and again to this subject. (Roberts, The Social Laws of the Qoran, p.70).

The fixed tithe in Islam has been established as two-and-a-half per cent but, whereas the Old Testament tithe of ten per cent was calculated simply in terms of a man's income, zakaah is determined chiefly as a surcharge or a man's wealth and possessions. The other form of charity in Islam, of a less obligatory nature, is known as sadaqah, a voluntary offering indicating the sincerity of a man's disposition towards generosity (Surah 2.264). The word has the same roots as the title given to Abu Bakr, namely as-Siddiq - "the Trustworthy".

There are two important words in Arabic that have to do with almsgiving. The more common of these is zakat, from a root that means "to grow" or "to be pure"; it seems to imply that the giving of alms is a means of purifying one's soul - perhaps from the guilt that inevitably accompanies the accumulation of property. the other term is sadaqat, from a root that means "true" or "sincere"; the reference is to whatever is sanctified to God's service. (Fry and King, Islam: A Survey of the Muslim Faith, p.78).

Apart from the regular prescribed alms, there is also a special charity known as zakatal-fitr, being a donation made at the end of the fast month of Ramadan on the occasion of the festival Eid-ul-Fitr. This tithe is also known as sadaqatal-fitr as it is not necessarily an obligatory charity.

With regard to 'zakat al-fitr', alms to be distributed at the end of Ramadan, the Shafi'ites consider it as 'fard', a rigorous duty, the Hanifites as 'wajib', less strictly obligatory, and the Malikites as 'sunna', custom. (Lammens, Islam: Beliefs and Institutions, p.89).

Zakaah can be used for distribution to the poor, assistance towards those who have recently embraced Islam, the freeing of slaves, and fii sabiiIillaah - "in the Way of A1lah" (a common Qur'anic phrase).

Fasting is also prescribed as an obligatory duty of Islam and the Muslim is obliged to fast from sunrise to sunset during the thirty days of the month of Ramadan. The command to fast is found in the Qur'an:

Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur'an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting. But if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Surah 2.185

The believer must declare his niyyah before dawn each day and must abstain from all foods, liquids and other pleasures during the day. He should partake of a proper breakfast, a sehri, before the morning prayer. At sunset he should also break his fast as soon as he can. The fast-month ends with the sighting of the new moon heralding the month of Shawwal and the Eid festival.

Abd Allah b. Abbas reported that the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him), referring to Ramadan, declared: Do not begin to fast until you have seen the crescent and do not leave the fast until you see it, and if there are clouds, complete thirty days. (Muwatta Imam Malik, p. 116).

Throughout the Muslim world this fast, although commanded only once in the Qur'an, is rigidly observed, even by those who are otherwise lax in religious observances. In some Muslim lands it is a criminal offence to fail to keep it. In conclusion it may be said that Salaah and the Ramadan fast have a greater effect on the Muslim's religious consciousness than all the other prescribed duties of Islam.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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