Islam is the youngest of the three major monotheistic religions, following in the footsteps of Judaism and Christianity. Islam is purported to have been delivered to humans by the Prophet Mohammed, who recorded the word of Allah in the Quran. The purpose of Islam is to give people a way of life meant to ensure comfort, right living and a personal relationship with Allah, both here and in the afterlife, through its tenets of ethics and faith.
Five Pillars of Islam
The word "Islam" roughly means to commit oneself entirely to Allah, without reservations or conditions. The central feature of Islam is total devotion to God. This serves two practical purposes. By completely surrendering to Allah, earthly life is simplified and given a sense of direction and purpose. This commitment is also meant to earn the favor of Allah, for which a believer is rewarded with good favor in the afterlife. Total commitment to the love of the creator is understood as the only path to salvation. The application of this commitment is manifested in a variety of practices, which the largest Islamic denomination, the Sunnis, call the Five Pillars of Islam; the second largest denomination, the Shia, follow 10 basic practices called Ancillaries of the Faith.
The foundation of Islam -- the first Pillar -- is known as "Shahada," or the declaration of faith. This is basically a proclamation that there is no God but Allah. This declaration of faith also includes a readiness to testify to the existence of one God and one God alone. Part of this understanding involves a development of the belief that all of existence -- all worldly occurrences, people, places and things -- are manifestations of the divine will of Allah. A practicing Muslim is to be oriented, with singleness of purpose, towards a relationship with Allah. Everything that a Muslim does is meant to further this purpose, and everything else is peripheral.
Muslims follow a highly regimented daily prayer routine, called "Salat," meant to teach discipline and foster a connection with Allah. Complete devotion to the creator is supplemented and put into action through this second Pillar, which reminds practicing Muslims of their faith and their focus in life. The Islamic community is called to prayer five times per day. These prayer sessions are to take precedence over other activities, including work. Community-wide prayer also strengthens the sense of camaraderie among Muslims. In addition to these, there are also prayers specific to various situations, such as gratitude for a meal or personal prayers said in privacy.
Good Deeds, Fasting and Pilgrimage
The third Pillar of Islam is performing good deeds, and is meant to cultivate a believer's connection with Allah, and to foster peace, love and community among Muslims. One such deed is the Zakat, or alms-giving. Muslims are strongly urged to give a percentage of their income to charity, and are warned in the Quran against greed and hoarding of riches. Fasting, particularly in the month of Ramadan, is the fourth Pillar, practiced by Muslims as a way of submitting to and honoring Allah. Muslims also are required to make the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, also known as the house of Allah, at least once in their lives if they are materially able to do so. This forms the final Pillar of Islam.
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