Islam is considered by Muslims to be a very simple and straightforward religion. There is no religious hierarchy and the practice of Islam is composed of five pillars, which are expected to be followed by all Muslims. The first pillar, the shahada, is required to enter Islam while the other four pillars are required to practice Islam. Because Arabic is the language of revelation of the Qur'an, the language has always been closely tied to Islam. Therefore, it is important to become familiar with some common Arabic words and phrases which I will use to express many of the religious terms.
- Shahada, or testimony of faith. The shahada is the first pillar of Islam. It is the expression of faith that states, "There is no God except God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God," or in Arabic, "la ilaha illa'llah wa Muhammad rasulu'llah." The shahada can be said either in English, Arabic or whichever is your native language. However, many Muslims prefer to use Arabic since Arabic is the language of the Qur'an. In order for someone to enter into Islam, they must express their faith by saying the shahada, as it is written above, with sincerity.
- Salat, or prayer. The second pillar of Islam is the salat. Once someone enters into Islam, they must learn the salat, which is performed five times each day, just before sunrise, at noon, in the mid-afternoon, just after the sun goes down and at night. Versus of the Qur'an are recited in Arabic during the prayers and each of the five prayers vary slightly. The easiest way to learn the prayers is by going to a local mosque and asking someone to show you the prayers. The prayer times are based on the cycle of the sun and moon and vary each day. Prayer times for each day are posted on the Internet or printed in local Islamic magazines. Prayers can be performed in any location, such as at home or in the work place. However, they must be preformed in an area that is clean and away from disruptions. A community prayer is performed at local mosques every Friday during the noon prayer.
- Zakat, or almsgiving. A Muslim is expected to give 2.5% of his income to a local mosque or charity. However, there is no set amount that must be given and Muslims are not expected to donate more than they can comfortably afford. Therefore, Muslims should donate an amount that is within their means.
- Ramadan, month of fasting. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast from sunup to sundown. During this time, they must not eat or drink anything, avoid engaging in sexual activity, keep their minds clean of impure thoughts and treat one another with compassion and respect. One of the reasons for the fasting is to help develop self-discipline. The Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles, and the month of Ramadan will vary each year. At the end of Ramadan is a three to four day celebration call Eid al-Fitr. This celebration is one of the two largest Islamic holidays.
- Hajj, or pilgrimage. The hajj is a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The city of Mecca played an important role in the birth and expansion of Islam and is highly revered by Muslims. The pilgrimage takes place once a year and lasts about one week. Again, the months vary on the Islamic calendar and the time of the hajj will vary each year. A three to four day celebration called Eid al-Adha takes place at the end of the hajj. This celebration is the second of the two largest Islamic holidays. Even though the hajj is included as one of the pillars of Islam, it is very costly and only needs to be completed once in the life of a Muslim and only if someone can afford it. If the hajj is a financial burden, Muslims are exempt from performing it. Because of the expense, many Muslim are unable to make the hajj and those that do are held in high esteem by the Muslim community.
There are many different views by Islamic religious leaders as to what exactly constitutes conversion to Islam. Some believe that saying the shahada is enough, while others believe that all the pillars must be followed. Among Muslims themselves, there are also many different opinions. For example, many Muslims study Classical Arabic in order to understand the Qur'an better. Muslims who can recite and understand the Qur'an in Arabic are held in very high esteem, just as Muslims who perform the hajj.
However, learning Arabic is not a requirement to practicing Islam. A large number of Muslims don't speak Arabic as their native language and, as a result, are unable to read and understand the Qur'an. Indonesia is a good example of this; the country has the largest Muslim population in the world but the Muslims speak a language other than Arabic. However, it is believed that hearing the Qur'an recited in Arabic--even if it is not understood--will change the hearts of listeners and lead them to convert or to strengthen their faith. Regardless of the difference in opinions, most Muslims are very open to discussing their religion and are usually willing to discuss these issues with anyone interested. Going to a local mosque is the best way to learn more about Islam.