Tenets of Sunni Islam
The shahada (testimony) succinctly states the central
belief of Islam: "There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is
his Prophet." This simple profession of faith is repeated on many
ritual occasions, and recital in full and unquestioning sincerity
designates one a Muslim. The God preached by Muhammad was not a new
deity; Allah is the Arabic term for God rather than a
particular name. Muhammad denied the existence of the many minor
gods and spirits worshiped before his prophecy, and he declared the
omnipotence of the unique creator, God. Islam means submission to
God, and one who submits is a Muslim. Being a Muslim also involves
a commitment to realize the will of God on earth and to obey God's
Muhammad is the "seal of the Prophets"; his revelation is said
to complete for all time the series of biblical revelations
received by Jews and Christians. Muslims believe God to have
remained one and the same throughout time, but that men strayed
from his true teaching until set right by Muhammad. Prophets and
sages of the biblical tradition, such as Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses
(Musa), and Jesus (Isa), are recognized as inspired vehicles of
God's will. Islam, however, reveres as sacred only the message,
rejecting Christianity's deification of the messenger. It accepts
the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment, general
resurrection, heaven and hell, and eternal life of the soul.
The duties of the Muslim--corporate acts of worship--form the
five pillars of Islamic faith. These are shahada,
affirmation of the faith; salat, daily prayer; zakat,
almsgiving; sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and
hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca. These acts of worship must be performed
with a conscious intent and not out of habit. Shahada is
uttered daily by practicing Muslims, affirming their membership in
the faith and expressing an acceptance of the monotheism of Islam
and the divinity of Muhammad's message.
The believer is to pray in a prescribed manner after
purification through ritual ablutions at dawn, midday,
midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed genuflections and
prostrations accompany the prayers, which the worshiper recites
facing toward Mecca. Prayers imbue daily life with worship, and
structure the day around an Islamic conception of time. Whenever
possible, men pray in congregation at the mosque under a prayer
leader and on Fridays they are obliged to do so. Women also may
attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from
the men, although most frequently women pray at home. A special
functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire
community at the appropriate hours; those out of earshot determine
the proper time from the position of the sun.
In the early days of Islam, the authorities imposed a tax on
personal property proportionate to one's wealth; this was
distributed to the mosques and to the needy. In addition, free-will
gifts were made. While still a duty of the believer, almsgiving in
the twentieth century has become a more private matter. Properties
contributed by pious individuals to support religious activities
are usually administered as religious foundations, or waqfs.
The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, a period of
obligatory fasting that commemorates Muhammad's receipt of God's
revelation, the Quran. Fasting is an act of self-discipline that
leads to piety and expresses submission and commitment to God.
Fasting underscores the equality of all Muslims, strengthening
sentiments of community. During this month all but the sick, weak,
pregnant or nursing women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary
journeys, and young children are enjoined from eating, drinking,
smoking, or sexual intercourse during the daylight hours. Official
work hours often are shortened during this period, and some
businesses close for all or part of the day. Since the months of
the lunar calendar revolve through the solar years, Ramadan falls
at various seasons in different years. A fast in summertime imposes
considerable hardship on those who must do physical work. Each
day's fast ends with a signal that light is insufficient to
distinguish a black thread from a white one. Id al Fitr, a threeday feast and holiday, ends the month of Ramadan and is the
occasion of much visiting.
Finally, Muslims at least once in their lifetime should, if
possible, make the hajj to the holy city of Mecca to participate in
special rites held during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar.
The Prophet instituted this requirement, modifying pre-Islamic
custom to emphasize sites associated with Allah and Abraham, father
of the Arabs through his son Ishmael (Ismail). The pilgrim, dressed
in a white, seamless garment (ihram), abstains from sexual
relations, shaving, haircutting, and nail paring. Highlights of the
pilgrimage include kissing the sacred black stone; circumambulation
of the Kaaba, the sacred structure reputedly built by Abraham that
houses the stone; running seven times between the mountains Safa
and Marwa in imitation of Hagar, Ishmael's mother, during her
travail in the desert; and standing in prayer on Mount Arafat.
These rites affirm the Muslim's obedience to God and express intent
to renounce the past and begin a new righteous life in the path of
God. The returning male pilgrim is entitled to the honorific "hajj"
before his name and a woman the honorific "hajji." Id al Adha marks
the end of the hajj month.
The permanent struggle for the triumph of the word of God on
earth, jihad, represents an additional general duty of all Muslims.
This concept is often taken to mean holy war, but most Muslims see
it in a broader context of civil and personal action. Besides
regulating relations between the human being and God, Islam
regulates the relations of one human being to another. Aside from
specific duties, Islam imposes a code of ethical conduct
encouraging generosity, fairness, honesty, and respect and
explicitly propounds guidance as to what constitutes proper family
relations. In addition, it forbids adultery, gambling, usury, and
the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol.
A Muslim stands in a personal relationship to God; there is
neither intermediary nor clergy in orthodox Islam. Those men who
lead prayers, preach sermons, and interpret the law do so by virtue
of their superior knowledge and scholarship rather than because of
any special powers or prerogatives conferred by ordination. Any
adult male versed in prayer form is entitled to lead prayers--a
role referred to as
imam (see Glossary).
Data as of December 1989