The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito. A few things are worth noting:
- I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material. You can do that on The Great Courses website. My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
- These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course. As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
- There is no third thing. I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.
Lecture 2: The Five Pillars of Islam
Despite having a very diverse population with many distinct local customs, the five pillars tie the entire Muslim community together. The pillars are what make a Muslim a Muslim.
I. The Declaration of Faith, or shahadah
“There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of God”
Allah, or God in Arabic, shares many of the attributes of the Christian God: omniscience, merciful, mighty, holy, etc. Unlike the Christian observance of God, Muslims seem much more concerned about idolatry so you don’t see visual depictions of God of any sort.
Muhammad was the final prophet of God. He was a perfect human and defines an example life for all Muslims to pattern their lives after.
II. Prayer, or salat
Muslims pray five times a day at the sound of the muezzin, often from a loudspeaker at the spire of a mosque. These times are dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening. Often prayer is accompanied by a recitation from the Quran and Muslims must kneel (whether it be inside, outside or on a plane) and face the Kaaba (house of God) in Mecca. Muslims are encouraged to pray in groups if possible to add to the sense of kinship and brotherhood.
Once a week on Friday the juma is observed, a congregational prayer held in the mosque. In the mosque a mihrab (a niche along one wall) indicates the direction of Mecca and the sermon is conducted from the minbar, or pulpit. Before entering the mosque visitors must wash their feet and remove their footwear.
III. Zakat – tithing or Almsgiving
Personal wealth is considered a gift from God so Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their total personal property including money, stocks, bonds and land each year. While this is mandatory most countries don’t collect it by force and individuals instead make proper donations on their own. Specific branches of Islam have additional taxes but these are largely voluntary in nature.
IV. Fast of Ramadan
Timing of the commencement of this fast reflects the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. From dawn to sunset for a month Muslims must not eat, drink or have sex but only if they are physically well enough to do so safely. The purpose is to encourage reflection and contemplation rather than representing a hardship.
After sunset, a light meal or breakfast is consumed and then later in the evening a larger and more opulent meal is served. The night is also accompanied by prayers and often the entire Quran is recited 1/30th each night. At the end of the month the Eid al-Fitr (Feast of the Breaking of the Fast) is observed and gifts are given and general jubilance ensues.
V. Pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca
Beginning 60 days after Ramadan around 2 million Muslims make their way to Mecca from all over the world. Any Muslim who is physically and financially able must make the trip at least once in their lifetime. While there, pilgrims dress identically regardless of social class to dissolve class boundaries and create a sense of egalitarianism. Various religious observances and reenactments take place, many from the Old Testament.
At the end, all pilgrims gather on the plain where Muhammad gave his last sermon. The Feast of Sacrifice takes place and a sheep or other animal is slaughtered. This tradition is observed not just at Mecca but all over the world at this time. Once a pilgrim has made his Hajj, he may suffix his name with ‘haji’ in observance of the event.
Many in the West believe that Jihad is the sixth pillar but this is simply not true. Literally, Jihad is “the struggle” and represents the struggle to lead a virtuous life and obey the tenants of Islam. While there are situations in which Jihad may be a call to violence, they are extremely specific and will be outlined, so I’m told, in a later lecture.
View back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam