Five Pillars to Hold Myself Up: What do Muslims Believe?

What are the basic teachings of Islam, and what does it mean to be a Muslim?

A) The Basics Create your own Islamic-inspired mosaic
B) The Five Pillars Examine how the five pillars play out in daily life
C) The Mosque Illustrate the Five Pillars
Create a documentary video about one of the Five Pillars
Find out more about the Muslims in your own community

There is plenty of false information about Islam on the internet.  For many reasons, you must be careful of what you read – pay close attention to your sources and always ask yourself, “How does this piece of information fit with what I already know?”  

Here’s an honest attempt to accurately convey the most basic beliefs and practices of Islam in a form suitable for use in the classroom or for anyone who is just curious about a topic relevant in a rapidly globalizing world.  Please read the following in the spirit with which it was written – with good intentions toward greater understanding and tolerance.

This lesson was reported from:

A) The Basics

  1. Summarize the basic beliefs of Islam.
  2. How is Islam related to Judaism and Christianity?
  3. Where do most of the world’s Muslims live?
A minaret (left), from which a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day in the mosque below. In traditional Muslim society, there should be a mosque within walking distance in every neighborhood. (Manama, Bahrain, 2016.)

Islam means “submission to the will of God.”  It is the religion laid out in the pages the Quran, a text considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of God (Allāh).  Most Muslims (followers of Islam) also learn from a second body of writings called the hadith – sayings and actions from the life of Islam’s founding prophet Muhammad (c. 570–8 June 632 CE).
the-doctrine-of-abrahamic-religions-2-728In the early 21st century, Islam is the world’s second-largest religion and the fastest-growing major religion in the world, with over 1.7 billion followers or 23% of the global population, known as Muslims.  Islam is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion that upholds that God is one and incomparable and that the purpose of existence is to worship God. Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet of God.

A depiction of Adam and Eve from Islamic art.

Muslims also believe that Islam is the original, complete and universal version of a primordial faith that was revealed many times before through prophets including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. As for the Quran, Muslims consider it to be the unaltered and final revelation of God. Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, from banking and welfare to women and the environment.

Islam began in the early 7th century. Originating in Mecca, it quickly spread in the Arabian Peninsula and by the 8th century the Islamic empire was extended from Iberia in the west to the Indus River in the east. The Islamic Golden Age refers to the period traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 13th century when much of the historically Islamic world was experiencing a scientific, economic and cultural flourishing. The expansion of the Muslim world involved various caliphates and empires, traders and conversion to Islam by missionary activities.

Islam spread through political conquest, but also via merchant caravan along traditional trade routes.  This included via maritime routes, such as those plied by traditional Arab ships call dhows like these anchored in the modern harbor of Doha, Qatar.  (Doha, Qatar, 2016.)

Most Muslims belong to one of two denominationsSunni (75–90%) or Shia (10–20%).  About 13% of Muslims live in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, 32% in South Asia, 20% in the Middle East, and 15% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sizable Muslim communities are also found in Europe, China, Russia, and the Americas. Converts and immigrant communities are found in almost every part of the world.


B) The Five Pillars

  1. Explain the Five Pillars of Islam in sentence or two each.
  2. A pillar is “a firm, upright support for a structure.”  Why do you think the word is applied to the Five Pillars?

There are five basic religious acts in Islam, collectively known as “The Five Pillars of Islam,” which are considered obligatory for all believers. The Quran presents them as a framework for worship and a sign of commitment to the faith.  Islam is much more than these five acts of worship, but these form the foundation of the faith.  They are:

  1. The creed (shahadah)
  2. Daily prayers (salat)
  3. Alms-giving (zakat)
  4. Fasting during Ramadan
  5. The pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in a lifetime.

Apart from these, Muslims also perform other religious acts. Notable among them are charity (Sadaqah) and recitation of the Quran.

1. The Creed


The Shahadah is the basic creed of Islam that must be recited under oath with the specific statement: “‘ašhadu ‘al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu wa ‘ašhadu ‘anna muħammadan rasūlu-llāh“, or “I testify that there is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.”  This testament is a foundation for all other beliefs and practices in Islam. Muslims must repeat the shahadah in prayer, and non-Muslims wishing to convert to Islam are required to recite the creed.  The Quran says, “There is no compulsion in religion…” so the shahadah may never be forced.

2. Daily Prayers


The second pillar of Islam is called Ṣalāt.  This is a ritual prayer which must be performed five times a day.  Salat is intended to focus the mind on God and is seen as a personal communication with Him that expresses gratitude and worship.  Salat is mandatory, not optional, but flexibility in the specifics is allowed depending on circumstances.

The salat is announced five times daily – predawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and night  – with a call to prayer, recited by the muezzin, traditionally from a tower in a mosque called a minaret.

Before conducting salat, a Muslim has to perform a ritual ablution. Wudu is performed by Muslims according to the instructions of God given in the Quran:

“O you who believe! when you rise up to prayer, wash your faces and your hands as far as the elbows, and wipe your heads and your feet to the ankles; and if you are under an obligation to perform a total ablution, then wash (yourselves) and if you are sick or on a journey, or one of you come from the privy, or you have touched the women, and you cannot find water, betake yourselves to pure earth and wipe your faces and your hands therewith, Allah does not desire to put on you any difficulty, but He wishes to purify you and that He may complete His favor on you, so that you may be grateful.”

— Qur’an, sura 5 (Al-Ma’ida), ayat 6[18]
Ablution station in a school bathroom (Manama, Bahrain, 2016.)

Wudu is performed by Muslims by washing the hands, mouth, nose, arms, face, hair, ears, and feet three times each in that order. Men must also wash their beard and mustache when washing the face.

Prayers are recited in the Arabic language, and consist of verses from the Quran.  It is a physical, mental, and spiritual act of worship. The worshiper starts in a standing position, bows, prostrates, and concludes while sitting on the ground.  During each posture, the worshiper recites or reads certain verses, phrases and prayers.  Prayers are done with the chest in direction of the Kaaba (in the city of Mecca, in modern Saudi Arabia) though in the early days of Islam, salat was performed in direction of Jerusalem.

An arrow on the ceiling of a hotel room in Dubai helps Muslims direct their salat prayers toward Mecca. (Dubai, UAE, 2016.)


3. Alms-giving

Zakāt is giving a fixed portion of accumulated wealth by those who can afford it to help the poor or needy.  Also, zakat can be used for other selfless causes – for bringing hearts together, freeing captives, for those in debt (or bonded labor) and for the stranded traveler. It is considered a religious obligation (as opposed to voluntary charity) that the well-off owe to the needy because their wealth is seen as a “trust from God’s bounty.” Conservative estimates of annual zakat is estimated to be 15 times global humanitarian aid contributions. The amount of zakat to be paid on capital assets (e.g. money) is 2.5% (1/40) per year, for people who are not poor.

Sadaqah means optional charity which is practiced beyond zakat – out of generosity.  Both the Quran and the hadith have put much emphasis on spending money for the welfare of needy people, and have urged the Muslims to give more as an act of optional charity.  The Quran says:

Spend something (in charity) out of the substance which
We have bestowed on you, before
Death should come to any of you (63:10).

One of the early teachings of Muhammad was that God expects men to be generous with their wealth and not to be miserly (Quran 107 :1–7). Accumulating wealth without spending them to address the needs of the poor is generally prohibited and admonished.

Mosques are one popular way for wealthier Muslims to perform sadaqah. (Manama, Bahrain, 2016.)

4. Fasting during Ramadan

4989showingRamadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting – or sawm – to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islamic belief. While fasting from dawn until sunset, Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids, smoking, and engaging in sexual relations. Muslims are also instructed to refrain from sinful behavior that may negate the reward of fasting, such as false speech (insulting, backbiting, cursing, lying, etc.) and fighting.

Fasting is said to foster a sense of fraternity and solidarity with the needy and hungry.  Most importantly, the fast is also seen as a great sign of obedience by the believer to God. Faithful observance of the sawm is believed to atone for personal faults and misdeeds and to help earn a place in Paradise.  Sawm is intended to teach believers patience and self-control in their personal conduct, to help control passions and temper, to provide time for meditation and to strengthen one’s faith. Fasting also serves the purpose of cleansing the inner soul and freeing it of harm.

Sawm is not obligatory for several groups for whom it would constitute an undue burden – small children, the sick, the very old.  For others, flexibility is allowed depending on circumstances, but missed fasts usually must be made up quickly.

5. Pilgrimage

The obligatory Islamic pilgrimage, called the ḥajj, has to be performed during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the city of Mecca.  Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Rituals of the Hajj include: spending a day and a night in the tents in the desert plain of Mina, then a day in the desert plain of Arafat praying and worshiping God, following the foot steps of Abraham; then spending a night out in the open, sleeping on the desert sand; moving to Jamarat, symbolically stoning the Devil recounting Abraham’s actions; then going to Mecca and walking seven times around the Kaaba which Muslims believe was built as a place of worship by Abraham; then walking seven times between Mount Safa and Mount Marwah recounting the steps of Abraham’s wife, while she was looking for water for her son Ismael in the desert before Mecca developed into a settlement.

Click to expand.

C) The Mosque

  1. What is the purpose of a mosque?  Using background knowledge, consider – how is it similar and how is it different to structures associated with other religions?
  2. In what ways can see you Islamic beliefs reflected in the architecture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque?
Al Fateh Grand Mosque (Manama, Bahrain, 2016.)

A mosque is a place of worship for Muslims. Although the primary purpose of the mosque is to serve as a place of prayer, it is also important to the Muslim community as a place to meet and study. In Medina, during Muhammad’s time, Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, or the Prophet’s Mosque, was also a place of refuge for the poor.  Modern mosques have evolved greatly from the early designs of the 7th century and contain a variety of architectural elements such as minarets.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is located in Abu Dhabi, and is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates.  It is one of the largest mosques in the whole world, in fact.  It holds up to 40,000 worshipers, has four massive minarets, each 106 meters tall with designs incorporating elements from major periods in Islamic history, and 82 domes, each inscribed in gold with verses from the Holy Quran.  The courtyard, or sahan, features the largest marble mosaic in the world.  In fact, all of the mosaics are predictably world-class, continuing Islam’s long tradition of not representing the human form in mosque art.  The carpet in the prayer room is the largest single carpet in the world, hand-knotted over two years by some 1,200 craftsmen.

The place is truly stunning, with the values and verses of the Quran represented symbolically in nearly every element of this truly epic structure.  It really is a monument to God – the same God worshiped by Jews and Christians, people of the book, for whom Muhammad taught respect and tolerance.

The architecture of the Grand Mosque is highly symbolic, reflecting a great deal of Islamic belief – if you know what you’re looking for.  Take a guided tour through these features by clicking on the photos below:

  1. Do a Google Image Search for more examples of the mosaics found in mosques throughout the world.  Based on these examples, use construction paper to create your own geometric or floral mosaic.  Avoid depicting humans or animals!
  2. Choose one of the Five Pillars to research in greater depth.  After learning about the topic, do a news search and learn about that pillar in contemporary life, either in your country or abroad.  Discuss the subject with your teacher and peers.
  3. Draw an educational comic strip illustrating and explaining the Five Pillars for younger social studies students.  Label and include a caption explaining each illustration.
  4. Watch the Open Ended Social Studies video What Happens in a Mosque?, which explores the second pillar, salat.  Create a mini documentary on another one of the Five Pillars and post it to YouTube.  Be sure to perform extensive research and include plenty of visuals in order to produce the best possible video that you can make.  Submit the video to Open Ended Social Studies when you are done.
  5. Learn more about the Muslims in your own community.  Find out if there is a mosque nearby.  Visit its website.  Find out if there are any opportunities to visit the mosque, or to have a representative visit your classroom.

Further Reading

No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson.

From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi by Mohammed al Fahim.


A dhow similar to one that carried trade goods and Islam out of Arabia. (Doha, Qatar, 2016.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

Sweat in the streets of Manama and Doha, ride to the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, witness the grandeur of Islamic architecture at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque before spending the evening dune bashing with high paying tourists in the sands of Abu Dhabi.