Rituals and Practices
Purification of the mind, body and soul is paramount in Islamic rituals. Ritual purity is considered necessary prior to performing acts such as touching the Qur’ān, prayer (ṣalāh) or embarking on the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca (ḥajj). Situations that cause one to be impure (known as hadath najis) are divided into minor (aṣghar) and major (akbar) impurities. Each category has its own method of purification.
- Wuḍu’: Purification for minor impurities is wuḍu’. This minor ritual cleanse includes the use of running or pouring water to wash one’s face, arms, hands and feet. It is permissible to use sediments from the earth (e.g., sand or fine soil) if running water is not available. Minor impurities that require a wuḍu’ include urination, deep sleep and touching one’s genitals.
- Ghusul: Purification for major impurities is ghusul. This major ritual cleanse is the complete washing in water in a specific sequence. Major impurities that require a ghusul include ejaculation, menstruation, sexual intercourse, or childbirth.
Another important element of purity is the separation of function between the left and right hand. The left hand is reserved for ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’ tasks such as washing one’s body. The right hand is reserved for ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ tasks such as eating. As such, one should not touch another person or pass someone an object with their left hand.
Five Pillars of Islam (Arkān al-Islām al-khamsah)
The Five Pillars of Islam (arkān al-Islām al-khamsah) refers to the five most important practices in the Muslim faith, namely testimony of faith (shahādah), daily prayer (ṣalāh), almsgiving (zakāh), fasting (ṣawm) and the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca (ḥajj). Each ‘pillar’ is seen as an essential part of Islam. These five practices also act as a framework of a Muslim’s life that orientates everyday activities and beliefs towards religious devotion. Some pillars are only expected to be completed once (such as ḥajj), while others require active and ongoing participation (such as prayer).
Testimony of Faith (Shahādah)
The first pillar of Islam, known as shahādah, is one’s declaration of their faith in Islam through the statement, “I declare there is no god but God (Allāh), and Muḥammad is his messenger” (Ashhadu allā ilaha illā Allāh wa anna Muḥamadan rasūlu Allāh). In addition to this statement, Shi’ites add, “‘Alī is the Waliy of God” (Ashhadu anna ‘Aliyyan waliyya Allāh). The testimony must be recited at least once in an individual’s lifetime and it must be spoken correctly and with a deep intention (niyyah) and understanding of its meaning.
The shahādah is also spoken on numerous other occasions, albeit with some variation. For example, the father whispers the testimony in the ear of his newborn baby. The testimony is also ideally the last words that a dying Muslim hears or speaks. The shahādah forms the basis of the call to prayer (ādhān) and is reiterated at the end of each of the daily prayers (ṣalāh).
The second pillar of Islam, known as ṣalāh, is a prayer performed in a prescribed manner multiple times each day. Ṣalāh is a prayer of dedication to God, consisting of specific statements, actions and is conducted at specific times. For Sunnī Muslims, the five set times for prayer are: dawn (ṣalāt al-fajr), midday (ṣalāt al- ẓuhur), afternoon (ṣalāt al-‘asr), sunset (ṣalāt al-maghrib) and evening (ṣalāt al-‘ishā’). Shi’ite Muslims usually pray three times a day, combining the second and third prayer, as well as the fourth and fifth. In Islamic countries or cities with a sizable Muslim population, a call to prayer (ādhān) can be heard from mosques, thus signifying that it is time for prayer.
Prior to performing a prayer, a Muslim is expected to be ritually pure (tahārah) by performing a ritual cleanse. Ṣalāh is typically performed on a prayer mat while facing the Ka‘bah (holy house) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The actual prayer is conducted in units that involve kneeling (rak‘ah), prostrations (sajdah) and reciting verses from the Qur’ān. At the end of the prayer, the Muslim recites the testimony of faith (shahādah) once again and an invocation of peace (salām). In addition, a Shi’ite may touch their head on a turbah (clod of clay from Karbalā’ in present-day Iraq) when performing their prostrations.
Although collective worship in a mosque is considered to have special merit, individual performance of ṣalāh is permissible and can be in any clean space in one’s home or work. Under special circumstances, such as illness or a journey, it is typically acceptable for one to modify or postpone prayer obligations.
The third pillar of Islam, known as zakāh, is a donation of a set proportion of one’s wealth to others in need. The donation does not refer to charitable giving out of kindness but rather the systematic giving of a certain percentage of goods. Typically, 2.5% of one’s accumulated savings above 85 grams of gold, withheld for a lunar year is offered in almsgiving. There are, however, other sorts of goods one may offer, such as farm and mining produce, and animals. Zakāh is obligatory on the individual, even if the government does not mandate zakāh on its population. Some Muslims may also offer an extra voluntary or charitable gift (ṣadaqah) to those in need.
The fourth pillar of Islam, known as ṣawm, is fasting during the Islamic month of Ramaḍān. During this time, all adult Muslims are expected to participate in three levels of fasting during the hours between dawn and dusk:
- Literal Fast: Abstaining from food, drink, smoking or sexual relations.
- Moral Fast: Avoiding acts such as lying, gossip and anger.
- Spiritual Fast: Cutting out distractions in order to intensify one’s spiritual practice and experiencing a greater closeness to God.
After completing the sunset prayer (ṣalāt al-maghrib), Muslims usually gather in their homes or local mosques to break their fast with a shared meal called ifṭār. Just before dawn, Muslims will partake in a pre-dawn meal, known as suḥūr, to prepare them for the fast.
A ṣawm can be invalidated by eating or drinking at the wrong time. The lost day can be made up with an extra day of fasting. There are also alternatives for those who cannot fast, such as making up the fast on another day when they are able. If they are unable, then they can expiate by feeding the poor for every day they miss. People under exceptional circumstances are temporarily or permanently exempt from fasting, such as pregnant women, nursing women, elderly, and the physically or mentally ill.
Pilgrimage to Mecca (Ḥajj)
The fifth pillar of Islam, known as ḥajj, is the major pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Every adult Muslim is expected to complete at least once in their lifetime. There are various rituals and practices Muslims perform over a number of days. For instance, once people enter Mecca, they are required to wear iḥrām(two symbolic garments of humility) and walk seven times around the sacred house, called the Ka‘bah. Muslims may also visit various sites within and outside Mecca and perform a set of rituals. Once a Muslim has completed the pilgrimage, they may add the title Ḥāj (men) or Ḥājjah (women) to their name.
Millions of people participate in ḥajj each year, although one is exempt from undertaking ḥajj if one is not physically and financially able or if their absence will place hardships on their family. Ḥajj helps unify the Islamic community (ummah) by bringing followers of diverse backgrounds together for a common religious cause.
Some Muslims participate in devotional practices that commemorate God. One major devotional practice is the meditation, remembrance (dhikr) and recitation of the 99 names of God. Some Muslims use a string of prayer beads (subḥah) to help keep count when reciting the names of God, while other schools of thought within Islam reject the use of prayer beads. Some Muslims also have devotional practices that commemorate the birthday of Muḥammad.
On midday Friday afternoons, the midday prayer (ṣalāt al-ẓuhur) may be performed as a congregational prayer, known as ṣalāt al-jumu‘ah. The special prayer includes two sermons (khuṭbah) delivered from the pulpit by an imām, along with collective prayer. Men are obligated to attend and participate. Women are permitted to attend if the mosque caters for a separate section for women to attend.
This day is not typically interpreted as a Sabbath (i.e. a day of rest), meaning people are permitted to work on Fridays. Many Muslim countries constitute Friday as part of the weekend to accommodate those who wish to spend time with their family before or after ṣalāt al-jumu‘ah.
The word qur’ān (‘recitation’) is a nominal form of the verb qirā’ah meaning ‘to recite’. This is a reference to the method the text was transmitted. It is generally believed that the Qur’ān is best communicated through recitation, especially in the Arabic language. Nearly all Muslims memorise specific verses from the Arabic Qur’ān as they are required to be recited during prayer (ṣalāh). For example, the opening Surah of the Qur’ān (Surat al-Fātiḥah) is recited multiple times during prayer and on many other occasions. A person who memorises the entire Qur’ān in Arabic is permitted to use the honorary title of Ḥāfiẓ (male) or Ḥāfiẓa (female), which means ‘memorisor’.
Blessing Muḥammad (Al-Ṣalātu ‘ala al-Nabiy)
A common practice throughout Islam is the blessing of Muḥammad (al-Ṣalātu ‘ala al-Nabiy), which is usually believed to be in accordance with Surah 33:56. This occurs in a variety of forms, including the spoken or written blessing after every instance of Muḥammad’s name. This is usually written as ‘pbuh’, an acronym for ‘peace be upon him’.
Baby-Welcoming Ceremony (‘Aqīqah)
The baby-welcoming ceremony (‘aqīqah) is a Muslim rite conducted for newborns. The ceremony is traditionally held on the seventh day after the birth of the child. Several practices are performed during the ceremony, such as shaving the head of the newborn and announcing the name of the baby. In some traditions of Islam, a sheep or goat may be sacrificed to mark the occasion.
Khitān is the Arabic term for male circumcision and refers to the initiation ritual for Muslim newborn baby boys. There is no fixed age for the practice. Rather, the circumcision is performed depending on the region, family and branch of Islam. For example, some baby boys may be circumcised after their ‘aqīqah (baby-welcoming ceremony). The circumcision is usually carried out in a medical clinic and the circumcisor is not required to be Muslim.
A small number of Muslims part of the Ṣūfī and Shī‘á traditions participate in practices which honour saints. An Islamic saint is usually referred to as a waliy, meaning a ‘friend’ of God. Some Muslims may travel to the tomb of a saint and offer a prayer. Some visit saints in hopes of receiving aid, such as to cure illness, to mediate marital problems or assist in financial difficulties. Another practice of honouring is performed by some Shi’ites from the Ithnā-‘ashariy (Twelvers) branch, who undergo pilgrimages to the tombs of the eleven imāms (all but one located in Iraq).
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