The Five Pillars of Islam are the core beliefs of the Islamic faith. They are believed to be first in importance in the way one lives one's life. They hold the same type of sacred qualities that the Ten Commandments hold to Jews and Christians. One main difference is that they don’t merely describe what to avoid, but what one must do in order to be faithful and true in one’s practice of Islam.
The pillar of highest priority is Testimony of Faith or Shahadah. Each Muslim must believe and say that there is no God but Allah. This emphasizes the monotheistic nature of Islamic belief, which differed from some of the polytheistic practices one could find in the 7th century CE.
Though both Jews and Christians could certainly be found in the area where Muhammad rose to power, many worshipped numerous Gods. Thus, emphasis on the one true God, the God of Abraham, and belief in only one God distinguished the Muslim from those who were polytheistic. It also made them brethren with the Jews and the Christians.
The second of the Five Pillars of Islam is Ritual Prayer, or Salat. Every day, Muslims pray in Arabic five times a day. These daily prayers are always done facing Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam.
Giving alms is the third pillar. Called Zakat in Arabic, all Muslims are obligated to assist the poor. This system is quite similar to the practice of tithing, common in many Christian denominations. However, not everyone is required to give the same percentage. A rich man might give two and a half percent of his total savings each year. Those who have large farms might donate 10-20% of their goods each year, or a portion of their profits.
The fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam is fasting or Siyam. All who are able must fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset during the ninth month of Islamic calendar, which is Ramadan. Young children, pregnant women and the elderly need not fast. Most people who are seriously ill are not required to fast either. However, all others must observe Siyam in obedience to the Five Pillars.
The last of these is Pilgrimage or Hajj. Every Muslim must try during his or her lifetime to make the annual Hajj to Mecca. This is considered jihad, since the Hajj can be trying and one may encounter difficulties along the way. However, most feel the Hajj is of tremendous spiritual importance as one follows in the footsteps of Muhammad.