By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
Co-author, Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009
28 June 2012
The caption must be shocking to all the Muslims regardless of their sect and theological orientations as the Muslims world over conflate their universal religion of Islam with its five pillars. But as they read through the article, they will, if God may guide them, see how their literalist and obsessive devotion to the five pillars of faith has led to their detachment from the wellspring of Qur’anic guidance and virtually reduced them to a cult.
During his lifetime, the Prophet took oath of allegiance from those who wished to enter Islam. The oath, crowned by faith in God and His Prophet, included a set of pledges that were tailored to the immediate priorities of the community. These pledges were regarded as the pillars of faith. They epitomized the essence of faith as well as the key duties of the converts as fresh members of the upcoming Muslim community. They, however, did not represent the summation of God’s word – the Qur’anic revelation that the scribes were recording and the huffaz were memorizing. As the priorities of the Muslim community were changing with time, the introductory pledges or pillars were also changing.
Thus, at an early stage in the Medinite period (622-632) the Prophet took an oath from a small group of visitors who came to him to enter Islam that, i) they will not associate anything with God, and refrain from stealing, committing adultery, killing their children, accusing an innocent person and disobeying any bidding to what is ma‘ruf (good). 
As the pagan Arabs became familiar with these prohibitions and hardly needed any reminding during conversion, and the community’s priorities changed, the prohibitions were substituted by biddings to prayer, Zakat, fasting and war booty . After the integration of Mecca (eighth years into the Medinite period), war booty was dropped and hajj, wudu and all commandments (ahkam) of God, along with prayer, Zakat, fasting were regarded as the sole criteria of one’s deeds (‘amal) . However, possibly at the time of Caliph Umar, the five pillars as we have them today were canonized, while the pledge in bold was not spelled out but obviously it remained implicit for there can be no Islam without the guidance or ahkam of God.
The First Pillar of Faith
The first pillar of faith is the belief in all-encompassing and absolutely undiluted and unshared unity and almightiness of God (tawhid) and in Muhammad (Pbuh) as God’s Messenger, and can be rendered as follows:
‘I testify that there is no deity but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’
Any non-Muslim who wants to enter Islam has to make this declaration (in Arabic) in a solemn manner with full sincerity and conviction. An early revelation (Sura 112) captures its spirit of absolute monotheism as follows:
“There is One God (ahad) – the Eternal and the Absolute (Samad). He is neither begotten, nor does He beget and nothing is comparable to Him.”(Sura 112)
The Qur’anic text repeatedly proclaims God’s Oneness and uses a rosary of attributes to convey the multifarious manifestations of His Words (kalimat). These appear mostly in complementary pairs such as Forgiving and Merciful, Relenting and Merciful, All-Knowing and Wise’… but also in a cluster:
“He is God; besides Whom there is no god; the Sovereign, the Holy, the Peace-Giver, the Faith-Giver, the Overseer, the Almighty, the Omnipotent, the Overwhelming - Glory be to God, beyond anything they associate (with Him) (59:23). He is God; the Creator, the Maker, the Designer. His are the Most Beautiful Names. Whatever is in the heavens and the earth glorifies Him, He is the Majestic, the Wise” (59:24).
The object of the Qur’anic revelation, however, was not merely to proclaim the Oneness of God and His glorifications in order to have humanity endlessly praise and glorify Him. If that alone were the divine scheme, the revelation would have been over in matter of weeks, rather than taking over two decades.
The expressed object of the Qur’an was to bring humanity out of darkness into light (2:257, 14:1, 57:9), to lift from it the burden that were upon it from before (7:157) and this entailed guiding humanity to divine social, moral and ethical paradigms and to inspire him with intellectual enterprise and enlightenment, and to sharpen his awareness to universal moral imperatives. Thus the Qur’anic notion of the Oneness of God is thus inextricably linked with obedience to His/ divine guidance. Thus, ‘ibadah’ in the Qur'anic diction is not merely uttering endlessly that God is One, or God is Great, or God is Praiseworthy (the Qur’an recounts a hundred attributes of God), but ‘ibadah’ embraces a covenant to obeying God – following His guidance. Thus, compliance to God’s guidance remains at the core of tawhid, and God’s guidance relates to the totality of human conditions and cannot be restricted literally to the obligatory pillars of faith. This sounds empirical, spiritually lackluster and even untenable, but the truth is, some of the great and universally acclaimed scholars of Islam have hinted at this paradox – the dichotomy between the literalist application of the Pillars of Faith and the all embracing Guidance of the Qur’an.
To quote Muhammad Abduh ((1849-1905):
- “Most of what goes today under the name of Islam is not Islam at all. It may only have preserved the outer shell of the Islamic ritual of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage, as well as some sayings, which have been however perverted by allegorical interpretations. All these sinister accretions and superstitions that found their way into Islam brought about the stagnation that now passes under the name of religion.”[ Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, English translation of 8th edition by Ismail Ragi, Karachi 1989, p. 585.]
To quote Muhammad Iqbal (1877 -1938)
- “What do you achieve by claiming tawhid with your tongue? –
- You have indeed made a cluster of five idols your god.”
- (Bange dara - tasweere dard:
- “zuban say gar kiya tawhid ka dawa tu kiya hasil
- banaya hai bute pindar ko apna khuda tu nay.”)
- “What to speak of this world, even the heavens cry at the crookedness of your vision – It is a curse that you have effaced the lines of the Qur’an.”
- (Bange dara - tasweere dard:
- ‘zamin kiya asmaan bhi teri kajbini pe rota hai –
- ghazab hai satre Qur’an ko chalipa kar diya tu nein.’)
Conclusion: The divine guidance as embedded in the Qur’an embraces, among other virtues, justice, equity, liberty, good deeds, good neighbourly and inter-faith relations, tolerance, forgiveness, gender equitability, good business ethics, fair payment for goods and services, application of reason (‘aql), logical thinking (fiqha), and rectitude (rashada) in handling affairs and a whole range of behavioural norms, and moral imperatives. The Muslims largely regard these as supplementary or optional to the five pillars of faith that they believe to being the only mandatory commandments of God - to the exclusion of its other dictates. Accordingly, they often omit any reference to the latter in their religious discourses and relegate them to the farther recesses of their thoughts. Therefore, all Islamic websites restrict themselves to the timetable of prayer and to the other pillars of faith, but hardly allocate any space for the universal virtues, behavioural and ethical norms and moral imperatives of Islam.
Ironically, the diverse elements of the Qur’anic guidance have, in course of history, permeated the global human society and contributed to its enlightenment, progress and advancement, while the Muslims are rigorously and uncompromisingly maintaining their remoteness from the Qur’anic ideals (except for the pillars of faith), and seeking guidance from their secondary theological resources – the Hadith and the Classical Islamic Law. It is therefore high time – though very late in history, for the Muslim to expand the horizon from the presently narrow band of the pillars of faith to the wide and panoramic spectrum of the Qur’anic guidance – lest they reduce themselves to a cult as the Christian West openly declares and their exclusivist devotion demonstrates.
1. Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi 1984, Vol.1, Acc. 17.
2. Ibid., Acc. 50.
3. Ibid., Chap. 42, ‘The Book of Belief.’
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.
@ Naseer Ahmed. You hit right at the head of the nail in your statement: “Observance of the pillars of Islam is therefore only the starting point or essential requirement for reading the Quran for a true understanding of the Deen. Only one who submits and follows the pillars and brings a lowly spirit or humility will find guidance in the Quran. Clearly, Deen starts with observance of the pillars and does not end with it.” You have captured the essence of the article in these few words. Well done!
May I request you to read my related article, ref. below and post your valuable comment?
The Muslims ‘ignorance /disregard of the Qur’anic guidance and its Colossal and Recurring Cost
2. This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those whofear Allah.
3. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out ofwhat We have provided for them;
4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thytime, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter.
5. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who willprosper.
Consider the first 5 ayats of Surah Baqara above. They mention three ofthe pillars as a pre condition for the Quran becoming guidance. Fasting and Hajhave been left out. Haj is obligatory only for those who can afford and thosewho cannot fast for medical reasons can feed the poor instead.
Observance of the pillars of Islam is therefore only the starting pointor essential requirement for reading theQuran for a true understanding of the deen. Only one who submits and followsthe pillars and brings a lowly spirit or humility will find guidance in theQuran. Clearly, deen starts with observance of the pillars and does not endwith it.
Unfortunately, while kids are taught to read the Quran, very few peoplemake the effort to read the translations and tafseers or learn Arabic tounderstand the Quran. It is not surprising therefore, if their deen is confinedto the 5 pillars alone.
Yunus saheb—Being slower than others, it took me a number of readings before I could get the gist of your re-comment. I think now if only I had added to my comment the word ‘un-corrupted ORIGINAL’, it might have helped vis---“… that is belief in ALL the previous ‘un-corrupted ORIGINAL’ messages.”
And also—“…….but in the ‘un- corrupted ORIGINAL’ MESSAGE revealed, which as we know was common to all Messengers and therefore universal!”
It is the famous case of ---nuqtay kay zair wa zabar nay ‘Khudaa’ko ‘Judaa’ kiya!
Dho shauk se kapde ko par itna na ragar
Dhabba rahe kapde pe a kada baqi
Dear Mr. Muhammad Yunus Sir, I have actually already realized this aspect of the famous five pillars long time ago. I would be sounding too straight forward and blunt if I say, that the five pillar thing is nothing but a metaphor. I would also say that, however, such metaphor renders the real Islam something utterly bogus in its claim of being different from other religions. And the reason for this becoming popular is not its simplicity alone but similarity with pre-Islamic notion of things. Millions do not apply their minds on it, and those who do they do not want to risk their life from fanatics attack on them. But how this idea came into picture is more interesting than how it got circulated and became popular.
Those who understood it that way have understood many things in similar way. They understand that a God is there ‘up in the sky’ ‘on the seventh floor’, ‘sitting’, of course unlike Ganpati but in some other posture which is incomparable and uncopiable but merits uncountable Megawatt of Brilliance. They also have an approximate coordinates of Hell and Heaven and tentative schedule of Qayamat. Such doubtlessness about the space and time fits well with the pre-Islamic tendency of seeing things, where someone could claim to know what is going to happen in future and where the rooh of the dead goes actually.
What more is needed to be understood about Islam if it is understood in the same flow. Replace the idol with a figureless God, replace pooja path with Namaz, replace sacrifices in the name of idols with sacrifices in the name of God, reschedule the fasting and deduct something from the menu, add something else, reorient the direction of prayer, go to pilgrimage with some new terms and conditions, donate at a new rate a yearly donation and here you have a new Deen - a complete way of life, devoid of completeness of life but fully complete with all refurbishment done to the pagan ways of life, and more importantly, pagan rituals.
Dear Sir, I hope, I might be understood by you and others who have the ability to analyse things and who all are pro-Islam and I also understand that you all are free to have a differing view and stand on it but you all must have had rebellion of thought looking at the ‘un Islamic’ that sells in the market like hot cake in the name of Islam.
The book of Haykal, I read several years ago and was delighted to find it. I felt, I arrived at a book which says what I believe and understand. This book still occupies pride of place on my shelf and every time I read it, I revise it randomly - a page from here and page from there, I just wish I had some other books too to read with that particular frame work- The frame work of scientific and logical thinking. Philosophies cannot camouflage what one doesn’t want to say and what one is saying actually, if the reader can read clearly. So the other way is to be straight for such readers and acknowledge that a lot many unscientific foolishness is there propagated by believers and believed by more numbers of believers and all that doesn’t make Islam for everyone except those believers.
I am not atheist because I do not accept that the world was created without any creator. I am not ‘butt parast’ as I do not believe that a stone or statue, lifeless in normal sense can do anything for itself or for others, and I am not a Muslim in the sense who sheepishly accept that the pillars, five of them make Islam. Who am I then? I have to give you a graphic example to tell you that. I see four quadrants, one of which is occupied by Islam and the two adjacent quadrants are Kufr and Atheism. Not believing into rubbish moves one away from Kufr into the Islamic quadrant but believing into nothing to the extent that it becomes absurd that there is nothing yet everything is there is actually moving into the domain of Atheism. The forth quadrants is occupied by an alternative to Islam. It is occupied by a philosophy where there is no respect for life, no believe in the creator of life or if it is there then having stupid beliefs about the creator of life, that too as a creator unworthy of being mindful, or plainly where one is un God fearing, selfish, lustful and everything uncivilised, un Islamic, criminal and wicked. If I am not in the fourth quadrant then I am likely to be in the quadrant earmarked as Islam as I am already disqualified for the other two quadrants. I am thus a Muslim.
A question that immediately comes to mind is where I see all other religions going into which quadrant. I let the followers of those religion work out where do they fit in. Some will choose absurd Atheism, some will choose grotesque Kufr, but I see both of them much closer to Islam than the criminal occupants of fourth quadrant. Many people who aren’t officially known as Muslim and who are neither atheist nor who believe in statue worship are co-citizen of my quadrant Islam and many officially declared Muslim but believing that the dead man in grave still hold the key for something or the stone in Kaaba adds to spiritualism move to the Kufr quadrant and are still respectable neighbouring quadrant residents. In any case, isn’t Islam a complete way of life? Or is it just an alternative to other religion with some cosmetic changes here and there, retaining the same stale concept of religious order? Isn’t Islam unique and not just religion but ‘Deen’ with capital ‘D’?
Someone has pillars to make you understand what is required to let you be on Islam and I have quadrants to explain what is required to let you be on Islam.
I wish, Sir, it would be a great service to Islam as Mr. Haykal did, to bring out more daring, scientific and path breaking interpretation of Islam. I believe that with the interest and dedication that you have apart from your knowledge of Islam, scientific temperament and scientific approach, you would be able to give us some really new ways to see things. Same I wish for other commentators over here as I believe that you all are the people who are working hard to understand and make understand Islam in its most correct way.
The five pillars are for the masses to simplify the whole business of Islam, else who is going to understand all those nuances which talks about what is God and what is spirit, and what is Heaven and what is Hell and what is miracle and what is magic and what is Jinn and what is Hoor and what is Gabriel and all that. It is much easier to boil down all these into something tangible, something that can be physically done and feel done with. Muslims will always remain entangled in explaining others what all these things/ideas mean and perhaps without realizing that such philosophizing will not be ever able to convince those whose ‘hearts have been sealed’ . But for those whose heart isn’t sealed they will understand all these even if they do not understand all the philosophy of that philosopher. Such people will then need something to demonstrate to confirm that they have understood all that, and here these five pillars play its actual role. Whoever is able to perform the task cut out for them, they are assumed to have understood all that; even if not fully then that much as it requires. The question is how much is required and what is ‘required’ and then you run into circles that these five pillars are supposed to be required and establishment/performance/of these prove that the business of Islam is going great.
Let us not talk about the masses. The masses are asses. I was pleased to see something which I would not have been pleased to see otherwise if I had seen such ongoing without having known of the other ongoing. I came across a bhakt of Dr. Zakir Nayak and the bhakt was hell against grave worshipping. Seeing the crowd at Zakir Nayak’s tamasha, I was honestly impressed assuming that all these people must be somewhat if not fully opposed to grave worshipping. This bhakt fellow had a friend even more fiercely against grave worshipping. It so happened that the bhakt had to go to his relative’s grave on an occasion of Eid as an after Eid prayer tradition practiced in his family. Since his friend too was with him, he too went there. There on the grave the bhakt bhai saab uttered some Ayats and all hell broke over him. The fiercer friend who was already uncomfortable at visiting a grave-a grave which could do nothing, and that includes, not even asking for a visit, had run into live demonstration of grave worship. Here he was being shown not just respect to grave but even how decorated with visit and caressed with Ayat that grave could be. They spent rest of their Eid holiday arguing if it was Islamic to do so or not and the bhakt guy was for the first time seen defensive for his actions. Maybe the bhakt was a kachcha khiladi.
I somehow happened to know of another member of the family of this bhakt guy. This member few days later went to some dargah, prayed a full prayer after taking bath in a hot spring adjacent to it which is believed to be having healing power and supposedly blessed by the man dead long back lying in his grave covered by chaadar and flowers in a surrounding that was heavy with scented air . Since I have aversion to grave worshipping, it was beyond my capacity to believe that the dead man buried hundreds of years ago was of any importance or deserved anything. There was a natural inclination for me to not like seeing the ongoing there, but for the first time I really liked what I saw there. It was some Urs or something and beta, I cannot tell you, what the crowd was like. I mean it was like mini Hajj kind of crowding. There Dr. Nakir Nayak’s crowd could easily have got drowned in that crowd. I said to myself, ‘well it will take the end of days to convert so many ‘Muslims’ – Qabar Parast Muslims of course into another kind of ‘Muslims’ – Dr. Nakir Nayak cut kind of Muslims. And even at that there will be ‘Muslims’ who would put those Dr. Zakir Nayak kinds like the bhakt that I mentioned of, into defensive mode.
For the first time I sympathized with the bhakt of Dr. Zakir Nayak who had every answer, however stupid those were, but had no convincing answer to the charges of his friend for Qabar Parasti. I wondered if his friend ever had a chance to visit some dargah on Urs and that how helpless would he feel then. He might take the gathering to be some kind of Rath Yatra with a fixed Rath.
The point in narrating the whole scenario is that the masses are asses. No doubt. They will continue to believe that whatever they believe is correct. And they will never feel themselves losing the race/battle/war or whatever. They can perhaps never have a bird’s eye view of things staying at the position of a worm.
I risk of saying masses as asses because even I might not be correct in my understanding about the masses. But this is what my understanding about masses is so far. I understand that they will continue to populate the world till the end of the days with somewhat similar scenario of being 180 opposite in interpretation of things.
For some, five pillars are as if it is not standing on any foundation but dangling from the top, while for some others the five pillars are like five spoons of cream over the cake. My personal view is that five pillars actually simplify the definition of who is a Muslim and who is not, because a non-Muslim is obviously not going to establish Namaz or fast or pay zakat or do Hajj, all in the name of Allah or even if he/she does so, it may not be of any meaning as he/she is Non-Muslim. Because the moment someone asserts himself/herself to be a Non-Muslim then he/she cannot agree to say that ‘there is no God except Allah’ and ‘Muhammad (saw) is His Prophet’. Its corollary is also to be true in my understanding that someone who asserts this much is to be a Muslim irrespective of how many of these pillars he/she has been able to climb.
This simplification is an over implication however. Those Muslims who assert that there is ‘no God but Allah and Muhammed (SAW) is His Prophet’ are so devoted to the dead man in Dargah that there on a day of fasting, with fast they perform their Namaz and pay their Zakat and sincerely & whole heartedly wish and pray that they are able to perform Hajj as well. Some in fact are able to climb that last pillar as well. But for some others they are Kafir, Mushrik, Qabar Parast and what not. To me the Bhakt type is Dr. Zakir Nayak Parast, his friend is his own ideology parast, and the member of the family of Dr. Zakir Nayak is a super climber who has been able to climb all five pillars of Islam that was dangling from somewhere up from Heaven. Meanwhile I was just trying to understand that how come my heart has got sealed with nothing being able to impress me. Not even the concept of ‘no God’ of Atheism, neither the dangling Pillars nor that grotesque looking foolish imagination that goes by in the name of God for so many.
Brother Muhammad. I have
praised this article with the fullness it deserves. Please see below. I mean I have
nothing more to add to it.
· Outstanding work and
exemplary service to the community!
By Manzoorul Haque -
6/29/2012 4:24:29 AM
Let me please also
add, I liked the comments of Mr. Mubashir
@Manzoorul Haq Saheb. Your statement, “within the ‘reform-seekers’ –there are two categories – Pro-Islam and Anti-Islam” mirrors your frustration at somebody challenging the very fundamental doctrine of faith that Muhammad is God’s Messenger which implies the divinity of the Qur’an and a pledge to follow its ahkamat.
But your silence over the article which is an outcome of considerable effort is not there.
I have seen this typical of Muslim scholarship to readily veer over to aside issue totally ignoring a bigger issue on hand, though in your case I cannot really blame you for your outburst. Kindly post your comment on the article.
Haque saheb, you raise an important issue. In my humble opinion our aim should not be to achieve a consensus but to let divergent or conflicting views to be heard. Reformers come in different hues, ranging from those who want cosmetic changes to those who want major surgery. All honest views are legitimate and have value.