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Islamic Ideology ( 27 Jun 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Literalist Comprehension Of, And Exclusivist Dedication To The Pillars Of Faith Purports To Reduce Islam To A Cult Of Five Pillars





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). [1] 

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 [2]. 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) [3]. 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.