Fundamental Principles of Islam

If we are to put ‘fundamentalism’ in the correct perspective, we should be clear about what actually constitutes the fundamental principles of Islam. There is a hadith, which gives us clear guidance on this subject. The Prophet observed that Islam is founded on five pillars: Bearing witness that there is no god but the one God and that Muhammad ‘may peace be upon him’ is God’s Messenger; the regular saying of prayers (salat); alms-giving (zakat); performing a pilgrimage to the Kabah, the House of God in Makkah (hajj); and fasting for the month of Ramadan (sawm).

These then are the fundamental principles, or pillars of Islam. The rest of the teachings fall into the category of detailed explanations of and elaborations upon the five basic principles. Holding any other precept besides these to form part of the basic tenets of Islam is misguided and unacceptable.

On further investigation, we find that these five basic teachings have a spirit as well as a form and, what is of real significance is that the true essence of Islam resides not in its outward forms but in its inner spirit. That is why our actions, according to a hadith, must be judged by their intentions alone. (Sahih al-Bukhari)

Let us take the first of the above principles, which is the article of faith (kalima). The form it takes is the utterance of certain words, expressing one’s faith. But this verbal expression is not in itself sufficient. It is essential that at the same time, the concerned person should be imbued with the actual spirit of the words he utters. As we find in the Qur’an: “The Arabs of the desert declare: ‘We believe,’ ‘You do not.’ Say rather: ‘We profess Islam,’ for faith has not yet found its way into your hearts’ (49:4). This shows that to God, the real faith (iman) is that which reaches into the deepest recesses of the heart; which awakens human consciousness in such a way as to bring to the individual the realization of God. That is to say that the concept of form here is relative, while the concept of spirit is what truly matters.

In the case of prayer (salat) too, we know that prayer has a fixed form and is to be observed at stipulated times. But here too it is not the adherence to form in the repetition of prayer, or the postures adopted, but the spirit pervading the performance of these rites, which is of overriding importance. That is why the Quran says: “Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers” (23:3). It is essential, therefore, that the ritual of prayer be imbued with the proper spirit.

The third pillar of Islam, alms-giving (zakat), that is, the payment of a fixed amount from one’s earnings to others who are in greater need, is again apparently an act of pure formality, but according to the Quran, the inner spirit of zakat is fear of God. The Quran describes the believers as “those who dispense their charity with their hearts full of fear….” (23:60)

As we know, the pilgrimage to Makkah (hajj), the fourth pillar of Islam, is organized along particular lines, according to the rites and rituals of hajj. But believers are made aware at all times that it is not just mere presence in Makkah and the physical accomplishment of the rites which really matter, but the circumspect conduct accompanying each act, the restrained and disciplined behaviour which reveals the earnest intentions of the pilgrim to lead a righteous life then and throughout the rest of the year. Again it is the spirit of the thing, which counts.

The fifth pillar of Islam, fasting (sawm) for the whole of the month of Ramadan, is not concerned merely with abstinence from food and drink during each day from sunrise to sunset, but with the devotion and gratitude to God which self-denial teaches (2:183). Thus the essence of fasting is to produce the spirit of piety. In the words of the hadith, a fast without this spirit is only the experience of hunger and thirst. As such, it is not a true fast in the religious sense of the word (Mishkat al-Masabih).

That these are the five fundamentals of Islam has been made quite clear by the Prophet himself. Furthermore, what is desirable in the observance of all of these five pillars is the internal spirit and not the external form. Now if certain people take it upon themselves to revive these five fundamentals of Islam, their endeavours will be confined to an entirely peaceful sphere of activity. At no stage would they ever reach the point of resorting to violence and aggression. The inner spirit which is meant to pervade all actions stemming from the observance of these principles can only be inculcated by advice, counseling and well-reasoned argument. There is no other viable way of achieving this objective save that of peaceful striving.p>