Saleem Ahmed, Ph.D. President of the Honolulu-based Pacific Institute of Islamic Studies.

While growing up in Karachi, I learned that belief in God, prayers, fasting, haj, and zakat are referred to as the “Five “Pillars of Islam”; that these were the “essential” requirements to be a Muslim; and that without fulfilling these obligations, no person could be a Muslim or think of entering Paradise. I tucked this information at the back of my head and did not pay much attention any further until the following incident jolted me:

On a trip to Pakistan, I met an acquaintance (let’s call him Faheem) who greeted me warmly and, in response to my question, informed me that he had become “very happy, mashallah”. I congratulated him and inquired as to what was the source of his happiness. He informed me that he had become “very rich, mashallah.” Here is how our conversation then developed:
“What has made you rich? Do you have a high-paying job? Or have you become successful in business?”
“No, I am a clerk, with low pay”.
“Did you marry into a rich family?”
“Then, what is the source of your wealth”?
“I take bribes”.
“Doesn’t that bother your conscience”?
“Why should it? I offer my prayers”.

The day we met, he was also fasting “in thankfulness” as the previous day he had broken his bribery-taking record. He also informed me with much satisfaction, that he also fasts regularly during Ramadan, that he goes often on haj; and that he also gives “lots in charity”, always thankful to Allah for the wealth He had blessed him with (through his bribery intake). Since the Qur’an does not group these obligations as “five pillars”, I searched hadith for the same. And I discovered these two hadith:

-Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: Observe your five (daily) prayers, observe the fast during your month (Ramadan), pay zakat on your properties, and obey when you are commanded (by one who has the right to issue you a command); you will then enter the Paradise of the Lord (Tirmidhi 197).

-Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: The prayer of a person in his house is a single prayer; his prayer in the mosque of his tribe has the reward of twenty-five prayers; his prayers in the mosque in which the Friday prayer is observed has the reward of five hundred; his prayer in the mosque of Aqsa (i.e. Bayt al-Maqdis) has a reward of fifty thousand prayers; his prayer in my mosque (the Prophet’s mosque in Medina) has a reward of fifty thousand prayers; and the prayer in the Sacred Mosque (Ka’bah) at Makkah has a reward of one hundred thousand prayers (Tirmidhi 247).

I imagine the first hadith incident must have occurred in Islam’s earlier years when the revelations the prophet received had focused almost entirely on spirituality and duties of Muslims. Also, the number of Muslims might still have been relatively small, with almost all living in and around Mecca or Medina. In today’s world, with Muslims spread around the world, a literal reading of the second hadith puts Muslims in far-away places Indonesia or Greenland at a tremendous disadvantage because of their inability to earn the blessings of fifty thousand prayers, as they cannot pray at the Sacred Mosque, perhaps not even once in their lifetime. Trying to reconcile these hadith with Faheem’s statement, I realized how easy it was to abuse a noble ritual, by using it to justify our transgressions.

On returning to Honolulu, I inquired from some Muslims and some non-Muslims as to what was the most essential obligation imposed on them by their religion after worshiping their deity. While all Muslims invariably said that it was to follow the “Five Pillars of Islam”, all non-Muslims (regardless of whether they were monotheists, polytheists, or atheists) said that it was to be of service to others. This made me wonder further: with three of the five “pillars” (prayers, fasting, and pilgrimage) being self-oriented, doesn’t it unwittingly make Islam a “self-centered” religion? True, some Muslim will point that charity is one of the five pillars. But what about honesty, humility, devotion to duty, tolerance, patience, and all other cardinal virtues emphasized in other religions?

Then I recalled the emphasis on these “pillars” in Friday sermons. In fact, I recall that, at one khutba (I don’t recall where), the imam emphasized, “Brothers, do anything in life; but offer prayers”, with much emphasis on “anything”. Like Faheem’s belief, this would, as if, make up for all bribery intake. I imagine that extremists offer prayers before embarking on their respective missions. Another individual in Honolulu takes pride in informing others that he has not missed a single prayer in nearly 30 years. I wonder how is his record of the above-mentioned Cardinal Virtues?

Greatly perturbed, I spent several days seeking an answer the above “self-centered pillars”. Fortunately, I came across these two hadith – which I have not heard any imam quote:

-Allah’s Apostle (peace be upon him) said: Do you know who is poor? They (the Companions of the Prophet) said: A poor man amongst us is one who has neither dirham with him nor wealth. He (the Prophet) said: The poor of my Ummah would be he who would come on the Day of Resurrection with prayers and fasts and Zakat but (he would find himself bankrupt on that day as he would have exhausted his funds of virtues) since he hurled abuses upon others, brought calumny against others, unlawfully consumed the wealth of others, shed the blood of others, and beat others. His virtues would be credited to the account of one (who suffered at his hand). And if his good deeds fall short to clear the account, then his sins would be entered in (his account) and he would be thrown in the Hell-Fire (Muslim 1179).

-Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said, “Many a one who fasts obtains nothing from his fasting but thirst, and many a one who prays during the night obtains nothing from his night prayers but wakefulness.” (Tirmidhi 622)

I suggest these two hadith incidents must have occurred in the final’s years of the prophet’s life, and after he had probably witnessed how some of his followers might have been abusing these “pillars”.

At last! I felt relieved. So, Islam does also put emphasis on service to humanity. But the pity is that I have never heard any mention of these hadith – or something similar — in any mosque or at any other religious gathering. Why? What do you think?

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