The Four Pillars and the Social Message of Islam

By: Tariq Ramadan

What do the pillars of Islam have to do with the social relations? What message do they have for the benefit and well-being of society? How do these pillars impact our relations with others?

Pillars & Social Relations

“Communal prayer is twenty-seven times better than the prayer of a man alone in his house.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Prayer is the most important pillar of Islam. It is its very essence and explains the link with God but also the fundamental equality that exists between believers, brother beside brother, sister beside sister, all asking for divine guidance based on faith and brotherhood, as they have been taught.

This sense of community is confirmed and reinforced by all the other religious practices, particularly zakat, which is essentially a tax raised for the poor and needy. The stronger our relationship with God, the stronger our desire to serve others will become, too.

A right understanding of zakah takes us to the heart of the social message of Islam: to pray to God is to give to one’s brother or sister. These are the very foundations of Islam as Abu Bakr understood it, when he warned after the death of the Prophet that he would fight anyone who wanted to make a distinction between prayer and paying zakat (what is effectively what happened later with the southern tribes).

The same call is found in the requirement to fast during the month of Ramadan. An act of worship in itself, fasting also leads Muslims to perceive, and to feel inwardly, the need to eat and drink and, by extension, to ensure that every human being has the means to subsist.

Thus, the month of Ramadan should be a time during which believers strengthen their faith and spirituality while developing their sense of social justice.

Pilgrimage clearly has this same double significance: the gathering at Mecca is the great witness to this community of faith that exists among Muslims. Men and women together, at the center, praying to one God, members of a community that share the same hope—of pleasing the Creator and of being forgiven and rewarded in the next life.

In Daily Life

For Muslims, the daily practice of their religion gives birth naturally to a deep sense of being members of one community. This is a dimension that is inherent in the Islamic faith and way of life, which in turn are strengthened, guided, and shaped by this communal feeling: “Certainly the believers are brothers,” (Al-Hujurat 49:10), the Qur’an tells us.

Wherever Muslims live, we are present at the birth of a community that is created and confirmed by prayer and the prescribed religious practices and that then develops progressively as the Muslims begin to use their imaginations and to put in place social activities centered around the mosque (or to create an Islamic association).

This process is evident everywhere in the world, in Muslim countries as well as in the West. To pronounce the Shahadah, which is, as we have said, the essence of Muslim identity, is to share in this community spirit with its immediate implication, which is the promotion of social activities.

In philosophical terms, one might say that this feeling has a part in Muslim identity at the heart of the practice and that it constitutes one of the distinctive characteristics of such an identity. As the Prophet said: “Gather together, for the wolf picks off only the sheep that stand alone.” (Ahmad and Abu Dawud)

In Practice

A rereading of this analysis concerning the communitarian aspect of the four practical pillars of Islam shows a development in the sense of belonging and how these pillars reflect our social life in Islam.

Prayer establishes connections with our Muslim neighbor in a specific place, while zakat enlarges the circle of our social relations, for the whole of the sum must be spent on the needy people in the area where it is raised. It even may be spent abroad if all the local needs are met or if there is an exceptional and vital need.

Fasting develops an even broader feeling, for by fasting and by thinking about it, we are in spiritual communion with the poor of the whole world. And this communion finds a final, tangible, and physical realization in the pilgrimage to Mecca, the sacred place of gathering for millions of Muslims, symbolic of the Ummah.

This is in fact the third circle that delineates the belonging of a Muslim: the Ummah is a community of faith, feeling, brotherhood, and destiny.

All Muslims who say the Shahadah should know and understand that their individual actions are part, an essential part, of the Shahada borne by the whole community of believers: all Muslims are individually invested with the common responsibility of bearing witness to the message before the whole of humankind.

This is the exact meaning of the verse already quoted that links the notion of Ummah (the body, in the singular) with the duty of the believers (the members, in the plural):

So we have made you one community justly balanced, so that you might be witnesses before humankind. (Al-Baqarah 2:143)


The article is an excerpt from the author’s Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford University Press (2004).

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