There’s no way to discount the pervasive influence of Islam and the five pillars of faith on the Arab culture as a whole. Islam is clearly the dominant religion across this part of the world, and it shapes day-to-day life far more than the religions of most clusters do. Here is a brief introduction to them.
This is the second article in the series on understanding Arab culture. Read part one here: Life in the Arab Cluster—What Does it Mean to Be An Arab?
What Are The Five Pillars of Faith?
Despite Islam’s pervasive influence on the region and the world, many people outside the Arab cluster know little about Islam apart from the news media and entertainment, which typically only emphasize extreme, fundamentalist groups within Islam.
Those who have spent time studying Islam will be familiar with the five pillars of faith; if you haven’t, they’re well worth exploring. Here’s just a brief introduction to them.
This is a transcript from the video series Customs of the World — Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The First Pillar
The first, and most important pillar of Islam to understand is the Shahadah. This is the idea that there is no god but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of the one and only God. This is central to everything else in Islam, and this helps explain the very tight nature of the Arab cultures.
The only purpose of life is to serve and obey God. In contrast to Hinduism that believes there are many gods, Islam is built on the idea that there is one God and he alone should be worshiped and obeyed. It’s believed that the driving response to Shahadah should be one of submission.
God and his laws have full regulatory force on your life. It’s all about what Allah says you must do.
God and his laws have full regulatory force on your life. It’s all about what Allah says you must do. Relativism and allowing people to arrive at their own conclusions runs in direct conflict with this core tenet of Islam. Despite the exclusivism of Islam, most Muslims believe that every human being is born with an inclination toward God and goodness, and because of that, most of them will celebrate anyone who is a person of faith. What’s hard for many Muslims to accept is a person with no belief in God at all.
Learn More: Islam Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
One evening, I had dinner with an Arab client and his family. They asked me some very explicit questions about my own faith—what religion I followed and how it influences my life. This was just a part of the friendly conversation, the kind of thing I would rarely be asked most anywhere else in the world. They wanted to know the ins and outs of my faith and how I worship. They affirmed that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a Muslim, but they celebrated that I, too, was a person of faith who wrestles deeply with issues of eternal significance. A basic understanding of Shahadah is helpful for effectively interacting in the Arab cluster.
Learn more about Muhammad—Prophet and Statesman
The Second Pillar
The second pillar of Islam is Salat or Prayer. In the Arab cluster, travelers and denizens are continually reminded of prayer. The call to prayer happens five times a day, 365 days a year in the Arab world, and you cannot miss it. Muslims have heeded the call to prayer for more than a millennium. This includes washing their face, kneeling toward Mecca, or visiting the local mosque. Prayer almost always happens in Arabic, the language of Allah.
Once, I heard an interview with a British woman who had moved to the Arab world, and she described how disconcerting it was for her to keep hearing the call to prayer day in and day out, year-round.
But, she said eventually it grew on her. She came to a point where she respected this ancient tradition that built a rhythm into the day, where people didn’t simply go on with their business as usual but stopped regularly to think about the larger purposes of their lives and the world. While this British woman didn’t convert to Islam, she found ways to utilize the regular prayer times to meditate and reflect in her own ways on her spiritual journey.
If you visit or live in an Islamic country, it’s extremely important to be respectful during the daily prayer times. In Saudi Arabia, everything shuts down during Salat. As a teacher in Saudi Arabia, mine and my students’ classes, meals, and breaks are all carefully structured around prayer times. There’s a great effort to ensure that people have the time that’s needed to prepare themselves and then go to prayer.
While some neighboring Arab countries might not follow this practice quite as religiously as it’s done in Saudi Arabia, respect for prayer times is important in most of the countries in this cluster. If possible it’s best to stay indoors and avoid movement during Salat.
If you must be out and about, refrain from standing directly in front of any Muslim who is praying. Fridays are the day of worship for Muslim countries. Keep that in mind because that means the weekend in this part of the world includes Friday; the weekend is Thursday/Friday or Friday/Saturday, depending on the specific country involved.
Learn More: God’s Word—the Quranic Worldview
The Third Pillar
Muslims believe that everything belongs to God and that wealth is only entrusted to humans for a time.
The third pillar of Islam is zakah or almsgiving. Muslims believe that everything belongs to God and that wealth is only entrusted to humans for a time.
There’s a profound sense of generosity that’s taught across Islam. The word zakah means purification. Possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in need and the society in general, and so generosity and sharing with others is a strong value all across the Arab cluster. Muslims follow the Quranic principle of not charging interest on loans.
The Fourth Pillar
Fasting is the fourth pillar of this faith. Every year during Ramadan, a month-long sacred holiday, all Muslims fast from dawn until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and sex. If you travel to the Middle East during Ramadan, you may have difficulty finding a restaurant open during the day.
The Fifth Pillar
Finally, every devout Muslim strives to get to Mecca at least once during their lifetime. The fifth pillar of the faith is Hajj, the spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca. This is only an obligation only for those who are physically and financially able to do so. Over two million people go to Mecca each year from every corner of the globe, providing a unique opportunity for those of different nations to meet one another. Only Muslims are allowed to do Hajj.
The Influence of Islam on Arab Culture
There are many implications to how Islam influences both the day-to-day life in the Arab cluster as well as the values beneath the surface.
The short-term orientation of the Arab world is largely believed to be an outgrowth of their Islamic sense of God’s sovereignty over everything. Everything has been divinely orchestrated and arranged. Islam teaches about the importance of understanding this divine providence.
Islam also teaches about the importance of initiative and personal responsibility, but this seems to be somewhat subordinate to an acceptance that the future has already been pre-determined. There’s a sense of fate that comes with this, akin to the Latin European mindset. It’s believed that this is part of what creates the short-term oriented mindset that exists across the Arab cluster.
How does the Islamic notion of jihad influence life in the Arab cluster? Despite our familiarity with this term from the news, at the core, jihad doesn’t mean holy war. It simply means to struggle. Jihad is the spiritual struggle against pride and idolatry. It does also include the physical struggle against the enemies of Islam, the expression of jihad that is more familiar to those of us living in a post-9/11 world.
As with any of these cultural dimensions, all Arabs cannot be reduced to a particular set of creeds and beliefs. Most Arabs don’t see themselves first and foremost as enemies of the West. In our day-to-day activities, we have to beware of presuming the religious and personal preferences of a person just because they’re an Arab. Personally, I know many people in this cluster who would not consider themselves religious, but they’re still strongly influenced by Islam in the ways they think and behave. It’s relatively safe to assume that Islam has some influence on a person’s perspective and life if they live in this part of the world or are originally from this region.