Understanding Arab Culture—Islam and the Five Pillars of Faith

From a lecture series presented by Professor David Livermore, Ph.D.

It’s difficult to talk about what it means to be an Arab without also talking about Islam, and the Five Pillars of Faith. The question is are the terms Arab and Muslim synonymous? The quick answer is no. In fairness Arabs are overwhelmingly Muslim, but not all of them.

Image of muslim prayer for the five pillars of faith article

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?

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. It’s important that we spend some time talking about it. Despite Islam’s pervasive influence on the region and the world, many people outside the Arab cluster know very little about Islam apart from the news media and entertainment, which typically only emphasize extreme, fundamentalist groups within Islam.

Learn more: Islam Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

If you’ve spent any time studying Islam, you’re familiar with the five pillars of faith and if you haven’t they’re well worth exploration. Here’s just a brief introduction to them.

The First Pillar

The first, and most important pillar of Islam to understand is what’s called the Shahadah. This is the idea that there’s 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’s 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 them will celebrate anyone who is a person of faith. What’s really hard for many Muslims to accept is a person with no belief in God at all.

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 really helpful for effectively interacting in the Arab cluster.

Learn more: Muhammad—Prophet and Statesman

The Second Pillar

The second pillar of Islam is Salat or Prayer. You cannot travel to this part of the world without being continually reminded of prayer. The call to prayer happens five times a day, 365 days a year in the Arab world. 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.

man praying in muslim faithOne time 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 around.

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. I’ve taught classes in Saudi and whenever I do so the 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 all 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, so the weekend is Thurs/Fri or Fri/Sat 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 alms giving. 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 for the society in general and so generosity and sharing with others is a very 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 a hard time 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.

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The Influence of Islam on Arab Culture

There are so many implications to how Islam influences both the day-to-day life in the Arab cluster as well as the values beneath the surface.

image of Islam faith beads for five pillars of faith articleThe 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 always seems to be somewhat subordinate to an acceptance that the future has already been pre-determined so there’s little I can do to change it. There’s a sense of fate that comes with that, something akin to what we found in 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 so much. 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, you can’t reduce all Arabs to a particular set of creeds and beliefs. Most Arabs don’t see themselves first and foremost as enemies of the West. We have to beware of presuming the religious and personal preferences of a person just because they’re an Arab. I know many people in this cluster who actually would not consider themselves very religious, but they’re still strongly influenced by Islam in many of 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.

These are the types of misconceptions I’d like to discuss in the next part of this series on the culture of the Arab cluster. You can read it here: Facts About Arab Culture—Dispelling Common Misconceptions and Myths

From the lecture series Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are taught by Professor David Livermore, Ph.D.

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