Islam: Practices and Expressions

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Dar al-Islam: The Ummah

Dar al-Islam translates to ‘The Home of Islam’, this refers to any land where Islamic land or leadership is in place. It is contrasted with two others: the Dar al-Suhl, lands or societies which are at peace with Islam, though not Islamic themselves; and Dar al-Harb, lands or societies that are at war with Islam.

Ummah is an arabic word which means community, nation, or people in the sense of a group of people who share ancestry, language, or historical identification. When used by itself, it often refers to the Islamic Community itself.

The boundaries of the Ummah, or Dar al-Islam, is determined by specific actions that demonstrate adherence to the beliefs that we have explored in previous sections. All action for Muslims falls into one of five categories: Wajib (obligatory), Mandub (recommended), Makruh (disapproved), Mubah (permitted), and Haram (prohibited). The first four categories collectively are labelled Halal, meaning simply that they are not prohibited.Dar al-Islam as a whole is said to be held up by ‘Five Pillars’ which are commonly referred to as the Five Pillars of Islam. It is to these that we now turn.

The Five Pillars of Islam 

In one Hadith (Which?) Muhammad is quoted as saying that: “Submission is that you bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His messenger, that you perform the (prescribed) ritual-prayers, that you fast the month of Ramadan, that you pay the (prescribed) alms-tax on wealth, and that you perform the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba if you are able.” This is the basis for the Five Pillars of Islam.

Personal responsibility in fulfilling these requirements is a consistent theme in Islam. Muhammad is quoted as saying that Virtue “is that you worship God as if you see Him, for even though you do not, He sees you.”

Shahadah: “There is no god but God, and Muhammed is the messenger of God.” This declaration of faith, central creed, lies at the core of Islamic theology. It simultaneously emphasizes a strict monotheism and the importance that Muhhamed holds in the process of revelation. This statement forms the core of Islamic teaching. In order to be a Muslim this must be states with conviction at least once in a lifetime. This means that merely saying the words is not enough to make somebody a Muslim; it also means that nobody can be forced to become a Muslim. If a person does not agree with the truth of the Shahadah, then they are not Muslim. This central creed is the seed that the tradition grows from, its intellectual foundations.

Salat: Directly translated means ‘prayer’ or ‘supplication’, but has come to refer to a specific style and method of prayer that Muslims are expected to perform five times a day. It begins with a ritual washing with water, or earth if water is unavailable. The Salat involves the whole body, dedicated movements are outlined in the accompanying pictures. These actions are usually accompanied by recitations from the Qur’an, which almost always incorporate the Tashahhud, ‘the testimony of faith’, and the Salawat. Some Muslims, for convenience sake, sometimes combine two of the five daily prayers and perform them both in the same session. While this is seen as acceptable to many, it is still necessary to make up any missed prayers by performing them at a later date.

The five prayers are named depending on their time of day: fajr (predawn), zuhr (early afternoon), ‘asr (mid-afternoon), maghrib (sunset), and ‘isha’ (nighttime). These daily prayers can be performed anywhere; the only requirements are a ritual washing with water (or earth, if water is unavailable), and that the person praying face the Ka’ba in Mecca. The Jummah prayer is the Friday congregational prayer, includes a sermon, and must be performed in a Mosque, this is only prayer which must be performed at a specific time and place with the rest of the community.

Sawm: Fasting is seen as a continuation of the fasting practices of other Abrahamic faiths: Judaism and Christianity during Lent. The self-denial that is the core of fasting as a practice is thought to bring the believer closer to God; encouraging humility and selflessness; accepting our limitations and the necessity of our reliance upon God. The central period of fasting for Muslims is the month of Ramadan. During this month Muslims are required to abstain from all food, drink, and sex between sunrise and sunset. Allowances are made for those too ill, old or young, also women who are menstruating or breastfeeding. The month of Ramadan holds special significance because it is the month of The Night of Power, Laylat al-Qadr, the night when Muhammed first received the recitations of the Qu’ran. As a result it is common to recite sections of the Qu’ran throughout the month, especially leading up to The Night of Power, which is always one of the odd-numbered of the last ten nights of Ramadan. The significance of fasting is perhaps obvious; the self-discipline helps the believer to focus on more important things. But it should also be recognised that this is a period of great community for Muslims too; extended families and Mosques often break the fast in large groups in the evening meal, iftar, each night.

Zakat: The Qu’ran emphasizes the importance of charitable work in general. The exhortation of ‘Perform the prayer’ is usually accompanied with ‘and bring the alms.’ The Zakah is a more formalized practice and can be seen as a loosely enforced tax on wealth; there is an expectation for Muslims who are better off to materially provide for the poor and dispossessed through charitable giving and supporting public services. It is also only Muslims who can give these alms. Charity drawn from non-Muslim sources does not carry with it this theological significance. The arabic term best translates as ‘purification’. In other words, an individual and community as a whole is seen to cleanse itself by caring for the needy. Specifically, you could argue, the thing being cleansed is the ownership of property or the act of being materially better off than your fellow people. The implication here is significant; that being comparatively rich in a society is dangerous not necessarily because of the effect it has on the poor, but because of the effect it has on the rich. This point refocuses the idea of material wealth and equality towards the question of responsibility and community. Being wealthy is not wrong, but it is a dangerous position to be in when we consider the effect that it can have on you as a person. Being aware of this and taking action is not a duty to other people so much as it is a duty to God.

Hajj: Undoubtedly the most famous and popular pilgrimage in the world, the Hajj brings millions of Muslims back to the cities of Mecca and Medina in reminiscence of Muhammad’s final journey between the two cities in the last year of his life. The Hajj involves the reenactment of movements and actions of Abraham; especially his establishment of the Ka’ba and his willingness to sacrifice his son. This in turn emphasizes the connection between Abraham and Muhammed in their roles as champions of monotheism in a polytheistic world. Muslims are encouraged to join the Hajj at least once in their lifetime, but allowances are always made in the name of practicality.  There is a ritual purity expected, which is symbolised in the white robes worn by the pilgrims. Alongside this, during the Hajj Muslims are expected to refrain from any impure actions, including money trading and sex. The global event of the Hajj is a physical demonstration of Islam as a community. Meccah, the Ka’ba, becomes the center of the world as millions of people arrive from everywhere. It is also therefore a great equaliser, everybody arrives at the same place, dressed in the same clothes, performing the same ritual actions. It is a theological reminder of the origins and shape that the Islamic community shares.

The Ten Obligatory Acts of Shi’a Islam

Shi’a Muslims also follow the Five Pillars of Islam mentioned above but often they enjoing them with other obligatory actions, these vary depending on the Shi’a group. In this subsection we mention some of the most prominent and important ones. Key to note that the importance of these actions is also accepted by Sunni Muslims, even if it is not formalised.

Tawallah and Tabarru’

Loving the Prophet and his family, Tawallah, and opposing the enemies of the Prophet and his family, Tabarru’. Often Broadened to simply encouraging goodness and opposing evil, although these are often seen as different obligatory acts. The importance placed upon Muhammad and his family is greater in Shi’a Islam. As we saw in previous sections Shi’a Islam follows Muhammads descendents as a source of authority. Their end of Muhammads line is seen as a great tragedy and is only continued for Shi’a Muslims through the succession of Imans. 

However, even without this extra significance placed on Muhammad and his family, the degree of reverence that is shown to him is greater than in many other theological traditions. There are prohibitions against depicting Muhammad, and extreme care is taken when talking about him. Muslims are expected to conjoin his name with ‘peace be upon him’ often shortened in written form to ‘pbuh’ in english, or the arabic itself, which is shown below.


Jihad, meaning ‘struggle against oppression’ is often misunderstood outside the tradition, thought to simply mean ‘Holy War’; akin to the Christian Crusades. While there certainly is a military aspect to the term, and in the history of the tradition Justified war in Islam is described as Jihad. The struggle that the term refers to takes on any and all forms in the context of trying to overcome forces that hinder living in accordance with Islam.

A good way to explain this is to look at the difference between what is known as the ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ forms of Jihad. The Islamic tradition contains both more Immanentist and Transcendentalist strands of thought. The Islamic tradition recognises evil and suffering, especially in the form of oppression, to be a threat both physically and spiritually. Therefore combating it requires control over your physical surroundings as well as your mind and spirit. Jihad as a term is used to describe this struggle, but crucially, the greater Jihad is not the one fought with weapons against other people, it is the one fought for control over the self. The threat of corrupt and repressive worldly powers is part of Jihad, but the Jihad that concerns the tradition more is the threat of corruption from within.

It is therefore an obligation for Muslims to remain vigilant and prepared to continue in the struggle against these threats both internal and external. The greater Jihad has no end, and is perhaps a constant until the person is at peace with God. Lesser Jihad, on the other hand, can only be declared or recognised once very specific conditions have been met, and must be carried out according to specific standards. These are the equivalent of the Christian Just War doctrine, and there are different versions of this which are too numerous to go into detail in this limited space. In general, Jihad is a contested but significant part of the Islamic tradition which holds much nuance that is often lost in mainstream treatments of the concept.


Sufis are less of a denomination within Islam and more a group of people who emphasize a different approach in their worship. ‘Sufi’ can be roughly translated as ‘mystic’ and at the center of their thoughts and practices is a desire for an ever deeper union with divinity.

Their origin lies in the Umayyad Caliphate. Against the perception of corruption and excess among the Umayyad leadership some Muslims of the time advocated for and valued a form of asceticism and humility. They are names for the humble wool, suf, cloaks that they wore instead of the popular and lavish satin and silk robes that were common at the time. Over the next few centuries, especially the 8th and 9th centuries CE, Sufi’ism grew rapidly in popularity. 

To achieve the desired union with God certain repetitive practices are undertaken to induce a state of intense focus and awareness; the most common practices include chanting phrases or lessons from scripture, one of the most famous practices is the whirling dance of the Dervishes. The focus is most commonly on self-forgetfulness. In fact, a large theme in Sufi mysticism interrogates the self; its desires, appetites, and even its existence.

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

More conservative Muslim groups look down on these Sufi practices; believing that strict observation of what is Halal and Haram is sufficient in the eyes of God. The most famous version of this strand of Islam is the Wahhabi movement that grew from the teachings of Ibn-‘Adb-al-Wahhab, and is favoured by the government of Saudi Arabia. It is not surprising then that at various points in history Sufi’ism has been persecuted, by both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

Part of this persecution comes from the ways that Sufi orders come together. Sufi orders throughout history have developed around a charismatic leader, called a Sheikh. They form local associations, develop their own liturgy and practices, and in many ways offer an alternative form of Islamic community. These groups throughout history have often been seen with suspicion by the mainstream Islamic community, especially the theo-political leaders who see them as a threat to their authority. This is despite the practices of Sufi cells and orders like this being almost entirely theopoetic in nature; a blend of theological and artistic practices such as dance, poetry, music, etc. It is to other significant artistic forms that we now turn our attention.

Art and Architecture

Image by Konevi from Pixabay

The Mosque and the Ka’ba

The Mosque is the physical center of the local Islamic community, just as the Ka’ba is the center of the global Islamic community. The most recognisable part of the Mosque is the minaret, which reaches high into the sky and is the point from which the call to prayer, or adhan, is broadcast from.

The word Mosque itself derives from the arabic word masjid, which translates to ‘the place of prostration’, the defining action of prayer. The prime defining feature of Mosque architecture is the space that it allows for this to happen. The internal decorations of Mosques are rarely if ever pictorial, instead the walls that surround the vast space dedicated to prayer are decorated by calligraphy; the Word of God, the divine recitations that are the Qur’an.

The Qur’an, Calligraphy and Poetry

Calligraphy and Poetry are perhaps the two most important Islamic artforms thanks primarily to the theological significance of the Qur’an. The language of the Qur’an is divine and the form that it is in is highly venerated; both when it is spoken and written. 

The Qur’an itself falls in the tradition of one of the highest artforms from the time. Arabic poetry has a long history with particular styles and forms. The Qur’an is seen as a work of poetry in its own right within this tradition. Therefore poetry has been integral to Islamic artistic expressions. It informs almost all other Islamic artforms.

Calligraphy too has its origins in the Qur’an, but has a shorter history than Islamic poetry, because the Qur’an started as an oral tradition and was not written down until later in its history. Like Islamic poetry, calligraphy has developed and blended over time with the different languages and artistic traditions of the various people that adopted Islam over the years. There are different scripts, regional styles, and modern day varieties that combine ancient calligraphic styles with modern art and even graffiti. 

“Nun Wal al Qalam” by البصراوي is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Islamic Calendar

The Islamic Calendar was instituted by Umar, the second Caliph after Abu-Bakr, and takes Muhammad’s migration to Medina as year zero; 622 in the Gregorian calendar. Which means that in the Islamic Calendar we are currently in the mid 1400s. The Calendar is lunar, which explains why the years don’t add up perfectly with the Gregorian calendar that we are used to, an Islamic year is shorter than a Gregorian one: each year is 355 days. 

The Months of the year are as follows:

  1. al-Muharram, arabic for ‘forbidden’ – The first month of the year. All forms of conflict are forbidden. For Shi’a Muslims the tenth day marks the anniversary of the battle of Karbala and the death of Ali in the festival of Ashura.
  2. Safar, arabic for ‘void’ – The name is pre-Islamic and refers either to what is left after the spoils of war are taken from a home or to the state of a home when its occupants are out collecting the harvest.
  3. Rabi’ al-Awwal, arabic for ‘the first spring’ – Named for the time of the year when animals would first be led out to graze, this month also hold special siginificance for many as the month when Muhammad was born.
  4. Rabi’ ath-Thani, arabic for ‘the second spring’ – Named as it coincides with the second, or final spring.
  5. Jumada al-Awwal, arabic for ‘the first of parched land’ – The name is supposed to relate to summer, where water would become more scarce on the Arabian peninsula.
  6. Jumada ath-Thaniyah, arabic for ‘The second of the parched land’ – The name, like the previous month, relates to the summer months.
  7. Rajab, arabic for ‘respect’ or ‘honour’ – Like the first month, fighting is forbidden in this month.
  8. Sha’ban, arabic for ‘scattered’ – The name is supposed to hark back to pre-islamic times when arabic tribes would scatter to find water. 
  9. Ramadan, arabic for ‘burning heat’ – Although the name is probably pre-islamic, and simply relates to the usual weather at this time, it has come to be associated with both the Quranic revelations that first happened to Muhammad in this month, as well as the fastings that take place in commemoration of this event. 
  10. Shawwal, arabic for ‘raised’ – The end of the fast and the start of this month is marked by the festival Eid al-Fitr. The name of this month is thought to derive from the way that pregnant camels would raise their tails during this time of the year.
  11. Zu al Qa’dah, arabic for ‘the one of truce/sitting’ –  The fourth month in which violence is banned, unless in self-defence.
  12. Zu al-Hijjah, arabic for ‘the one of pilgrimage’ – The last month of the year is also when the Hajj takes place. It does so on the 8th, 9th, and 10th day of this month. Part of the pilgrimage is marked by the festival of Eid al-Adha.

In this page we have tried to give a general outline of Islamic practices and expressions of the Islamic tradition. The Calendar is a good way of providing context for these actions. It allows us to see these actions in the historical context of the tradition. Looking deeper into this, at how the Islamic tradition originated and developed throughout its history, is what we now turn to in our final section.

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