Charity or almsgiving (zakat) is required of every Muslim who possesses the means for the relief of the poor, and for other social and charitable causes. The preferred amount is usually two-and-a-half percent of the annual income.
In the Islamic lunar calendar, the 9th month is known as Ramadan, the month of fasting. For the whole month, Muslims do not eat, drink or engage in sexual intercourse during the hours of daylight. The aim is to demonstrate the physical will-power involved in the service of God and to share the suffering of the world’s many hungry people. Towards the end of the month of Ramadan, the most sacred night (Kadir, Laylat al-Qadr), when the Koran was first revealed to Mohammed, is commemorated. Ramadan ends with a feast called “Id al-Fitr”.
The 12th month of the Islamic calendar is the month of pilgrimage (Hajj), which involves a visit to Ka’ba, the sacred place in Mecca. A visit made in any other month is called “umra”, the Lesser Pilgrimage. At least one pilgrimage is expected of every Muslim who is capable of undertaking it. The Prophet himself only once undertook the Hajj, and that was in the last year of his life. Men wear two seamless pieces of white cloth (ihram), one round the waist and the other draped over the left shoulder. Women wear garments which show only their face and hands. This apparel is usually put aside to be used later as a shroud. Almost two million people go on a pilgrimage each year. Ka’ba is the most holy shrine, perhaps the first sanctuary, on a site many believe to have been first consecrated by Adam; and then by Abraham, who rebuilt it at God’s command with Ishmael, his son by Hagar. Muslims believe that God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at a site near Mecca, and the three pillars that stand at Mina are said to represent the three times that Satan attempted to dissuade Abraham and was repulsed. The Ka’ba was once a shrine to 360 Arabian deities in pre-Islamic times, but all its religious images were removed by Mohammed. He purified it and rededicated it to the one true God. A pilgrimage involves many ceremonies, the first being the seven anti-clockwise circuits (tawaf) of the Ka’ba, on each of which the pilgrim tries to touch the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad), or at least point in its direction. Muslims believe that this stone was given by the angel Gabriel to Adam and later to Abraham. Then pilgrims process seven times between the two hills of al-Safa and al-Marwa. This reminds them of the mother of Ishmael, Hagar’s (Hajar) search for water for her son. It was at this point, that holy water, known as Zam-Zam gushed out from the ground. The pilgrim visits the well and takes holy water from it. On the eighth day, the pilgrim must stand on Mount Arafat and ask for enlightenment and salvation. This is the most sublime act of worship. After this, stones are thrown at Satan, representing his punishment for trying to dissuade Abraham from sacrificing his son. Then the pilgrimage ends with the slaughter of a sacrificial animal, in remembrance of Ishmael, the meat of which is shared out among the poor. Pilgrimage forms a strong bond between all members of the whole Muslim world.
The Holy Book of Islam is called the Koran, the Word of God (kalam), and it is believed that only when written in Arabic, does it express God’s word without fault. For this reason, the Koran may be interpreted or paraphrased, but not translated into any other language. Some of its passages are hard to understand and therefore need interpretation. This is known as ‘Tafsir’ and ‘Ta’wil’. Only Arabic is used in prayer, even though the majority of Muslims do not understand this language since only 20% of them belong to the Arab world. The Koran is the foundation, the non-negotiable authority of Islam. The divine revelation of the Koran to Mohammed, which began in 610, continued until his death. After His death these revelations and His sayings were written down by witnesses, the complete text being compiled during the first Caliphates. The Koran is considered to be the most widely-known book, which has remained unaltered throughout the ages. While the Biblical text consists of the words of divinely inspired human authors, the Koran is the Word of Allah. The prophetic practices, known as Hadith or Sunna, and all Islamic acts of worship are based on the Koran, which is divided into chapters (surah) and verses (ayat). The surah’s are not compiled in chronological order, but each bears a name and each begins with the Besmele, the Arabic phrase: “Bism illah al-rahman al-rahim”, meaning, “In the name of God the merciful, Giver of mercy”. Since the Koran prescribes how a human should live on earth, no intermediary is necessary.
The Shari‘a (the Path), is the body of holy Islamic law, composed after the death of the Prophet to regulate the activities of both the individual and the community. The Shari’a covers all areas of life and in its preparation four sources were accepted by scholars. These are: the Koran, sunna (conduct and practices of the Prophet), ijma (consensus) and qiyas (analogy). From these evolved various schools and methods of interpretation, four of which have had a lasting influence on Sunni Muslims. The legal knowledge of Shi’ism is based on the tradition of imams. The guardian of the Shari’a was the Caliph who succeeded the Prophet as his deputy as both religious and political leader. In 1924, the Caliphate was abolished by Kemal Ataturk, since then independent nation-states have been created out if what was the Ottoman Empire. In every Muslim country observance of the Shari’a depends on the degree of secularity of the State.