Written by Jeremy Horelick
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There are more prevailing misconceptions about the religion of Islam than almost any other of the world's major religions. For nearly 1500 years, Islam has remained one of the most widespread faiths around the globe, attracting millions of new believers through its central message of submission to God, or Allah. The very word Islam means "submission," and reminds Muslims--those who practice Islam--that God is all-powerful.

One of the biggest fallacies about Islam, in the Western world at least, is that it is a polytheistic religion, or one that preaches multiple deities. This is not only false, it's diametrically opposed to one of Islam's central tenets, the oneness of God. This creed, called "shahada," is one of five major pillars of the religion.

The Five Pillars of Islam

If you ever took a comparative religion course in high school or college, chances are the salient point you remember is the Five Pillars of Islam. Aside from shahada, there is also "salat" (prayers), "saum" (fasting), "zakat" (almsgiving), and "hajj" (pilgrimage). For the sake of ease, each of these tenets will be referred to by its English name. Anyone who considers him or herself a Muslim must strictly obey all five of these precepts, though they are hardly exhaustive. There are hundreds of other smaller rules dictated by Islam as well.

The pillar of prayers requires Muslims to face East (the direction of Mecca, Islam's holiest site), five times a day--dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sundown, and evening--to pray. One of Islam's most cherished beliefs is that Muslims have a direct relationship with God and do not need intermediaries on Earth to make the connection for them. Prayers then become a way for Muslims to uphold this core value.

The Five Pillars, Continued

Almsgiving requires Muslims to part with 2.5 percent of their net worth in order to aid the welfare of the entire community. Social responsibility is extremely important in the religion, and is considered a form of worship. Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is a way to show self-control, which, like almsgiving, helps well-to-do Muslims appreciate the plight of the needy.

Finally, pilgrimage, or in Islam, "journey to a sacred place, is the most important of the five tenets, for it bonds Muslims living all around the world. The pilgrimage is meant to honor Mohammed's journey to Mecca in 629 C.E., when the prophet peacefully brought the religion to the city. Mohammed is considered the last of Allah's prophets, and one to whom the complete word of Allah was revealed in the form of the Koran, Islam's most sacred text.

Learn More About Islam

There's much more to Islam than just the famous Five Pillars, though. Aside from the Koran, there are texts called "hadith" that are the approvals and deeds of the prophet Mohammed, all of which indicate "sunnah," or "the way." In the pages that follow you'll learn much more about these important texts as well as the devotees who follow them to the letter of the law.

With many scholars and commentators positing a clash of civilizations in the aftermath of September 11, it's more important than ever to remain tolerant of and open-minded toward cultures we typically see portrayed with stereotypes. Nobody can ever fully escape his or her own biases, but a little bit of education can go a long way toward disabusing ourselves and others of common fallacies. Islamic culture is rich with great leaders, scholars, philosophers, scientists, and artists, all of whom have made contributions to this powerful world religion.

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