Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

The Five Pillars of Islam

A series of short films on the five pillars of Islam - the five duties obligatory for all Muslims - told through objects from Oxford collections.

Detail of a sitarah made for the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Egypt, 1791-1792


In this short film, the Yousef Jameel Curator of Islamic Art discusses the second of the five pillars of Islam: salat, or prayer.



The second pillar of Islam is the prayer or salat. Formal prayer must be performed five times a day - at sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening. This may be undertaken in any ritually clean and demarcated space at home or outside, a requirement that can be satisfied by the use of a mat or a prayer rug. Attendance at the mosque, the public building devoted to prayer, is in fact only expected for the Friday noon prayer.

To perform the salat, Muslims orient themselves in the direction of Mecca, and more specifically towards the Ka‘ba, the cubical building that shelters the Black Stone and Islam’s most sacred shrine. This direction is known as qibla, which in Islamic places of worship is indicated by a wall niche or mihrab, while in public spaces is often signaled by arrows. Yet even without these guides, worshippers can still determine the proper direction with the help of a qibla compass, an instrument that is used to calculate the direction of Mecca from principal cities of the Islamic world. Other scientific instruments have also been used for similar purposes in the past. Astrolabes, for instance, were used to find the qibla and determine the exact time of prayers, and were particularly useful while traveling.

Before praying, the worshipper must take steps to purify the body by performing ablutions. Prayer, which is accompanied by a series of gestures including standing, bowing, and prostrating, can then begin. The performance of the salat opens with the phrase Allahu akbar ('God is the greatest'), followed by the opening verses of the first chapter of the Qur’an, the surat al-Fatiha, and other select passages from the Holy Book. While reciting these chapters, worshippers perform sets of movements or rak‘a, which vary in number of repetitions, and are followed by a final supplication and the phrase 'Peace be upon you and the mercy of God' uttered over the right and left shoulders.

Besides the salat, other acts of devotion known as du‘a are commonly performed to show thanks to God. Occasionally, these supplications were gathered in splendidly illuminated manuscripts commissioned for wealthy or illustrious recipients. This prayer manual [LI2045.3] features a selection of beautifully calligraphed shi‘a prayers, and bears the name of its dedicatee, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar, who ruled Iran between 1797 and 1834. These kinds of individual address confirm the personal nature of the relationship Muslims have with God and the direct, unmediated, dialogue experienced between believers and the Divine.

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