Harun al Rashid

Fundamentals of Islam in Brief

As per the established Sunni doctrine

Origin of Sunnism

When the Prophet Muhammad (s) (d.632 CE) emerged on the world stage in the seventh century, he did not bring a fully fleshed out religious doctrine. What he brought was the Qur’an. When he died, the practice of this Book was found in the members of his community. However, since the community grew and the demands of empire became more intense, they had to deal with many issues beyond the scope of early Islam. In the early period, the Prophet Muhammad (s) and his followers were continually under threat, and as borne out in the Qur’an, the theological debates took place against the Pagans, Jews, and Christians and not against other Muslims. The early Muslims didn’t have much time for formalized religion aside from praying, fasting and fighting in Jihad. Thus, many religious questions that came up in succeeding generations didn’t occur to the companions. As with all empires, decadence comes with its own curse. In modern times, we’d call it, “first world problems.”

Under the Umayyad Dynasty, (661-750 CE) Islamic discourse was still wide open and there were no formalized theological entities, though there were many divergent views. During this period the dynasty was, what we could today call: a Secular State, with very little interest in religion. The predominant practice of Islam during this period was later documented by Imam Malik ibn Anas (d.791 CE) on the request of the second Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far al Mansur (d.775 CE) and was in effect mainstream Islam with some budding theology in Iraq around Imam Abu Hanifa (d.767) with remarkably different outcomes. Abu Hanifa was accused of being from amongst the people who followed their own whims (Ahl al Ray), whereas Malik was from the orthodoxy who followed established tradition (Sunnah), yet not associated with the Prophet Muhammad (s). The early understanding of Sunnah was that it represented a practice of a community who upheld the ways of those who came before. The directives of later usul al din (sources of religion) would only be established after the textual tradition became rampant in the time of al Shafi’i (d.820) and the reliance on Hadith going back to the Prophet Muhammad (s).

A major political shift happened in 750 CE when the Abbasid Dynasty took over to become the very first Islamic State in history. Unlike the first four Caliphs who claimed to be successors of the Prophet making human efforts to guide a growing community of believers by trying to exist out of necessity, as a political entity, and unlike the Umayyad’s who were secular, the Abbasid Caliphs introduced a new discourse inspired by Shi’ism. The Caliph declared himself the vicegerent of Allah and His shadow on earth. For the first time, Islam was fully coopted in the service of the State. Since the Shia sentiments were used largely to overthrow the Umayyad Empire, the Abbasids had to come up with another Islam. An Islam that will now delegitimize the Shia on the one hand, and retain their own right on the other. This ‘new’ Islam had to reinforce obedience to the Caliph and assert itself as different to the two other competing groups; namely the left over Umayyad Dynasty in Morocco and Spain, and the Shia sympathizers in Khorasan. They commissioned scholars to streamline Islam into something that was both authentic, in that in referenced the Prophet (s) and the companions, and suitably flexible. Hence, early Sunnism was born through the efforts of Hanafi thinkers like Abu Yusuf (d.798). These Hanafi scholars along with the early Abbasid Caliphs were often Mu’tazila and ushered in the enlightenment period of Islam.

In the midst of this renaissance was the scholar and traditionalist Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d.780) who bemoaned the liberal use of foreign (greek) concepts amongst Muslim scholars. He advocated a return to the Sunnah and wrote his Magnus opus; Musnad Ibn Hanbal, a collection of Hadith pertaining to everyday life. He was also imprisoned for insisting that the Qur’an was the uncreated word of Allah, which at the time was an incredibly blasphemous statement. However, the tide would turn with the help of Al Shafi’i, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Imam al Bukhari, Imam Muslim and others, who transformed Sunnism into a fully-fledged doctrine that places the Hadith as one of its primary sources. Unlike Malik, who placed the community of Medina as his primary source for tradition, or Abu Hanifa, who was at best a Hadith skeptic and at worse somewhat of a Quranist, Al Shafi’i and Ibn Hanbal canonised the role of Hadith as authoritative proofs in religion for the first time. These became applicable in all matters, including in the matters of State, and thus Sunnism and the first Islamic State was born. This brief document outlines the core concepts and practices in Sunni Islam as it stands in our century.

Entering Islam

According to the majority of Muslim scholars, a person enters Islam by a testimony of faith:

Ashadu an Laa ilaha illa Allah, wa ashadu anna Muhammadan rasulu Allah (s).

I testify that there is no god except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah (p)

The first and foremost practical aspects that a new Muslim is taught are the five pillars of Islam and the six pillars of Faith (Iman).

The Pillars of Islam

  1. To testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger (s)
  2. To establish the obligatory prayers
  3. To spend a part of one’s wealth in charity
  4. To fast the month of Ramadan
  5. To perform the Hajj when one can do so.

These pillars of Islam are further explained within the four schools of Sunni law which are as follows:

Believing in Allah:

  1. To believe that Allah is One without partners, He is eternal- without beginning and end, that He does not have offspring, nor does He have parents (a product of creation), and that there is nothing that can be compared with Him.
  2. To believe in Allah with all His Names and attributes, and to accept all His laws.
  3. To believe that Allah sent down revelations to various Messengers such as the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an.
  4. To believe that the Qur’an contains the words of Allah.
  5. To believe that Allah will hold everyone to account on the day of Judgement resulting in either going to Heaven or going to Hell.

Belief in the Prophet Muhammad (s):

  1. Allah sent the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad (s).
  2. Allah chose Muhammad (s) to be his final Prophet and Messenger and that there are no Messengers or Prophets to come after him.
  3. That the Prophet Muhammad (s) is the perfect example for all of mankind.
  4. That the Prophet Muhammad (s) was a human being (and did not possess divinity).

To Establish the Prayers

All Muslim scholars agree that the five daily prayers are obligatory on all sane, adult Muslims.

Pre-requisites of the prayer

  1. That the person is Muslim
  2. That the person is in a state of ritual purity (wudhu)

            The wudhu is accomplished by:

            1. Washing the face with pure water

            2. To wash the hands up to the elbows

            3. To wipe the head.

            4. To wash or wipe the feet.

If the person is in a state of major impurity due to having had sexual intercourse, or after menstruation, or post-natal bleeding, to enter a state of ritual purity the person must wash themselves completely. That is, water must touch the persons entire body such that it flows over it, or the person should be immersed in a body of water such that the condition of the water does not change (a large body of water).

  • That the time for the prayer has arrived
  • That the person be dressed (at least the private parts should be covered, though the extent of being dressed is disagreed on)
  • That the place of prayer is free from filth such as feces and urine.
  • That a person faces the qibla if known or to guess where it might be.

The Prayer Times

  1. The morning prayer starts with the first sign of light until before sun rise. Scholars disagree on what constitutes the first sign of light.
  2. The early afternoon prayer starts immediately after zenith until the sun is halfway between zenith and sunset, or when the sun is nearer to sun set, or right up until before the sun sets.
  3. The late afternoon prayer starts immediately after the conclusion of the early afternoon prayer, or when the sun is halfway between zenith and sunset, and before sunset.
  4. The early evening prayer starts immediately after the sun has set or when the first sign of darkness is witnessed from the east.
  5. The late evening prayer starts immediately after the early evening prayer, or when it is completely dark outside, or up until midnight, or until just before the early morning prayer.

The prayer times thus stated are invoked as being either on time, when prayed separately within the time frame of each, or they are said to be joined when the two afternoon prayers and two evening prayers are prayed together, or they are said to be shortened and joined, when the prayers that are permissible to join are also shortened, or they are shortened and not joined. Scholars disagree as to the reasons for joining and or shortening the prayers. They include travel, rain, fear, and convenience (though not out of habit).

The format of the prayer

The morning prayer consists of two units, the afternoon prayers consist of four units each, and early evening prayer consists of three units, and the night prayer consists of four units.

  1. The prayer is opened with saying, “Allahu Akbar”
  2. It is obligatory, unless unable, to stand in the prayer, bow (ruku) and prostrate (sujud).
  3. It is considered obligatory by most scholars to recite the Opening Chapter, Al Fatiha. Although not considered obligatory by some, and or not considered obligatory in every prayer unit except for the audible units.
  4. It is considered obligatory to pause within each movement.
  5. It is considered obligatory to say the tashahud and salaam at the end of each prayer but scholars differ on some of the wordings regarding it and what of it is obligatory and what of it is optional.
  6. The morning prayer, the two evening prayers and the congregational prayers of Jumuah, the two Eids, and some optional prayers such as that of the prayer for rain, for the solar and lunar eclipse etc, are done by reciting the verses of the Qur’an audibly. There is disagreement on whether the morning prayer should be audible when done after the sun has risen.


Zakah (Charity to the poor)

It is agreed upon that zakah is obligatory on every Muslim who is not poor. Poverty is defined as having less than the minimum amount of wealth in one’s possession for the period of one year. This minimum amount is called the nisab: the amount is disagreed on because it was usually decided on by the State. In modern times some scholars believe the nisab was set by the Prophet Muhammad (s) at a rate equivalent to 87.48 grams of gold and 612.36 grams of silver (85 grams of gold and 595 grams of silver according to another opinion). In other words, if you have more than 87.48 grams of gold or its equivalent for the period of a full year you will be eligible to pay the zakah of 2.5% to selected categories of people. As of today, December 10th 2021, that would be equivalent to $4684 or R75 000 in your possession  for a period of a year. However, it is not simply having more than the nisab in cash in your possession, but also takes into account fixed business assets and cash in hand minus money owed.

In general, zakah is where those who have give charity to those who don’t have. The closest equivalent to the early mechanisms of zakah is the State tax we have today. It is for that reason that the establishment of zakat, according to some scholars, cannot be fulfilled outside of an Islamic government. Most of the early Islamic scholars lived under Islamic governments and the assumption was that zakat is collected by the office of the government and not given voluntarily. In modern times, scholars agree, that zakat must be given nevertheless, and scrupulously calculated by individuals and through the use of organizations such as this one:  https://nzf.org.uk/nisab/

Finally, I personally, would like to note that zakah is mentioned in the Qur’an nearly as often as the salah (prayer) and very often in conjunction with the salah. It is my contention that zakah is therefore to be given nearly as often as the offering of the prayer as part of the believers’ generosity of spirit. The calculated amount of the obligatory zakah was the early Muslims equivalent of state tax and fell under the bracket of zakah because the state took it upon itself to look after the needs of the poor. However, in a broad and general sense, zakah is also voluntary charity to look after the needs of the poor.


 Fasting during the month of Ramadan, which is the 9th month of the lunar calendar, is compulsory on every sane adult Muslim. The point of fasting is to teach Muslims self-control so that they can more easily uphold the commandments of Allah through being able to reign themselves in when tempted towards forbidden things. If a person is able to stay away from things that are ordinarily permissible for one month of the year, reigning in one’s necessary appetites, then one can for the rest of the year stay away from forbidden things more readily.

The method of fasting

  1. One may not eat, drink, or have sexual intercourse from after the Fajr (the first sign of light) until after the sun has set, or the first sign of darkness.
  2. One must stay away from all prohibited acts.
  3. People who are too sick to fast or are travelling may fast the days in at a later time, after the month of Ramadan. Some scholars believe that such a person must also pay a compensation for each day missed called fidya.
  4. People who are regularly too sick to fast do not have to fast the days in at a later time, but must feed one poor person with a meal or its equivalent for each day missed (fidya).
  5. Scholars disagree on whether the person who has missed the fasting days due to sickness or travel should only make up for it by fasting other days, or whether they should in addition pay the fidya. They agree that someone who cannot fast at all should pay the fidya only.


The pilgrimage to Mecca is obligatory on sane adult Muslims who are by the means to make the journey. Anyone who is unable to make the journey because of lack of means will not be held liable for having not made the journey.

The compulsory parts of Hajj

  1. The Muslim undertaking the Hajj must enter Ihram (a state of purity- including ritual purity- donning two white pieces of unstitched cloth, one around the waist and one over the shoulders) at or before the miqat (the location for putting on the ihram) either by entering the state of Ihram through intention at the miqat or only donning the Ihram at that time. The Muslim woman wears anything that covers her entire body excluding her hands, face and feet. The start of Ihram prohibits the muhrim (the person who is in the state of ihram) from: wearing any other clothing aside from the ihram, cutting nails and hair, wearing perfume, marrying, or having sexual intercourse or performing any sexual acts.
  2. It is compulsory to do tawaaf around the Kaaba seven times.
  3. It is compulsory to spend time on Arafah

The types of Hajj

  1. Tamattu

The pilgrim enters Makkah for the purpose of Umrah (with that intention) during the month of Thul Hijjah, performs Umrah and exists the state of Ihram. He then enters Ihram again on the 8th of Thul Hijjah before proceeding to do the Hajj.

2) Ifraad

The person enters Makkah for the purpose of Hajj only and does his Tawaf on arrival, either doing his Sa’y for Hajj immediately after Tawaaf or before proceeding to Mina or postponing the Sa’y to after Eid. He remains in Ihram until after stoning the Jamrah al Aqaba on Eid day.

3) Qiran

A pilgrim wears Ihram for both Umrah and Hajj or he wears Ihram first for Umrah, then makes intentions for Hajj before his Tawaf for Hajj. He must slaughter a sacrificial animal.

A brief description of the Hajj only

The Hajj starts on the eight day of Thul Hijjah where the pilgrim will don his Ihram to go to Mina before the prayer of Thuir. He will spend the entire day and night there praying Fajr there on the morning of the 9th day of Thul Hijjah. He will proceed to Arafah after the sun had risen and pray Thuir and Asr there spending the day in supplication until sunset. He will then go to Muzdalifa where he will pray Maghrib, Isha and Fajr. After Fajr the pilgrim goes to Mina to stone the Jamrah al Aqaba with seven pebbles. He then slaughters the sacrificial animals, eats some of it and gives some to the poor. He shaves or clips his hair and exits the stage of Ihram with the exception of not being able to engage in sexual relations. He then goes to Makkah to perform Tawaf al Ifada and Say’i. The pilgrim is now allowed to do everything that is lawful including marital relations. He returns to Mina to spend the nights of the 11th and 12th there and stones all three jamaraat after noon on both days. Before leaving Makkah he performs tawaaf al widaa (fairwell).

You can read a simple guide to the Hajj on the following link: https://english.alarabiya.net/features/2017/08/23/Hajj-pilgrimage-explained-Steps-rituals-and-significance

Scholars disagree on whether the Hajj is compulsory alone or if the Hajj also includes the Umrah and therefore both are compulsory. This concludes our brief description of the five pillars of Islam and its compulsory aspects.

The Pillars of Faith (Iman)

The pillars of faith are six:

  1. To believe in Allah
  2. His Angels
  3. His Books
  4. His Messengers
  5. And the Last Day
  6. And that the Decree of Good and Bad are from Allah

The doctrine around faith in Allah

In the matter of beliefs and its details the Sunnis are broadly divided into three major schools of thought: the Ash’ari, the Maturidi and the Athari. These doctrinal differences relate to the use of reason, greek logic, rational proofs and the literal following of narrations from the Qur’an and Sunnah. The belief in Allah in its very basic sense has already been described above as part of the first pilar of Islam. In general, Muslims believe that Allah not only created creation but also actively sustains it. In philosophical terms, Muslims don’t believe in the clock maker God, who created a system and then left it to function by itself. However, to preserve the separateness of God from His creation while also acknowledging that God is closer to man than his jugular vein, Muslim scholars very early on established rules that are in effect necessarily impossible for God. Namely, that God does not assume the form of created beings, for God is indeed formless, and cannot be imbibed with the characteristics of creation. These considerations meant to keep the barrier between the personage of God as being wholly separate from created beings, led to a divergence in thought because God also described Himself in the Qur’an through seemingly human characteristics which cannot be understood in any other way rationally. Hence, the school of Ibn Hanbal and the Athari tradition, later adopted by the Salafi schools declared that God is as He describes Himself literally, and that there must be no other explanation beyond the apparent. The typical claim from the Salafi movements is the God has Hands because He God refers to His Hands in the Qur’an. Mainstream Sunni beliefs, however, hold that all human attributes for God are allegorical. For example, that the Hand of God refers to His Power, and that His Face refers to His Presence.

Belief in Angels

Angels are said to be creatures made of light who are subservient to Allah without freewill, unlike human beings and jinn. They serve Allah and carry out His Orders associated with running the affairs of nature and creation. The Angels are of various kinds, with various number of wings and various sizes. No one knows how many Angels there are, except that there are very many of them doing various tasks like: recording the deeds of people, bringing down the rain, providing food, helping people in need, taking the souls of people at death etc.. Muslims believe that it is impermissible to call on Angels for help, but that Allah sends Angels to help people as He wills.

Belief in His Books

According to the Qur’anic narrative, Allah revealed several books to several Messenger Prophets, the last of which are the Pages of Abraham, the Torah of Moses, the Bible of Jesus and the Qur’an of Muhammad (s). Muslims do not know if these were the only books revealed. However, the Qur’an affirms that all books prior to the Qur’an were corrupted through interpretation, erasure and additions. The Qur’an being the final testament from Allah both rectifies the misconceptions of previous believers in the other books and guides the people for whom no warner has come. On the one hand, the Qur’an is inclusive by declaring the people of the Abrahamic faith traditions as the people of the Book, and on the other hand it is exclusive when declaring this more recent book as being the truth from God declaring all previous generations, except for a few devout believers, as essentially having gone astray. If only they had followed what Allah revealed to them, they would not have gone astray. Regardless, Muslims are to accept that the books mentioned are in fact originally from Allah. Whatever in it that is consistent with the Qur’an is to be accepted as plausibly true.

Belief in His Messengers

According to the Qur’an, Allah had sent several Prophets and Messengers, though twenty-five are mentioned. In more recent years, with the onset of the Qadiyani movement, there was some controversy around what exactly a Prophet and Messenger is. Most scholars believe that a Prophet is sometimes a Messenger also in that he received a book. Whereas sometimes a Prophet is not a messenger also but only a Prophet. Regardless, every messenger is also a Prophet. Muslims are taught to believe in all the Prophets mentioned in the Qur’an which includes the five major Prophets: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (may peace be on them all) Scholars in modern times generally hold Prophets to be without sin and that anything they did that was seemingly wrong was not deliberate but rather by way of God demonstrating to people how to deal with an issue of that nature, through the example of a Prophet. In early Islam, the question of sinlessness or infallibility was not discussed.

Belief in the Last Day

The Abrahamic religions in general share the belief in the Last Day- the day of Judgement. In addition to the standard beliefs regarding this day, Muslims believe that everyone will be raised up from the graves bodily and stand before Allah to be judged for their deeds. Those who have an excess of good deeds will go to Paradise and those who have an excess of bad deeds will go to Hell. The Qur’an does not definitively tell us about whether people will go to Hell permanently or temporarily. Although, it appears to allude to the permanence of Hell. Most Sunni scholars hold that people who believe will burn in hell temporarily as an expiation for their sins whereupon they will be entered into Paradise. However, many scholars from the Mu’taziia tradition and consequently from the Shia tradition, believe that hell is eternal. 

There are also many traditions that speak of the intercession of the Prophet Muhammad (s) on the day of Judgement. Sunni scholars disagree on who the intercession will be for specifically or how it works. However, generally it is accepted that there will be intercession. Whether it will be intercession because of a position of honour granted to the Prophet (s), and thus his judgement will be the Judgement of Allah; in a sense nullifying the idea of intercession to begin with, or if it will be the Prophet advocating on behalf of someone who is destined to Hell are issues scholars continue to grapple with.

Belief in the Decree of Allah

The belief in the Decree of Allah as being predetermined or divine determinism or predestination is considered a fundamental belief in Islam. However, throughout the ages scholars have grappled with how belief in predestination plays off against the simultaneous belief in free will. After all, most of the other Islamic beliefs, such as being held accountable for one’s deeds, is contingent on free will. In other words, Allah cannot punish a person for something he didn’t himself decide to do out of his own free will. If everything was predetermined, then punishment and reward cannot exist. Various schools of thought have existed around this issue, some as far afield as believing there was no real accountability and others on the opposite extreme where determinism was completely denied. In more recent times scholars have added the statement to the last pillar of faith as follows:

And that the Decree of Good and Bad are from Allah…but Allah has ordered the good and forbidden the bad.

In brief, Islamic scholars didn’t believe in a superpower devil who is omnipresent and omnipotent, but instead believed in a host or party of devils who serve a purpose as part of Allah’s plan. When they perpetrate evil or inspire and encourage evil, it is still within the Decree of Allah as nothing can be outside the Decree of Allah without also admitting a limit to Allah’s Power. However, what is Decreed as part of existence and what is specifically ordered for a portion of creation- namely the believers; are two entirely separate issues. In other words, Allah ordered the believers to worship non but Him and not to associate partners with Him, and to do good deeds while at the same time making it possible to associate partners with Allah and to do bad deeds. This play of possibilities, thus decreed, is what results in rewards and punishment without detracting from the power of Allah. In another sense, scholars understood that acting was only possible through the power of Allah and hence acting wrongly was not just a wrong, but it was an abuse of Allah’s power through which all must act.

On a psychological level, when bad things befall the believers, they put their trust in Allah knowing that everything is in Allah’s Hands, despite their own active role in events. Whereas if good things befall the believers they turn to Allah and offer thanks, thus not becoming arrogant. The belief in predestination is part of acknowledging that everything is in Allah’s Power, and it begets the very idea of prayer, thanksgiving and seeking for forgiveness.


It is imperative that Muslims, based on a basic understanding of the matters of faith, understand that there will invariably be differences in interpretation and practice. At times in history, these were differences created by design to distinguish one Muslim power from another, and to establish a loyal base of followers. However, despite all the many political strategies Islam remains very consistent across sectarian divides within Sunnism and even within other sects. Despite all the intrigues around Islam and power, Muslim scholars still chose to maneuver religion within set parameters of possibility and authenticity relevant to their own times. It is remarkable that throughout our turbulent history, we can still say that our religion has been kept intact for anyone who would want practice it. There isn’t a single other religion in the world where one could reasonably make that claim.

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