Muslims are united across boundaries of geography and culture through their observance of five practices known as the Five Pillars, or the Pillars of Islam. These include pledging one's faith (witnessing, the shahadah), ritual prayer (salat), charity to the poor (zakat), fasting during the month of Ramadan (sawm), and pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (hajj). The Five Pillars are mentioned in the Quran, and are required of all Muslims. Sunni and Shi'i Muslims agree that these are the essential duties of all Muslims. The Five Pillars are strong expressions of the Islamic ideals of equality and unity. The pillars of ritual prayer, the Ramadan fast, and the hajj are particularly powerful signs of Muslim egalitarian unity, since all Muslims in all places pray, fast, and go on pilgrimage at the same time.
The profession of faith (witnessing), or shahadah, very simply states that "There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is the messenger of God." A person becomes a Muslim by reciting this sentence with sincere belief in the presence of witnesses. It is also recited in daily prayer, and inscribed outside the doors and inside the domes of mosques. It captures the essential Islamic belief in one absolute God, and affirms that Muhammad was God's messenger, the last and final prophet sent by God.
Ritual prayer, or salat, is a basic activity of daily life. Muslims are called to pray five times a day: before dawn, at midday, in the mid-afternoon, at sunset, and at night. The call to prayer is made by a muezzin, who calls out from the top of a tower, called a minaret. The muezzin's call is an art form, and begins by proclaiming "God is great" (Allahu akbar), and then continues "I bear witness that there is no god but God; I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God; hasten to prayer; hasten to success; establishing the communal ritual of prayer." In many places in the contemporary Islamic world, recordings of a muezzin's call are played over loudspeakers, replacing a live person.
Before praying, one is expected to perform a ritual ablution, cleansing both mind and body. If water is available, the hands, arms, face, neck, and feet are washed. Prayers are performed facing in the direction of Mecca. While praying together is preferred to solitary prayer, Muslims can pray wherever they happen to be, whether alone or in groups. They can pray outdoors, at home, or in the mosque. It is obligatory for Muslim males to attend the mosque for the Friday noon prayer, a special time set aside for communal prayer.
Charity, or zakat, involves setting aside a portion of one's personal wealth for the poor. This purifies one's wealth. Islam discourages begging, and zakat allows poor people to find help without feeling disgraced. The practice also prompts us to confront our all-too-human tendencies toward greed, selfishness, and materialism. All Muslims who are able are expected to donate roughly 2.5 percent of their net gain annually. This includes total income, but also the value of livestock, produce, jewelry, real estate, and investments such as stocks and bonds. Initially, the collection and distribution of zakat was done by the state, which is why it is commonly called a tax. With the introduction of secular political systems, and especially the advent of the colonial state, zakat became an individual practice. In some countries, such as Pakistan and Sudan, the state has resumed collecting and distributing zakat, while Muslims in other areas can contribute to organized charities that collect and distribute donations to mosques, schools, libraries, and hospitals. In addition to the practice of zakat, Muslims are expected to respond with charity and generosity when called to do so in daily life.