Why Do Ismailis Have 7 Pillars Instead of 5? Do the Pillars Comprise the Entirety of Faith?
Certain Muslim groups in present times have publicly monopolized and “normalized” an image of Islam where Islam equals the so-called “Five Pillars”: the Shahadah, ritual prayer (salah, namaz), pilgrimage (hajj) to Makkah, alms-giving (zakah), and fasting (sawm) from dawn to dusk in Ramadan. However, the idea of Islam = Five Pillars is a historical construct and does not go back to the origins of Islam as a faith. The Qur’an never defines Islam as “five pillars” and hadiths where the Prophet Muhammad defines Islam as “Five Pillars” only started circulating some 200 years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. When one sees how Islam has been practiced through 1,400 years of history and continues to be practiced today, the equation of Islam with “five pillars” simply does not hold up to historical reality. In fact, the Shahadah is the only “pillar” that binds together all those who identify as Muslims as the scholar Ahmed Karamustafa writes:
The only part of this formula [of the Five Pillars of Islam] that stands up to close scrutiny is the shahada: it would be fair to say that anyone who does not subscribe to it (of course, after interpreting it in his or her own fashion) cannot be considered a Muslim. But the same cannot be said for the other four pillars [prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, alms] since the ways in which these four performative acts factor into the definition of Islam have always been hotly contested, theologically, legally and culturally. Let me cut to the chase and announce the main point directly and clearly: the four ritualistic pillars do NOT form a good and accurate account of being Muslim, historically, sociologically or theologically. To put it in reverse, there have been and continue to be millions of people who wholeheartedly adhere to the shahada but who do NOT perform these four particular ritualistic acts in the manner prescribed in legalistic manuals. Not only that: a good percentage of such Muslims would NOT agree that these four rituals are necessary to be considered. In other words, these “believers” are not just slackers who know perfectly well that they should perform these rituals but fail to do so for a number of reasons.
– Ahmed Karamustafa, (“Islam: A Civilizational Project in Progress”, in Omid Safi, Progressive Muslims, Oxford: Oneworld, 2003, 98-110: 108-109)
The Ismaili position on the Pillars of Islam is based on the truth that the Imam of the time, in succession to Prophet Muhammad, has the SOLE authority and discretion to determine how Islam should be practiced by the Community in every time and place. This is based on the fact that the Prophet Muhammad taught and prescribed all Islamic ritual practices during his own lifetime. The Qur’an states that complete obedience is due to the Prophet:
He who obeys the Messenger, obeys God.
– Holy Qur’ān 4:80
So whatever the Messenger gives you, take it. And whatever he forbids you, abstain from it
. – Holy Qur’ān 59:7
The above verse indicates that it is indeed the Prophet Muḥammad who determines what is allowed and what is forbidden. Whatever the Prophet gives to the Believers – guidance, prescribed rituals, rules of behavior – must be followed. It is also a fact that Prophet Muhammad continuously commanded, modified, reinterpreted, and reformed the early Community's religious practices throughout his 23 year mission: the fasting practices were changed three times; the qiblah direction for prayer was changed two times; the number of prayer times was originally two prayers in Mecca and then changed to three prayers in Madinah to match the Jewish prayer times; the pilgrimage (hajj) rituals and procedures were adapted from pre-Islamic practices of pilgrimage. Both the Qur'anic guidance and the Prophetic guidance responded to the changing circumstances and situations of the early Community and their relationship to other communites like the Jewish tribes of Madinah. For example, the change of the qiblah direction from Jerusalem to Makkah in the later Madinah years was in direct response to the early Community asserting its independent identity from the Jewish tribes of Madinah and as a test to see which of the Believers were truly loyal to Prophet Muhammad (read about this here).
The Prophet has more authority (awla) over the believers than their own souls.
– Holy Qur’ān 33:6
Since Prophet Muhammad held authority ( awla) over the Believers (Qur'an 33:6), he was owed complete obedience. Having designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as the Mawla (Master) over the Believers after him, it is Imam Ali and thereafter every succeeding Imam in each age who would command and mandate religious ritual praxis, guide, pray for, teach, explain, accept offerings from, and forgive the Believers. The Qur'an also states clearly that one of the duties of the Imams living in the eras before Prophet Muhammad was to establish the prayer-forms and other religious practices:
And We made them Imams guiding by Our command. And We inspired to them the doing of good deeds, to establish the prayer, and giving of zakah; and they were worshippers of Us
– Qur’an 21:73
"By the institution of the Ulu'l-Amr - who can be interpreted as Imam and Caliph - and by placing obedience to the ulu'l-Amr immediately after that to God and Prophet, he ensured that the Faith would ever remain living, extending, developiing with science, knowledge, art, and industry."
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Foreword to Muhammad: A Mercy To all the Nations by Al-Hajji Qassim Jairazbhoy, Read Here)
The fourth Ismaili Imam from the authorized line of succeeding hereditary Imams who had the authority ( walalyah) to interpret the faith of Islam, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, explained in his own time period that there are not give but seven Pillars of Islam:
“Islam is based upon seven pillars: walayah – and this is the most excellent; through it and through the walī (the Imām), the true knowledge of the pillars can be obtained: ṭaharah (purification), ṣalah (prayer), zakah (purifying dues), ṣawm (fasting), hajj (pilgrimage), and jihād (striving).”
– Imām Muḥammad al-Bāqir, (Qādi al-Nu‘man, Da‘ā’im al-Islām, Prologue, 2)
The Pillars belong to a grander and more comprehensive religious framework which includes both theological truths and ritual practices. This framework traditionally consists of the Roots of Religion (Uṣūl al-Dīn) and the Branches of Religion (Furū‘ al-Dīn) and is articulated using the Qur’ānic metaphor of a tree:
“Have you not seen how God sets forth the example of a Good Word like a Good Tree? Its Root firmly set and its Branch in heaven. Giving its fruit in all seasons by the permission of its Lord. And God sets forth examples for mankind so that they may remember.”
– Holy Qur’ān 14:24
The Furū‘ al-Dīn are what people today call the “Pillars of Islam”. But the Pillars do not suffice in themselves – they must be accompanied by the knowledge of the Uṣūl or theological truths to bring spiritual benefit. The Uṣūl al-Dīn consist of the fundamental theological truths of Islam. The word uṣūl (singl. aṣl) means “roots”. The Uṣūl al-Dīn are to religion what the roots are to a tree. The roots originate and sustain the entire tree but they are hidden from plain view. Similarly, most people in a particular religious tradition do not fully comprehend its theological truths. In Shi‘ī Islam, the Uṣūl al-Dīn are Tawḥīd (the oneness of God), ‘Adl (Justice), Nubuwwah (Prophethood), Imāmah (Imamate), and Qiyāmah (Resurrection). The book Ismaili Tariqah by Al-Wā‘iẓ Abualy Aziz confirms this schema as based on an earlier book by Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh called Uṣul wa Furū‘-i Dīn (Bombay, 1894). The Uṣūl are fundamental truths which are changeless although their articulation evolves from generation to generation. The Furū‘, on the other hand, like branches of a tree, are subject to changes in form and method in order to adapt to the historical and social circumstances. Thus, the Furū‘ evolve in their appearance and may even be abrogated if and when the conditions require it.
In this sense, the Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh has clearly stated the Imam of the time can adjust and modify the ritual practices of Islam based on the changing times and:
“Not only non-Muslims but some Muslims, appalled by the extent and variety of the non-essentials (Furū‘āt) have followed the example of the man who in emptying the waste from the tub threw out the baby with it out of the window. They have almost thrown out the Uṣūlāt (essentials). If Islam is ever to fulfill its mission it must have universality not only in space, namely, throughout the earth, but in time, namely, as long as mankind exists on this globe… If, rightly, the Muslims have kept till now to the forms of prayer and fasting at the time of the Prophet, it should not be forgotten that it is not the forms of prayer and fasting that have been commanded, but the facts, and we are entitled to adjust the forms to the facts of life as circumstances changed. It is the same Prophet who advises his followers ever to remain Ibnu’l-Waqt (i.e. children of the time and period in which they were on earth), and it must be the natural ambition of every Muslim to practice and represent his Faith according to the standard of the Waqt or space-time.”
– Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III, (Foreword to Muhammad: A Mercy To all the Nations by Al-Hajji Qassim Jairazbhoy, Click Here to Read)