The foundation of Islamic religious practices is the Five Pillars. These basic duties -- belief, worship, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage -- guide Muslims in their daily life and their worship of God. Through the materials presented in this lesson, students will explore and understand the basic beliefs of Islam and the Five Pillars. They will view segments from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and information from Internet sources to look closely at each pillar. Then, as a culminating activity in groups, students will create posters about the Five Pillars for classroom display.
- Describe the basic beliefs of Islam;
- Explain the meaning of each of the Five Pillars of Islam;
- Compare and contrast the Five Pillars of Islam with the duties of other religions with which they are familiar.
Three to four 45-minute class sessions
Use these resources to create a simple assessment or video-based assignment with the Lesson Builder tool on PBS LearningMedia.
Handouts for each student:
- Major Beliefs of Islam
This page from the PBS FRONTLINE Teacher Center gives a clear description of the basic beliefs of Muslims and the Five Pillars of Islam.
- Islam's Customs (The Five Pillars)
This BBC website clearly defines each of the Five Pillars, and offers a detailed description of each.
Before The Lesson
Prerequisite: Before beginning this lesson, be sure to do the Introductory Activity from the Religion and the First Amendment lesson with your class.
Part I: Introductory Activity
The Basic Beliefs and Practices of Islam
Explain to your students that they will be learning about some of the basic beliefs and practices of Islam, the religion followed by Muslims. Ask students to begin by brainstorming a list of things that they know about Islam. Have students record their thoughts about Islam privately, without discussing the responses as a class. Ask students to hold on to their responses (or you may collect them). Explain to them that throughout the course of the next activity they will learn more about the basic beliefs and practices of Islam, and that after they complete the activity they will have time to review and revise their responses.
Explain to students that in this lesson they are going to learn about the basic beliefs of Islam and focus on learning about the core duties of Muslims, the Five Pillars. Divide the class into pairs and direct students to the Muslims Teachers Guide FRONTLINE PBS website. Provide them with a focus for media interaction, instructing them to read the sections: "Beliefs of Muslims" and "Major Practices/Duties of Muslims" and record, on their Student Response Sheet 1: The Five Pillars of Islam, the six major beliefs and the name of each of the Five Pillars and a description of that pillar. After students have recorded this information, review the major beliefs and the Five Pillars as a whole class, addressing any questions, such as vocabulary and definitions, during the discussion. Record a list of the Five Pillars on the board during the class discussion so students have a clear visual reference to all of the pillars throughout the rest of the lesson.
Part II: Learning Activity #1
Explain to students that you will be looking at each pillar in detail beginning with the first pillar, which is Shahadah or belief. To begin, go to the BBC website www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/customs/shahadah/index.shtml. Have students read about what it means to proclaim faith or belief as a Muslim. Have students, individually, silently read the Shahadah. Ask the students to think about what the Shahadah means. Why do they think that this statement is a significant part of being a Muslim? Record their thoughts on their Student Response Sheet 2: The Five Pillars of Islam handout, and discuss these questions as a class.
- How is this statement of belief similar to other religions? How is it different? Some examples are the Shema Israel and the Thirteen Articles of Faith in Judaism or the Nicene Creed in Christianity.
Part III: Learning Activity #2
Next, students will look more closely at the second pillar, which is Salat or prayer. Have students watch the Muslim Prayer video as well as read the information from the BBC at www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/customs/salat/index.shtml and www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/worship/index.shtml and watch the two streaming video segments about prayer preparation and the set of movements for prayer. Provide them with a focus for media interaction, instructing students to view the segments and record answers to the following questions on their Student Response Sheet 2: The Five Pillars of Islam.
Describe the process that Muslims go through to prepare to pray.
Describe the process of praying in Islam. How many times each day, and when, do Muslims pray?
What do the prayers sound like?
What do the movements look like?
In which direction do Muslims pray?
Why do they face this way?
What are some of the things Muslims say during prayer?
Why do Muslims pray?
How is prayer in Islam similar to prayer in other religions?
How is it different?
Why is prayer important in Islam
Part IV: Learning Activity #3
Next, students will examine the third pillar, which is Zakaat or almsgiving. Have students watch the Zakaat video and read the information about Zakaat at www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/customs/zakat/index.shtml. Provide them with a focus for media interaction, instructing students to view the video segment and record answers to the following questions on their Student Response Sheet 2: The Five Pillars of Islam:
What is Zakaat?
What is emphasized in Zakaat?
Why do Muslims make donations?
How much money is a person expected to give to charitable causes?
What is the relationship between prayer and money?
How is zakaat different from ordinary charity that Muslims might give?
After students have viewed the segment and the website, discuss what they have learned about Zakaat. What other religions ask believers to donate money? How is this similar to other religions? How is this different.
Part V: Learning Activity #4
Next, students will examine the fourth pillar, which is fasting or Sawm. Have students watch the Ramadan is Here video and read the information at www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/customs/sawm/index.shtml. Provide them with a focus for media interaction, instructing students to view the video segment and record answers to the following questions on their Student Response Sheet 2: The Five Pillars of Islam:
- Why is Ramadan described as "expecting a month long guest?"
Explain the guidelines for fasting during Ramadan. When is eating allowed? At what age does a Muslim begin fasting? Does fasting only occur during Ramadan? Are there other rules?
Describe some of the challenges one might encounter when fasting during Ramadan. Describe some of the benefits.
After students have viewed the segment and read the information on the website, discuss what they have learned about Sawm. How does fasting from eating and other activities affect people's spiritual state of mind? What other religions include fasting? How is Sawm similar to fasting in other religions? How is it different?
Part VI: Learning Activity #5
Finally, students will examine the fifth pillar, which is pilgrimage or Hajj. Have students view The Hajj: Islamic Sacred Pilgimage video from WGBH. Provide them with a focus for media interaction, instructing students to view the segment and record answers to the following questions on their Student Response Sheet 2: The Five Pillars of Islam:
What is the goal or focus of the Hajj?
What is the purpose of the special garments that the pilgrims wear?
How do these American Muslims react to the Hajj? In what ways is it a meaningful experience for them? What unanticipated responses did they have during their journey to Arabia?
2. After students have viewed the segments and recorded information, discuss this questions with the class. What do they think it is like to be a pilgrim in Mecca? Why do they think Hajj is one of the Five Pillars? What other religions incorporate the idea of pilgrimage?
Part VII: Culminating Activity
- After students have looked more closely at each of the Five Pillars, divide them into pairs. Instruct each pair to create a poster about the Five Pillars to be displayed in the classroom and around the school to help educate their schoolmates about Islam. Drawing on the information they gathered and recorded on their Student Response Sheet as a resource, each poster must include: a listing of the Five Pillars, a description of each of the practices and how people fulfill these obligations, and illustrations or images that relate to each of the pillars. (For the illustrations and images, it may be helpful for students to view the segments and Web sites again, looking specifically for prevalent visual images and symbols, if they do not remember what they have seen previously. They can also look at the sites below for imagery.) Have students share their completed posters with the class, discussing the information and images used on the posters. To visually enhance their poster, students can use PBS LearningMedia to search for images of Islamic Art. Alternatively, students may wish to create a PowerPoint presentation, infographic, or video.
- Ask students to take out the list they brainstormed in the introductory activity. Ask them to review and revise the list based on what they've learned in this lesson. How have their conceptions of Islam changed?
World Cultures/ Comparative Religion
Have students research other religions, such as Judaism and Hinduism, and learn about their basic practices and duties. Students will then create a project that illustrates the similarities and differences among these religions, and Islam, in relation to practices and duties.
Sociology/ Culture/ Religion
Leading a religious life and fulfilling religious duties can sometimes seem to conflict with modern life and society. Contact local mosques or community centers and have students speak with Muslims in their community about how they fulfill their duties as outlined in the Five Pillars and how these practices fit into their busy lives with work, school, and family. If students cannot speak with Muslims in their community, use resources such as Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the BBC, and NPR, which have features on Muslims and their daily lives and practices.
If possible, have your students meet with Muslims in your community to learn about their religious practices and views. Interview Muslims who have participated in Hajj, and talk to Muslims during the month of Ramadan to learn about fasting and almsgiving. Contact religious leaders or scholars to learn more about prayer and belief. Be sure to clarify the difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion in the classroom for any presenters.
A teacher at Riverheads High in Staunton, Va., had students practice calligraphy by copying the Muslim statement of faith. The assignment caused so much controversy that school officials decided to shut down all public schools in Augusta County on Friday. (Reuters)
A Virginia county closed all of its schools Friday because of intense backlash over a class assignment about Islam, with some parents alleging that their children were being subjected to Muslim indoctrination and educators emphasizing the importance of exposing U.S. students to the world’s fastest-growing religion.
A high school geography teacher in rural Augusta County asked students to try their hand at writing the shahada, an Islamic declaration of faith, in Arabic calligraphy. The task, community reaction to it, and a sudden influx of outrage from around the country — including angry emails, phone calls and threats to put the teacher’s head on a stake — led the school district to close rather than risk disruption or violence.
The county, in the Shenandoah valley west of Charlottesville, is the latest to wrestle with how Islam should be portrayed in the classroom and how students should learn about it. It’s a subject that has become increasingly fraught as concerns about Islamophobia have grown alongside fears of extremist violence and terrorism.
During the same week that Los Angeles and New York school systems debated whether to close due to emailed threats of attack, the Augusta County School District closed despite having no specific threat of harm to students. In a statement posted on the district’s website, officials said they were concerned about the “tone and content” of the messages they had received.
“We regret having to take this action, but we are doing so based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution,” the statement said.
Augusta County Sheriff Randy Fisher said the superintendent and the school board decided to close the 10,000-student school system after district officials and the Riverheads High School teacher who gave the assignment received emails that seemed to increase in volume and vitriol as the week wore on. Most emails and messages assailed the school and the teacher for “indoctrinating” students in Islam, and some referenced violence generally.
Fisher said he saw messages that called for firing the teacher and putting “her head on a stake.” Photos of beheaded bodies also were sent to the Riverheads principal. In a news release, the superintendent also said people indicated that they were planning protests at school buildings and that “some communications posed a risk of harm to school officials.”
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The controversy started when teacher Cheryl LaPorte gave students a work sheet that instructed them to try their hand at writing the shahada. Reached Friday, LaPorte declined to comment.
Kimberly Herndon, whose son is in the class, posted a photo of the work sheet to her Facebook page this week. Under the heading “practicing calligraphy,” the work sheet says: “Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”
The shahada translates to: “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Some translations start with: “There is no god but Allah.”
The students were never asked to translate the phrase, nor were they instructed to recite it or “adopt or pronounce it as a personal belief,” Schools Superintendent Eric Bond wrote in a news release. He noted that students are slated to do similar calligraphy exercises in units about China.
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The superintendent said that students tried on head scarves in another lesson that taught them about the modest dress many Muslims adopt. Students will continue learning about world religions as required by Virginia’s statewide academic standards, school officials said. But in the future, students will practice calligraphy using a different sample that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith.
Bond and members of the school board did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment Friday about the decision to close and the propriety of the assignment.
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Some parents, including Herndon, were outraged at what they saw as an attempt to proselytize for Islam in a public school, a concern that has been echoed by parents in districts across the country regarding lessons that center on Islam. In Tennessee, there has been an uproar over teaching middle schoolers about Islam and ancient Islamic civilizations, prompting state lawmakers to consider legislation limiting the teaching of world religions to high schoolers, according to the Tennessean. At a middle school in Georgia, some parents were upset that their children were learning the five pillars of Islam, which are the central tenets of the faith, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
In Fairfax County, Va., one of the nation’s largest school districts, Rachel Butterfield said she took her concerns to administrators after her son — then in the fifth grade at Ravensworth Elementary — brought home what she found to be inappropriate lessons on Islam last year. It instructed students to read the Muslim statement of faith aloud, among other things. She said an assistant superintendent agreed with her concerns and decided to pull the lesson from the curriculum.
Butterfield said she loves Ravensworth and the teachers there, and doesn’t believe anyone was trying to spread propaganda.
“There was nothing malicious,” she said. “It was just this particular lesson. … It literally sent chills up my spine. I thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ ”
Fairfax County schools officials did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the controversy in Augusta County is “symptomatic of the hysterical anti-Muslim bigotry that we’re seeing in America at this current time.
“Anything to do with Islam or Muslims somehow becomes controversial, and you get this knee-jerk reaction based on misinformation, stereotypes, bias, and it’s really reaching frightening proportions,” Hooper said, adding that the lesson in Augusta was appropriate. “The shahada, the declaration of faith, is the foundation of Islam. You can’t learn about Islam without learning about the shahada.”
Experts say that teaching about religion is critical in public schools because religion — including Islam — is essential to understanding everything from ancient history to current events. Religious literacy has taken on an especially important role now, as religion has become a regular aspect of political rhetoric in part because of fears of terrorism linked to jihad. That makes it even more important for schools to teach about it, experts say.
“To be an educated person, to be a citizen, to be part of the global conversation, to be engaged in our world, religious literacy is essential,” said Charles C. Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center. “More important than that is how are we going to live with one another in one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world without understanding one another?”
As Islamophobia has risen along with terrorism concerns — and just two weeks after the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., which has been linked to extremism — learning about the religion can only help students understand what Islam is really about and what its true role is in the world, experts say.
“I think it’s clear from history that fear and ignorance create intolerance and hate,” Haynes said.
Haynes led the effort to formulate federal guidelines on how to teach about religion in public schools in 2000. He said teachers have to strike a balance between teaching about religious practices without having students mimic them.
“As far as the calligraphy, I don’t think it was a good choice to have students write out the shahada,” Haynes said, referring to the Augusta County lesson. “That’s really not appropriate. That’s like having students learn about Christianity by learning the Lord’s Prayer.”
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.