By Siraj Islam
Friday Prayer and the sanctification of Friday are unquranic and postquranic
As noted elsewhere, during the time of the Quranic revelation, people used to receive its messages via direct communication (salat) with the messenger at regular meetings. These salat sessions were usually held twice a day – at dawn and nightfall. In addition, in an emergency, a salat session could also be held exceptionally during business hours of the day, which is now widely ritualised as the so-called Jummah or Friday Prayer.
This special significance and specific ritual prayer attached to Friday, as a sacrosanct day, is the Muslim substitution of the holy days of the week in Judaism and Christianity.
Contrary to this mainstream Muslim sanctification of Friday, however, the Quran never inaugurated such a special weekly holy day of congregational prayer. It is simply because salat in the Quran is NOT ritual prayer. Since the prophetic salat sessions were for delivery of the message, which required thinking and understanding, they differed from today’s mindless ritual prayer.
The case for the Friday Prayer is unfounded
Below we will go through the verses that are usually presented for the case of the Friday Prayer:
O you who acknowledge, if/when/whenever is called for the salat/communication (cf. 5:58) on a day/moment/time of gathering (yawm al-jumu’ah), hasten towards the remembrance of God and cease all trade. This is better for you, if you only knew./ Then, once the salat/communication is complete, you disperse through the land and seek the provisions of God and remember God frequently that you may succeed./ And if/when/whenever they come across any trade or some entertainment, they rush to it and leave you standing! Say: “What God possesses is far better than entertainment or trade. And God is the best Provider.” 62:9-11
Clearly, the above narration is not about any ritual prayer or about any fixed weekly day like Friday. Rather it is mainly to emphasize the importance of remaining constantly ready for salat/communication, whenever there is a call for it, even during a time of trade or entertainment. Please read the following related verses that shed light on 62:9-11. Also compare the highlighted words above (if/when/whenever, call, salat, day/moment/time, trade, remembrance of God, entertainment, etc) with the highlighted words below:
O you who acknowledge, do not take as allies those who have taken your system as ridicule and fun from among those who have been given the book before you and the ingrates. Be aware of God if you are those who acknowledge./ And if/when/whenever you call (plural, cf. 62:9) to the salat/communication, they take it in ridicule and fun. That is because they are a people who do not understand. 5:57-58. Cf. People whom neither trade nor sale can divert from the remembrance of God, and from establishing the salat/communication and contributing towards betterment. They fear a day/moment/time when the minds and the sights will be overturned. 24:37
Traditionally ‘yawm al-jumu’ah’ is mistranslated as Friday1, the 6th day of the Arabic week. However, yawm in Arabic may imply any length of time – from a moment to an eon, and not necessarily a day – and jumu’ah didn’t mean Friday in the 7th century Hijaz1. Thus ‘yawm al-jumu’ah’ originally could be a description of any day or a period of time chosen by a group of people for market or for a public gathering with social, political or cultural purposes. If this was about a fixed prayer on an already known weekday and time, such as Friday noon, this special reminder for heeding such a sudden call for salat would make no sense2. Thus the reminder can apply to any day or time a community happens to choose for a public gathering – be it Saturday, Sunday, Monday or any other day or time.
Meaning of call for salat
Please note that there is a ‘call’ for this ‘non-regular’ salat – unlike the regular twice daily salat sessions that could go without call as were held in known hours of dawn and nightfall. There is no indication, however, that this call is necessarily meant to be understood as literal. Also, there is no indication that this call is for a ritual salat or for a congregational prayer or that the event needs to be led by a leader. Neither is there any suggestion that the calling here is necessarily external, by an authority or agent. It can simply be an internal calling by our inner voice which needs to be immediately followed, while abandoning all other activities.
When do we get an emergency call from God for salat? When someone somewhere is in danger; when a starving person seeks food; when a helpless orphan needs shelter; when there is an injustice that needs addressing; when there is a natural disaster like earthquake, storm or flood; when the neighbour’s house is on fire; when a child has suddenly fallen into water; when a poor relative needs help for an emergency surgery or a bag of blood; and so forth. In all these occasions, one should immediately leave all other activities and hasten towards addressing the call – irrespective of whether the call is external or internal, even during a time of trade or entertainment (‘yawm al-jumu’ah’). A divine call is not anything otherworldly or mystical or outside our life.
While ‘yawm al-jumu’ah’ in 62:9 may refer to daily business hours or a specific market day or a public event, which may or may not be weekly, the related verses simply emphasize the importance of remaining constantly ready for salat/communication, whenever there is a call for it, even during a time of trade or entertainment. This divine call can be external, by an authority or agent, or internal, by our inner voice – e.g., to help someone who is in a desperate situation and needs our urgent attention.
Besides, contrary to the concept of Friday as a holy day of complete rest – which was innovated to parallel the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday – the Quran never promotes Friday or another day as a holy day or a day of complete rest. In fact, ‘yawm al-jumu’ah’ manifestly refers to a busy day or time of trade and entertainment.
Thus one may question the legitimacy of the interpretation of these verses to suggest that Friday is a congregational prayer day fixed by God for Muslims as a holy day.
Clearly, since the Jews and the Christians had their holy days, the sectarians felt a need for “A Day” for themselves, the need that transformed Friday into a day hallowed and blessed.
Thus ‘Friday’ is yet another symbol of rivalry and identity politics within the sectarian scene (cf. 3:19).
JUMU’AH IS MISTRANSLATED AS FRIDAY. An interesting example of how languages evolve with evolving traditions is the observation that the word jumu’ah in 62:9 is now used by the native Arabic speakers to mean Friday, though there was no such name for Friday during the time of the Quranic revelation. The latter becomes evident by looking into the contrast with the names of the other days of the Arabic week: Sunday yaum al-ahad/ day ONE. Monday yaum al-ithnayn/ day TWO. Tuesday yaum ath-thalatha/ day THREE. Wednesday yaum al-arbia’a/ day FOUR. Thursday yaum al-khamis/ day FIVE. Friday yaum al-jumu`a/ day of GATHERING. Saturday yaum as-sabt/ day SEVEN. Strangely all the days of the week are named by numbers except Friday. Can it be a mere coincidence? Please observe how al-jumu`a – which has evidently replaced as-saadis, i.e., day six – occurs as an afterthought and an intruder that breaks the pattern. Here Sunday is the first day of the week, probably because people are coming out of Sabbath to start a new week.
A FEW POINTS TO PONDER in relation to the verses quoted above: ● People are distracted from salat because of trade and entertainment that are expected to be happening in a time of public gathering (yawm al-jumu’ah, 62:9-11, 24:37). ● New revelations were occasionally delivered by the messenger to a wider audience – exceptionally in a time like business hours (62:9-11) – with good response from his dedicated followers (24:37), though with limited success among the Jews and disbelievers (5:57-58). ● Thus, unlike the regular twice daily prophetic communications, the salat on discussion here is an exceptional communication, which is called as per the need of a given situation, with no other qualification attached to it other than to stop trade momentarily. ● Yawm al-jumu’ah doesn’t mean salat al-jumu’ah. ● There is no evidence whatsoever that the phrase “they rush to it and leave you standing” in 62:11 is about the so-called Friday Sermon. We need to read the verse by itself without any added colouring and additives from cultural books. The absence of not even a single surviving Friday Sermon puts that notion to rest. ● Rather the phrase “they rush to it and leave you standing” exposes what the people were actually doing: it doesn’t look like they were praying. ● It is important to understand that the number of days in a week is arbitrary: if there was a culture which was detached from others and which, for example, counted 5 days in a week and 6 weeks in a month, it would have a 5th day, but no “Friday”.