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How Friday Became Holy: Reading Goiteins Inquiry Into the Nature and Origin of the Friday Muslim


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In his article, The Origin and Nature of the Muslim Friday Worship, S. D. Goitein finishes by streamlining what he feels are his most important arguments. These main points take the form of an

eight-item list, which I will here expand to include his analysis in the article proper. Prior to his discussion of what he is calling his most important findings, however, he has several preliminary points which should be also be discussed here, the first of which he makes as an underlying corrective premise: Friday is not, for Muslims, a day of rest as Saturday is for Jews and Sunday is for Christians. Evidently, and probably correctly, Goitein views this as a common misconception of Jews and Christians when discussing Islamic life and practice. His observation is that having a weekly day of rest is taken for granted by the modern [western] man, as though it were an inherent necessity and, thus, only logical to have. Goitein argues that the modern western man does not realize that the concept of a day of rest was built on a merely religious rather than rational foundation and that even Jews were slow to be broken in to it through a daunting progress that took centuries. Likewise, Christians have only come to practice it because of modern social laws built around the originally religious command. Goitein does add, by way of footnote, that the western model of

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a day of rest has to some degree infiltrated some Muslim states either by necessity in accompanying the fast-paced demands of modern [western] economy or by sheer imitation of the west. But he shows that the day these nations have selected for this day of rest vary widely. Given the probable western assumption that a religiouslydefined specific day for worship entails resting on that day, it probably cannot be overstated in conversations between Judeo-Christian people and Muslims regarding faith and practice that Friday is not a day of rest for Muslims, but a day of worship, which does not include rest per se. Indeed, this point has often been made (cf. Cragg 99-100 and Esposito 90). This is an important preface for Goiteins piece because he desires to show that though Islam was influenced by the religions it had around it, it did not merely copy them. Adopting the day of rest model would have made little sense for Muslims, as taking a day off would have severely hindered Meccan traders traveling between the Mediterranean and Yemen and been superfluous for the nomadic Bedouin, who never worked regularly anyway. Thus, the idea of abstaining from commercial business on the day of worship never became a part of Islam. The origin of the practice of Friday worship is a nebulous and controversial one according to Goitein. The only passage in the Quran

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that refers to it, (Surah 62.9-11) supposes it to already be in existence: when you are called to prayer on the day of the assembly yet, according to Goitein, many assert that it was an invention of Muhammads biographers or that its conception can be found in the Hadith. But, Goitein says, the origins are not wholly unclear: We know, for example, that there was no Friday service in Mecca, where Muhammad began his prophetic career. We know that the newlyMuslim Medinan converts already celebrated a public worship service before Muhammad arrived in 622 to live, at which time he commanded it to be held on Friday. And we know that at least some of the time, a speech of some sort was made at this Medinan gathering, though we do not know any of the said speechs contents or how often they were actually given. For the first of Goiteins main points, he draws attention to the fact that the Arabic expression, yaum al-jum`ah` was used prior to Isalm and corresponds to the Hebrew expression, yom hak-kenisa, both of which designated the market-day. The idea here is that Islam did not choose Friday as its day of congregational prayer and worship wholly without influence. Friday as viewed by the Jews in the area played some role in the pre-Islamic Arabs life as is evidenced by their adoption of the Aramaic word for Friday, `arubah, which means Eve

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(of Saturday). The nature of this role constitutes Goiteins second main point: Friday was the day that Jews bought their provisions for the Sabbath days rest, when they were not permitted to buy things, and it was on this day of buying provisions that Muhammad instructed the Medinan representative to hold the Islamic public service. There is some conjecture as to why he selected this day. Some posit that this is an example of Muhammads great reliance on the Jewish model of worship. Others argue that Muhammad had initially considered holding his assembly on Saturday, the actual Jewish Sabbath, in hopes of pleasing the Jews, and that holding it on the day they bought their provisions was yet another way of attempting to win them over. Still others assert the direct antithesis of this last suggestion, that Muhammad selected Friday as a defiance of the existing religions of Judaism, with their Sabbath on Saturday, and Christianity, with their worship on the Lords Day, Sunday. Goitein insists, as his fourth main point, that none of these opinions is faithful to the text when read at face value, which says neither that Muhammad was dependent on the older religions nor that he was hostile to them, but merely that he wanted to hold his public services on the day when the Jews were gathering their provisions, the Friday market-day. This, says Goitein, is the only connection between Islam

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and the pre-existing religions found in the ancient accounts and it was probably due to the fact that Muslims also gathering on this day to buy things at the market anyway made it a good day to call them together for corporate prayer and instruction. Goitein shows that there are several parallels to this scenario of Jews buying their goods on the day before the Sabbath and Muslims worshipping on the market-day. First, there is a modern-day parallel in the current existence of at least six Muslim markets in Arabia on Thursday, the day before the day of Muslim community worship. It does seem natural, as Goitein points out, to want to stock up on provisions the day before a holiday since, as in many cultures, it is common to have get-togethers on that day. The market is probably also helpful in gathering guests, Goitein says. Indeed, the current

Saudi Arabian custom of having the equivalent of a western weekend on Thursday and Friday supports this hypothesis (Glasse 149). A second parallel, the identification of which is Goiteins fifth main point, is in relationship to having worship on the day that the market is open. In ancient times, according to Goitein, there were Jewish markets, which were held on days other than Friday, and on these market-days, the Jews would gather for public prayer and Scripture readings. In the big cities, markets were held on Mondays

and Thursdays so in addition to coming to these cities in order to take

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part in the normal buying and selling that occurred in the markets, people would also come to conduct affairs that could only be handled in these central locations, such as visiting government offices. This led to the long-sustained practice of Jewish courts meeting on Mondays and Thursdays. Goitein points out that it then became opportune for the Jewish court officials to hold public services, gathering the people who were coming to the city from the far reaches and educating them in the Scriptures. The Torah was read and the people were encouraged to fast. These Monday and Thursday services (along with, in the East, the Jewish courts) continued centuries after the markets had ceased to be held on these days. Interestingly, in the oasis of Najran, where the Jews had been living from antiquity until they migrated to Israel in 1949, there were Monday and Thurday market-days on which judgments of the Jewish courts were given, though Goitein says this could easily be coincidence. Whatever the case with respect to the oasis of Najran, the point, for Goitein, is that what started as purely secular shopping days and began to be utilized by the Jews for communal prayer and teaching, became exclusively religious days of observance. A further point of interest is that Muslims also adopted these same days (Mondays and Thursdays) as times of optional fasting.

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At this point, Goitein asks a question he assumes must be on the mind of his readers: If, as we have concluded from Ibn Sa`ds account, Friday was chosen by Muhammad as the weekly day of worship, because it was the market-day of the oasis of Medina, one may ask, why does not the account say so expressly and, instead, speaks of the day on which the Jews buy their provisions for the Sabbath? (Goitein 187) The reason for this, Goitein says, involves a discussion of the pre-Islamic fairs and markets of Arabia. At this time, the different Arab tribes were constantly at war with each other, but every year there were fairs, which took place near holy places and during holy months. During these fairs, the various tribes abstained from bloodshed and instead engaged in peaceful interaction. For North Arabian nomadic peoples and merchants, attending these fairs would involve traveling great distances. Also, the kinds of goods that were dealt with were not the small types of consumer goods that could be carried over these long distances. Goitein argues that if Muhammad were to refer to the day on which his services would be held as the Medinan market-day, he would be conjuring up associations with these yearly fairs in the minds of the Medinan peoples. Accordingly, Muhammad chose the more cumbersome designation, the day when

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the Jews [buy] their provisions for their Sabbath (Goitein 187). Aside from the mere fact that pre-Islamic Arabs were holding market-days in conjunction with Jewish communities, it is clear, according to Goitein, that they had actually inherited something more substantial from their co-occupants: Prior to Islam, Goitein says, the Arabs had no passing of weeks apart from what was bequeathed to them by the Jews and Christians around them. The aforementioned adoption of the Aramaic word for Friday, `arubah, is offered in support of this. However, Goitein adds, it is likely that in Medina and other places the Arabic term, yaum al-Jum`ah`, the Day of the Assembly/Gathering was also used in reference to the Friday market. He cites the assertion of Ya`qubi that the Meccan ancestor Ka`b ibn Luayy was the first to use this term for Friday because he used to gather his followers to address them on the meaninglessness of human life. Also cited is the Taj al-`Arus, which asserts that pre-Islamic Medinans were the first to use this term to designate Friday as a day of public worship. These thoughts, though, Goitein says, are conclusions based on incomplete information and he only reproduces them to show that the conclusion of these ancient Islamic scholars that the phrase, yaum al-Jum`ah` was in use prior to Islam is a reasonable one. Goitein argues that so long as the theory is adapted so that it is

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not saying the term was used in the context of communal worship prior to Islam, but merely that it was a designation for the marketday, there is good support for arguing for its pre-Islamic usage. This is chiefly because its Hebrew equivalent, Yom hak-kenisa, also meaning, The Day of Assembly, was the term that was previously used for the Jewish Monday and Thursday markets as well as the Jewish Friday market, the only one to remain after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in A. D. 135. In fact, it is, in the words of Goidein, highly probable that the Jews of Medina themselves used the Arabic, and not the Hebrew (or Aramaic), form of the term (Goidein 189). Goidein demonstrates that the theory of the pre-Islamic use of yaum al-Jum`ah` as designating the Friday market-day is consistent with the Quran: O true believers, when you are called to prayer on the day of the assembly, hasten to the commemoration of God and cease trading. This is better for you, if you have understanding. Only when prayer is ended, scatter in the country and ask for the bounty of God: commemorate God frequently, so that you may prosper. However, when they see any business or amusement, they flock there and leave you [Muhammad] standing. Say: that which is with God is better than amusement and business; and God is

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the best supplier. (Surah 62.9-11) Goitein argues that if Jum`ah, assembly, as used in this phrase, originated to refer to a worship service gathering, the Quran would have phrased this injunction in verse 9 differently: Rather than when you are called to prayer on the day of the assembly, it would have been, when you are called to the prayer of the Assembly, he says. As it stands, however, Goitein argues, the yaum al-Jum`ah` in this verse is simply a designation for that day of the week on which the people gather, i.e. Friday. In fact, Goitein points out, the Ibn Ubayy text says, yaum al-`arubah alkubra, i.e. the day of the great `Arubah, `arubah being the pre-Islamic Arab-adopted Aramaic term for Friday. This is his third main point (summarized out of order). What is more, Goitein says as his seventh main point (also summarized out of order), that the audience addressed by the Surah, the Medinans, were not merchants, but farmers so if Muhammads meaning here were merely, leave your work and come to pray, he would have talked to them about going to the mosque from their fields rather than from business. Also, the reference to amusement implies

the market-day, as fairs and markets the world-over included popular diversion by professional entertainers. This is true of markets prior to the inception of Islam, in early Islamic Median, and in Yemen today. As his sixth main point, Goitein says further evidence of the

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connection between Muslim Friday worship and the Medinan marketday is the curious fact that it is held at noon. An enigma to both ancient and modern inquirers, this hottest hour of the day seems an impractical time to hold a communal service in the already sun-baked climate of the Arab world. However, when viewed in light of the Friday market-day, the time becomes extremely practical: The market in Arabia breaks up soon after noon, so that everybody attending it is able to reach his home before nightfall. To hold the public worship early in the morning was out of the question, for at that time everybody was eager to do business. (Goitein 190) Business would continue and be in full-effect through the late morning. Thus, the time to call the people to prayer is logically after the bulk of the buying and selling has been completed yet shortly before they all leave to go home, i.e. noon. Accordingly, the Friday Muslim service was held at noon and has continued to be held at this time until today. There are, according to Goitein, some other parallels between the Muslim Friday service and the Medinan Friday market-day that could show further influence of the market on the service. For example, there is the custom of Muslim Friday preacher delivering his orations from a Minbar, a chair, as opposed to a lectern, while holding

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a rod, sword, or lance. This, Goitein says, appealing to the arguments of C. H. Becker, was the custom of the judges in the courts that were in session on market-days in both Israel and Arabia. Goitein is careful to point out, however, that it should not be inferred, then, that Muhammad regularly acted as a judge during the Friday Muslim service or that the preachers session at the Friday service was in any way connected with the office of the magistrate. Goitein says that the custom has evolved to a compromise arrangement of a mixture of standing and sitting during the service, with the actual address being delivered while standing. The original

practice, he says, however, was most probably for the preacher to be seated the entire time, as was the custom in the ancient Jewish and Christian gatherings. The last issue that Goitein discusses in the article concerns the location that would be prescribed for the Friday services and which people would be obligated to attend them. The decision eventually reached was that the service would be held wherever forty free, adult, male Muslims had their permanent residence. However, due to the fact that attendance was viewed as a religio-political statement of adherence to Islam, it was also stressed that it should only be held in the regions capital, where a government representative was nearby, rather than in a village, and that there should only be one mosque per

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town, irrespective of the size, rather than several. Goiteins eighth and final main point is that this shows that, from the beginning, the Friday service was more than merely religious, which is why all men, but no women, since they had no political influence, were required to attend.

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Works Cited

Cragg, Kenneth. The Call of the Minaret. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000. Esposito, John L. Islam. Rev. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford U, 2005. Glasse, Cyril. The New Encyclopedia of Islam. Rev. ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira, 2001. Goitein, S. D. The Origin and Natureof the Muslim Friday Worship. The Muslim World. Vol. 49, no. 3, July 1959: 183-195.

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