HARRISBURG, Pa. (RNS) – When Harris Zafar’s oldest child starts middle school in the fall, Zafar plans to sit down with the school administration for a talk.
“Here’s the deal,” Zafar said he'll explain. “We’re Muslim and my son is going to have to leave early on Fridays. We’re going to need to have a conversation about how to make sure he doesn’t fall behind in class.”
Zafar, who works in software development in Portland, Ore., has long negotiated with his own employers for hours off on Fridays – longer lunch breaks, half-day schedules on that workday and extra hours other days – so he could attend Islam’s weekly prayer service. Known as Jummah, or the day of gathering, it is somewhat comparable to the Christian or Jewish Sabbath.
This spring, when his mosque began a serious push to promote the importance of attending Jummah, Zafar approached his children’s teachers about the need to take time off from school, too. Now that campaign, led by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, is going national.
“Some weeks Friday passes and we don’t even realize it was the day of Jummah,” said Imam Azhar Haneef, the group’s lead missionary, who announced the national initiative during his Friday sermon at the group’s 71st annual convention, Jalsa Salana USA. The event was attended by more than 9,000 Muslims, part of the Ahmadiyya sect, in Harrisburg on July 12.
The group's national campaign, Haneef said, is intended to push members to understand that attending Jummah regularly is an “ark” that protects Muslims. In particular, the initiative will urge all students to at least attend Jummah on the first Friday of each month.
“Even though Jummah is mandatory every Friday, we have to walk before you run,” said Faheem Younus, who heads the campaign. “There is such an inertia right now that we have to first break. Then students will see the spiritual benefits, and that by taking one half day a week is not really hurting their progress, and this will grow.”
Considered obligatory for adult Muslim men who are not sick or traveling, Jummah prayer is a form of congregational worship held in the early afternoon every Friday. It replaces the daily noon prayer, zuhr, and is preceded by a sermon delivered by an imam. Friday is not considered a day of rest like the Christian or Jewish Sabbath, though; worshippers are encouraged in the Quran to return to their usual business after the prayers are complete “so they are not a burden on the economy,” Younus said.
A verse of the Quran — near the end of a chapter titled “Al Jummah” — instructs believers to “hasten to the remembrance of Allah and leave off all business” when the call to prayer is made on Fridays. One saying of the Prophet Muhammad compares the day of Friday to the two festivals of Eid that Muslims celebrate every year.
But just as many Jews and Christians have begun to violate the Sabbath, Haneef said, Muslims have also forgotten the importance of Jummah in Islam.
Haneef and Younus attribute the falloff in part to the difficulty of asking for religious accommodations from one’s place of work. In many Muslim countries, Friday is part of the weekend, in recognition of Muslims who want to attend Jummah and spend the day with their families. But in the U.S., many Muslims struggle to negotiate for time off from school or work.
In religious discrimination complaints filed against companies, including Amazon, Hertz and Wisconsin manufacturing plant Ariens Co., Muslims around the country have reported being prevented from taking prayer breaks throughout their workday.
“A lot of people have just never asked,” Younus said. “They feel intimidated or embarrassed or ashamed. It's shocking to me how we have simply caved into something which we should not be embarrassed about.”
Next month, to combat that intimidation, the organization will publish a letter outlining the reasons for requesting time off so any Muslim students or employees can show it to their teachers and employers.
Zafar said he has hope that the campaign, working through individual Muslims and their employers, will create more space for Jummah in the culture — and among Muslims themselves.
“I’ve been very lucky and haven’t had much of an issue when I brought this up with my bosses, at least working in the corporate environment,” Zafar said.
“And for my kids, when we sit them down and explain why we’re doing this, I believe they start to understand that Friday prayer is a very important Islamic institution and that no matter what we’re doing in life, this has to come first.”