A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Power of Friday: Jum‘a and the Withdrawal of Consent

By now I think anyone interested enough in the Middle East to be reading this blog is probably aware of the power of Fridays: both Ben Ali and Mubarak stepped down on Fridays, and each Friday marks new high water marks in the growing protests in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere. (And before the Libyan bloodbath was fully under way, the joke went around that Qadhafi had decided to abolish Fridays.)

At the basic level, the reason is obvious. One of the five pillars of Islam is salat, communal prayer. While Islam also recognizes the role of private prayer (du‘a), it is the communal prayer, five times a day, when Muslims pray at a common time and with a common ritual (with minor variations), that the umma, the community of believers, is most in evidence. The weekly noon prayer on Friday, the Jum‘a, literally the "assembly" or "coming together," is the most important outward symbol of the faith. It is simply not possible to order people to stay in their houses when they are required by religious law to pray together.

Other days of the week are mostly just given a number, but Friday is yom al-jum‘a, the day of communal prayer. Not every mosque (masjid) is a Friday Mosque (masjid jum‘a or simply and most commonly Jami‘): traditionally each town, or each major quarter of a city, would have one Friday Mosque, where the Imam would give a sermon. Therefore, while daily prayer might be performed in small neighborhood prayer halls or at home, Friday prayer would mean a large gathering of people in a public place. With an Imam giving a sermon. The most important would be the main mosque in the capital city. "Friday prayer leader in Tehran" is still a powerful post in Iran's clerical system.

So no autocrat can really dare tell people not to pray. And he had better hope that the sermon given by the imam is favorable.

It goes back, though, quite a ways. In classical Islamic times, under the Caliphs, the legal definition of what today we would call "sovereignty" or "legitimacy" was whoever enjoyed the khutba wa sikka. The khutba is the Friday sermon given at the main Friday mosque; part of it is devoted to asking God's blessing on the local ruler. Sikka means the coinage (wa just means "and").The rightful ruler was, then, the person (usually a man, but I'll tell you about Sultana Shagarat al-Durr one of these days), who is mentioned in the Friday sermon and whose name appears on the coinage.

You can probably see the next step. One of the surest signs of rebellion, coup, or a son displacing his father was when a new name was mentioned in the khutba, thus (ritually at least) transferring power to a new leader. If the ‘ulama' (the "clergy," though the term is really inappropriate in Sunni Islam) wanted to bring down a leader, they could replace his name in the khutba, though then as now that could incur serious consequences. But the Friday sermon could be, and sometimes was, the means of announcing a change of leadership — or of instigating one. The Friday prayer was the place many rebellions began, or at least were publicly proclaimed, when someone else's name was read in the khutba. To transfer the name marked a withdrawal of legitimacy, a religiously sanctioned (attempt at least at a) transfer of power.

A related concept is the bay‘a, the offering of allegiance to a ruler. Withdrawal of the bay‘a amounted to withdrawal of consent (of the governed, if you will) in recognizing the legitimacy of the ruler. Changing the name in the khutba was a sign of withdrawal of the bay‘a.

The concept of khutba wa sikka may not be familiar to a lot of people in the Arab street today, but the Friday prayer is still a rallying point where the government cannot (dare not) prohibit crowds from gathering, and where, if the man in the minbar or pulpit is not a government sycophant, people can be roused up before leaving the mosque. And this is nothing new: many of the revolutions in Islamic history began with a withdrawal of the khutba invocation.

Friday is yom al-jum‘a, the Day of Assembly, and Friday prayer is Jum‘a, the day the umma assembles together. When our First Amendment speaks of "Freedom of Assembly," I doubt if the framers had a clue about Friday prayer, but it is the one free assembly Muslim rulers dare not restrict. And when Teddy Roosevelt talked about a "bully pulpit," I doubt if he thought of the imam giving a khutba from the minbar, but the concepts are not unrelated. Nor is withdrawal of the bay‘a from a ruler that far from the concept of "whenever a government becomes destructive of these ends ..."

I certainly don't want to carry this too far: the Caliphate was not a democracy. But when the religious establishment rejected a ruler, it could bring him down (sometimes).

Just as withdrawing the khutba recognition could signal the end of a Caliph or Sultan, so is the Friday mosque still a center for potential dissidence. Hence, (‘Alawite minority) President Bashar al-Asad's meeting with the (Sunni) Imams of major Syrian cities just days before tomorrow's Friday prayers.

Let's see what happens today.

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