Islam’s “Sabbath”

 

By Kenneth Westby

 

 

Allah, Islam’s God, didn’t rest after the six days of creation and Moslems see no need to rest on their “Sabbath” which is Friday, the sixth day of the week.

 

Jews and Christians find authority for their concept of “Sabbath” primarily from the example of the Creator who “rested” or ceased from his labors on the seventh day, blessed it and made it holy.[1] Observant Jews and most Christian Sabbatarians continue the practice of “ceasing” or “stopping”normal business activities on the seventh day to celebrate God’s good gifts and to worship the Creator of heaven and earth.

Christianity in general, however, centuries ago swapped the biblical Sabbath for the first day of the week, a Sunday Sabbath. How the Sunday Sabbath is commonly observed by Protestants and Catholics has much more in common with typical Islamic Friday Sabbath observance than how devout Jews and Christians celebrate the seventh day Sabbath.

 

Observing the Muslim Sabbath

 

Using the word “Sabbath” to describe the Islamic Friday is misleading. No rest or ceasing is commanded, expected or practiced. “Observing” or “celebrating” a Sabbath are terms that can be used of religious Jews and Sabbatarians, and in times past of Sunday-keepers (for most  Protestants and Catholics today all normal business activity is allowed and some devout ones will pause to attend church).

The only special feature of the Muslim Friday “Sabbath” is the noon prayer which Muslims are encouraged—mandated—to do communally. It is a midday call on Friday to congregate at a Mosque after which Muslims are free to go back to work. This noon prayer time is a daily feature but on Friday assembly is emphasized so prayer can be done congregationally, usually preceded by a sermon.  

 Concerning prayers, all the faithful are commanded to pray at five set times during the day: 1) between dawn and sunrise; 2) at midday, when the sun has reached its zenith; 3) in mid-afternoon; 4) after sundown; and 5) in the evening, before going to bed. These are ritual prayers fixed in all details. The daily prayer (salah) ritual is the second most important duty of the five pillars of Islam.[2] There are also three voluntary times for prayer: after dawn, “when the sun is already high”; before midday, at about 11 a.m.; and after midnight. Only the sick, the aged, the mentally retarded, and under some circumstances, travelers are exempt from this duty (and I expect that might include those soldiers of Islam fighting infidels such as the nineteen suicide terrorists who attacked America on September 11, 2001).

“In order for prayers to be valid, cleanliness of both clothing and location is necessary; the latter is effected by decking the ground on which one prays with a rug, cloth, or similar cover. In addition, the person praying must also undergo a ritual purification.”[3] The different sects of Islam can vary on the details of accomplishing purification whether physically through washings or symbolically. “In ritual washing, the hands, forearms, head, and feet are cleansed with a threefold movement of the hand. In addition, rinsing out the mouth, blowing out of the nose, and scrubbing out the ears is advisable. When no water is available, the Koran (Qur’an) allows the believer a “dry wash” with earth, sand, or—symbolically—a pebble.”[4]

The Friday (Jumu’ah) assembly entails two sessions. The first session, the head of the Muslim state (or his representative) delivers an address, in which he may discuss any issues pertinent to Islam. Nowadays, rarely do rulers of Muslim states attend the Friday congregations with common Muslims, let alone lead in the Friday prayers. That duty has been given to the Muslim clergy, the imams. The sermon (Khutbah) usually starts at 12:30 p.m. in winter and at 1:30 p.m. in the summer. An ancient sage taught than when Friday sermon and prayer comes the angels take their place at the door of the Mosque to write down the names of those who come early and the order of their arrival. The person who comes early is like one who had sacrificed a camel for the pleasure of Allah. The one who comes after him is like one who had sacrificed a cow, and it slides downward to rams, chickens, and for the late comer, only an egg in the path of Allah. It is also believed that when the Imam proceeds to the podium (Mimbar) to launch his sermon, those same angels roll up their scrolls and join the congregation to listen.

The second session is the leading of Friday midday prayers. With men separated from women, these prayers are orientated toward Mecca. They are not praying to Mecca, but to Allah, Mecca being the spiritual center of Islam. The precise location of Mecca relative to the local mosque is published in degrees of longitude and latitude and prayers are carefully oriented. A key architectural design feature of mosques is their assembly room’s straight line orientation to Mecca. Early on in Islam’s history Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem!

The prayers are set and the physical postures or positions of prayer are likewise governed by rules. Prayer services begin with all standing. Then the believers raise both hands next to their head and speak the so-called declaration of intention formula, Allahu akbar, (God is great) to move them into a state of consecration. They then fold their hands in front of their stomach and quietly recite sections of the Koran. Then they bow forward, the palms of their hands touching the legs above their knees and thrice repeating Allahu akbar along with words of praise “Glory and praise be to my God, the Almighty.” There are many cycles of such movements that compose the prayer session.

 

What’s so great about Friday?

 

The likely genesis of the Friday “Sabbath” goes back to the earliest days of Islam. Islam, as most historians acknowledge, was heavily influenced by Muhammad’s borrowing from Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad formulated his new religion mixing both traditions as well as establishing his particular distinctions. He was well acquainted with the several Jewish tribal communities in Arabia and saw that a key element to their unity was “The Book.” He was inspired to create one of his own to galvanize unity among his followers. Moslem doctrine holds that the Koran was uncreated, its words conveyed to Muhammad from a sacred tablet preserved in heaven. Many non-Islamic researchers, however,  believe that Muhammad commissioned for wages a Jew to rough draft his book. It evidences many revisions and edits in spite of claims to the contrary.[5]

Muhammad was also acquainted with the traditions of the several Christian settlements in Arabia and their Sunday (resurrection day) Sabbath tradition. He freely incorporated certain Christian elements into his book.

In the city of Medina Muhammad often participated in the Friday market day. Friday was a busy business and market gathering day for seventh day Sabbath observant Jews. He determined Friday would make a practical choice for communal assembly and prayer for his followers. By establishing a “Sabbath” different from Jews and Christians he avoided their Sabbaths and took practical advantage of Friday’s commercial market day assemblies. He declared Friday as the day for congregational noon prayer for his followers. It was no more “spiritual” than that.

The Koran mentions the seventh day Sabbath in relation to the Jews on several occasions—usually in a critical or negative context. It chastens Jews for breaking their Sabbath and has some novel stories to illustrate. One involves God testing Jews by bringing them a bounty of fish on the Sabbath, but not on other days. The greedy Jews yielded to temptation and rigged nets to trap their Sabbath catch of fish.

 

“And certainly you have known those among you who exceeded the limits of the Sabbath, so we said to them: Be as apes, despised and hated.  So we made them an example to those who witnessed it and those who came after it, and an admonition to those who guard against evil.”[6]

 

The transgression referred to is likely the fishing story mentioned in Surah 7:163. One of the common derogations of Jews by Muslims to this day is to call them “apes” or “monkeys.” The Jews were condemned for breaking the Sabbath, but Muhammad made no attempt to keep it. He taught it had been abrogated and used arguments similar to those used by Sunday keeping Christians.

            The Koran also creates space from the Jews by teaching that Allah does not get tired and didn’t need to rest after his six days of creating. “We created the heavens and the earth and all that lies between them in six spans, and no weariness came upon us.”[7] Islam erroneously accepts that the biblical account pictures God as tired from creating and needing a rest.

            Islam and its Koran hold that the seventh day Sabbath has been abrogated by the new revelation of Muhammad. Further, Islam teaches that Jesus did not need resurrecting since he did not die on the cross (a substitute took his place) and he was raised to heaven unharmed. The Christian Sunday has likewise been abrogated by the last of God prophets, Muhammad.

 

 Allah and Muhammad

 

The matter of which day is the correct Sabbath doesn’t figure large in Muslim theology. Allah’s prophet trumps all previous religious commands and traditions and his example has become the new law. Abraham is claimed to be “the first Muslim,” and Moses is quoted more than one hundred times in the Koran (often inaccurately), but Muhammad trumps them all. Those who resist the teachings of God’s final prophet are in for trouble.

 

“O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them. Their ultimate abode is hell, a hapless journey’s end” (Surah 9:73). “O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you” (Surah 9:123).

 

While Allah is considered by Muslims to be Creator and God, he is not the same God the Bible describes. In fact, Allah has nothing in common with Yahweh, the God of Israel and Creator of all. Well, what about the oft heard claim of the pure monotheism of Islam?

Muhammad attacked the Arab polytheists of Arabia, and Mecca in particular, for their having and worshipping 360 idols of celestial gods surrounding the sacred Kabah[8] in Mecca. Muhammad preached against this polytheism and declared one of their gods to be the supreme and only God, Allah (who was previously the moon god). The moon (and sometimes a sword) is a common feature on the flag of Islamic nations. Islam is monotheistic in the sense it worships but one god. However, the God it worships is simply one of the idol gods of the pagan polytheists of Arabia.

 

The True Genesis of the Sabbath

 

The origin of the Sabbath is found in God himself and nowhere else. The Sabbath is not a revelation received by a charismatic (though a likely illiterate) Arabian in the 6th century AD, but by an act of God at the beginning—the very beginning. Hebrew Scripture doesn’t picture a creating Yahweh being tired and needing a rest. Genesis does not speak of God “resting” (nuah) on the seventh day, which might suggest being tired and needing refreshment.

The object of the Sabbath was not for God to find energy for another week’s work. God worked in order to relax and enjoy his creation with the first couple—made in his image—not the other way around. The Sabbath is not for the weekdays, but the weekdays for the Sabbath.

In the OT, the Sabbath is a day God especially claims. It is holy because it has special associations for and with God. By blessing the day Yahweh implies it has the same capacity to be fruitful that the living world possesses—the power to stimulate, animate, enrich, and give fullness to life.

On the seventh day God “stopped” or “ceased” because the work was done. The verb is sabat, from which the word “Sabbath” comes. The fact that God stopped work at the end of the week assures us that the world we live in is not a half-finished project. God ceased creating because the job was properly and completely done. It can now be enjoyed by both God and man.[9]

The Sabbath signifies the completion of creation. It therefore has no evening. Have you noticed that in the creation account the Sabbath has no night? Yahweh didn’t close the seventh day as he did the previous six by saying, “and there was evening, and there was morning—the first day,” etc. I must assume that it was a 24-hour day like the previous ones with evenings and mornings. But the seventh day is handled differently. Why?

His work was complete. The earth would endure forever. It is stable, secure, and constantly upheld and “tended” to by its Creator. It also awaits the great eschatological Sabbath of the Kingdom of God when the earth will burst forth in full flower, free from despoiling evil. Then there will be no night.

None of these profound truths attach to the Islamic Friday “Sabbath.”

 

It Is About the Image of the Creator

 

Daniel J. Boorstin writes is his engrossing book, The Creators, “The contrast between the Hebrew and Christian views of the Creator and the Muslim view appears wherever we look—in the creeds, the traditions, and the visions of Islam. This, as much as anything else, makes it hard for us in the West to feel at home with Islam. For Islam found the very notion of Creation unappealing. The first, decisive, yet unfamiliar evidence is the Muslim view of Holy Scripture.”[10]

Boorstin notes that the Muslim counterpart to Jesus is not Mohammed but a book. Where the Bible records that man was made in God’s image and that Jesus as Son of God had so incarnated that divine image he could say if you have seen him you had seen the Father. But Muslims believe in Inlibration, the embodiment of god in a book—the Koran. A pillar of the Muslim faith is that the Koran is uncreated.

Why did God create man? The God of the Bible will judge man by his fulfillment of the Godlike image. Not so in Islam. “I have only created Jinns [angels] and men, that they may serve me. I created the Jinn and humankind only that they might worship me” (Surah 51:56). The Koran repeatedly reminds us that Allah’s creatures are only his “servants” or “slaves.” The people of the Koran prefer to call themselves Muslims, from “Islam,” the Arabic word for submission or obedience. The notion of sharing God’s creative image and nature as his sons and daughters is foreign to Islam.

There is a reason that the nations of Islam are among the worlds poorest and most backward and not known for beneficial creations or contributions to civilization. For a believing Muslim, to create is a rash and dangerous act. He is not an image bearer of a divine creator, but a slave.

 

The Biblical Seventh Day Sabbath

 

Similarities between the Islamic “Sabbath” and the seventh day Sabbath are virtually none, contrasts however abound. The biblical Sabbath is not a mere Jewish peculiarity. It points toward a completely different world view than that of Islam. It embodies the ideology of creation. God is creating men and women in his image and have been entrusted with Godlike abilities to create—abilities to be used in serving fellow man and thereby glorify the Creator who shared them with his image bearers.

            The creation story of seven days is a gospel declaring a rhythm of God’s movement in fulfilling his Grand Plan for mankind. It is a weekly celebration of the creation of the world. The Sabbath celebrates the uncontestable enthronement of its Creator. It points to a future golden age—the Kingdom of God—when there will be no night.

 


Endnotes:

[1] Genesis 2:2-3

[2] The five pillars are: (1) The testimony (shahada) or affirmation of faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet”; (2) The obligation to pray (salat) at five set times daily—with communal assembly and prayer on Friday; (3) Obligation to pay alms (zakat)—at least two percent;  (4) The obligation to fast (sawm) from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan (the name of the ninth month) in commemoration of the beginning of Muhammad’s revelations from Allah; (5) Perform the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj) at least once in a Moslem’s lifetime. Currently many Muslims acknowledge a sixth pillar, that of Jihad or “striving” against one’s evil nature, but more relevant to our times, Jihad to preserve and protect Islam  from all threats—real or perceived—such as the West, Jews, Christians, infidels in general and their “decadent” cultures. When the Afghan rebels fought the Soviets they were called the mujahidin.

[3] Walter M. Weiss, Islam, Barron’s Educational Services, Hauppauge, New York, 2000, pp 30-31.

[4] Ibid. p 31

[5] On a personal note, I have objectively tried to read the Koran and have invested many hours doing so. I have three different English translations. But I must confess it is a confusing, poorly written and disorganized book. Maybe it lends itself to rote repetitions and maybe is sounds and reads better in Arabic. Koran literally means “reciting” so maybe it doesn’t much matter what the quality of the content is. The Bible by contrast is narrative and has a historical time sequence to it—and its content is profoundly rich. It was also written by inspired servants of God, many of them Jews, over a period of several centuries. The Koran is claimed to be eternal, absolute and irrevocable and not written by a human, but conveyed to Muhammad from heavenly Arabic tablets. If that is the best heaven can do we have no hope.

[6] Surah (chapter) 2:65-66 (a translation of the Qur’an by M. H. Shakir published by Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an Inc., 12th U.S. edition, 2001)

[7] Surah 50:38 (a translation of the Qur’an by Ahmed Ali, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1993)

[8] The Kabah houses the sacred black stone in the grand mosque and is the destination for those who make the pilgrimage (hajj). The veneration of the black stone (probably a meteorite) predated Muhammad by over a thousand years and was one of many elements of paganism that Muhammad incorporated to ease the Arabs moving from paganism to Islam by continuing the practices of their fathers.

[9] See John Goldingay’s fine treatment of the Sabbath in his Old Testament Theology Volume One—Israel’s Gospel, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2003, pp 124-130.

[10] Boorstin, Daniel J., The Creators, Vintage Books, New York, 1992, pp 63-69.