February 11th, 2011
05:03 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
It was fitting that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak chose to step down on a Friday, hours after Egypt’s Muslims had observed afternoon prayers.
For three weeks, Friday afternoon prayers - the most significant prayers of the week for Muslims - have served as catalysts for the biggest anti-government demonstrations of the Egyptian uprising.
Known as Juma’ah Salat, Friday prayers are Islam’s sole weekly communal prayers. Observant Muslims pray five times a day, but other prayers can be performed individually.
“Friday prayers bring all people of a society together at one time - rich or poor, man or woman, senior citizen or young child,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com.
“Within the Islamic tradition, the weekly Friday congregational prayers can generally be used as a positive unifying force in reminding people of the equality of all humanity as beautiful creations of God,” Iftikhar said.
Beginning in the last week of January, Friday prayers in Egypt took on an expanded role, providing weekly forums blending religion and politics into fuel for the uprising.
With most Egyptians off work on Fridays, they became good days for mass demonstrations whether or not the participants were devout.
“If they had been working, they wouldn’t be able to meet on Fridays, whether or not prayer was involved,” said John Esposito, a professor of international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.
But for many Egyptians, religion was a key part of the movement against Mubarak.
“Don’t understimate a general sociological sense of the importance of Islamic symbolism,” in the Arab world, said Akbar Ahmed, an expert in Islam at American University. “We are not talking about the Islamic Brotherhood or Islamists. I’m talking about a general sociological awareness of Islamic symbols.”
That awareness is greatest on Fridays.
“There’s a heightened religious sensibility on Fridays,”Ahmed said. “You are in a mosque, you’ve been praying, the sermon is about justice, you can feel your strength and your moral clarity and someone is giving you directions that you’re going to march for change.”
“It’s a ready-made revolution,” Ahmed said.
A handful of experts on Egypt and Islam said that Mubarak’s decision to step down on a Friday was coincidental to Friday prayers.
But Ahmed said that demands last weekend from Egypt’s top Muslim authority, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, for immediate government reforms provided a turning point for demonstrations. Muslim clerics across Egypt likely echoed Gomaa’s demands in Friday sermons.
“When the grand mufti entered the fray and said the people’s will must be decided, you had the crossing of the Rubicon in Egypt as far as religion was concerned,” he said.
If Mubarak had a chance of staying in power, Ahmed said, the former president would have had to appease protesters before Friday, when a combination of religion and activism provoked what appeared to be Cairo’s biggest demonstration to date.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.