BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Islamic leaders Wednesday postponed a meeting aimed at discussing Fridays as a Muslim holiday in public institutions. Dar al-Fatwa, headed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, deferred until next week a meeting called by a number of Islamic associations to demand Fridays be an all-day holiday for public employees.
As part of the new regulations that came into effect after Lebanon’s Parliament passed a salary scale bill and a new tax law on July 18, the official working hours for public sector employees were changed to allow an increase in the workweek to 35 hours. It was previously 32 hours per week and Friday would see employees, both Christian and Muslim, leave public offices at 11 a.m. to allow Muslims to participate in Friday prayers.
In order to arrange for the new timetable to fit, working hours were extended until 3:30 p.m. Friday while granting employees a two-hour leave so Muslims can attend Friday prayers.
The new rules also make Saturdays full-day holidays.
However, the decision was met with dissatisfaction by a number of Islamic associations. Many said that the new shift to a European-style weekend would deprive Muslims in Lebanon of their right to observe Friday as a holy day. Some associations have also taken to the streets and demanded the official weekly holidays be Friday and Sunday.
A number of heads of municipalities and mukhtars from several Lebanese regions have vowed to resist the implementation of the new guidelines. They said they would continue to work Saturdays and keep their municipalities’ offices closed Fridays.
Opponents of the change also raised concerns that this new measure infringes on the right of Lebanese Muslims to equal treatment with Christians in the country, as the latter group would be observing their “rest day” on Sundays.
Friday, in addition to Saturday or Thursday, are the weekend days for many predominantly Muslim countries around the world.
Lebanese lawmakers and Cabinet members of both faiths downplayed the concerns, saying that the Muslim employees will continue to be able to perform their rituals freely. They also said that the new amendments are part of reform measures that would save the state treasury millions of dollars in transportation allowance given to employees each year.
A source at the Finance Ministry said that savings would amount to LL100 billion (nearly $65 million) annually of public funds. The new work week schedule is also expected to boost the productivity of public servants, many of whom will no longer have to commute from their hometown to Beirut six days a week.
Officials have also said the consecutive two-day weekend will contribute to the prosperity of peripheral regions, as employees from these areas will be able to spend more time and money in their hometown.
All eyes are on the expected meeting in Dar al-Fatwa that will be held in its headquarters in Beirut’s Aisha Bakkar neighborhood after the Eid al-Adha holiday.
As an endeavor to resolve the issue, Ammar Houri, a Beirut MP for the Future Movement, Tuesday proposed an amendment to the recently passed workweek changes.
Friday would be a partial working day, providing time for prayer, Houri told The Daily Star. “This [proposal to amend the timings] would grant employees the freedom to practice their religious rites.”
Instead of returning to work Friday afternoon, employees would stay longer for an additional 15 minutes from Monday to Thursday. The proposal will be discussed at Parliament’s next session, which has not yet been scheduled. Houri expects that his proposal would be a sufficient compromise to ease concerns, dismissing protests as mere residue of the “frustration among members of a religious group in the country.”
While some public sector workers are protesting the changes, the private sector in Lebanon seems to have long overcome the debate stirred up over Friday, even among Muslim business owners. Local banks, other financial institutions and branches of international companies find the European-style weekend convenient for their business needs.
Small- and medium-sized enterprises are no different. Muslim shop owners in Beirut, as well as in other cities and towns across the country, leave their customers a small sign reading “We will be back after prayer,” when closing on Friday.
Schools, both public and private, have long adjusted holidays to reflect the beliefs of the majority of the community where the school is located.
Islamic texts do not explicitly stipulate Friday as a rest day. However, for centuries, under the rule of Islamic empires, Friday has been the weekly break dedicated to prayers. Two verses in the Quran’s 62nd Al-Jomaa (Friday) chapter dictate Muslims should leave all matters “at hand and head” to pray at noon Friday before they can resume their day-to-day activities.
The issue of having Friday instead of Saturday as a day off has long been a contentious issue in Lebanon. In the 1920s, during the period of the French mandate, authorities attempted to implement an official western style weekend that drew fire from Muslim scholars and dignitaries. The procedure was later dropped in favor of making Sunday a holiday and Friday and Saturday as partial working days.