The weekend comes early in Pakistan

FIVE times a day, millions of Pakistanis turn to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to offer prayers. Formal prayers are witnessed on Friday, an official weekend day, when practicing Muslims gather in large congregations to pray together and hear special sermons by clerics. Some Pakistani businessmen, however, are questioning the logic of declaring Friday a weekend day.

``When the time for Jumu'a [Friday] prayer comes, close your business and answer the summons loyally and earnestly, meet earnestly, pray, consult and learn by social contact: when the meeting is over, scatter and go about your business,'' wrote Abdullah Yusuf Ali, an eminent Islamic scholar in a widely read translation of the verses from the Koran, the Islamic holy book instructing Muslims on how to conduct themselves on Friday. That translation goes right to the heart of how a growing number of Pakistani businessmen are arguing their case.

They want their government to reconsider a 16-year-old decision, which made Sunday a day of work rather than Friday, ostensibly in recognition of Muslim traditions. The move was ordered by the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

``The change [back to Friday] will help to improve Pakistan's exports and improve our business prospects,'' says Mian Habibullah, chairman of the government's export promotion bureau. Commerce Minister Ahmed Mukhtar concedes that there is growing pressure from businesses on this issue. But he adds that supporters of the move still need to establish a wider consensus at the national level .

The move will likely be resisted, especially by groups of Islamic clergy and possibly by Muslim nationalists. ``Every country of the world fixes the weekly holiday in accordance with its own traditions,'' says Khurshid Ahmed, member of the religious ``Jamaat-i-Islami'' and a leading scholar on Islamic economics.

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