You might think that because the day of a Muslim is built around prayers which need to be performed at specific times, that Muslims would be fairly punctual people as a rule. But this seems not to be the case, even though I've heard several scholars remind listeners of the importance of being on time. I remember Shaykh Yaser Birjas indicating to students at a seminar that they should arrive for class like a mu'adhdhin arrives for prayer. (He has to arrive early enough to be ready to call as soon as the time for prayer comes in.) This suggests that Muslims should be acutely aware of time as part of their preparation for prayer, or class, or anything else.
After becoming Muslim, though, I started hearing plenty of jokes about a tendency of Muslims towards tardiness. Although, the observation relates mostly to religious and social functions because late arrivals to work or school often result in disciplinary action. I find American society generally to be less tolerant of tardiness than Muslims (so kudos to the Muslims for being so forgiving) but this can result in some confusion for the American Muslim community.
I heard the story of a convert who made the observation, on his first visit to jumu'ah prayer, that when he arrived--at the indicated time--only a few people were present, but during the sermon people continued arriving until the hall was filled by the time of the prayer. Yet I don't think this experience is rare.
Similarly, I've noticed that when attending Islamic lectures and classes, most respected teachers endeavor to begin and end on time. While helping to organize a 4-week da'wah training program a few years ago, I learned an important lesson regarding punctuality. The class was supposed to begin early on a Saturday morning, and though a few people showed up early, there were crowds coming through the door even after the "start" time. I wanted to wait for the students to settle in--and that was a mistake. The imam of the masjid told me that even if some people were still arriving, I should still start on time, and end on time.
To start with, punctuality is respectful of people's time--if they showed up on time, they shouldn't have to wait for the program to begin. Moreover, ending on time allows people to leave for other engagements they may have planned, instead of detaining them longer than they expected. And also, if an event fails to start on time, what incentive is there to arrive on time?
Since my own lesson on punctuality, I've made a point of observing when speakers (scholars, imams, community leaders, teachers, etc.) deliberately start on time--or as best they are able, when faced with logistical delays--and end on time. I understand it to be a part of the etiquette of being a speaker--of being a teacher, or an imam, and have found that the more knowledgeable, respected, and elder teachers usually strive for punctuality, even when students are late. For that reason, I don't accept that tardiness is religiously appropriate behavior--since it's not from the etiquette which I have witnessed from religious scholars.
I've even seen some scholars who seem to be as strict about punctuality as my high school band director--for us, it was an enforced rule. Students late to rehearsal would have to perform push-ups or run laps. Arriving late for a trip would mean getting left behind--nobody would wait. And if our rehearsals ran over schedule, even by as little as five minutes, the director would shorten the next day's rehearsal by the same amount. Breaks came regularly--and if they were delayed, then they were extended also. (Noting that breaks were usually barely 3-5 minutes, enough time to sit and drink water.)
When I'm in a class or a lecture where the speaker goes on--beyond an hour, sometimes beyond two, I find myself becoming irritated and even resentful towards the speaker, while my concentration plummets. Especially when scheduled breaks have been neglected by the speaker.
How is a student supposed to feel after arriving on time and waiting over an hour or more for an instructor, who then proceeds to lecture for an hour or two without giving students a break? I think the only way a student can feel, in that situation, is that the instructor lacks respect for his time, leading the student to not respect the instructor.
So I'll emphasize again why tardiness is not something seen in the most erudite of scholars, and why I don't believe that it is religiously appropriate. And I maintain that view despite the prevalent disregard for time in some Muslim cultures.
Unfortunately, punctuality can even be an inconvenience in a culture with more lenient and flexible schedule. My husband stresses the importance of arriving promptly to dinner parties--that is, he wants to arrive at the time indicated on the invitation. However, I find myself stalling our departure in order to avoid inconveniencing the hostess. Since most guests tend to arrive 30 minutes or more late, she might not be fully prepared for guests if we arrive "on time." And she might struggle trying to make conversation with me while still cooking and cleaning, leaving me in an awkward position while he goes off to another room with the host.
On the other hand, an American crowd might be expected to arrive 5-10 minutes before the scheduled time. That's why there can be some confusion. Of course, punctuality should be the norm for all events, but I'm not sure what it would take for people to accept that on a wide scale. It's not easy to enforce it with other people, but the least we can do is enforce it on ourselves and make punctuality a fixed attribute for which we are known.