A Non-Muslim’s Guide to Ramadan in the Workplace

Sharing knowledge and increasing awareness about Islamic practices that we as Muslims follow with non-Muslim colleagues help increase inclusion for Muslims at work and in society. Being inclusive takes more work than being just a diverse workplace. Being inclusive means welcoming people from diverse backgrounds to bring their whole selves to work, without diminishing who they are. This article talks about Ramadan, an important month that many Muslims around the world observe.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is one of the sacred months that we look forward to every year. This is the month when we fast – abstaining from food and water from sunrise to sunset.

The Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar (which is different from the Gregorian calendar), so Ramadan falls on different months and days each year. This year Ramadan started in mid-May.

How do Muslims observe Ramadan?

Muslims are not a homogenous group. With a population of 1.8 billion people around the world, spiritual practices and significance of the month vary depending on geographic region, religious sect and individual preferences.

For Muslims who are fasting, it’s common to wake up before dawn, usually between 2:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m to eat a meal, called suhoor, to start the day and prepare for fasting. At sunset, we often break fast, called iftar, by eating dates and water or milk, followed by a meal.

In addition to fasting, Muslims continue to pray five times a day. Ramadan has special night prayers called “Tarawih.” Since Muslim prayer is based on movements of the sun, Tarawih starts around 10:30 p.m. and ends before midnight. During the last 10 days of the month some Muslims will intensify their night prayers, often staying up the whole night to observe the holiest night of the year, which is called called “Laylat ul Qadr” translated as the Night of Power or Destiny.

Eid-al-fitr,” which many know simply as Eid, is the festival at the end of month of Ramadan. Eid is very similar to many other cultural festivals, where we celebrate with friends and family with lots of gift giving and food.

Why is the month important to Muslims?

Most Muslims use this month for self-reflection, increased spirituality and self-discipline. The act of fasting also creates empathy for people without food security or access to clean water. Many Muslims also increase their charitable activities during this time. It sounds overwhelming and hard for many, but we look forward to this month as a time of celebration, when communities and families come together.

Interesting things about Ramadan

  • There is a debate about when Eid falls – this is due to difference in opinion on how this date is determined. As it is based on a lunar calendar, some wait for the actual sighting of the new crescent moon with the eye to determine the Eid day, while others base it on astronomical calculations.
  • A fasting person’s breath may stink! It is the human body’s way of detoxifying, a natural process which occurs as a result of fasting. You may find your fasting colleagues standing at a distance or covering their mouth when speaking to you.

Seven ways to be supportive of your Muslim colleagues during Ramadan

  1. Flexibility with schedules when possible: If you’re a leader at work and it’s possible operationally, consider offering work from home days and a later or earlier start time during this month.
  2. Be mindful of vacation days: Eid will fall in mid-June this year and may be on a weekday, which may mean taking a vacation day for most Muslim employees.
  3. Double check before planning events that may fall on a holiday: Most religious observances calendar websites includes a forecast of important religious holidays that are worth considering when planning your schedule or events.
  4. Space considerations: Finding a private space to pray at work can be challenging for Muslims who pray five times a day. Two of these prayer times (depending on the season) will fall within work hours. It’s not uncommon for many of us to scramble to find space, usually booking an available meeting room or using someone’s office that offers some privacy. If you have access to private space, offer to share this space for prayer. We often end up praying in hallways, stairways or empty rooms if we can’t find a private space which can feel awkward and uncomfortable.
  5. Be considerate if you come upon someone observing “wudu:” This is the ritual purification washing done by Muslims before prayers. As much as possible, I try to use a single-stall washroom for privacy. If I don’t have access to one, it’s not uncommon for me to use shared washrooms. Although this may be an unusual sight for others, it’s appreciated when you divert your gaze out of respect for privacy during this practice.
  6. Napping during breaks helps reenergize: During Ramadan lack of sleep at night means that finding time during the day to nap is very useful. You may find some of us taking our lunch break by napping.
  7. Be considerate of someone’s choice: Don’t assume all Muslims fast. Reasons for not fasting can include health, travel or personal choice. If you know someone is fasting, please don’t ask “not even water?” – we won’t be drinking water or liquids during the day. I don’t mind if my colleagues eat in front of me, but I might ask them to reschedule coffee meetings.

This article was originally published by Ryerson University.

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in learning more about Ramadan here are some additional links: