Ramadan Mubarak: What Your Muslim Employees Want You to Know

Sands Anderson Associate Aaisha Sanaullah writes about the importance of Ramadan with tips for all employers in the workplace. This important celebration is something Sands Anderson is proud to recognize, consistent with our commitment to fostering a community in which every member of our team feels valued for their unique identities, experiences, and talents. We celebrate diversity and inclusion, which are essential to providing client-centered legal services. If you would like more information on how to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in your workplace consistent with the evolving legal landscape, please feel free to contact the Sands Anderson Labor and Employment Team.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, is upon us and almost two billion Muslims (roughly 25% of the world’s population) are enjoying a month of fasting and spiritual reflection. Ramadan is the most sacred month for Muslims. The Qur’an (the Islamic holy scripture, akin to the Bible for Christians and the Torah for Jews) explains why: “Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed . . . so whoever of you witnesses the month should fast it.”  [2:185]

For 30 days, Muslims abstain from food and drink (yes, even water) from dawn to dusk. By abstaining from the physical, Muslims increase in their God-consciousness, self-discipline, and empathy and consciousness for those who have to go without food and drink on the regular. It is a month of increased charity, both in the form of time and money. It is also a month of increased compassion. While Muslims should always abstain from backbiting, gossiping, lying, losing their patience, and lacking compassion, abstaining from all of those actions while fasting is especially important. Fasting is both a physical and a spiritual act.

For many Muslims in the West, the greatest challenge of Ramadan is not the fasting, but rather in navigating Ramadan on a corporate schedule that does not readily account for this practice. For example, Muslims must begin and break their fast at set times. In Virginia and North Carolina, that means Muslim employees have to stop eating around 5:40 a.m. EST and break their fast around 7:30 p.m. EST. After breaking their fast, many Muslims go to the mosque for special Ramadan prayers, called taraweeh. Taraweeh can take up to two hours which can mean getting home from the mosque close to midnight. And because Ramadan is a holiday season, it has similar increased tasks much like those more commonly known surrounding the winter holidays of Christmas and Hannukah—i.e., hosting family and friends, cooking special meals and traditional foods, decorating the home, and gift shopping. Then, at the end of the month, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr (the “Festival of Breaking the Fast”), which is a three-day celebration to mark the conclusion of Ramadan.

Because Muslims comprise only 1% of the U.S. population, as a Muslim-American myself, I often find myself being people’s first exposure to Ramadan. I appreciate the opportunity to educate my peers, and over the years I have found that the most helpful things for my non-Muslim colleagues to know about Ramadan in the workplace are:

  • It means a lot when an employer can be flexible with work schedules. A common accommodation request Muslims may make is to come into work earlier so they can leave earlier to maximize their productivity. If an employer can accommodate (without experiencing “de minimis hardship”) it goes a long way not just physically, but in the quality of Ramadan a Muslim employee can enjoy.
  • Ramadan is a holiday season that holds a great deal of sentimental, spiritual, religious, and cultural value to Muslims. Just like the winter holiday season, Ramadan comes with complex emotions. For some Muslims, this is their first Ramadan after the passing of a loved one. For others, they are celebrating alone without any friends or family nearby. Taking time off in the middle of March is not as easy as taking time off in December, when the entire country’s schedule shifts for the Christmas and Hannukah holidays. (And, employers should remember that Muslim employees are not the only religious minority who observe holidays that fall outside of an employer’s predetermined holiday schedule. Many other holidays require time off outside of Christmas and Easter, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali, Holi, Eastern Orthodox Christmas and Easter, and more. The above considerations and approach to accommodation should be similarly applied to all employees to foster an inclusive, productive workplace.)
  • Not every Muslim is obligated to fast. Muslims do not have to fast if it is dangerous to their health to do so, if they take medication throughout the day, or if they are traveling. Muslim women are not obligated to fast when they’re on their period, pregnant, or breastfeeding. Even if a Muslim cannot fast during this month, Ramadan still holds a great deal of spiritual significance to them.
  • And lastly, Ramadan is not a punishment for us, and it is inaccurate (and a little demeaning) to treat it as such. Fasting is a profound act of worship that Muslims love doing because it has a deep meaning. Former Portland Blazers center Enes Kanter, who regularly fasts during the NBA season, sums up my own feelings about Ramadan perfectly: “Whenever the Ramadan time comes, it gives me so much mental strength, and it’s like my superpowers come back.”

It is my hope that all employers practice inclusive leadership by understanding the importance of Ramadan and supporting their Muslim employees. And of course, doing so will also reduce employers’ risk of liability under Title VII and other antidiscrimination workplace laws. Ramadan Mubarak!