The holy month of Ramadan is a period of heightened religiosity, spiritual reflection, and charity for Muslims around the world. It is also a time during which many abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sundown, as fasting during Ramadan is one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam—as well as one of the most universally observed Islamic practices.
In the Islamic world, the pace of daily life is drastically altered as businesses across industries adjust to meet the demands of a fasting populace. Muslim-American poet Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore describes in verse the dramatic impact of the fast: “and when we fast during daylight hours,” he writes, “we turn / the whole thing upside-down, so that / day becomes night”.
As business hours shift and Muslims devote more time to religious activities, Muslim-majority countries see significant economic impacts. Productivity may decline by as much as 35% to 50%, and an economic assessment of multiple countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) suggests that many lose an average of two working hours per day and 7.7% of monthly GDP during Ramadan.
In the United States, however, the world remains thoroughly right-side up throughout Ramadan. American businesses carry on as usual while fasting employees are largely responsible for taking care of themselves and minimizing the impact on their employers.
Formal protections for employees against a wide range of discriminatory practices are laid out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act requires businesses to provide “reasonable accommodation” for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices as long as such an accommodation would not impose more than a de minimis burden on normal operations.
Of course, this begs the question: what is considered reasonable accommodation, and what is a de minimis burden? According to employment lawyer Bruce Godfrey, the answer is nebulous. The responsibilities of employers and employees are “decided case by case, by precedent,” Godfrey told The Politic.
A case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against appliance manufacturer Electrolux required the company to adjust their break time schedule to allow Muslim employees to pray and break their fast immediately after sundown throughout the month of Ramadan.
In similar cases against meat-packing company JBS Swift, the EEOC accused the company of violating Title VII when it fired employees who requested their evening breaks be moved during Ramadan. Decisions have been mixed, with courts in Nebraska and Colorado disagreeing over whether or not shifting a break schedule would have placed an undue burden on the company.
In some industries, it is clearly more difficult to accommodate fasting workers. Jobs that are labor intensive or involve conditions of extreme heat may be impossible to perform while fasting.
“It could be that an employee would be unable to do the work and would have to take personal leave…[since] there is no right to religious leave, as a matter of right, in the same way that there is for family and medical leave,” speculated Godfrey.
However, most American businesses get by without specific, official policies to accommodate their Muslim employees during Ramadan. Instead, it is an unspoken policy of respect that governs many interactions.
The Politic reached out to various businesses in Maryland about accommodations they have in place for Ramadan. Though the restaurant chain Cava has no official policy for Muslim employees during Ramadan, a local Montgomery County manager has frequently reshuffled schedules and working hours to try and help out his fasting employees.
The grocery chain Giant has no official policy, but local store managers have given fasting employees less strenuous tasks, asking them to help customers at the self-checkout line rather than do the heavy lifting in the stockroom.
A local small business owner met with his Muslim designer in the evenings instead of during the day, often urging him to hurry home to his waiting family. Each of these people characterized their actions to The Politic as simple acts of respect and humanity, independent of the existence of any official rules.
For some Muslims, Ramadan does not have so powerful an impact on their working lives. For white collar workers especially, accommodations may be nonessential.
Tahir Qazi, CEO of an information technology consulting company called iQuasar, told The Politic that fasting is “not a significant burden” for his line of work and that he does not find it necessary for companies to have formal policies in place to accommodate employees. He spoke of “mutual respect” and “mutual accommodation,” saying these practices were sufficient to support Muslims in the workplace.
Ahsun Dasti, a representative from the Islamic Center of Maryland who also works in information technology, had a similar perspective. In an interview with The Politic, he stated that “there’s nothing environmentally [employers] need to provide.”
Qazi offered additional justification for opposing formal accommodations for Ramadan observers.
“From a religious angle, people are supposed to be working as long as they would on any other day. The purpose of fasting is not to accommodate your life. The purpose is to, through this process, get closer to the Creator, get a little more discipline in your life…find more meaning in your life…transcend from some of these material needs…and through control of needs you get a lot more discipline, you get a lot more compassion. I don’t think there should be any accommodation.”
Still, an online survey of Muslims around the world revealed that only 48% of respondents in non-OIC countries were satisfied with the level of support from their employers during Ramadan. This compares to the 74% of respondents from Muslim-majority countries who deemed the level of support from their employers sufficient.
A loss in productivity is also not a foregone conclusion in the United States. 81% of Muslims in non-OIC companies believe productivity is not affected at all during Ramadan, and both Qazi and Dasti actually reported higher levels of personal productivity while fasting.
One reason for this heightened productivity is the spiritual intimacy with God both say is engendered by the fast. According to The Prophet, God says,“Every good deed is [rewarded] 10 times its like, up to 700 times, except for fasting. It is for Me, and I will reward it.” Dasti related this to his work ethic, saying, “God is the only one who knows what you are doing, whether you’re cheating on your fast or not. That idea kind of permeates through other aspects of your life…that also applies to how I’m handling my work.”
The physical effects of fasting are also not necessarily deleterious to productivity. Waking earlier for the pre-dawn meal often leads employees to come into work earlier. Qazi reported feeling more focused and single-minded late in the day while fasting. In fact, he pointed to the existence of “intermittent fasting” as a new trend in Silicon Valley—whose practitioners fast for more than 14 hours at a time in order to improve productivity—as evidence that this effect is not unique to religious fasters.
While Ramadan may transform life in the Muslim world, American employers and employees tend to continue normal functions unimpeded. In an interview with The Politic, Emmanuel Manolis, owner of a local coffee shop, said it best: here, life goes on. Such is the nature of diversity.