Ramadan – why Muslims fast and simple ways to support them at work

The month of Ramadan has begun and presents an ideal opportunity to engage with your Muslim employees and colleagues. Ramadan can appear strange if you are not familiar with this particular pillar of Islam. Understanding Ramadan and why Muslims fast can assist with that engagement and how to support them.  

So why do almost a quarter of the world’s population dramatically shift, collectively as one, and change their daily practices literally overnight?

In essence it comes down to this single verse from the Holy Quran, ‘Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed as it was prescribed for those before you so that you may attain nearness to God’ (2:183).

The Holy Quran is believed to be the actual word of God and the final revelation brought down by the Angel Gabriel for humanity, delivered to the final Messenger, Muhammed (peace be upon him) during this month of fasting over 1,400 years ago.  

It is a belief and practice of one of the pillars of faith that results in 1.8 billion Muslims across the globe looking forward to this blessed month of fasting, a month where believing men and women choose to forgo food, drink and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset and spend more of their time in attaining this ‘nearness’ to God.

This is a month of renewal and revival, a month-long intensive training programme to reset the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual elements that make us human.  

While seeming strange to those not familiar with fasting, it is certainly not a new practice but as the verse indicates was prescribed for those before Muslims, namely Jews and Christians – all being part of the Abrahamic continuation of faith. Other major faiths that fast include Buddhism and Hinduism.  

Giving up our physical needs is in stark contrast to Maslow’s first basic level of physiological needs. The hunger and the thirst, the tiredness from fasting for 16 hours per day and loss of sleep does take its’ toll and is a testament to what the human body is actually capable of.

As the stomach lining shrinks and the body adjusts, the physical and mental reset is very apparent and consistent with everything we know today about the medical benefits of intermittent fasting.  

This month of fasting is widely referred to as the month of mercy, a time that God forgives the penitent, but the hunger and the thirst does also remind you of those less fortunate in the world and so it not surprising that during this month according to the Charities Commission, Muslims in the UK donate £100 million to the needy here and across the globe.   

The focus of the fast however is not the abstinence of physical needs so much as it is a focus on developing good character, to act with integrity, to speak truth, to be forgiving, to honour one another through kindness and compassion. To strive to be better.  

To bolster the physical the focus is placed on the spiritual. It is a time to switch off from worldly distractions and switch on to a journey of self. During this month, Muslims of all ages will be spending more time reading the Quran, spending time in worship at home and in the mosques.  

The breaking of the fast becomes a communal affair bringing family together and typically pre-pandemic would involve extended family members and friends reconnecting with wider society and each other.  

There is much that an employer can do to support Muslim employees depending on the nature of the business and the workload. The Equality Act 2010 mandates that nobody should be discriminated against directly or indirectly because of their religious or philosophical belief but if your Muslim employees have to resort to citing legislation, then you have already missed a great opportunity to really connect and show that you are an inclusive employer, valuing everyone.  

Simple steps HR can take for its Muslim employees include:

  • Considering annual leave requests to allow staff to take off the day of Eid ul Fitr, a celebration at the end of the month of fasting.  
  • Flexible working hours, allowing a later start or an earlier finish during this month will always be welcomed.  
  • Introducing rest breaks especially midday, even allowing for a siesta, would help especially towards the latter end of the month.  
  • Providing a prayer place, a quiet room for reflection and meditation sends a powerful message of inclusion which during the summer months would only be needed for about 10 minutes during the working day.  
  • Not having meetings later in the day or having evening events to attend can really help when energy is most likely to be flagging 
  • Have a fasting challenge for all staff to participate to share in the experience followed by a virtual iftar (breaking of the fast) can create that true empathy that comes from having a shared experience.  

Ramadan is the largest culture transformation of its kind, achieved not through policies and processes and certainly not through policing. Nobody knows whether or not you are truly fasting except you so it is not about being caught by someone else with your ‘hand in the cookie jar’. It truly is about the why. To attain nearness to God, is for the Muslim, the embodiment of belief and the search for the Divine. 

Shakil Butt is founder of HR Hero for Hire, and former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide