A none Muslim understanding of Ramadan from a diversity and inclusion perspective

Did you know that followers of Islam constitute the world’s second-largest religious group. An estimated 1.8 billion or more than 24% of the world population identify themselves as Muslims. Personally I don’t follow any religion but as a diversity and inclusion advocate and consultant I believe it’s important to understand how religion is experienced. So I have spent the last month researching Ramadan. As always I have done my due diligence to cross check facts but this is not my lived experience. I am an outsider to this experience so what I am presenting is my understanding of how others experience Ramadan, and based this understanding I have put together practical ways I can support muslim friends and colleagues during this important time.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. The Prophet Mohammed reportedly said, “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.” Muslims believe it was during this month that God revealed the first verses of the Quran, Islam’s sacred text, to Mohammed, on a night known as “The Night of Power” (or Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic).

The date on which Ramadan starts changes every year because the Islamic calendar is lunar, meaning each month begins with the new astronomical moon. As lunar months are shorter than solar, the Islamic calendar does not correspond with the Gregorian calendar followed in the West and means Ramadan occurs around 11 days earlier every year. For 2021 it started on the 13th April.

There are Five Pillars of Islam, which form the basis of how Muslims live their lives; Faith, Prayer, Charity, making the Pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, and Fasting. During the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast every day from dawn to sunset. It is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline, of deep contemplation of one’s relationship with God, extra prayer, increased charity and generosity, and intense study of the Quran.

Fasting is an exercise in self-restraint. It’s seen as a way to physically and spiritually detoxify by kicking impulses like morning coffee, smoking and midday snacking. I assumed fasting was only associated with food and drink but I also read that for observant Muslims a single sip of water or a puff of a cigarette is considered enough to invalidate the fast. I’ve never smoked but I can only imagine how mentally challenging that must be! Some Muslim scholars also say it’s not enough to just avoid food and drinks during the day. Spouses must abstain from sexual intercourse during the day, and Muslims should not engage in cursing, fighting or gossiping. And some may choose to avoid watching television or listening to music in favour of listening to recitations of the Quran. A muslim friend also told me it is prohibited to take medication even if you swallow the pill dry without drinking water and she didn’t realise she couldn’t chew gum until half way through her first Ramadan after converting!

There are special dispensations for those who are ill, pregnant or nursing, menstruating, or traveling, and for young children and the elderly.

During Ramadan Muslims are also encouraged to observe the five daily prayers on time and to use their downtime just before breaking their fast at sunset to recite Quran and intensify remembrance of God. To prepare for the fast, Muslims eat what is commonly called “suhoor,” a pre-dawn meal of power foods to get them through the day. At dawn, the morning prayer is performed. Then for the most part, Muslims go about their daily business, despite not being able to eat or drink anything the whole day. When the evening call to prayer is made the fast is broken with a light meal or snack called an iftar (literally “breakfast”). Many people go to the mosque for the evening prayer, followed by a special prayer that is only recited during Ramadan.

The end of Ramadan is marked by intense worship as Muslims seek to have their prayers answered during “Laylat al-Qadr” or “the Night of Destiny.” It is on this night, which falls during the last 10 nights of Ramadan, that Muslims believe that God sent the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed and revealed the first versus of the Quran. Some devout Muslims go into reclusion those final days, spending all of their time in the mosque. The end of Ramadan is celebrated by a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr. Children often receive new clothes, gifts and cash. Muslims attend early morning Eid prayers the day after Ramadan and families usually spend the day together eating.

Five ways to support Muslim during Ramadan

1. Don’t make assumptions

The Islamic faith is a welcoming religion that accepts people of all races and backgrounds. Do not make assumptions about who in your network may be observing Ramadan. Equally, some Muslims may be exempt from practicing for various reasons, do not assume all Muslim colleagues will be fasting. Observing Ramadan isn’t always noticeable, so make it easy for your team members to let you know that they are doing a fast by being open and approachable.

2. Educate yourself and colleagues about Ramadan

You know I believe every day is a school day and an opportunity to learn something new. Ramadan is a global event and a great opportunity to learn about religion and start conversations. It’s not the responsibility of our Muslim colleagues to educate us none Muslims, as with many diversity and inclusion topics it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves. However, if there is a Muslim within your team or network who is happy to discuss this topic, then the sharing of a personal experience will always have more impact. Be aware however that you should arrange this before Ramadan starts. Of course please feel free to share this blog post or join The Diversity Doctor Community for weekly content on intentional inclusivity.

In the spirit of not letting diversity and inclusion become exclusionary, I would always advise using any one topic as an opportunity to open the floor to others. For example ‘this month Sarah will be sharing her experience of Ramadan, if anyone else would like to share more about their religious experiences please let us know.’

3. Adaptability

If you are a manager, organising an opportunity to discuss potential workplace adjustments and issues that might arise for team members observing Ramadan would be advisable. 
For example, flexitime provision may help employees be more productive during their working hours if they can start earlier / work through lunch to finish earlier as energy levels dip. If your workforce or colleagues are working remotely across the globe, consider the time differences and how daily routines during Ramadan might impact meetings, deadlines, and performance. Organise meetings at appropriate times e.g. not during iftar.

Similarly if you work in education be mindful of your students concentration spams especially if Ramadan falls within an assessment period. Some student athletes or athletes in general may choose to still observe fasting during Ramadan which will obviously effect their training. Again do not make assumptions but talk to your individual student / athlete and let them guide how you can support them.

4. Don’t feel or be awkward

Try not to act anxiously around those observing Ramadan. Colleagues who are fasting will not expect you to do the same; you do not need to be secretive about eating and drinking. However, be mindful and respectful that fasting can be challenging, so constantly asking questions about food or offering food /drink is not helpful.

5. Be supportive and join the celebration

Try to accommodate as best as possible annual leave requests towards the end of Ramadan as acts of worship may intensify and Eid approaches. Having annual leave discussions sooner rather than later will ensure there are less clashes and issues. Finally you don’t need to a Muslim to support the celebration. The same way as you may say Happy Hanukkah to Jewish friends celebrating Hanukkah, it’s nice to wish Muslim friends and collegues a happy and generous Ramadan this year! Ramadan Mubarak means Happy Ramadan or Ramadan Kareem is have a generous Ramadan.

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