Working through Ramadan

Muslims share lessons learned while fasting on the job

For Muslims working in non-Muslim work environments, observing Ramadan is an epic feat of self-discipline. Ramadan is an annual observance where Muslims fast (consuming no food or drink, including water) — from dawn to dusk for about a month. According to Islamic belief, this time commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

But Ramadan is also known as the “Month of Patience,” teaching practicing members of the faith the value of sabr (patience) in their day to day lives. Seeing as Islam is the third largest faith in America, and the second largest in Canada, we thought we’d consult some venerable professional Muslims about what fasting in the workplace has taught them about themselves, their coworkers, and the nature of work.

Tanzila Ahmed

Tanzila Ahmed Co-Host, Good Muslim Bad Muslim podcast & Campaign Strategist, 18MillionRising (Los Angeles, USA)

“I wish I could be one of the ones that said, “It’s easy!” I’m sure for some people it is. But for me it is a bit more stressful. The first few days you get coffee headaches and then by the end of the month, your body is just exhausted. Here is my list of the worst things about fasting in an office setting:

1. When people burn popcorn in the office kitchen.

2. The blasting air conditioner is even colder when you are not digesting food — and then you need to take sun breaks outside so you can reheat your blood.

3. Ramadan stinky breath is a real thing and you get really self-conscious about having to take a meeting in close quarters.

The plus side to fasting in an office setting:

1. If you drop the ball on a project, you can easily use the “I have Ramadan brain, and my memory is all foggy and I forgot” card. That card is good for the month.

2. If you accidentally fall asleep in your office cubicle, people won’t judge you because you are fasting.

3. You are excused from going on all those team-building lunches and happy hours. Because who really enjoys those, anyways?

4. Without having lunch to eat on lunch break, you can just leave work early. Just make sure your boss didn’t catch you taking that nap earlier.

Now that I work from home, I don’t really have to deal with any of these issues anymore. And in fact, my co-workers have been really patient when I accidentally end up taking a nap because I’m fasting. I just send them a message on Slack and catch up on messages when I wake back up! I highly suggest working from home when fasting for Ramadan. It’s the best.”

Fauzia Khanani

Fauzia Khanani — Founder and Principal, Foz Design (New York, USA)

“For me, Ramadan is a good reminder that work is not the end-all-be-all and that anything that doesn’t get done today will still be there the next day. In a way, it provides a better work-life balance because I physically and mentally can’t work my usual long hours. At some point my body and mind force me to stop working so I can prepare my food and break my fast.”

Aamir Baig

Aamir Baig — CEO, (Vancouver, BC, Canada)

“Working during Ramadan creates more focus as you basically eliminate all activities related to eating and drinking and, in general, have a higher incentive to focus on work. I feel much more disciplined during this month because of the adherence requirement to the timings (time for prayer and for breaking the fast). But I think the biggest benefit is the effect post-Ramadan, where you feel you’ve just gone through a bootcamp of discipline, focus and patience.

For my partners, it was a great gesture on their part to experience what I experience (A few of Baig’s non-Muslim colleagues volunteered to fast for two days in order to experience what he goes through every Ramadan). They took it in good spirit, although I think they’re still recovering. Experiences like these create closer bonds and higher mutual respect.”

Hoda Abdulla

Hoda Abdulla — Social Media Manager, Pierre Fabre (New Jersey, USA)

“I never had a problem fasting until I joined the workforce and I was frequently the only person in the office who was observing. In my college days, my schedule was much more flexible (Fridays off, what!) and the community was pretty large, so I had a solid support system to encourage me all the way to the finish line (Iftar).

I have a real issue with how structured the corporate world can be, and that is amplified even more during Ramadan. For someone to tell me I had to be in this office from 9 am to 5pm every day really irked me. What if I wanted to stay up until suhoor (dawn) so I could actually enjoy more than one meal a day? What if I wanted to go home at 4pm because I didn’t have any more energy? Not possible. Have to tough it out. As with anything, you begin to adjust. It will never be easy, but there’s nothing more I can do besides have patience and remember the true meaning of Ramadan. I think that helps put things in perspective.”

Sarah Hagi

Sarah Hagi — Writer (Montreal, Canada)

“Fasting throughout the workday is a challenge, but it also serves as a great way to learn better work habits. When you’re fasting, there’s no time to be lazy because you’re likely getting hungrier as the day progresses. I find I need to do things exactly when they come up, because I know procrastinating means suffering.

As a writer and someone who works from home mostly, I’m fortunate to not have to encounter much in terms of physical exhaustion. But I do find I have to push myself to keep my mental energy up which is exactly what I love about Ramadan — you find new ways to keep going even when you want to give up.”

Zahra Noorbhakash

Zahra Noorbhakash — Co-Host, Good Muslim Bad Muslim podcast (Oakland, USA)

“I don’t observe in the typical way, abstaining from food or drink from sunup to sundown. I’ve struggled with disordered eating for much of my life and fasting is very triggering. Judging myself for being a “good” or “bad” Muslim based on my endurance as it relates to self-starvation is already charged and doesn’t bring me closer to Allah. This Ramazan*, I’ve made a promise to give myself the space to notice what happens for me. That’s it. Not making any changes, just good ol’ mindful observation.”

Mamoon Hamid

Mamoon Hamid — Co-founder and General Partner, Social Capital (San Francisco, USA)

“Ramadan is my favorite time of year, a month of intense focus and scrutiny on every thought and action. It’s like running a marathon for a month straight: It’s detoxifying for the body and cathartic for the soul.

I use this time to remind myself that the mind and body are so much more capable than we give them credit for. Breakfast, lunches and coffee become an afterthought. It’s also a time to scrutinize how I act and what I say towards those around me — just trying to be a little better all around. Small efforts yield big results. I look forward to it every year!”

Ramadan is a wholly different experience when your job requires more strenuous physical exertion. Luckily for their fans, NFL players Hamza and Husain Abdullah posted some handy advice on training while fasting. Meanwhile, Palestinian-American activist and media commentator Linda Sarsour perfectly captures the day-to-day struggles faced by the fasting in this video for the Huffington Post. Take it from this Muslim, you really don’t want to find yourself in any of these scenarios around your Muslim colleagues.

Ramadan officially concludes on July 6th but, Muslim or not, we’d all do well to remember the lessons this month teaches so many: have patience.

*Ramazan is the non-Arabic pronunciation of Ramadan

Lima Al-Azzeh always looked forward to Ramadan holidays as a kid.

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