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Muslim Religious Practices in the Workplace
Legal Protections of Religious Rights
Religiously mandated practices are protected both by the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of religion, and by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which provides that an employer may not discriminate against a person on the basis of religion and must accommodate an employee’s religious practices, unless it causes undue hardship.
As our nation grows increasingly diverse, it is important to understand and try to accommodate the religious practices of all employees to the best of a corporation’s ability. The following are some common religious practices which may impact some Muslim employees on the job and proposed workplace accommodations for them. While these are practices of a typical, religiously observant Muslim employee, it is important to remember that Muslims are not all the same.
Islam prescribes five daily prayers, a practice observed by many Muslims. The prayers take place during the following windows of time: dawn to sunrise; midday to late afternoon; late afternoon to before sunset; sunset to dusk; and after dusk. The time periods vary depending on the time of year, and some of the time periods, such as that for evening prayer, are shorter than others. The noon and afternoon prayers usually fall during regular work hours. Before praying, Muslims are required to wash their hands, mouth, nose, face, arms, and feet, which can be done in a bathroom sink. During the prayer, Muslims quietly recite from the Quran and other prayers as they stand, bow, and prostrate themselves. The prayer should be performed in a quiet, clean, dry place, such as an employee’s office or cubicle. Privacy is desirable but not required. A person praying is not able to respond to someone talking to them or to a telephone call until they complete the prayer. The time required for washing and prayer is about ten to fifteen minutes. The noon prayer can fit in during lunch breaks, and other prayers during coffee breaks as needed. Friday is the day of congregational worship, which includes a sermon and prayer during the time of the noon prayer. It takes place at a mosque or hall and lasts about 45 to 60 minutes. A Muslim employee should be able to complete the Friday prayer during an extended lunch break. It is appreciated if lunch meetings are not scheduled on a Friday so that Muslim employees are able to attend the Friday prayers.
Ramadan is the name of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Because it is a lunar month, it moves eleven days earlier each year; its beginning and end is determined by the sighting of the new moon. This year, Ramadan began on April 13th and will end on May 12th. During Ramadan, Muslims fast by refraining from food and drink from pre-dawn to sunset. Ramadan is also a time of increased devotion and moral conduct. Muslim employees continue to work during Ramadan; the only change is that they will not be able to eat during lunch times but will eat after the sun sets. Some employees may request a change in schedule to come in later since they may be up late at night for special night prayers. Some employee may use some of their personal vacation during the last ten days of Ramadan to engage in extra devotion. Travelers, sick people, the elderly, and pregnant and nursing women are exempt from fasting in Ramadan but may choose to fast anyway.
Muslim adults are required to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in their lifetime if it is financially and physically possible. The pilgrimage lasts for only five days, but most people remain in the area before and after hajj for a total of two to three weeks. Muslim employees may choose to use their vacation days to perform the pilgrimage. Hajj, like Ramadan, does not fall at a fixed time but moves eleven days earlier each year. Since hajj happens only once a year, it is challenging and expensive to reschedule a planned hajj. When Muslims are on hajj they are generally not available for phone or electronic communications. Muslims may also use their vacation time for a lesser pilgrimage to Mecca known as umrah. While umrah includes many of the same rituals as hajj, it does not have a fixed date and can take place at any time of the year.
Twice a year, first at the end of Ramadan and again during the time of the pilgrimage, Muslims celebrate Eid, meaning “festival,” for a period of three to four days. The first holiday, Eid al-Fitr, the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” comes at the conclusion of Ramadan and celebrates the successful completion of the month of fasting. The second holiday, Eid-ul-Adha, the “Festival of the Sacrifice,” is celebrated at the time of the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca by Muslims who did not go on the pilgrimage. These holidays are celebrated with congregational prayers, fair-like celebrations, visiting friends, and exchanging gifts. Muslim employees may request to take time off for the first day of the holidays twice a year for these celebrations, just as employees of other faiths take days off for their holidays. Both celebrations also follow the lunar calendar, so the dates move eleven days earlier each year and are determined by the sighting of the new moon. Adding Muslim holidays to any corporate calendar and avoiding scheduling important meetings on the holidays is greatly appreciated.
Like member of some other faiths, observant Muslims do not eat pork or pork by-products. Additionally, some Muslims also follow the injunction to eat only meat and poultry that has been slaughtered in a specific manner, known as halal, (literally meaning permissible), which is similar to kosher. In situations where halal meat is not available, vegetarian dishes, dairy, and fish products are a good alternative. Observant Muslims also abstain from drinking alcohol.
Islam prescribes that both Muslim men and women behave and dress modestly and that they should be valued for their skills and character, not their physical attributes. Some Muslim men wear beards and may wear a skull cap. Some Muslim women wear loose fitting, non-revealing clothing which covers everything except their face and hands. The religiously mandated head scarf known as hijab is often part of their modest attire, and women in head scarves should be treated in the same way as men who wear skull caps or turbans.
Again, because of the emphasis on modesty between genders, some Muslims may be reluctant to shake the hand of an unrelated person of the opposite gender. This should not be taken as an insult but as a sign of personal modesty. Similarly, some Muslims may avoid sustained eye contact with someone of the opposite gender, not because of an unwillingness to communicate, but again due to modesty. During social events where there is dancing or alcohol being served, some Muslims prefer not to participate for religious reasons and should not be penalized for this choice. Because of the prohibition against selling or drinking alcohol, Muslim employees may also want to avoid serving or selling alcoholic beverages.
American Muslims are a growing part of the corporate landscape, contributing to all walks of life, in a variety of professions. A better understanding of our Muslim neighbors and co-workers will both enrich our own lives and make theirs easier. In our increasingly diverse and multi-cultural society, education, understanding, and tolerance are the keys to a harmonious workplace and society.