The world’s 1.8 billion Muslims approach business and life differently for one month of the year. Our expat guide to Ramadan brings you up to speed on this special season.
Nearly one-fourth of the world’s population observes a month of fasting each year to commemorate the revelation of the Qur’an. Muslims are required to fast from dawn to dusk over the entire period, known as Ramadan, as a central tenet of their faith.
With some 1.8 billion Muslims around the world and the Islamic economy valued at US$2.1 trillion, it’s possible you’re either marking Ramadan yourself or interacting with someone who does. That could affect your life in different ways. As an expat in a Muslim country, office culture changes considerably according to the different rules and customs associated with the holy month. You won’t be eating or drinking at your desk, and you’ll probably be working shorter hours than usual. As a professional working with Muslim colleagues or traveling within the Islamic world, expect meetings to be rescheduled or to be invited to late-night social gatherings.
Our handy primer for first-timers answers some of the most frequently asked business and social questions about this special time.
What and when is Ramadan?
Muslims believe that it was in Ramadan that God revealed the first verses of the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred text, to the prophet Mohammed. Accordingly, they are required to practice self-restraint through fasting, communal prayer and charity, as acts of spiritual purification. People believe their deeds carry more weight during Ramadan, and their sins are forgiven.
Given its importance as one of the five pillars of Islam (which also include the declaration of faith, prayer, charity, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca), even otherwise secular Muslims may often observe Ramadan. Its occurrence is based on the Islamic calendar, which follows a lunar cycle and lasts 354 or 355 days. This means the month of Ramadan, which lasts either 29 or 30 days, occurs at different times each year.
In 2021, Ramadan is likely to begin on the evening of 12 April (the Islamic day begins at sunset) and run until 11 May. The exact dates depend on when the new moon appears. As a result, the beginning and end may differ from country to country.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Eid al-Fitr, a two-day festival celebrating the end of the fasting period, follows Ramadan. It is one of the two major Muslim festivals; the other is Eid al-Adha, which is approximately two and a half months later.
How does it affect my life and my business?
Ramadan affects the lives of millions, as it’s a time for personal reflection. As your friends and colleagues reflect and fast, you’ll notice changes, too. Some Muslims don’t observe Ramadan at all and go about their activities as normal. Others pray five times a day and maintain the fast as required; this means no eating, drinking (not even water), smoking, or sexual activity during daylight hours. You read that right: no food or water for 14 hours. Medicines are forbidden during the fast, but sick people aren’t required to observe at all. There are those who feel they shouldn’t be swallowing their own saliva, or that brushing their teeth breaks the fast, but religious leaders aren’t all in agreement.
Even in countries where Ramadan is not widely celebrated, a little consideration can go a long way. Suggest rescheduling work lunches or drinks to the evening, or to after Ramadan. Allow Muslim staff to leave an hour earlier in lieu of their lunch break over the month. In many places such as New York (PDF), you’d only be following the law.
Conducting business during Ramadan
Non-Muslim expats may need to make some adjustments depending on the country they’re in. Office hours may change, while offices and government departments may be shut. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, the working day is two hours shorter than normal – for everyone. In some places, people may take a longer midday break and return to work after breaking their fast – particularly when Ramadan coincides with winter. Consequently, you may find that no one turns up to a weekly afternoon meeting or conference call. It’s a good idea to discuss whether meetings conflict with the prayer timings that fall during business hours, and to reschedule them for the mid-morning instead if necessary.
Project managers may need to plan for and factor in delays; it won’t hurt to adopt an empathetic leadership style. Anecdotal evidence abounds of cross-border teams facing tired staff, lowered productivity, missed deadlines, inflated budgets, time lost due to sick days, and more. With the fasting day stretching to nearly 15 hours in the Arab world (and longer in northern Europe and Canada), staying on course can be a challenge.
I’m traveling in the Muslim world during Ramadan
Across the Muslim world, business is much more relaxed in Ramadan, with shorter working hours and decisions made at a slower pace. When Ramadan coincides with the summer months or school holidays – as it did in 2019 – many people (particularly expats) book their annual vacations at this time and defer major decisions until later.
Naturally, breakfast and lunch meetings are a no-no. It’s acceptable to ask if a person is fasting or not (some people are exempt because of health or other factors, while others may choose not). However, joking about it, or about how intermittent fasting helped you lose weight, or suggesting loopholes isn’t. Muslim friends and staff appreciate the courtesy anywhere.
Restrictions apply to almost everyone
Depending on where exactly you are, you may find a majority of food and beverage outlets closed, with specific laws against eating, drinking, smoking, and even chewing gum in public (sometimes even within your own car!). The laws also apply to non-Muslim residents and tourists in these countries. Some cities, such as Dubai, have areas where life carries on as normal, such as in the media-free zones, but you might have to drive around to find a lunchtime café in other districts. Muslims observe dress code regulations more strictly during Ramadan; both men and women must cover their shoulders and knees. A woman may want to consider wearing a jacket or a skirt that reaches past her knees.
When the fast ends, shops often close for a short time as staff break their fast. However, they often stay open far longer, late into the night. Again, airport queues may be longer than normal at specific times; factor in a little extra time.
Ramadan is a great time to experience a city in a completely different light. There are often events and food streets specially organized for its duration. In Istanbul, mosques and trees are lit up, there are night markets selling treats and religious items, and the city generally wears a festive air.
My local office wants to host an iftar. What’s that?
Iftar is the breaking of the fast at sundown. It is often a big communal meal, and Muslims generally include their non-Muslim friends and colleagues as well. As a business owner, it’s also good form to host one of these meals. Iftar is typically an extensive buffet for family, friends, colleagues, or underprivileged members of the community. Seek guidance from local colleagues, though; there are specific customs to follow whether you’re the host or a guest. Since Islam forbids alcohol, bringing or serving it would not be appreciated, nor would suggesting a visit to your local.
Muslims often invite non-Muslim guests to an iftar dinner during Ramadan. It’s polite to show up on time and to wait until your host invites you to begin eating. Even if food has been laid out or served, your host is likely waiting for the moment where it is possible to eat again.
In Asia or the Arab world, you could even be invited to a late-night suhoor. Suhoor – or sehri in India and Pakistan and sahur in Singapore and Malaysia – is the pre-dawn meal before the day’s fast. Corporate suhoors are now commonplace in countries with a significant Muslim population, but there’s no need to panic. Nobody expects you to show up at 3:00 in the morning; these events often begin around 22:00 and usually end by midnight.
Both traditions are a great way to learn about a new culture through your friends’ or colleagues’ perspective. If a colleague invites you an iftar or suhoor, approach these gatherings as a time to build rapport rather than as a place to discuss the finer points of a deal.
What should I say to someone who’s fasting?
There are two appropriate greetings during Ramadan: Ramadan Kareem (which is a wish for a generous Ramadan) and Ramadan Mubarak (which means ‘have a blessed Ramadan’). Greeting with ‘happy Ramadan’ may cause offense, as many Muslims focus on the spiritual aspect of the season.
When visiting someone who’s celebrating Ramadan, you can take them a gift. A box of fine dates or a sweet made with dates (such as a cake or jam) will be appreciated; just make sure it’s halal. Muslims break their fast with dates to restore blood sugar levels.
When approached with respect for its cultural values, Ramadan is a great time to make new friends and even build new business relationships in Islamic countries.