These days, Jamal Afridi eats dinner around 8:30 p.m., well after his workday ends and more than 16 hours since he last had food or drink. Most nights, he cooks for himself or picks up Chipotle on his way home from work at 1871 as a product developer at online brokerage MortgageHippo.
Afridi is one of the estimated 400,000 Chicago-area Muslims observing
While fasting offers personal and spiritual benefits, the workday presents unique hurdles: The need to schedule business lunches when one can't eat, low energy without coffee breaks and curious questions — if not outright disbelief — from co-workers.
The ability to work from home a couple days a week gives Afridi respite, especially given that the fast, set by the Islamic calendar, falls in a month of long, warm days this year.
Afridi's co-workers found out he was fasting when he declined a lunch invitation, and he said they've been supportive, even though they might not understand why he does it. The smells wafting from Intelligentsia near 1871's entrance, and the free pizza offered on Fridays, present a more tempting challenge — but one he's successfully avoided.
"When you've been doing it for 20 years, you know what to expect," said Afridi, 28. Like many Muslims, he began fasting at a young age, at first often only making it to lunchtime.
To tell or not to tell?
Increased communication between Muslims and their employers has improved the workplace for them, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the
"Ramadan offers an opportunity for Muslim workers to educate their co-workers and their supervisors about their faith in a non-threatening way," by inviting them over for meals that break the fast, or by sharing traditional treats around Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, Hooper said. Eid is Monday; Sunday is the last day of the fast this year.
Iman Boundaoui, a summer associate at the Chicago offices of Philadelphia-based law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, said telling co-workers about fasting has helped them connect — and she's not letting the fast keep her away from networking lunches with colleagues.
A rising third year at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, she went out to lunch nearly every day in June with partners and associates. During Ramadan, she has continued to attend lunches even though she isn't eating.
"It would be a wasted opportunity to not go," Boundaoui said. The 26-year-old Algerian-American hopes she'll be asked to join the firm full-time after graduation. "The first lunch or two I was like, 'This is so weird.' I quickly found that food isn't everything, and I think maybe that's the point of Ramadan on some level."
Boundaoui said she has juggled work, summer classes and religious commitments by sacrificing rest. She stays up after the dawn prayer close to 4 a.m. to read the Quran. Later, she doesn't allow herself to lounge until after she returns from taraweeh, the optional Ramadan night prayer, at 11 p.m., meaning she's often on the go for more than 14 hours.
Low energy is one of the month's biggest challenges, which some Muslim workers handle by tackling complex tasks at times of day when they're most alert, or by taking power naps in the office.
Gazzel Nabulsi, 23, has also found her co-workers to be considerate of her needs. The Syrian-American employee of
There are two other Muslims in her 40-employee division. "It's nice to know there are other people in your exact same situation," Nabulsi said.
Morton Grove-based financial consultant K. Rizwan Kadir, of Pakistani-Kashmiri origin, has spent some 25 Ramadans in the American workplace. He avoids bringing up religion in professional settings. He doesn't feel it's appropriate and notes that there is anti-Muslim sentiment in some quarters.
"Long gone are the days when people come out and say, 'I hate Muslims,'" he said. "But they may not like knowing that they're working with a Muslim."
A former entrepreneur, Kadir said he sometimes used to pitch investors at times that coincided with the end of the day's fast, a time when most Muslims would typically eat or drink right away. Instead of interrupting a presentation, he would keep water nearby so he could take a sip as soon as the time allowed. No one was aware he was fasting.
"Within our faith, we have built-in mechanisms to allow us to adjust to dynamic situations in our professional lives," Kadir said.
Muslims are exempted from fasting when they have a valid excuse, such as health or work demands. Those who are physically able make up missed fasts at a later date. These days, Kadir reschedules lunch meetings or skips fasts if postponing isn't possible.
Making it work
In Muslim countries, work schedules often shift to accommodate Ramadan. No such luxury is available to most American Muslims.
Atif Sheikh, a first year neurology resident at
The Raleigh, N.C., native moved to Chicago and began his residency at the start of Ramadan with a week of overnight shifts in the ICU. Work started before iftar, the fast-breaking meal, and ended after suhoor, the pre-dawn meal. The 28-year-old Pakistani-American said he barely had time to eat anyway but kept beverages close whenever possible.
Now, his full-day shifts offer little free time to fulfill the other requirements and optional activities of Ramadan.
"It's a time of reflection, yet I've been so busy with work I can't seem to sit down and think, read Quran and pray," Sheikh said. Sometimes he ducks into empty conference or exam rooms for obligatory daytime prayers.
Ahlam Mustafa, a 32-year-old Palestinian-American who works at computer technology firm Oracle's Chicago offices, said wellness rooms at her office provide a private space that can be used for prayer or reading Quran. Nabulsi and Boundaoui said their offices have similar amenities.