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“Ramadan Kareem” In The Work Place

I write to you today because I am very unsure of what to do and have had little luck using even your informative site to find out  the proper manners/social courtesy.

I have many clients at my job that are Muslim.  Yesterday was the first day of Ramadan, a very holy month for faithful Muslims.  I myself do not believe in any deity or organized religion.  However, I feel very strongly about the right to believe what one wants and that no one is wrong if they have found a spiritual path/belief that gives them a strong sense of faith and foundation for life.  I would honestly fight to the death to defend any individuals right to believe in Jesus, Allah, Shiva, or even the Flying Spaghetti Monster.    Living in the south, my Muslim clients have never brought up the subject of beliefs unless I’ve asked for information from them.   I do not believe the work place is the correct venue for any of us to talk about such a personal subject  (and my own non belief of anything often makes me a target of well meaning believers.)

I understand that the holy observation has something to do with when their prophet Muhammad was spoken to by Allah/ or an angel.  Please forgive my ignorance if I have the reason for the fast wrong.   I know that Muslims observing Ramadan cannot eat or drink while the sun is up during the month.  I am careful not to schedule any business lunches with my Islamic clients during this time and I have instructed my front desk staff to not offer anyone water during August.  (It is very hot down here and I have my front ladies offer bottled water to everyone that walks in, post man, lost people..everyone!  During August we’ve placed a sign by the cooler that says, “Just ask! We’ll be happy to get you a bottle of water!”)    I want to give anyone that would like refreshment from the southern summer weather, but I do not want to offer it to anyone that must say no. Most people that come into our building are repeat clients that are used to the water (or coffee/hot tea during the winter.), so the neon sign telling people to just ask seemed like a good option.

What I’d like to know is if it would be wrong for me to say “Ramadan Kareem!” to the clients that I know for sure are observing?    I say  “Merry Christmas” during December to my Christian clients, although I am not of their faith.   I would like to acknowledge my clients’ sacrifice of fasting for their beliefs, but I do not want to offend or appear to not respect the holiday.  Is there anyway for a non believer (of everything!) to quietly and politely show respect and knowledge of religions, especially in the work place?   0802-11

I’m confused as to how you can state a belief that discussions about religion are private and not appropriate for the work place and then violate your own beliefs by asking clients about their religious practices.   It seems to me that your belief in the privacy of personal religious beliefs is the central tenant of a business policy towards clients.  So, I’m not sure why you are taking the initiative to ask your clients about a private matter that probably has nothing whatsoever to do with the operation of your business.

Are you assuming that because they are Muslim that they practice certain rituals and celebrations?  Just as with other religions, there are nominal, “secularized” or what I would call “cultural” Muslims.    In the Mormon religion, these nominal believers would be referred to as “Jack Mormons”.   In my own context, we use the phrase “cultural christian” (uncapitalized “c” is intentional) to describe someone claiming a religious affiliation but no evidence of actually practicing their religion.    Not all Muslims may observe Ramadan.  Even among  devout Muslims, there are exemptions to who observes the Ramadan fast.    So, I would caution you to be careful to not presume farther than the direct information available to you as given by each client.   For example, there are Christian denominations that do not celebrate Christmas so wishing them a “Merry Christmas” might not be appropriate.   (And btw, I believe it is gracious to acknowledge that people are well-intentioned and trying to be friendly when they offer holiday greetings that may not agree with one’s own religious beliefs.  Just go with it and enjoy the sentiments behind the words.)  So, wishing “Ramadan Kareem” to a client you know for a fact is observing Ramadan is a perfectly fine greeting.

In matters of courtesy, it is best to err on more rather than less courtesy, imo.   But one can go way too far trying to not offend everyone.   Not scheduling business lunch meetings with known Muslim clients is a kindness but again I caution you that trying to arrange your business interactions in such a way that your clients are never in a position to have to say “No” to honor their religious convictions may not be a realistic business model.  For example, do you avoid restaurants that serve a killer bread basket with the meal so that your Jewish clients observing Passover are not tempted by the smell of warm, delicious leavened bread just begging to be slathered with butter?  Are your business lunch restaurants Kosher?  Do you see where I am going with this?

I think you should trust that your Muslim clients (and all the other religions)  know how to navigate through a secular world in a way that honors their beliefs without compromising them and that they will be gracious in viewing your staff’s hospitality as a kindness even if they must decline the offer of beverages.


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  • sillyme August 8, 2011, 1:54 pm

    Regarding the comment: “in my experience, I observed far more bigotry against Southerners up North than I ever did against anybody down South”

    As a Southerner living in New England for over a decade, I have to say I’ve found that to be true, and painfully so. However, just like anywhere else in the world, one can find (if one looks hard, sometimes) pockets of tolerant, accepting individuals who love difference.

    Hats off to OP.

  • NotCinderell August 8, 2011, 3:59 pm

    Just weighing in, as a religious person, if someone offered me food or drink on a fast day (we’re having one tomorrow, in fact), I’d politely decline and not be offended. It’s never rude to offer, as long as you take a polite no for an answer.

  • harryr August 11, 2011, 11:15 am

    I have many muslim friends – they say that during Ramadan, conversations often go along the lines of “Would you like a drink of water/coffee/tea”. “No, thank you”. End of exchange, no insult intended or taken.

  • Dina August 16, 2011, 2:30 am

    To those who are wondering, fasting during Ramadan is compulsory for all Muslims except for those who are too young, too old, sick, wounded, pregnant, breastfeeding or a person who is likely to face severe health problems if he/she fasts. A person who is fasting cannot eat or drink anything while the sun is up. The whole point of fasting is to resist the worldly temptations so that we understand the pain of those who are not able to fulfill their basic needs. This urges us to be thankful for what we have and be humble and gracious towards those who are not so fortunate.

    I would like to thank the OP for her thoughtfulness, but taking so much trouble is not required.. 🙂 I am a Muslim, I can assure you that abstaining from food and drinks is the sole responsibility of the person who is fasting. We do not expect others to stop eating or cancel lunch meetings to accommodate us. We are used to having people offer us food/drinks while we are fasting, we politely decline and thank them for their thoughtfulness. We do not take any offense as the other party does not mean any. So I think it will be perfectly alright if you offered water to all your clients, those who are fasting can simply decline. 🙂 Asking clients to look for water may not be a good idea…

    And as for wishing Ramadan Kareem, generally I do not think any Muslim would mind… So, if you are sure that the person you are wishing is a Muslim, there is no reason for him to be offended unless he has some personal issues regarding this.