5 Things NEVER to Say to Muslim Coworkers

With Ramadan–the holiest month on the Islamic calendar–beginning, issues of religious accommodation and cultural competency may come up in your workplace. That’s because Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. To help you avoid offending Muslim colleagues now and throughout the year, here are five things not to say.


Want to read more in-depth information on religion in the workplace Visit our diversity-management website, BestPractices.DiversityInc.com. For best practices and legal advice on religion in the workplace, check out our webinar on faith.

1. “Why can’t Muslims decide when Ramadan starts

Since the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan is determined by the sighting of the new moon, which varies from year to year. And like other faiths, there are interpretational differences in beliefs. “In America, there are two groups of Muslims: The first believes you can use scientific data to determine when a new moon can be sighted, and thus you can predetermine the month,” says Nadir Shirazi, creator of “The Ramadan Guide for the Workplace.” The second group, he says, “believes that you must sight the new crescent moon with the naked eye.” So the start/end dates of Ramadan, depending on the practices of Muslims in your workplace, may be different. Providing flexible hours and allowing floating holidays will permit employees of Islamic and other faiths to celebrate their holidays without using all their vacation time.

2. “Why can’t you eat today”

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during daytime hours, so scheduling office parties, fall festivals and luncheon meetings at that time “puts a Muslim coworker on the spot [and] can be embarrassing for both parties,” explains Shirazi.

Education and consideration are key. “The ideal thing is don’t schedule office parties during these times,” says Niham Awad, founding member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest civil-liberties organization for American Muslims, based in Washington, D.C. “The least thing employers can do is don’t force employees to attend these parties, with all the food and drink, while fasting.”

3. “But you don’t look/dress like a Muslim.”

With an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, to think all look and dress similarly is a stereotype. “All Muslims do not have long beards or wear white robes or hijabs,” explains Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey (ISCJ), a nonprofit religious, charitable and educational organization in South Brunswick, N.J. “That’s the image people see on CNN.” In reality, Islam principle specifically states that there’s no compulsion in faith. Conversely, asking a Muslim woman why she doesn’t cover her body in a black niqab or drapery is equally inappropriate. “Islam is very much a personal and private religion,” says Afia Mirza, a DiversityInc intern who is Muslim.

4. “I didn’t know you were Arab.”

This is another culturally insensitive comment. The reason: Only about 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Middle Eastern. “Muslims are Black. Muslims are white. Muslims are senators … they’re in the White House,” says Chebli. (According to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, three senior leaders in the U.S. government who are Muslim include: Dalia Mogahed, senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies; Ebrahim “Eboo” Patel, founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core [Mogahed and Patel are on the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships]; and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.) According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 10 percent of Muslims are Latino, 15 percent are white, 27 percent are Black and 34 percent are Asian.

5. “Why can’t you pray on your coffee break”

Depending on the times allowed for office breaks, this comment can violate religious rights. That’s because “Muslim prayer must be done within specific time frames,” says Awad, adding that the second and third prayers are during business hours. What’s more, Muslim prayer involves standing up and bowing on the floor, which can be awkward to perform in the workplace. It’s also preferred that prayer be done in a group. Progressive companies will designate a private room or other facility for group prayer. On Fridays, when Muslims are obligated to pray in mosques and not in the office, “companies must give an extended lunch hour,” explains Awad. Companies such as Ford Motor Co., No. 44 in The 2010 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, are involving their interfaith-based employee-resource group to help give members space to share experiences and ideas of religious accommodation.

“These are not only constitutional issues,” says Awad, “but when you have a friendly work environment, you will have better performing and more loyal employees.”

Latest News

Boeing CEO David Calhoun Provides ESG and Supply Chain Update in Message to Employees

Originally published at boeing.mediaroom.com. Boeing Company ranked No. 17 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   Boeing President and CEO Dave Calhoun shared the following message with employees addressing the company’s fourth-quarter results: As we share our fourth-quarter results, I want to thank you for your hard work and…

Cox Communications logo on screen.

Cox on 5 Things To Not Compromise in 2022

Originally published at cox.com. Cox Communications ranked No. 32 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   As you jump into a new year, you may have a list of resolutions you plan to work toward. From short-term goals like reading one book per month to long-term…

Parents protest over Critical Race Theory education in schools

Florida Legislature Issues Initial Approval of Bill That Would Prohibit White ‘Discomfort’ During Black History Education

Even though the Florida Department of Education has already banned the classroom teaching of Critical Race Theory, lawmakers in the state are attempting to go even further, passing a law to protect whites’ “feelings” during education dealing with Black history.  Amy Simonson of CNN reported that a bill backed by…

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell Under Fire for Claiming Black Americans Are Not ‘Americans’

As the battle to protect voting rights continues in the nation’s capital — sadly with little success — veteran politician and minority leader of the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell, has come under fire for a statement he made that implied Black Americans were not “full” Americans. Bruce Schreiner of The…