While fasting is considered one of the mandatory pillars of Islam, there are several circumstances where it is acceptable for a Muslim not to fast. The ill, pre-pubescent children, and menstruating or nursing women are all automatically exempt, and those who are traveling are given leeway as well (though it can be argued that a 20-mile journey on camelback in the deserts of Arabia isn’t comparable to the standard daily commute). Other than those exceptions, it is generally understood that fasting is required of Muslims during Ramadan.
Therefore, you might assume that every Muslim you come across in your daily life (that is, if you come across Muslims at all) is fasting. However, this isn’t necessarily the case.
It’s not something you’ll hear most Muslims admit freely, but not all Muslims practice their religion the same way – much like adherents of any other faith. Quite often Ramadan is the time you’ll learn you have a Muslim coworker, when he or she politely declines the office lunch that everyone else is gathering in the conference room for. It might also be a time when that same Muslim coworker bites his tongue as the fellow Muslim he knows in the office is chowing down with the rest of them.
For most of my professional life, I have had between two and ten Muslim colleagues at a time, and the awkward reality is that I have always been the only one in the office fasting. Of course, there are many reasons why my Muslim colleagues don’t fast, and it is good to remember that in an age of so much fear about Islam or Muslims, some might be genuinely concerned about the possibility of workplace discrimination. I am certainly not in a place to say or do anything to my Muslim colleages (the Qur’anic admonition that there is “no compulsion in religion” rings in my head), but it does present a delicate challenge.
I go out of my way to make sure that my non-Muslim colleagues do not feel uncomfortable about my fasting. The same goes for my Muslim non-fasting colleagues as well. While they may nervously offer up reasons why they have coffee cup in hand (the most popular excuse: “I have to take my medicine on a full stomach”), at no time did I ask for such a reason. Faith is a deeply personal experience, and there is no value in a compelled act of faith.
I am not fasting to show off or to make a point to people. Ramadan is supposed to instill humility and temper the tendency to be arrogant or judgmental. I am fasting to better myself and please God. In situations like this, I choose to be an example of someone who quietly merges his religious responsibilities with his career in such a way that neither is compromised. If my Muslim colleagues find inspiration in my actions and start fasting themselves, that’s wonderful. If not, I wish them all the blessings of Ramadan anyway, in whatever way they see fit to practice it.