The Business of Ramadan

Last week marked the halfway point of Ramadan, the month of fasting observed by more than one billion Muslims worldwide – including a few dozen here at HBS. Perhaps you have noticed sectionmates in class without their regular coffee cups or missing from Spangler during the usual noontime crunch. Perhaps you’ve seen someone sitting through a lunchtime presentation without food or drink on their desk. In any case, Ramadan has a deep social and economic impact on a fifth of the world’s population and is a phenomenon worth understanding by future leaders.

What Is Ramadan?
Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, is a month of fasting and of increased worship. Each day Muslims abstain from food, drink (including water) and certain other physical pleasures from dawn until sunset. This season here in Boston, the fast is about twelve hours long.

Muslims are also encouraged to be especially generous during this monath. Tradition reports that during the holy month the Prophet Muhammad was “as generous as the blowing breeze.”

In addition to fasting, Muslims perform special prayers at night and spend time reciting and reflecting on the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Muslims believe that the scripture was originally revealed in the month of Ramadan and in particular on a special night near the end of the month.

Because the Islamic calendar is lunar (and therefore shorter than the solar calendar), Ramadan moves about ten days earlier each year. This year Ramadan occurs during the fall; in a few years it will occur in the summer, when the days are much longer.

Why Fast?
Fasting, in various forms, is a practice found in many spiritual traditions. The Qur’an refers to this in stating that “fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you in order that you may gain piety.”

Traditions such as the sunset-to-sunset Yom Kippur fast and observing Lent are examples of diverse types of fasting practiced today. In its chapter on the Virgin Mary (chapter 19), the Qur’an refers to a type of fasting in previous times during which people would refrain from speech for a fixed period of time.

Fasting helps people gain piety by practicing self-restraint. It also makes people more sympathetic to the poor and needy – those deprived of food by necessity rather than by choice. Another spiritual benefit can be a reminder of one’s limitations as a human being and his or her complete dependence on divine bounties.

Business Impact of Ramadan
In the Muslim world Ramadan deeply affects social and economic life, with significant consequences for business. Just a few of these effects are discussed below.

Food and Hospitality. Contrary to what one might guess, food service businesses thrive in Ramadan. The major change is that daytime consumption goes down and is replaced by increased nightlife. Restaurants serve groups breaking their fast and cafes are often open through the night. There are also special foods and delicacies consumed in Ramadan which vary from country to country.

Retail. In many countries, retail hours are shifted to accommodate Ramadan. For example, shops may be open in the morning, close in the afternoon and re-open after sunset for several hours of evening shopping.

Media and Entertainment. Special media content, both secular and religious, is developed especially for Ramadan. In Egypt, for example, there are month-long drama mini-series that run during Ramadan.

Working Hours. In many countries working hours are adjusted for Ramadan. These adjustments take different forms, including starting earlier and closing before sunset or working one stretch in the morning and another in the evening. These changes are found in all sectors, not just consumer-facing businesses.

Business leaders dealing with organizations in the Muslim world and with Muslim colleagues anywhere can benefit from awareness of and sensitivity to these and other important practices.

Ramadan at HBS
Ramadan is alive and well here at HBS, with many Muslims observing the fast and other special activities. The Muslim community at HBS and University-wide has organized social events throughout the month.

One event to look out for will be an Open Iftar for the HBS community, which will be held this week. At this annual event, we invite all students, faculty and staff to taste the Ramadan experience by joining us in breaking the fast one afternoon. We hope that many will turn out to share the Ramadan spirit and enjoy some tasty treats.

This article is the first in a series of two. The next, to appear next week, will feature several students’ accounts of Ramadan at HBS.