Employer Provision of space for ritual Islamic prayer in the US Workplace
I have been asked about provision of space for ritual Islamic prayer in the workplace. The context of the inquiry is related to providing reasonable accommodation for religious practice as a religious civil right for U.S. employees. Although the question posed is quite specific, it is typical of a range of such questions I have addressed, in which I have been asked to provide a discussion and explanation of religious law and typical practice relevant to a case involving religious civil rights or similar issues. The explanation is usually fairly straightforward. In this case, the nature of Islamic prayer is such that from the point of view of the specialist in sharia, Islamic law, or an anthropologist studying different practices, there are manifold distinctions between various communities and individuals. But, these are all quite minor—none of these would really be relevant to the issue at hand except in a minor way, influencing minor details.
It’s important to draw attention, however, to some key issues that shape the context in which such considerations are discussed. These include (but are not limited to) religious civil rights in Federal and State law; issues of public discourse and practice regarding places for Islamic prayer; and the fact that different legal traditions in Islam have different rulings, none of which may be relevant to a person’s sincerely held religious belief about what is needed to complete the requirements of Islamic prayer. After a brief paragraph on each of these concerns, I will turn to the specifics of the space needed for Islamic prayer.
A full response would require more space than is allotted here.
1. Some introductory considerations
Religious civil rights, sincerely held beliefs, reasonable accommodation, discrimination and harassment, and undue hardship: Federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as state laws and other legislation and regulations guarantee religious civil rights in the workplace. Recent controversies about medical coverage requirements within the Affordable Health Care act serve to indicate that religious civil rights may apply to employers as well as to employees, and that various rights and privileges accorded by law can be in conflict. In some cases, there may be questions about determining whether an employee request reflects a sincerely held belief, whether employer has made a good-faith response for a religious accommodation, whether the response reflects prohibited religious discrimination, and exactly how to demonstrate “undue hardship” to an employer. Different jurisdictions (and different contracts) may have different standards regarding such issues as limitations on employer right to terminate employment, harassment, discrimination and so forth. Moreover, provision of certain accommodations to one type of religious believer but not another may sometimes constitute discrimination. All these considerations are crucial to this issue and may determine which aspects of traditional religious law and actual practice need explanation in this context.
Discourse about Islam in Public Spaces: Issues relating to Islamic prayer in public spaces have in recent times often played a role in such matters as construction of chapels in airports, military bases, campuses, and elsewhere or even in the location of mosques (prominently for example, in the “World Trade Center Mosque” or “Ground Zero Mosque” as the Park 51 project in New York City was often called). The Denver International Airport interfaith chapel may be a better example for this purpose, however. Jews and Christians were able to agree on a room that celebrates sufficiently common religious themes, and is devoid of objectionable iconography, images and symbols. The organizing committee concluded that a separate room was needed to accommodate Muslim sensibilities.
In addition, there is a discourse about discrimination against Muslims in America, partially justified and partially not (It is totally beyond the scope of this short response, and irrelevant to it, to determine the degree to which it is or is not justified). Issues of perceived or real discrimination are typically germane to religious civil rights issues. This is part of the reason why determining a baseline of typical practice is important.
Islamic Law is not unilateral, and Islamic practice or “sincerely held beliefs” about such practice may differ from Islamic law: Islamic law is not unilateral, although the sincerely held belief of a Muslim might require a certain practice. In some countries, state legislation prefers a particular tradition within Islam. For example, Imami Shi’a in Iran, Hanafi in areas of personal status adjudicated by religious courts in a number of successor states to the Ottoman Empire (and, to a certain extent, “Anglo-Muhammadan Law” in religious courts in successor states to British India). Even in such areas, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen a mixing of practice and rulings. There is no single standard in the United States, although some US communities maintain practices reflecting their origins.
Different Sufi, sunni, and shi’a traditions within Islam have different ideas about prayer times, combining distinct prayers, and prayer spaces, as well as different rankings of preferred, prohibited, or mandated practices. Different societies and communities also have varying approaches to prayer practice, expectations about attending the mosque for prayers, or for that matter the percentage of Muslims who are “religious” and do the required five prayers daily. Nevertheless, the provisions of one or another school of Islamic law, or the expectations of one or another law school, or the practices of a particular community may or may not necessarily have bearing on the sincerely-held belief of an employee regarding this issue.
2. Islamic prayer and spaces for prayer
Despite the divergences alluded to, Islamic prayer is remarkably standard among Muslims who pray. For our purposes here, Muslims all agree that five statutory prayers are required each day, at dawn, noon-time, afternoon, evening, and night. Shi’as generally combine the noon and afternoon prayer, and the evening and night prayer. The Friday Noon prayer (“Jum’a”) is a special prayer, including a khutba “sermon” and thus much longer in duration; moreover traditional Islamic authorities require all Muslims to attend the Jum’a prayer in a central location. Formal prayer includes various postures and movements, recitation from the Qur’an, other prayer texts, and a space for private devotion. Generally, if there are multiple Muslims in a place of employment, they will want to be able to pray together.
Islamic ritual prayer requires the ritual cleanliness. Generally this is accomplished by ritual washing. Mosques have special locations with running water for this purpose but in general these may be performed in a bathroom. A shower is sometimes required.
Generally, Islamic law requires cleanliness in the place of prayer (musalla) as well. It must be clean, and devoid of human images; some might insist it be devoid of all images. Traditional mosques have only calligraphic inscriptions, geometric designs, and highly stylized designed sometimes called “floral” although they do not look like actual flowers. Others have religious images, for example a depiction of the Pilgrimage or the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. Nevertheless, no decorations can be in front of a believer doing the prayer that might be construed as an object of veneration. It’s best to pray in a place set aside for prayer, such as a mosque, and in which the believer can concentrate on his prayers during the time required for them.
The place should be demarcated for prayer. Shoes are never worn in a prayer space, even when it is used for non-religious purposes, or visited by non-Muslims. The practice of using a prayer rug reflects that fact that most Muslims would consider a rug to be a satisfactory way of assuring the prayer location was demarcated and clean.
Finally, Islamic tradition demands that prayer not be interrupted by people or animals passing in front of the person performing the prayer. This may be accomplished by prayer in a mosque or musalla set up in such a way that this cannot happen. It is less typical to pray in such a way that the believer is right against a wall preventing people or animals to pass in front. Islamic tradition recounts that Muhammad set a sword or camel saddle in front of his place of prayer to serve as a demarcation. In these accounts, it is noted that a dog or camel passed in front of the Prophet, and it did invalidate his prayer, or even that his wife Aisha lay in front of him, but without moving, that is, she did not pass through the space in front of him, which also did not invalidate his prayer.
Interestingly, there are reports that Muhammad’s fellow tribesmen mocked him while he was praying and brought the blood, dung, and internal organs of a slaughtered camel on the back of Muhammad while he was praying. The tradition says that this did not interrupt Muhammad’s concentration on his prayer (which would have invalidated it) but that afterwards, Muhammad cursed them and that they died on the battlefield at Badr (a famous battle between the Muslims and Muhammad’s tribesmen). But it does not say that this mockery invalidated his prayer!
The provision of adequate prayer space in an employment or similar situation is a complicated religious civil rights matter, involving aspects of Federal, State and other religious civil rights legislation, Islamic law, and a discourse about Islam. Although there are quite a few variations in specific details such as the earliest or latest time for a specific prayer or combining prayers, Islamic prayer practice is reasonably standard across the entire spectrum of Islam.
Islamic practice insists only that the prayer place be clean, that images and items that might be considered objects of veneration not be in front of the believer while praying, and that the believer’s prayer not be interrupted by persons or animals passing in front. Many Muslims will demarcate a prayer space by providing a “prayer rug.” Perhaps less common today, this may be achieved by setting an item as a ritual barrier in front.
Employers should make reasonable accommodations for prayer time, including time to travel to a mosque or ideal prayer space if doing so does not constitute undue hardship. With respect to place for prayer, the account of Muhammad praying in the midst of his tribe supports the validity of prayer and the possibility of required concentration in prayer, even in a hostile environment. To be sure, this narrative situates his prayer in the holiest place to Islam, and Muslims prefer a place that is quiet and dedicated to prayer. Yet it also supports the observed practice that Muslims who pray daily who are unable to get to a Mosque or use a place in their home for prayer due to location, travel, employment or other reasons will pray in a public space, an open part of an office, or even (as is observed frequently in the Islamic world) in the public street, if meeting the proper conditions of a clean, demarcated space.