Daily Herald: Working professionals find ways to practice Muslim faith

When asked about the challenges of finding time at work to pray, Jamil Khourshad is dismissive of the difficulties created by the Muslim religion’s daily prayer times.

“If you have time to smoke a cigarette, if you have time to go the bathroom, you have time to pray,” said the downtown Chicago restaurateur. Praying takes only five minutes, he said, and although there are specific times for each of the five daily prayers — times that change throughout the year based on the position of the sun — being accurate to the minute is not essential.

“There is a window,” Kourshad said.

Mazen Asbahi admits he sometimes misses prayers. As a lawyer with Schiff Hardin LLP, sometimes he’s in negotiations and can’t break out.

“A more hard-core Muslim who’s more senior might say, ‘I need to make a five minute break,’ ” Asbahi said. “But at my point in my career, I can’t always do that.”

Muslims also face a challenge celebrating a holy day Friday.

There’s a mosque at 231 S. State St., so those who work in the Loop can slip off to the Friday group prayer on their lunch break, Asbahi says.

Non-Muslims are generally respectful of Islam and he feels lucky to be in Chicago, he says. “We’ve got a lot of cool things going on and it’s a pretty sophisticated, extensive Muslim community.”

There are about 400,000 Muslims in the Chicago area, the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates, though there are no official numbers because the Census Bureau does not ask about religion.

Despite9/11 and conflicts in the Middle East, most Muslims in Chicago with professional jobs fit smoothly into normal work routines and organizations here.

At the same time, there’s evidence of tensions peopleare reluctant to talk about, but this reluctance may underscore general satisfaction with working conditions.

A man who did not want to be quoted or identified said he wished his company would set up a prayer space, but he didn’t want to be the one to bring it up and make a fuss about it.

Federal law says employers must protect employees from harassment and must “reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.”

Many Muslims just quietly find a place to pray on their own. “I’ve heard that some people pray in stair landings,” said Syed Khan, an engineer and consultant.

The Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has fielded about 100 employment complaints since 2005. Problems reported include harassment by co-workers,the barring ofhead scarves and not being able to pray at work.

For the most part, “I think employers understand that legally they’re required to accommodate people’s religious practices,” said Christina Abraham, the civil rights coordinator for the chapter.

The biggest problems Muslims face are misunderstandings about the faith.

“The last thing you want when people are driving by a mosque in a suburb is for them to think there are terrorists hanging out there,” Asbahi said.

“It’s a lot of education of non-Muslims that needs to happen,” said Khan.

Chicago Muslim professionals said co-workers often appreciate religious conviction, even if those convictions are different. And many are quick to place the responsibility on themselves.

“Your relationships at work really depend on how well you communicate what your beliefs are and the values that your religion brings on,” said Mahmood Khan, president of the Chicago chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America.

Another issue that comes up for Muslims is drinking. Most American professionals take for granted that alcohol will be served at business functions, or that co-workers hanging out together after work will head to a local bar. But for Muslim professionals, whose religion forbids alcohol, it can be awkward.

“We’re left out of that,” Asbahi said. “Cocktail parties are not as big of a deal. What gets to me are more of the social, fun outings that are based on drinking. Can’t we do something else?”

There are Muslims who think it’s wrong to even enter a bar or go to a party where alcohol is being served, Asbahi said, but most of the practicing Muslim professionals he knows do go to holiday parties and other office functions; they just don’t drink.

“When I take my supervisor out, I tell him, ‘I cannot buy you drinks,’ ” Khan said. “‘So if you want a drink you have to buy it — but the food is on me!’ ”

In law school, Asbahi said, he bonded with the Mormon students, who are also forbidden to drink.

“I’m glad that we have a coffee shop culture,” he said.

Copyright © 2007 Daily Herald