Islam and Innovation are terms you do not often hear together in the Triangle, but they might be soon.


Today there are an estimated 35,000 Muslims living in the Triangle area, and as Raleigh continues to grow every day, we’d expect that number to increase as well.

In the tech start-up world, one problem we hear a lot of is that companies struggle to attract and retain diverse talent. In Raleigh, hiring new talent can be a challenge because we are growing so fast that we have a surplus of jobs on the market, so it can be an even greater challenge to hire thoughtfully and be inclusive of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

I want to help companies take a look at their inclusion efforts by diving into Islam and the Muslim community. I am focusing specifically on Islam because it is an opportunity to discuss both religious and cultural inclusion, and also because there is a growing relationship between Islam and Innovation, which may bring new ideas and employees to Raleigh from the Muslim community. And if Raleigh wants to continue to be on the cutting edge of innovation, understanding how to be inclusive of this population, especially in the tech sector, is about to be more important than ever.


Islam & Innovation

Islam has a really interesting relationship with innovation.

Someone who understands this better than most is Imran Aukhil. Imran is the Assistant Director of the Real Estate and Development Office at North Carolina State University. He works closely with HQ Raleigh to bring a collaborative entrepreneurial community to Centennial Campus, and he also happens to be a practicing Muslim. I have not encountered Islam and practicing Muslims too often in the innovation and entrepreneurship space, so when we first met, naturally, I wanted to dig in to how he balances his faith, which is deeply rooted in tradition and culture, with entrepreneurship and innovation, two things that do not seem to naturally go together.

“The very word  ‘innovation,’ in Islam, sometimes carries a negative connotation because of Islam’s emphasis on orthodox tradition,” and tradition is very important to Muslims, as Imran explains. The word “bid‘a” translates directly to “innovation” in English, but it has a duel meaning. Tradition and community are essential to Islamic faith, so innovation of religious beliefs or practices is frequently frowned upon, and you may see some individuals in the Islamic faith that do not naturally gravitate toward innovation at all. But innovation, in the sense of structured thinking and developing new technologies, is actually a tradition and value of Islam, Imran explains. “Innovation globally in the Muslim community has declined recently, but Muslims have always been innovative. Muslims participated in inventing soap, hospitals, algebra, cataracts surgery… Innovation and exploration are embedded in the DNA of our belief system.”

In fact, Muslims were also pioneers of flight, coffee, university education systems, optics, music, dental care and much more! In line with this heritage, there has already been early stage talks about creating a program for Muslim innovators within the Raleigh community, something that Imran, in particular is passionate about.

Muslims, however, are not just bringing innovation and new ideas through new programming. They are contributing to the innovation ecosystem in Raleigh as a whole. They are doing this as employees, executives, and leaders within organizations across the Triangle. Muslims are among the most highly educated religious groups in America in recent years, according to a recent study,  and are therefore entering more advanced jobs in the tech industry. For businesses to stay on the cutting edge of innovation,  they are going to need to create cultures of inclusivity that are welcoming to Muslims.


So what does it mean to be inclusive?

This is a more complicated question than it seems on the surface. It might be easier to talk about what “being inclusive” is not. Being Inclusive is not creating an environment where people can easily assimilate to your culture. That is not being inclusive, but yet we see it over and over again; a perfect example is the tech company that wants to include more women but doesn’t add a mother’s room or offer paid maternity leave. Simply inviting people to participate in your organization is not enough; you have to make space for them. Even well intentioned people with open minds (often found in startups and the tech industry in general) can still struggle to create inclusive cultures if they are not comfortable with making space for others.

We have all heard the analogy about the melting pot, but Imran offers a different analogy for inclusivity.  “Instead of a melting pot, we should strive to build a mosaic,” Imran explains, “Inclusivity requires one to be confident in their own beliefs and way of life so that they are not threatened by others belief systems or way of life.” So we can each be a unique beautiful piece of tile within this mosaic that has clear borders and boundaries but can also fit into these other cultures.

So with that said, inclusivity is also not about giving up your entire cultural identity or changing your practices, it is about creating space and options for others to co-exist and thrive in our places of work and in our communities


How to be Inclusive of Muslims

If you want to be more inclusive within your community or organization, here are a few quick, specific suggestions you could implement in your workplace:

  • Prayer Space – 

    • Muslims must pray five times per day during certain windows of time. This means that during any shift, there is likely a need for your Muslim colleage or employee to pray. Consider creating a space for prayer. It does not have to be a large amount of space and it doesn’t have to be only for one use. Even a lockable office would do. HQ’s Wellness rooms are primarily for new moms, but are also available for members who practice prayer or meditation during the work day.

  • Holiday time –

    • It’s no secret that some of our national holidays (the days you typically have off of work) in the US overlap with Christian holidays, so for most people, this is convenient time off. (No, I am not declaring a war on Christmas or saying you should cancel Easter). I’m simply suggesting that in addition to national holidays,  you can offer floating or flex days to all of your employees of all faith backgrounds to use them as they choose. So that way, people of other faiths enjoy their respective holidays as fully as possible.

  • Food options – 

    • Most Muslims follow a “Halal” diet (an Arabic word meaning lawful or permitted). Islam permits most foods – the notable exceptions being alcohol and pork. Like the Jewish tradition of kosher, the Halal diet requires meat to be prepared a specific way, and these days Halal meat options are readily available in grocery stores across the country. So when you are ordering food for that company picnic, consider exploring Halal food sources or provide some vegetarian options to be safe. Non-alcoholic options at work events would be considerate as well.

  • Fasting –

    • Most Muslims fast during Ramadan, meaning that they do not drink or eat anything during from dawn to sunset. So if you notice your Muslim friends getting a little hangry in May (Ramadan follows the Islamic lunar calendar, and for the next few years, it will fall around May but will eventually shift back toward April and March), just show some compassion and understanding. You don’t have to totally understand why someone would not eat or drink for 16 hours (I struggle with going 2 hours!) but you can certainly show respect and empathy.

  • Contact & Personal Space

    • You may find that muslim colleauges or employees are less forthcoming in physical interactions with people of opposite genders. Interaction greater than a handshake may be too much (but I would go ahead and argue that that should be the standard in most work environments, so if you have issues with this one you may need to revisit your HR policies). And listen, you do not have to go out of your way to avoid making contact with someone, and if you did go in for that hug on accident, most Muslims would not be offended.

  • Ask questions & don’t pretend there are not differences

    • It is really okay to ask about differences. Muslims welcome the questions and discussions.

    • It’s also okay to acknowledge that there are differences in the room. Equity is not pretending that people are the same, but acknowledging differences and treating others with respect.

  • Respect w/o understanding 

    • This is a tough one to genuinely carry out, even for those of us who are open to cultural differences and norms. You don’t have to understand WHY someone is doing something. As long as it is not harming others, you just have to respect them.


What I am talking about today is not changing your work practices to accommodate one group of people,  but rather creating space, literally and figuratively for other cultures to exist within your community or organization, and open up to the Muslim community.

The Triangle has always been on the forefront of innovation. Historically that has looked like opening up our government and community resources to the start-up community; creating space and programming for the health-tech and bio-tech fields; and developing new plans for public transit. I would argue, that our next wave of innovation, is for the Triangle to strive to be one of the most inclusive places in the country to live and work. Only through this inclusive, intentional community building, which includes individuals from all cultural and faith background, such as the Muslim community, can we truly be a destination place for innovation.