Book review: halal or haram, the challenges for the consumer in Brand Islam

How meaningful is that halal label on your chocolate bar? Or, for that matter, on your lipstick and even your Kentucky Fried Chicken? In a world of processed and packaged goods, which can contain dozens of animal-sourced ingredients, the answer is complicated. Faegheh Shirazi’s Brand Islam examines the emergence of the multi-billion-dollar global halal industry […]

How meaningful is that halal label on your chocolate bar? Or, for that matter, on your lipstick and even your Kentucky Fried Chicken? In a world of processed and packaged goods, which can contain dozens of animal-sourced ingredients, the answer is complicated.

Faegheh Shirazi’s Brand Islam examines the emergence of the multi-billion-dollar global halal industry which has grown exponentially over the past decade. Global brands like Cadbury and McDonald’s have labelled many of their products halal, but can large-scale industrial production really churn out guaranteed halal products?

Factories and warehouses can be contaminated with traces of pork, and the logistics of international trade complicates matters further.

Shirazi explains the dynamics of this process but she makes it clear that Brand Islam encompasses much more than the slaughter and marketing of halal meat. Halal is at the centre of a wider social and political narrative among those who embrace the label as a marker of piety and Muslim identity. This is particularly true among Muslims born in the West who are eager to connect to a wider global Islamic community, as well as those who see these connections as a threat.

Following 9/11, when sections of the western media cast Muslim men as potential terrorists and Muslim women as universally repressed, consuming the halal brand was a way for Muslims to counteract such labels. “It is not only [Muslims’] adherence to religious piety but also their search for identity and security that lie at the heart of the halal industry,” writes Shirazi.

As Muslims bonded around the halal label, she argues, certain Islamophobic groups took rhetorical stands against the halal industry. Groups like the far-right English Defence League even called for a ban on halal foods, alleging that a non-Muslim’s unknowing consumption of halal foods was an infringement of human rights.

Despite the marginal status of these groups, their arguments often aligned with government policy and chimed with wider anti-Muslim sentiment. For example, the Swiss government voted to ban minarets in 2009, and in 2011, the French government made prayers in the street illegal. In New York, controversy surrounded the planned construction of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” near the former World Trade Center. The developer was forced to end the project.

Shirazi draws on these to explain how something as simple as halal food could become part of a wider conflict about identity in European and American cities. “What began as a few ayat, or verses, in the seventh century intended to guide individuals toward spiritual and physical well-being,” writes Shirazi, “have unexpectedly translated into a twenty-first-century phenomenon.”

Plenty of books have addressed the staggering market potential of halal goods from a financial perspective, but Brand Islam stands out for its social focus, in particular on the consumption and marketing of products to Muslims. Shirazi’s chapters on “halal” fashion, underwear, toys and cosmetics, wrangle with concepts and issues that have been neglected by economists.

She considers how a plastic Barbie-like doll can become “Islamic” just by changing its name and adding a veil and a pious backstory, and how “breathable” nail polish now allows for ablutions before prayer. It’s a book that places pop culture and the beauty industry under a critical lens in much the same way that fraud can be analysed in the “halal” supply chain.

Shirazi is wary of marketing ploys such as a shampoo maker’s claim that their special, doctor-approved formula repairs hijab-damaged scalps – and she highlights the consequences of the “transformation of religious symbols into commodities”.

“From the very air we breathe to the bottled water we drink, no doubt the halal industry will transmute even the most mundane products into Islamic commodities and, in doing so, continue transforming piety into profit,” writes Shirazi.

Yet Shirazi also allows that the desire for halal or Islamic-branded products is motivated by the consumer’s sincere wish to lead a devout life. The problem is, to live such a life, Muslim consumers must now venture into territory that once seemed unthinkable.

Take, for example, the level of scrutiny involved in determining whether one’s cosmetics are halal. Ingredients such as “cochineal” – a type of parasite that feeds off cacti – and L-Cysteine, which is basically dissolved human or animal hair, are commonly found in cosmetics.

Such hidden, highly processed ingredients rarely meet the standards of halal. “At present, countless processed foods available to global consumers are tainted with preservatives, colours, and artificial flavours, the origins of which are often unknown,” writes Shirazi.

“Many such ingredients, whether plant, animal, or chemical, either did not exist or were unknown or unavailable in ancient times.”

Religious officials and scholars must use the handful of Quranic verses that dictate permissible food and beverages to determine whether processed ingredients can be truly halal.

“The reality is that even the ulama cannot agree about the halal/haram issue where cosmetics are concerned, and therefore, their fatwas have differed significantly and, on occasion, contradicted each other,” she explains.

The discussion of cosmetics ingredients might seem esoteric, trivial even, but it makes for fascinating reading. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are actually the top two consumers of cosmetics in the Gulf region, consuming more than US$700 million (Dh2,571m) annually, and sales continue to grow.

Halal standards are about questioning how your products are made, Shirazi argues, and how food arrives to your table, and determining whether that process aligns with your moral and ethical views.

The answers, though, are not as clear as they used to be, and Brand Islam brings that complex world to light.

Leah Caldwell writes for Alef Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Texas Observer.

Source: art & life

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