Theorizing Modernities article

From Politics of Piety to Islamic Commodification: Asymmetry and Agency in the Studies of Islam

Photo Credit: Adam Jones. “NBC Islamic Banking–Billboard in Kiponda District, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania”

Faegheh Shirazi’s Brand Islam is a welcome addition to the growing number of books that attempt to move us beyond the primary focus on Islam as a political phenomenon or a platform for yet another critique of secularism, toward the more complicated—and possibly analytically and normatively more promising—intersections of theological, cultural, political, and economic aspects of life of contemporary Muslims.

This shift in the studies of Islam ought not to be surprising: it indicates that scholars have finally started to take notice of the rise of a global market of halal products and the significant implications that the encounter between Islam and the late modern capitalist economy can have on both. Some scholars see the Islamic markets as a result of the market forces’ recognition that Muslims are consumers with a great economic power, which will only increase in the coming decades; others explore the rise of Muslim consumers as a result of and an impetus for deeper cultural and theological transformations of Islam. Still others, such as a scholar and adviser to the Obama administration Vali Nasr, argue that market capitalism, rather than religion, will be the field of “‘the great battle for the soul of the Muslim world’” (3). Shirazi wants to “provide an original intervention in the Muslim cultural studies” by looking at Brand Islam as the marketing of “a wide range of commodities from food products to children’s toys” as Islamic, “in the West as well as in Muslim-majority nations” (1). She is interested, she writes, in how Muslim consumers fetishize halal products by attaching “mystical and religious significance to what might otherwise be considered inutile and mundane objects” (7). Her descriptive focus and especially her normative critique of the Brand Islam, however, suggest that Shirazi’s principal concern is less with the motivations of Muslim consumers and more with the ways in which their piety is being exploited and commodified—a point to which I’ll turn in more detail shortly.

Shirazi begins her discussion by explaining that halal, which indicates objects or actions that are permissible according to Sharia, has always been central to Islam as a theological, legal, and lived tradition. But while once primarily referring to food and drink, the notion of halal is today applied in every sphere of the daily life of Muslims—in “medical services, banking and financial services, insurance and real state providers, hotels, the tourism industry, commercial aspects of popular pilgrimages and shrines, music industry products, sportswear, lingerie, fragrances, cosmetics, hair and skin care products, and a shot of other accoutrements” (8). In the chapters that especially explore food, cosmetic, and fashion industries, Shirazi shows how modern technologies and science further complicate the determination of the meanings of halal in so many arenas of life: even when developing new methods to address the Muslims’ growing concern with sustaining their halal lifestyle, the new technologies can in fact conceal the layers of production of halal commodities.

There are two main sides to the rise of Brand Islam, as Shirazi tells the story. On the one hand are Muslims, especially those living in non-Muslim-majority societies—from Canada to Belgium to Australia—for whom halal is a way to establish the boundaries of their identity. Rigorous commitment to halal, especially among the younger diaspora Muslims, Shirazi thus suggests, helps ensure their connectedness to the global umma and their constructive response to Islamophobia and pressure that they conform to the dominant Western style of life. On the other hand, the rise of Brand Islam results from advertisers and corporations’ realization that there is much profit hidden in the world of halal. And, here begins Shirazi’s main critique: she sees Brand Islam as “a clever tool” of the entrepreneurs and corporations, as a “profit-driven” endeavor that exploits “the rise of a new Islamic economic paradigm,” a project “not necessarily created with the objective of honoring religious practice and sentiment” (1), with consumers whose absolute commitments to pious practices makes them “highly subject to manipulation” (4).

The outcome of Shirazi’s focus on the economic exploitation of Muslim spirituality is a volume that contains wonderfully detailed accounts of various halal industries and a strong critique of the ways in which the global capitalism of late modernity appropriates and distorts even the most sincere of religious commitments—of the individual Muslim consumers as well as of the religious bodies responsible for determining what halal is or is not. This primary preoccupation with exploitation of piety and fetishization of halal products brings important insights for the study of Islam as a lived, contemporary tradition. Yet, this perspective might also carry analytical and normative asymmetries that can all too quickly turn Muslims into objects of exploitation rather than subjects fully participating in, and capable of questioning, the modes of global economy.

Photo Credit: Justin Hall. “This ‘Razanne’ doll is a clear Barbie alternative for Islamic children –
according to the sticker on the package, ‘New Razanne Builds Character.'”

The question of agency is a complicated one, to be sure, and the spaces of agency might be uncovered in the least expected spaces. In my reading, Shirazi argues that contemporary Muslims—in the Western as well as in predominantly Muslim societies—tend to see their own agency in the acts through which they ascribe daily life with sacred meanings, in the processes in which the focus on halal turns their mundane life “into powerful symbols of religious correctness and piety” (7). In other words, to Muslims themselves, the global halal market emerges as a productive space of identity-boundary work, which does address socio-political contexts of the 21st century but is centrally theological in character. The problem, Shirazi maintains from within her cultural studies perspective, is that Brand Islam is the economic arena that turns even pure theological impulses, strict religious practices, and desire to belong to a community into “a commodity for the purpose of economic gain” (7). There is, according to her, “an unmistakable trend…emerging in all religious arenas” and that is “the proliferation of strategies that ensure the profitable marketing and sale” of religious symbols (199).

Shirazi’s points are valuable and her perspective on commodification drives home the reality of the extreme power of the global capitalist economy. At the same time, it seems to me that focusing on the motivations and acts of contemporary Muslims as believers—rather than the ways in which their piety is being exploited and commodified—could reveal an even greater paradox related to their agency. It is, I would propose, the very theological acts and practices of articulating halal(permissible)/haram(forbidden) distinctions that most profoundly problematize the scope of their agency. That is to say, by insisting on meticulous, often absolute, deeply sincere commitment to halal in every aspect of life—by asserting what Daromir Rudnyckyj highlights in the Indonesian context as “an ethic of individual self-policing based in Islamic practice”  through which “the worshiper consciously acknowledges and engages … oneness of goal, purpose and will” (8-9)—do Muslim believers reject and critique the Western modern lifestyle and neoliberalism, or do they reaffirm drives so constitutive of the modern project? One such drive is what scholars from Charles Taylor to Adam Seligman to Robert Orsi see as the drive to uniformity and order; the other is an attempt to sacralize all aspects of life. The former impulse constrains our capacity to address the spaces of liminality in individual and social life (and, as a result, the contemporary obsession with ‘haramness’ of cosmetics can befuddle even Muslims scholars, as noted on page 140). At the same time, the attempt at sacralization of all domains of life, as Max Weber showed long ago, not only led toward secularization; it was also a religious drive built into the very foundations of modernity and capitalism. In other words, while Muslims as believers might focus on halal in the context of the global market as the realm that enables them to exert theological, cultural, and political agency and do so against Western modernity, the impulses that shape their theological orientations and religious acts related to halal seem quite aligned with some aspects of that modernity.

Let me end on a slightly provocative note: Shirazi discusses in great detail the role of certified religious authorities—ayatollahs, ulama, and muftis—in ascertaining the halal/haram distinctions, and shows convincingly how the logic of the market influences and affects such bodies in Western countries such as the United States or Muslim societies such as Iran or Indonesia. I wonder, however, whether a more explicit comparison of the motivations and practices of Muslim authoritative bodies in such very different settings could reveal something surprising: the possibility that a powerful normative critique of global capitalism could emerge not from the focus on universal religious community but from the link between the theological focus on halal, the Muslim self-understanding as bounded by the framework of national identity, and the commitment to applying the Islamic understanding of social justice in one’s national society.

Slavica Jakelić
Slavica Jakelić is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College at Valparaiso University. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and identity, the relationship of religious and secular humanisms, Christianity in global perspective, interreligious dialogue, and conflict resolution. Jakelić is a co-editor of two volumes, The Future of the Study of Religion and Crossing Boundaries: From Syria to Slovakia, a co-editor of The Hedgehog Review’s issue “After Secularization,” and, most recently, the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity (2010). She is currently working on a book entitled The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms.