The Power of the Halal Market

Some years ago, I was performing the Hajj. One day, accompanied by the Maliki faqih Mawlana Muhammad Wazzani, (rahimahu’llah), I walked from the house where we were staying, to pray dhuhr in the Masjid al-Haram. We arrived at the mosque slightly late, and the salat had just finished. As we got to the door of the Haram, the people began to pour out, and we were unable to enter. A massive flood of people poured out through the door, and we could not even move; we just had to wait. Like someone standing on a rock in the middle of a river, with the water rushing past on all sides, we stood, trapped, just watching the people. For what felt like half an hour, but may have been less, we just watched. Men, women, young and old, black, white, yellow, red, every size shape and colour of mankind poured past us, some smiling, some weeping. We could not move; and it was very clear to me then that the Muslims are indeed a mighty force, an unstoppable power. And what was it that made them so strong? Everyone there, on the Hajj, was there just for the pleasure of Allah, (subhanahu wa ta’ala). They had incurred expense, endured hardship and discomfort in order to fulfil their contract with Allah. And that was where the great strength lay. In their obedience, there lay a tremendous power.

Islam is essentially a matter of communication. Allah did not send us a rule book. He sent us a man, a Messenger, (salla’llahu alayhi wa salam), whose task was to convey the message from the Creator to the created. He did not impose a set of rules on his companions. By living it himself, he conveyed the message so that it was understood that they had to take it on for themselves, establish its parameters, and in turn pass it on to those around them.

Fourteen hundred years ago, he, salla’llahu alayhi wa salam, stood on the great plain of Arafat and asked the people, “Have I conveyed the message?” and they answered, “Yes!” Today, over fourteen hundred years later, we give the same answer. “Yes!”

Our task, our honour and responsibility, is to make sure that the message continues to be understood, established and passed on. We are all in the business of communication.

Allah established the creation based on opposites; day-night, sun-moon, fire-garden, dunya-akhira and Halal-Haram.

The Halal and the Haram denote the limits set by Allah for his creatures. They indicate boundaries to influence our behaviour. They are not just rules; they are more like the DNA encoded in our cells enabling us to recognise and fulfil our human-ness. The Qur’an says, “Whoever transgresses the limits of Allah truly harms himself.”[i]

Everything in existence is established on patterns, from the vibration of subatomic particles to the movement of the planets. Everywhere we look, if we pay attention, we can perceive patterns, signs for people who reflect. Just as certain plants flourish in certain soils, different animals thrive in different climates and locations, an engine performs optimally with certain fuel, the human being has been designed to flourish within the arena of the Halal. It is, literally, where we belong.

Allah states in His Book, “Oh Mankind, eat what is Halal and good.” This is addressed to all mankind. This is a message for everyone, but the duty to hear and obey falls to us. We must understand this, and establish it, and invite others to it, because the message is also for them. The Halal and Haram form the basis for healthy and harmonious human existence in the private, family, economic and social arenas.

Naturally, the first thing most of us think about, when we think of the Halal, is Halal meat. It is at the forefront of establishing the Halal, it is the cutting edge. And because we all eat, and we all demand Halal food, the first Halal market to open up and be recognised has been the market for Halal meat. Close to a quarter of the world’s population prefer or insist on Halal meat. It is a very, very big market, and as I hope to go on to demonstrate, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

We are participating in the emergence of the most powerful market force in the world – the Halal market. At a time in which, from one point of view, things have never looked bleaker for the Muslims – our lands are taken, our people killed, our religion hijacked by extremists, and the market imperialism of the dollar has never seemed more extensive – we find there is also another picture emerging. Everything turns, reaches a high point and falls away, reaches its lowest point and starts to rise.

Despite – or even perhaps because of – all the negative publicity about Islam, it has never before been the subject of such intense curiosity from all quarters. The harassment of Muslim travellers in Europe and the USA has helped create new markets for Muslim tourists within the Muslim world. In Dubai, a city with more hotels per square foot than most other places, has not had an off-peak season for the last three years, it is full of travellers from the rest of the Arab world. Malaysia now also recognises and enjoys an expanding Arab season.

The negative publicity has also started to force the Muslims to put aside differences and may well prove to be more effective in bringing about greater unification in the Muslim world than all the conferences which call for it.

And, certainly, the demand for Halal produce has increased all over the world. Every city, and most of the towns and even villages all over the world offer Halal food. British supermarket chains, Safeway and Sainsbury’s, simply responding to consumer demand and driven by the bottom line, now offer Halal meat in many of their stores. Thailand is negotiating with Carrefour to supply Halal food to their South East Asian branches. The Philippines is working on establishing Halal standards and certification. Multinational companies, such as Unilever, want to obtain Halal certification for their cosmetics manufactured in India and China. One Malaysian company is supplying Halal food to the UN peacekeeping forces, another is developing a Halal meningitis vaccine, another is developing Halal Restaurant guidebooks all over the world. The Japanese country’s top designers, which upon reflection, led me to conclude that for a designer, it is much more fulfilling to create clothes that actually cover a woman’s body rather than simply expose it! The Halal is indeed good for everyone.

The Malaysian Government’s decision to become a world class hub for Halal produce is both an inspired and timely initiative. Malaysia, after all established its own Halal standard and certification many decades ago, and it is probably the most internationally respected Halal certification in the world. Malaysia has been the leading Muslim nation in the development of Islamic banking and financial services. Malaysia is a great trading nation with a strong agricultural and industrial base. Malaysia has pioneered the use of bilateral and multilateral trade settlement mechanisms, and is opening the way for the use of gold as a global trade settlement currency.

Indeed, the Halal market does not stop with food, it has simply, and naturally, started there. As a Halal hub, Malaysia will not just be a significant player in the production of Halal food produce. Malaysia is also perfectly positioned to be a trading hub for the import and re-export of Halal produce from all corners of the world. A place where Halal goods are certified, stored, processed, packaged, branded, marketed, and re-exported to the world. A centre for further research into Halal standards, for education and training Halal auditors and inspectors, a place to co-ordinate new global benchmarks for excellence and quality, the Halal standard. The Halal can, and must, find ways to incorporate other standards such as ISO or organic standards. As the western world’s cattle farmers struggle with the dangers of mad cow disease, we can recognise that the methodologies inherent in establishing the Halal standards are precisely the answer to these market-driven diseases, as they incorporate the most rigorous inspection of all the source ingredients. The Halal is indeed good for everyone.

The initiatives being taken in Selangor, Kedah, Pahang, Perak, Negri Sembilan, Terengganu and Johor Bahru to establish a variety of Halal hub is clearly an indication of the fact that Malaysia is the natural and appropriate place for a global Halal hub.

It is an ambitious thought, but not an unrealistic one, that in time, once the Halal Market has reached strength and maturity, it can be as powerful a market force as the WTO. After all, with a quarter of the world as potential customers, who would want to be left out of that market? As some countries have already realised, why not make all your meat Halal? One sector of the market insists on it, and the rest do not particularly care. It makes good market sense.

Few of us, I expect, will have heard of a proposal which was being assembled in Europe and the USA in the late 1990s called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, MAI. Having established and enforced trading agreements which effectively stripped away the protection for the poorer and developing nations, the wealthy nations were turning their attention to investment. The MAI proposed that national governments which attempted to enforce any domestic legislation which hindered a foreign investing corporation’s capacity to make profits, could be sued for damages and loss of earnings. This was to include investment in manufacturing and services, trade in currencies and financial instruments as well as ownership of land and natural resources. As the then Director General of the WTO candidly put it, “We are writing the constitution for the single global economy.”[ii]

As you may well imagine, this was being drafted well away from the public eye. To give an example of how this Agreement would work in practice, let’s look at how things work under the NAFTA agreement, a forerunner and prototype for MAI. The Ethyl Corporation for the USA manufactures a fuel addictive called MMI, which automobile manufacturers said damaged the pollution systems of cars, and which medical experts claimed was a neurotoxin. It was banned in America. The Canadian government banned its use or manufacture in Canada. Under an obscure clause hidden in the NAFTA agreement, Ethyl corporation sued the Canadian government for somewhere between 250-350 million dollars. Under pressure, and under legal advisement, the Canadian Government was forced to settle out of court, declare MMI safe, allow its use and manufacture, and pay 13 million dollars to Ethyl corporation for their trouble.

Alerted to the dangers of small print, it was not a coincidence that the Canadians were instrumental in getting MAI exposed to public scrutiny. Watchdog groups even published ads in the national press stating: “Next election, your vote may be irrelevant. The MAI gives the corporations so much power, parliament won’t matter.”[iii]

Exposed to the light of day, the MAI was quietly placed on a back-burner, but its component parts have not gone away. The single global economy is still very much on the agenda, and its terms will not be to our advantage.

I mention this to illustrate a point. Time is a sword: if we do not use it to cut, it will cut us. If we do not take charge of our own trading and investment arena, we will be forced to accept the terms imposed upon us. We will continue to be exploited.

The Halal market has emerged because of our determination to eat Halal food. But let us not just be the consumers, let us also be producers. Let us define and control this market, make strategic partnerships that give us economic muscle. We are, after all, on this issue, a potentially unified body of over 1.5 billion people!

We must be creative, bold, imaginative and determined. The Halal market can encompass all of the elements within the arena of the Halal; not just Halal food, it is a naturally expanding concept that can eventually encompass trade in all Halal goods and services. Halal goods traded according to Halal contracts, using – ultimately – Halal currencies. This is the scope of our Halal market. Open to all, subject to the parameters of Halal and Haram, monitored and regulated by the Muslims for protection of all. It is not just food that is subject to the terms Halal and Haram. The Qur’an states, “Allah has permitted (made Halal) trade, and has forbidden (made Haram) usury.” Imam Malik said, “Whatever makes a transaction Halal, makes it Halal; whatever makes it Haram, makes it Haram.”[iv]

Power, in the world today, resides in the ability to control the flow of three things: commodities, information and money. This is essentially the arena of commerce. As an Ummah, we have been conquered in this arena, and in turn, in it we can win back our freedom and dignity. Our deen, Islam, delineates for us the parameters of trade and commerce. Those parameters ensure “adl wa’l ihsan” – justice and excellence – for the people, all people, the rich and the poor, the buyer and the seller, the importer and the exporter, the farmer, the manufacturer, the agent, the shopkeeper and the housewife and her children.

We must establish our market – and I use the word in the broadest contemporary sense of market. Under the rule of the Ottoman Sultans, Istanbul in 1880 was a city of some 500,000 people. Its Grand Bazaar covered around 30 acres. It comprised 4,400 shops, 2,200 workshops, 500 stalls, 24 hostels, 12 warehouses and 13 mosques. It had been visited by traders from all corners of the world for centuries. Market inspectors patrolled the markets ensuring that trade was conducted on Halal terms – Halal goods and Halal transactions. The Istanbul market was the trading centre of the Muslim world. Istanbul is now a city of 14 million people; by rights it should have 28 of those markets!

Look at the importance the Muslims placed on trade! Trade was the life blood of our Ummah; it brought power and wealth to the Muslims; by trade, the Deen of Islam spread throughout the world as people of other religions and cultures recognised that trade on Islamic terms meant justice and equity in the transaction, for all parties.

Where is the market of the Muslims now? Where is our market, governed by the parameters of Halal and Haram? As men sit in locked rooms writing the constitution for a single global economy, can we not recognise that there is a compelling need for us to put our hands on the great gift that we have been given, to take it, use it, establish it, share it.

The Qur’an states, “Allah has made trade Halal, and made usury Haram.” Allah puts these two things, trade and usury, together, making the distinction between them. One, fundamentally unjust, is forbidden in all its forms; the other, fundamentally just and fair and advantageous to all parties is permitted and encouraged. A prominent Islamic banker recently pointed out to me that 80 per cent of his trade customers are not Muslim; they are simply businessmen who recognise a better deal when they see one. The Halal is indeed good for all.

That day, when I stood at the door of the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, watching the torrent of people pouring from the Mosque, I recognised that power is based on obedience. Acceptance and trust in the parameters that Allah has ordained for us, that is where our strength lies. We are a force to be reckoned with, if only we would recognise it ourselves. Otherwise we will just make others wealthy. Our desire to eat Halal meat has certainly made the Australian cattle farmers wealthy.

The Halal market is totally within our grasp; actually it is our inheritance. Not the markets of 19th century Turkey; they are part of an old order that has passed. We live in another world today, but the basic elements are the same. Our marketplace is the world; in transactional terms, distance has no meaning.

Our task is to put the elements together. Think of it, for a moment, as an orchestra. The players and manufacturers; the processors and packagers; the agents, deal-makers and financiers; the trucks and ships and planes. We know the score; our scholars know the parameters and continue to research and develop in understanding. We are ready to play! So what is missing? To focus and coordinate the skills and strengths of the players, to ensure that the score is followed, and, most importantly, to transmit a deep love and understanding of the music to both the players and the audience, we need the conductor!

I believe that, like fruit ripening on the branch of the tree, this key role now falls to Malaysia. We have the experience, the expertise, the resources and the knowledge. We have an internationally recognised Halal certification process; we pioneered Islamic banking and finance; we have the human resources, the Islamic knowledge, the IT skills; we have the infrastructure, the ports and airports; we are both producers and traders; our politicians and businessmen are respected throughout the world; we have withstood, and indeed understood, currency crises and recessions; and most importantly, we have the enthusiasm and love for this work, and the ability to communicate it. The Prophet, (salla’llahu alayhi wa salam), has told us, “speak to people in language they understand”. We can do that.

I have travelled in many parts of the Muslim world in the last 30 years. Here, in Malaysia, I recognise a vibrant, fresh spirit of enthusiasm and determination that I have not seen in other places. I am convinced that Malaysia has a role of key importance to play in this affair of establishing the Halal market. I believe that the matter is already in our hands; we only need to close our fingers over it and go to work.

In the end, the matter of the Halal belongs to Allah, struggling to establish it is an effort fi sabili’llah, and I have a certainty, without any doubt, that He will reward, fi dunya wa’l akhira, all those who take part in it.

**This article was first published in The Halal Journal Pilot Issue (August 2004), and was written by AbdalHamid Evans.

[i] Qur’an 65:1

[ii] Le Monde Diplomatique, February 1998

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Al Muwatta


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