Malaysia’s commodified Islam

At the World Halal Week held annually in Kuala Lumpur, you can purchase halal bone china, an exemplar of luxury and piety rolled into one. Malaysia is the leader in halal certification and a major promoter of the global halal industry. With markets saturated with a mind-boggling array of sharia-compliant goods that cater to a more discerning Muslim middle class, Islam can be seen as having entered more deeply into the lives of Malaysian Muslims in more commodified ways than ever before. The line between the sacred and the consumable profane have blurred, and true to the dictum that Islam is ‘a way of life’,  anything which supports the notion of good Muslim personhood can now be made halal. The explosion of consumer goods imbued with spiritual meaning is a new phenomenon spurred on by the broadening middle classes disenchanted with meaningless consumerism. Now consumer goods can have real intrinsic, spiritual meaning. But how did everything beyond consumables (and indeed items beyond meat) become halal.

Commodification of culture started as a phenomenon that emerged from the early capitalist period of Fordist mass production which then intensified during late capitalism. Flexible and geographically mobile post-Fordist market approaches shifted from mass production to a more fragmented, niche market to suit every possible types of lifestyle. The ‘religious’ lifestyle or public piety characterised by halal crockery, toothpaste, make-up, and even beer can be regarded an outcome of post-Fordist modes of production. Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetish’ may be the most relevant point of entry into understanding the commodification of objects and practices that were previously not considered commercial.

In Marx’s analysis, commodity fetish requires the concealment of the origins and processes involved in the production of a consumer product from the consumer in order to maintain the ‘religious fog’ that justifies the mystery of its self-evident value. Religious symbols and meaning as commodity fetish may behave in the same manner, in that the deeper engagement of the purpose and context of a particular symbol are sidestepped and usurped by other distracting elements that vie for the attention of the consumer. The self-evident value of a religious commodity is intrinsically located within itself rather than the processes that lead to its points of ‘origin’.

The abstraction of all other factors involved in the production of a commodity has profound consequences on not just our relationship with literal consumer products but also with symbols, religious or otherwise. The post-Fordist condition demands the proliferation of diversity and thrives on the specialisation of products (and labour). Driven by the perpetuated need for ‘new’ and ‘ever more novel-seeming goods’, styles and signifiers are extracted from their previous associations and fused together to produce new products in what Jameson calls ‘pastiche’ for new consumers in new contexts. The ease with which such meaning and symbols are removed from their original contexts may point to their increasingly depthless, untethered, and frictionless qualities.

Investigations into religious commodification have challenged theories of secularisation in modern society demonstrating that far from a wholesale decline in public belief in God and church membership, modern and rational societies, in particular those in Asia and the United States, continue to embrace religion and imbue public life with notions of religious essence. The rise of religious commodification has been argued to go hand in hand with the emergence of ‘Islamic modernity’, a political and cultural sensibility whereby modernity is embraced alongside a commitment to Islam as part of the project of modernity in its own terms as much as its approximations to western notions of modernity.

The concept of ‘Islamic modernity’ have a Lyotardian suspicion against the grand narrative of western modernity in favour of a more hybrid and reflexive modernity inflected with faith-based sensibilities where non-western contexts experience the rise of advanced economies and public cultures. The Islamic modern can be located in the popular consumption of Islamic media and Islamic forms of consumerism that at times exist, not without friction, alongside orthodox Islamic beliefs and practices.

When does a symbol cease becoming sacred and becomes simply a commodity bereft of its spiritual meaning? Can they become both? Halal products now have become more than just a spiritual choice but made to be synonymous with quality. However, there is considerable debate among practitioners and scholars about the effects of commodified forms of Islam. Some have praised the increased presence of Islam in the marketplace as it encourages the incorporation of Islamic values into the everyday practices of Muslims. Others have been less celebratory, arguing that the commercialisation of Islam appeals to superficial expressions of piety. Where does one draw the line for halal products? Does the choice to not utilise halal products make one less a conscientious Muslim?

The circulation of Islamic symbols outside the formalist domains and authority of the state and religious institutions and into the market and the media coheres with the emergence of Muslim publics. Facilitated by increasing access to new modes of communication, the creation of the Muslim public sphere challenges the authority of conventional religious institutions and fosters the building of a civil society and the ‘global ummah (community)’. The so-called Islamic revivalism across Muslim societies of the world coupled with increased communication and economic opportunities have boosted the production of things ‘Islamic’ which occurs alongside the increasing adoption of a public pious image amongst the consumer middle-class.

With all things considered, it is not an understatement to say that Islam is big business. But in Malaysia, where the conflation of ethnic and Islamic identity is a political and socioeconomic issue, consumer habits aligned with aspirational piety form just another disciplinary mode to reinforce the boundary markers of such an identity. To purchase halal products may just be another way of asserting one’s Malay identity. In the mounting challenges to Malay privilege and positive discrimination, Islamic consumerism may be a way to reinstate a sense of meaning and belonging.  Perhaps unexpectedly, Malaysia’s mall culture and ethnic/religious anxiety over the loss of institutional privilege were destined to become kindred spirits.

Alicia Izharuddin is a final year PhD candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies where she specialises in religious cinema in Indonesia.