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Marketing to Muslims, Part 1 of 2

Many of my readers are non-Muslim business-people. In the West, marketing is an assumed business function, and many business leaders are always looking for new markets to sell products. In this week's blog and next week's blog, I thought I would break down one issue that non-Muslims need to know about when they sell to a Muslim market. While product quality, function, brand, cost, and distribution are important to Muslims, the number one hurdle is a product must be sharia-compliant or halal. In Part 2, we will cover what sharia-compliant or halal means and how it comes together. In Part 1, we discuss the people who decide whether a product is halal or sharia-compliant. If you understand the people who make the decision, you will better understand how that decision is made.

The ulema (singular is ʿālim) are the religious scholars of Islam. This category includes muftis, sheiks, and imams. These scholars impact economic, social, and political change more than any government official. Of course, governments can also bring about change, but they do so by providing incentives or restrictions, i.e., through coercion. In contrast, the ulema have authority through the prestige of their influence, and this is usually more profound and longer-lasting than when a government forces compliance.

Islam is a comprehensive lifestyle, whether on a public or private level, individual or communal, political, civil, or economic. Most of the day-to-day decisions in a Muslim's life are predetermined, but some are not. Take democracy, for example. Should a Muslim citizen vote in an upcoming election? A religious scholar with the Islamist philosophy would first scour the Qur'an, the hadith, and consensus opinions to find reasons to support the act of voting. A religious scholar with Salafist leanings would do the same and find reasons not to participate in the election. The scholar's prestige and importance are hidden values that can sway the indecisive person. Because every act requires religious justification, organizations, governments, and even terrorist groups have their staff of ulema. One issue that is mentioned frequently about the more famous and influential religious scholars is that they are given a great deal of respect by their followers, so much so that their followers and students blindly follow them without considering whether they might be wrong.

Islam stresses the direct connection between the individual believer and God; the ulema are not Islam's equivalent of priests. They have obtained a role in Islamic society that is far more comprehensive than that of Christian priests. One might view the ulema from the Western point of view of adversarial law. For example, cryptocurrencies are a new and, some would say, speculative type of investment. In the Islamic world, there is much debate whether cryptocurrency is halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden). The Grand Mufti of Egypt and the Turkish Government's Religious head have both pronounced cryptocurrency as haram. However, the head scholar at the National Zakat Foundation in the UK, the Sharia Committee Chairman of HSBC in Malaysia (a large banking conglomeration), and a notable Mufti registered with the Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan all say that cryptocurrencies are halal. We will discuss their reasons in a later blog, but the more significant the issue, the more notable the scholar involved in the decision-making. So, cryptocurrencies would be welcome in the Muslim community in Pakistan, Malaysia, and the UK. Cryptocurrencies would not be welcome in Turkey or Egypt. Although, that could change as more and more ulema come down on one side or the other.

In general, the ulema's position strengthens or weakens, depending on a particular government's mindset toward Islam. They flourish in locations like Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan – countries strictly governed by Islamic principles. The influence that the ulema have is in direct proportion to Islam's use as a governing philosophy. These scholars devote their lives to the study of the Qur'an and sunna, the two primary sources of sharia. Members of the ulema are experts in religious doctrine. Regarded as the keepers of Islam by mainstream Muslims, the ulema interpret and administer sharia law. This acknowledgment, in turn, gives them many roles to play; their advice is sought on every issue, from the proper way to keep a kitchen to the rules of warfare. Absolutely nothing is beyond the range of the Qur'an; thus, for this reason, no subject matter is beyond their reach.

The ulema have no formal legislative role, so their power is exercised in two ways: they exert influence over public opinion and legitimize (or not) the ruler's authority. They can usually be found in a mosque, although they are not always the imam, or they may represent some religious school or organization. The ulema is particularly in demand where Islam intersects with the modern world. Western technology and thought have become increasingly secular, and as many Muslims would say, "decadent." Many Muslims turn to the ulema as guides through the minefield of modern (Western) life.

Here is an example of how the ulema can affect free-market competition. A British supermarket chain, Sainsbury's, opened eleven stores in Cairo in 1999. Local grocers, feeling the pinch of business rivalry, petitioned their ulema for assistance. The clerics granted a fatwa condemning shopping at the stores. Unfounded rumors that the supermarket chain was Jewish-owned and donated significant amounts of money to Zionist causes accompanied the fatwa. Senior store executives issued vehement denials but to no avail. Shoppers boycotted the stores, and the supermarket chain pulled out, taking a loss of $100 million.

It may be strange to the Western mindset, but the ulema are a crucial factor in decision-making in a Muslim-dominated organization. The more religious an Islamic country is, the more power the ulema have. Any Western operation doing business in a Muslim country should consider engaging a religious scholar as a consultant and advise religious rulings on its behalf.

Next time, Part 2, What does sharia complaint or halal mean, and how can you use it for marketing your product to Muslims.

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