Marketing to Muslims, Part 2 of 2
Updated: May 13, 2021
To sell products to Muslims, vendors must ensure the products are either halal (permissible or lawful) or sharia-compliant. The very first step for a non-Muslim is to make their product meet these standards. You can have the best product globally, but if it is not halal or sharia-compliant, Muslims will not buy it. On the other hand, if you have a lousy product and it is halal or sharia-compliant, Muslims still won't purchase it because they are discriminating consumers like the rest of us. Meeting the standards for halal or being sharia-compliant is just the first step in the process. The vendor still has to have a good product that meets customer's needs.
In Part 1 of this blog, we discussed the role those religious scholars or the ulema play in making things permissible for the Muslim consumer to use. In the technologically driven West, many products and practices are not halal. Still, with slight changes in their preparation or process or a change in the ingredients, the product can be made halal or sharia-compliant. It is the ulema that evaluates the merchandise and judges them permissible or not. In today's post, we will discuss the meaning of halal and sharia-compliant. We will also look at the process that ulema use to make products allowable for use by Muslims.
"Halal" is an Arabic term that means "lawful or permissible." Initially, halal pertained to food products, mainly meat. Some foods and food preparation are not permitted because it affects the quality and nutrition of the food. One crucial part of the food preparation cycle pertains to how animals are killed for food. If an animal's life must be ended for human survival, then its life should only be taken in the name of God. Hence, the phrase "Bismillah" (in the name of God) must be uttered just before slaughtering an animal. Islam's sacred book, the Qur'an, is the source of what is halal. Because the Qur'an's verses addressing halal are often vague and limited in detail, the ulema turn to the sayings (known as hadiths) from the prophet Muhammad to help clarify and develop the food rules. It is mentioned in a hadith that Allah rejects the prayer of a person if the food consumed is prohibited. Thus, there is an incentive only to devour halal food products.
Halal does not just pertain to food products. There are many other products that need to be pronounced halal like cosmetics, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals. Let's take cosmetics for example. The ingredients for a tube of lipstick may meet halal certification, but the product's end use may not meet Islamic expectations of integrity and self-respect. If the product's promotion is for healthcare, like the brand Chapstick that protects lips from being cracked, the product might be acceptable to Muslim consumers. Let me mention another example in pharmaceuticals. I published an article on this blog site on January 5 entitled "Will Muslims Take the COVID-19 Vaccine?" It seems that several of the vaccines use pork-derived gelatin as a stabilizer in their storage and transport phase. On the surface, it would seem this product would not be halal. Several ulema came out against the vaccine, but several ulema rightly judged that the virus was the more significant threat and supported the vaccine's use, even though it used pork derivatives in its preparation. For the most part, Muslims did take the vaccine, but there are other vaccines for measles, polio, diphtheria, shingles, and meningitis, to name a few, that use this protocol. There are other necessary medicines with side effects that cause addiction, abortions, birth control that are not necessarily halal. But that is what the ulema are for; to research the Qur'an, hadith, the sunna, and any laws of consensus to pronounce a drug as halal or haram.
"Sharia-compliant" usually refers to taking a product that does not meet sharia guidelines and changing it so that it does meet the requirements. Modifying a product's ingredients, or the process of preparation, or how the product is used can sometimes meet the standards imposed by sharia. It then becomes sharia-compliant. Most frequently, this term is used in the financial industry, but it can be used for other products and other industries as well. In the Qur'an and hadith, practices that are haram are usury, ambiguity in contracts, gambling, games of chance, speculation, financial derivatives, fraud, bribery, the use of false weights and standards, taking others' property unlawfully, and transactions on prohibited things like porn and illegal drugs. One example that I refer to in my unpublished manuscript, Muslim Mechanics, is how sharia finance has developed ways around the aversion to usury. Over the centuries, Islamic jurisprudence has developed forms of investment in businesses, such as joint ventures, limited partnerships, insurance arrangements, sale-leaseback transactions, and higher purchase prices on credit sales, which comply with the prohibition of usury. Islamic finance has become a functional, competitive for-profit industry, all the while being sharia-compliant.
Other products like credit cards, financial derivatives, and cryptocurrency are speculative in different ways but over time, entrepreneurs will find ways and methods to make them sharia-compliant. To ensure compliance with sharia, any questionable product must receive a fatwa (religious ruling) from a credentialed, established cleric. Most companies, organizations, and banks that do any business with Islamic markets have already installed "Sharia Advisory Councils." These councils have sharia scholars and clerics on their staff who specialize in determining whether a particular transaction or product is structured to comply with Islamic law.
So, how do these religious scholars issue a fatwa for any given product? Assuming the fatwa issued is in an orthodox Islamic country, a fatwa can have the force of law. The main criteria for fatwas are:
The cleric must have all the learning requirements. The scholar must know everything in the Qur'an and sunna plus any rulings by consensus and analogy that might relate to the issue at hand. Quranic verses cannot be "cherry-picked" that present one side of a controversy.
The scholar must have mastery of the Arabic language. Arabic is the language of the Qur'an. Translations distort meanings, and it is possible that in the conversion, the content changes.
The scholar cannot ignore established Islamic sciences and oversimplify sharia. Interpretation of the law focuses on either the verdicts of consensus or analogy versus the Qur'an and sunna. The scholar must envelop both for an influential fatwa.
It is acceptable that scholars to have differing opinions, except concerning knowledge of orthodox Islam, which all Muslims must know.
Fatwas must have some realistic outcome.
These are the main points that ulema follow in issuing fatwas. It is not everyone who can become a scholar, and a fatwa from a renowned scholar always carries more weight than one from an unknown scholar.
There are opportunities out there to sell products to the Islamic market. If they are already being used in the non-Muslim community, there is a good chance they could be restructured to become halal or sharia-compliant, if they're not already. Part of your marketing strategy would be to consider using an Islamic scholar to evaluate and judge the permissibility of your product to Muslim consumers. Here is a video of the success that a non-Muslim country like Buddhist Thailand is having by selling halal products to Muslim countries.