By Farish Noor
It has become ever so fashionable to talk about Islam and commerce of late. Yet a cursory look at the references to Islam and economics, business, banking, finance and made-for Muslims products and services on offer on the internet would point to the fact that Muslim commerce is booming, and what’s more, has been doing so for the past two decades with scarcely anyone noticing.
Since the 1960s, the Muslim world has experienced a renaissance of sorts: practically every Muslim-majority country on the planet has experienced a crisis of post-colonial governance as Muslim economies realised that they had to develop beyond the import-substitution model that was the norm during the colonial era.
The colonial developmental model was therefore hastily abandoned, and by the 1960s the governments of many Muslim countries realised that they had to adapt to the demands of the international commercial sector, as well as the demands of the new urban constituencies in their midst.
Accompanying this process of economic, institutional and structural change was the rise of a new and potent force: political Islam. From Morocco to Indonesia, Muslims were organising themselves politically as a new constituency under the banner of Islam. While some countries were capable of adapting to these new political realities, other Muslim countries — notably Iran under the Shah — tried their best to open up new avenues for change while holding back demands for radical reforms in the political system, but to no avail.
Political Islam peaked in the late 1970s and 1980s with the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Islamisation that took place in countries like Pakistan, Sudan and Nigeria. Across the Arab world, the demands of political Islamic activists were difficult to avoid considering their popularity among the urban classes in more developed parts of countries like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. In Asian Muslim countries, the situation was no less different, with Islamisation developing in earnest in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The 1980s, for instance, witnessed the rapid re-structuring of the Malaysian political economy when proponents of political Islam were courted by the state and co-opted into the governmental apparatus.
Today, countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are breaking new ground in areas such as Islamic banking and finance. Furthermore, the popularity of consumer goods that carry a distinct “Made for Muslims” brand is striking. A visit to shopping centres and supermarkets in Muslim countries today would reveal a plethora of goods ranging from “Muslim cola”, such as Zam-Zam or Mecca Cola, to “Muslim jeans”, such as Al Quds jeans, clearly made with Muslim tastes and preferences in mind.
Malaysia is now in the process of developing what may be the first-ever Muslim car, with a compass pointing to Mecca and a special compartment for the Qur’an. In areas such as popular entertainment and plastic arts, Muslim popular culture has become a major business, with giant conglomerates like EMI signing up Muslim pop groups as part of their stable of entertainers.
It has to be remembered, however, that what we are witnessing in the Muslim world today is hardly revolutionary or radical. To that end, it is important to stress a number of salient points.
First, it has to be stated again and again that Islam is not a religion and belief-system that is anti-commerce. The ethical tenets of Islam do not deter one from engaging in commerce, for the Prophet Muhammad himself hailed from a family that was involved in commercial and trading enterprises. Islam defends, and indeed promotes, free enterprise, private property and the accumulation of capital.
Second, what is happening today in the Muslim world is not a novel departure or the invention of something new. All Muslims are doing is appropriating the tools and norms of commerce to serve their own communitarian ends.
Third, the development of a Muslim business sector is good news for all. It serves as a means of developing societies, generating and distributing new wealth, and also as a bridge-building mechanism in times of crisis when the relationship between the West and the Muslim world is not as rosy as it could be. The development of things, like Muslim colas, jeans or cars, testifies to the fact that Muslims actually enjoy goods and services that have for a long time been produced by Western industrial society.
The emergence of Muslim commerce should therefore be seen not as an obstacle, but rather as the opening of a new terrain of commercial possibilities and opportunities for business communities to come together across the world, to explore, develop and service a vital consumer market that is aware of its economic clout and opportunity. At a time when the media constantly bombard us with images of societies in turmoil and instances of inter-cultural conflict and violence, the entrepreneurs of the West and the Muslim world may well have another role to play, namely as cultural bridge-builders and cultural entrepreneurs who can help to create that vital “bridging-capital” that brings societies together instead of tearing them apart.