Oud soap products being widely sold among the Muslim community in this region. (photo: OUD Luxury Collections.SG / Facebook)

Oud soap products being widely sold among the Muslim community in this region. (photo: OUD Luxury Collections.SG / Facebook)

An ‘Islamic Lifestyle’: When Piety Meets Consumerism?


The growing Muslim middle class’s appetite for consumer goods with halal and religious-inspired branding raises challenging questions about whether conspicuous consumption sits well with expressions of religiosity.

Over the years, there have been discussions about the socio-economic growth of the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore. This has manifested in a gradual change in consumption habits among middle-class Muslims and has arguably led to the moulding of an ‘Islamic lifestyle’ whereby goods produced and purchased not only seemingly enhance consumers’ sense of spirituality but also allow them to be trendy. While consumers may find spiritual or historical value in such products, the products’ popularity reflects the growing commodification of religion and conspicuous consumption. Consequently, this could erode the spiritual value of important religious symbols.

Sociologists such as Weber, Veblen, and Bourdieu (Stillerman 2015) argue that a change in one’s socio-economic class may result in a change in one’s consumption habits. When such change interacts with a religious lifestyle, it may lead to an increase in demand for goods and services which comply with the precepts of a given religion.

In the case of the Muslim middle class, this demand has manifested in the form of shariah-compliant services such as Islamic banking, educational institutions, and halal certification for food, which emerged in the 1980s in the context of Islamic revivalism (Muzaffar 1987). However, over the past four decades, Muslim consumer demands have evolved. Today, anything from facial products to electronics can be given a halal label.

In the Southeast Asian context, the community’s demands are no longer strictly about shariah-compliance or halal labels but also about living a certain aspirational lifestyle. There is a growing demand for goods which allow consumers to engage with their religious or spiritual practices while enabling them to keep up with current trends. For example, while the use of the hijab (headscarf) symbolises a Muslim woman’s adherence to perceived religious requirements, it is not uncommon for Muslim women in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei to want the latest fashionable headscarves, which sell at a premium.

The active marketing of such a lifestyle in Singapore is evident from the Islamic-inspired products available in local stores owned and mainly patronised by Muslims. One product that has been traditionally popular among Muslims is oud or agarwood perfume. The popularity of oud has evolved to the extent that it features in daily-use products such as wet wipes, deodorant, air freshener, and soap. Some of the air fresheners are even marketed as reminiscent of Islamic holy sites such as the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

There is a growing demand for goods which allow consumers to engage with their religious or spiritual practices while enabling them to keep up with current trends.

There are also products meant for oral hygiene like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and mouthwash made from sewak, the arak tree. The toothbrush, known as a miswak, has become popular among Muslims not only because it is natural but also because Prophet Muhammad was said to have used it. Another hygiene product is a fabric spray for prayer mats which serves the same purpose as a regular mass-produced fabric spray, but which costs significantly more.

Other products for daily use which carry a spiritual slant include stationery such as bookmarks and notebooks, and even car decals or water bottles. These products may be decorated with religious expressions such as Bismillah (“In the name of God”), Insha Allah (“God Willing”), and Masha Allah (“God has willed it”), short verses from the Qur’an, or expressions with religious connotations such as “dream – doa (pray/supplicate) – do”. They have a religious twist but are also pleasing to the eye, designed with attractive fonts, patterns, and colours.   

Food is not excluded from this phenomenon. For example, one of the food products that is popular among Muslims is sidr honey. Largely cultivated in Yemen and regarded as the manuka of the Middle East, it has become so popular that it is available in honey straws. Another product is habbatus sauda (black cumin seeds), regarded as an alternative remedy for various diseases due to a saying of Prophet Muhammad that they are a remedy for all ailments except death. While these seeds are commonly available, black seed honey is now popular. The seeds are even available in a body wash.

These products are illustrative of a conscious process of production and marketing where everyday products are given an ‘Islamic’ image or label, to the extent that consumers believe their possession or consumption of such products cultivates a particular lifestyle or identity embodying that of a middle-class Muslim consumer. In some cases, certain products are designed with a specific demographic in mind, such as Muslim youth, who may have more disposable income as their parents enter the middle class.

While there is no harm in consuming such products, it is worth questioning their existence and the blatant marketing. By imbuing a purported religious or spiritual character in otherwise mundane goods, some producers may take advantage of religious symbols and history in a bid to appeal to Muslim consumers.

Additionally, the widespread availability of such goods in physical and online stores indicates that there is substantial demand, even though they may be costlier than similar products not specifically targeted at Muslim consumers. When contrasted with the ideals of moderation and self-restraint in Islamic teachings, such commodification and conspicuous consumption pose a paradox, as piety seems to be closely tied to consumerist behaviour. Furthermore, consumers’ desire to acquire such products and the continued commodification of religious symbols could potentially erode their spiritual value.

It is also worth asking if the demand for these goods could lead to an exclusivist definition of what it means to be Muslim or to live an ‘Islamic lifestyle’. Would a Muslim’s possession of such products make them more pious than one who cannot afford or does not use such products? Would such consumption habits worsen class divisions within the ummah? The answer surely does not lie in the market but in consumers’ hearts.


Afra Alatas is Research Officer in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Nadirah Norruddin was a Tan Cheng Lock scholar and formerly a Research Officer in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.