Evolution of the Halal Industry and Lifestyle in Southeast Asia
The notable growth of halal products and the overall market is a trend that bears watching for producers of halal consumables, as they adapt to modern demands from Muslims and non-Muslims alike to uphold high standards.
Halal as a concept and value category is an integral part of the sharia. It is not new as such but its more recent manifestation and growth into a global industry are linked with late twentieth century Islamic resurgence. “Halal” began with a focus on food but further developed to include clothes, cosmetics, housing, tourism, banking and finance, pharmaceuticals, even dating and matchmaking services. However, not all aspects of these developments are expounded in the sharia textbooks.
Questions have arisen from time to time over doubtful matters and the roles that social custom (‘urf) and fatwa should play in response to such concerns. A set of questions arose over the qualification of halal slaughterers, including whether non-Muslims and women were qualified to carry out the halal slaughter and whether machine slaughter, slaughtered meat imported from non-Muslim countries, electrical stunning of animals, et cetera, were sharia-compliant. Ultimately, halal practice must not turn into a divisive factor in Muslim and non-Muslim relations. It must also maintain a delicate balance between religious requirements and market forces.
Halal is admittedly an important aspect of Islam but it is not an obligation and should not be practiced at the expense of good community relations. About one-third of the world’s Muslims currently live in non-Muslim majority countries. For these Muslim communities, maintaining good relations with their non-Muslim neighbours is a higher priority. No confrontation is necessary or advisable, especially in practical matters of food and clothes.
Halal practice in food is mostly concerned with halal meat. One can naturally be a good Muslim and not eat meat. Furthermore, contrary to earlier fatwas disallowing them to do so, women can carry out the halal slaughter when animal slaughtering is generally mechanically practiced nowadays. Non-Muslims too can conduct halal slaughter, since the Qur’an explicitly allows Muslims to consume the slaughter of the Ahl al-Kitab (followers of revealed scripture), including Jews and Christians. Muslim scholars have also issued fatwas that validate electric stunning based on the understanding that stunning makes the slaughter less painful for the animal.
In sum, when all the sharia rules of slaughter are considered and halal is practiced in the best possible way, knowing that “halal” also stands for hygiene and purity, it should not be a controversial issue. The rules of halal that specify certain animals as non-halal and meat even of a halal animal to be fit for consumption only when its slaughter is carried out according to ‘correct’ procedures, are all designed to attain hygiene and purity. Maintaining these standards is key to dispelling some of the sentiments behind the anti-halal movement that is gaining traction in the West.
The profundity of halal as a pervasive Islamic value and its capacity to reach beyond business tend to give halal industry operators and consumers the confidence to face challenging market conditions but to remain competitive and profitable.
Malaysia and Indonesia are currently the largest producers of halal cosmetics and have well-established halal regulatory environments. Another catalyst for the rapid growth of this industry is that, unlike for halal food and pharmaceuticals, halal fashion need not go through any halal certification procedures probably because fashion does not involve eating or imbibing substances.
Halal matchmaking is another example of a growing halal lifestyle. The number of Muslim web-based dating sites and mobile dating applications has grown rapidly to promote halal matchmaking. These online and off-line halal matchmaking services suggest replacing conventional dating with the Islamic ta‘aruf (getting to know each other) before marriage. Halal platforms such as the “Marriage Conference” in Malaysia, Tanpa Pacaran (“Without Dating”) in Indonesia, and “Mat & Minah” in Singapore are growing in popularity. The BaitulJannah app and website alone currently has more than 1 million youth users in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. This clearly shows that the concept of “halal” reaches beyond the marketplace and can touch the psyche and sentiments of Muslims, to have a renewed emphasis in Muslim life, commerce, and culture.
The halal industry and market have quickly developed in many Muslim-majority countries and internationally. The profundity of halal as a pervasive Islamic value and its capacity to reach beyond business tend to give halal industry operators and consumers the confidence to face challenging market conditions but to remain competitive and profitable. Halal today is driven also by technological advances in transportation and refrigeration.
Muslims have historically practiced Islam with a degree of reservation that shied away from the marketisation of religion. Muslims traditionally viewed the market (souq, or bazaar) as a place frequented by people of questionable piety, where money and profit held supreme. When halal becomes market-driven, it is presumably no longer immune to such commercial motives. What is needed is for Muslim authorities and producers alike to ensure a balanced blend of ethics and commerce, so that sharia is followed.
It is clear that halal discourse has now evolved beyond food and beverage to include lifestyle and that the potential economic benefits are substantial. In 2021, Muslim youths spent more than US$368 billion on halal fashion and beauty products. In Southeast Asia, competition among halal fashion brands is particularly fierce due to the emergence of new local designers and the entry of renowned international designers into the market, partly given their access to cheaper raw materials from China and Vietnam.
Modern Muslim markets tend to be run on the assumption that taking care of purity, ethics, technology, and profit for halal purposes is a question of efficient regulatory standards. Islamic modernity thus ensures that halal is both market-driven and religiously compliant. Whoever maintains a balance of efficiency, hygiene, piety, and profit would most likely also be a good market participant and responsible practitioner of halal. In sum, the halal industry and lifestyle will continue developing to include other facets of social life, in line with the Islamic resurgence’s call to develop Islam in its entirety. This may not gel well with some segments of non-Muslims, which will naturally add to the challenges that halal industry operators have to face. But given the combination of profit motive and religious merit, halal operators will most likely make the needed efforts to remain competitive and survive.
Mohammad Hashim Kamali is Founding CEO of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies, Malaysia.