WE ALL know about halal meat; and we may have heard about
sharia-approved banking. But what about halal toothpaste, or face
cream? And did you know that Krispy Kreme doughnuts are produced in
a manner entirely in keeping with Islamic principles?
Halal certification has become a huge marketing trend, aimed at
the estimated 1.8 billion Muslim consumers on the planet, many of
them young and upwardly mobile. But, as Navid Akhtar explained in
The Future is Halal (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the
impetus for this branding exercise comes not from stern imams, but
from savvy, worldly businessmen.
"Halal" implies purity, wholesomeness, and an ethical
sensibility. As one commentator put it, halal is a lifestyle choice
rather than a religious injunction. And, where there are lifestyles
choices to be made, there is also money.
The Department of Islamic Development, in Malaysia, runs the
most widely recognised of the certification programmes. Akhtar
reported from its recent meeting in Kuala Lumpur, where there were
representatives from players such as Nestlé and McDonald's, as well
as smaller entrepreneurs, including a company that sells testing
kits designed to identify traces of pork and alcohol in your
If there was ever an example of the opportunistic relationship
between certification and marketing, it is the French perfume
company that invited the Malaysians to work with them on a new,
halal perfume. The challenge clearly extended beyond simply
replacing the alcohol in the product with some other appropriate
chemical; for the testers worked with the perfumers at their base
in the south of France, and the French admitted that much of the
process involved teaching their guests what they actually did.
The frustration of this programme stemmed from Akhtar's
reluctance to address this most obvious of issues: was this not
just a scam? And would this secularisation of the concept of halal
not cause anxiety for those unlikely to want the precedents set by
the Prophet applied to washing powder?
Blessedly, we live in a country where, for many a long year, we
have not persecuted, let alone burned, anyone on account of their
choice of hand cream. Indeed, it was as long ago as 1612 that we
last executed anybody for heresy.
The poor, deluded offender was one Edward Wightman - a pub bore,
who engaged anybody who cared to listen in disquisitions on how he
was the Prophet Elijah. And he might have got away with it, had he
not bothered King James I on the subject.
Wightman's tale was told with wit and insight by Andrew Brown
and the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch in a Proms interval
talk, Twenty Minutes: The last heretic (Radio 3,
Saturday); although why a tale of 17th-century religious
intolerance, adorned by the music of Byrd and Gibbons, was thought
to be an appropriate way to while away the time between bouts of
rigorous modernism is a mystery.
Professor MacCulloch likened Wightman to a modern-day blogger,
spouting nonsense to whoever might be out there. Or perhaps like
that poor tweeter who joked about blowing up an airport, and then
had the misfortune to be taken seriously by the authorities.