Let's face it, social media has the power to ruin most things, and this week it brought bad news to Muslim chocolate lovers. In one short tweet, M&M's UK replied to a query about its products with the doleful words: "Not suitable for a halal diet."
The Muslim internet fell into shock. Even Muslim clerics were (jokingly) up in arms. Shaykh Azhar Nasser – known on Twitter for his sense of humour – took the opportunity to point out: “Every community has that dude who unnecessarily investigates the ingredients of a food we all love, discovers it's haram and ruins our lives.”
In contrast to that tongue-in-cheek comment, though, the reality is that the halal status of products is actually a serious matter.
“Halal” is simply the word to denote something that is “permitted”, and for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims it demarcates the line between what can and can’t be consumed, typically referring to food and drink. In more recent years, however, it has fallen into broader use, encompassing the full gamut of the marketplace, from travel to pharmaceuticals and even media.
This has become known as the “Islamic economy”, a burgeoning sector that is predicted to be worth more than $3 trillion by 2023 – and that doesn’t even include the $3.8 trillion Islamic finance industry. Halal food will, by that time, be valued at $1.86 trillion, nearly two-thirds of the overall market. Halal credentials – as M&Ms found out – can pay dividends.
The concept of halal has always been important to Muslims, but it has taken on a new significance in recent years, a trend driven primarily by young Muslims seeking food and beverages that are clearly and unequivocally aligned with their faith. They are scrutinising foods for their halal status and are not averse to making a fuss when they don't meet their criteria.
Government bodies have been taking the lead on the standardisation of halal status. In the UAE, the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology is the relevant federal body. Not only has it focused on products within the nation, it has also been working towards establishing standards that are applied more widely across other countries. Consistent certification brings clarity to the decisions of Muslim consumers.
This is particularly important in minority-Muslim countries, where, instead of an overarching government body, dozens of certification authorities scrutinise and validate processes, leaving consumers wondering who to trust. They are increasingly saying that a checklist approach to halal status doesn’t match up to their understanding of the spirit of the concept.
Pointing to the Quranic concept of “tayyab”, a growing number of young Muslims are imposing their own, exacting ethical standards on the things they buy. Literally speaking, “tayyab” just means “good”. But this idea of goodness is important and multifaceted – in the minds of these young Muslim consumers, if something isn’t tayyab, then it can’t be halal. Essentially, being tayyab means that every element of the product must meet halal standards, from how workers are treated and animals are cared for to the environmental impacts of a product’s packaging. For some, even the advertising and marketing must be true to halal and tayyab principles.
It’s easy to see a clear parallel with broader consumer trends for organic products, not to mention concerns about plastic pollution and carbon emissions, and the fair treatment of workers. For consumers of halal products, the tayyab movement is rooted in personal moral and religious convictions.
In some areas, tayyab products have even been at the cutting edge of wider consumer trends. Take the recent change in mood towards vegan products, particularly in the beauty space. Halal products with tayyab foundations been asserting their cruelty-free credentials for quite some time.
The scrutiny of halal products and the maintenance of high and consistent standards is a serious business for the Muslim community. But this new and principled approach to consumer ethic by young Muslims is an exciting development that benefits the world at large.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World