Our body is like a container. It is clean only when we put clean things in it. If we fill it with tainted things, it will definitely become dirty. Everything that we put into our body has an effect on it, it determines how we live and what we are —either positive or negative.
Take for example the food that we eat. People commonly say ‘we are what we eat’, and the food that we digest becomes our flesh and blood.
Think about it. If we feed our body with sugar-laden food, how will our body turn out? If we feed ourselves with the best and the purest food and in the process it helps us to be the best that we can be, is it not in our interest to do so? I believe that this is a universal concept that everyone can accept.
Take another example. If we feed our mind mostly by reading on how to achieve internal happiness and calmness, will we not become sharp and focussed on this subject? This rings true with almost everything we choose to consume: news, television, music, to name a few. What we feed our mind will become food for our soul. What we do with conviction becomes our commitment.
Now let us apply this to the concept of halal, which means permissible. It covers objects and actions that conform to certain principles. When it comes to food, humanity is expected to eat, use and act in accordance with what is not only permissible (halal) but also good, pure or wholesome. Halal requirements are stringent, and in the case of the food sector, I dare say that halal standard in the aspect of food safety is the highest.
Most people however only associate halal with the prohibition to eat certain types of food, such as pork, dog and alcohol, but the standard applies to both product and the process of preparation as well. It also encompasses safety, animal welfare, social justice and sustainable environment. Consumers who are truly concerned about safety and healthy life style should therefore readily accept the wholesomeness concept of halal regardless of faith.
The opposite to halal is haram (not permissible). The principle of halal and haram is very clear. Halal-haram is binary. There are no 50 shades of grey in between. It is either black or white, i.e. it is either halal or haram. We cannot say this product is ‘more halal’, and that product is ‘less halal’. When something is haram, we must have enough conviction to say that it is haram. Likewise, committing ourselves to consuming what is purely halal also requires conviction.
Halal-haram also concerns both direct and indirect consumption. Direct consumption means things such as food that we buy and eat. Indirect means the source of fund that we use, for example to buy food to feed ourselves and our family. If we get money from gambling and use it to buy food, then the food is not halal because proceeds from gambling is not halal.
Speaking of sources of funds, financing products could also be halal or haram. Financial institutions (FSI) now offer two types of banking services – conventional banking and Islamic banking. Conventional banking, involves among others, financial products based on usury whereby money is lent on interest. Usury is clearly haram in Islam.
In Malaysia’s current financial services landscape, Islamic banking is more often than not a sub-set or a subsidiary to conventional banking. What does this mean in so far as the halal factor is concerned? It means the halal status of the financial products can be disputed because the source of fund to establish Islamic banking within the usury-based conventional banking operation is in itself questionable. True Islamic FSIs has to be truly independent from conventional banking institutions to avoid any questions about its halal status. Therefore, there is a calling for FSIs to set up truly halal Islamic banking that is not tagged to the platform of conventional banking at all.
Halal is not limited by geographical boundaries. Halal is borderless. It is absolutely strange when a financial product is only deemed halal in Malaysia but not halal in other countries. A purely halal financial product must be unquestionably accepted globally. It must transcend borders and be readily accepted without any doubt and argument. This substantive pain point gives rise to a tremendous amount of opportunities for entrepreneurs out there.
Let’s take As-Sidq as an example. A made in Malaysia, financial trading platform certified by the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) based in Bahrain and International Shari’ah Research Academy for Islamic Finance (ISRA). As-Sidq, which means “The Truth” in Arabic, satisfies the strict requirements based on the Middle East syariah regulations, making it the only fully syariah-compliant Islamic personal financing product in the world today outside the Middle East. It is one of the most demanded platform amongst Islamic FSIs at the moment.
The rest available today are what is called the result of ‘best efforts’ only, i.e. efforts to comply with syariah. This is where the problem lies. It is not halal in the real sense because the purpose of establishing the product is questionable. True Muslims care about the food they put in their mouth as much as they care about the money used to buy that food. Because of this they will go out of their way to find and only consume what is truly halal even if it is available at a premium price.
Practising Muslims are willing to pay a certain amount when they find that it is worthwhile to pay for a truly halal product. There are a huge number of Muslim practitioners who will not use products that are not fully compliant. There is also the potential of a certain percentage of other Muslims who will migrate and be fully compliant. With increasing demand for Islamic banking products and services, only then will they become more cost effective.
Consumer behaviour on accepting only truly halal will eventually push FSIs to meet their demand. Therefore financial service providers must have equal commitment and hold the responsibility to provide truly syariah-compliant financial products and services and not just camouflage these as halal within the haram conventional setting.
Such a scenario today also requires the body tasked with pushing the halal agenda, such as the Halal Industry Development Corporation, to focus on the development of truly halal standard, audit and certification. There may even be a need to set up a new body to set the bar for halal best practices in Malaysia or the world and to further build capacity for the development of the halal standard globally.
And that is the truth.
Datuk Azrin Mohd Noor is the founder of Sedania Group, an innovator, author and IP expert.