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Muslim Ethical Consumption, and the Way ‘Back’ to a ‘New’ Normal

Blessed Be the Strangers

A little over seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, we are still trying to understand, make sense of, respond to, and perhaps even adapt to our new and unstable environment. Despite our different socio-economic backgrounds, geographic locations, the severity of the pandemic, our work and family situations, and our various privileges, the one thread that ties us together is how we all continue to experience and negotiate both familiarity and strangeness.

Our Lives “Post”-Covid

There is much that is foreign and unprecedented about our lives “post”-covid, and yet much remains familiar. For many of us, this has been a time to witness firsthand how norms are created, how new values and priorities are pushed to the forefront, and how really much of what we thought was essential, necessary, and non-negotiable is actually subject to change. Zoom, now a common household and workspace name, has drastically remodeled structures of work and education. Eating, leisure, and other consumer habits are being scrutinized by governments and reshaped by grassroots organisations, as public health and curtailing the spread of the virus are being prioritised. With most factories reworking their assembly line to manufacture more sanitisers, masks, and ventilators, it has become abundantly clear how much of the global chains of supply and demand have been producing superfluous goods and commodities.

If there is one blessing to the pandemic, it is how it continues to show us, as only good documentaries do, how much of our reality up until 2020 was not at all a natural evolution of society, not at all in harmonious and unproblematic relationship with nature, that indeed so much of it was socially and economically constructed, and built on dangerous and hubristic grounds for that matter.

A little over seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, most of us are still stuck thinking “how do we get back”—to our lives, routines, projects, and patterns of consumption before Covid. I ask that we pause and think: what was normal about our lives before 2020 to begin with? Is the best way forward truly to ignore the lessons and signs of these times, and to follow a desire to return to a normalcy that was arguably neither good, nor ethical, nor indeed deserving of being called “normal”? This is a question that every person alive today must quibble with, and the means with which one approaches this problem depends on one’s worldview, sources of knowledge, conceptual tools, and ethical framework.

As a Muslim, I take the principles derived from engaging with the textual sources of Islam to be my primary framework of reference, shaping my worldview and the way I conceptually approach the question of what is and should be normal.

I would imagine that for many Muslims that is also the case. We have come to relate to revelation and the figure of the Prophet (saws) not as this distant event, but as a living spirit that we continuously engage when we ask: what does Islam say about this matter? What would the Prophet (saws) have done? It is of no surprise that one of the most oft-quoted of His ahadith over the past months has been His command neither to enter nor leave a town infected with the plague1. As conscientious and responsible as this instruction is, which shares an underlying principle with lockdown logic, most of us Muslims have stopped with thinking through the prophetic approach here.

As a Muslim, however, I also believe that the Qur’an and Sunnah offer us bigger guidelines to bigger questions, those same questions we keep avoiding and delaying but will never escape. These sources are relevant to all places and time, precisely because while being very historically specific, they address and comment on issues central to the human condition.

We can extract from the specific contexts of revelation various principles, priorities, and moral/legal axioms that can then be reworked to address the problem anyone of us may be facing in their current moment.

Principles of Ethical Consumption

On the question of ethical consumption—particularly of foodstuff, but pertaining to all kinds of material consumption—there is no paucity of textual guidelines. Since any article of this size can never exhaustively mention all these verses and prophetic reports2, instead I want to argue that there are at least five important principles that can be derived from the various relevant texts. These are:

  1. the scope of our mandate of khilafah on earth: scholars throughout the 1400+ years of Islamic tradition have agreed that the position of khilafah entails a sense of active responsibility, a custodial, enabling, and supportive function towards all of Allah’s (swt) creation that we come in contact with. While the Qur’an is replete with instances where Allah (swt) reminds us of his various blessings in the form of the natural world and its creatures from which mankind can benefit, these have not, as far as I’m aware, been interpreted to legitimise mankind’s sense of entitlement and impulse to dominate and control. 
  2. the hierarchy of creation as described in the Qur’an: of relevance to the previous point is the fact that the Qur’an does not set a hierarchy of creation, headed by mankind at the top. The Qur’anic conception of mankind is one of struggle between the angelic and the satanic. Mankind is always being tested, and whilst endowed with a consciousness, mind, and a message particular to them, we are reminded that we are just one ummah among many others, differently tasked with the same objective of worship: “There is not an animal in the earth, nor a flying creature flying on two wings, but they are peoples like unto you.”3
  3. halaalan tayyiban4 being the foundation of what constitutes good consumption: this pertains to the purity of one’s income, the halal/haram status of the product consumed, whether it was produced with ihsan, whether all of the relevant shari’ah requirements have been adhered to, etc.
  4. the clear and unequivocal emphasis on prudence, frugality, and moderation.
  5. the centrality of avoiding harm and waste.

Taken together, these five principles point to a responsibility far greater than what we hold ourselves accountable for today, especially in our current moment. The extent of suffering that Allah’s (swt) creation is put through, the resulting ecological destruction, the environmental degradation, and the continuing inequalities, abuse, and exploitation of many non-white and indigenous communities, all of which stem from our consumption patterns and habits, are enough to make us pause and think of the extent of our guilt and complicity.5

The modern world, built on and intertwined with the logic of capitalism, simply means that the scale and complexity of the problems we face today are many times fold what it could have been in the time of the Prophet (saws).

To do our part to correct this requires so much more than to simply ask: is the source of my money halal and my meat shari’ah-compliant? If in the prophetic time, when technologies of exploiting and dominating natural resources had not yet been invented, ethical consumption entailed less responsibility, then today, with the explosion of scale, complexity, and human-caused atrocities, we must follow the prophetic Sunnah of questioning the truth of our reality, of defamiliarizing what might seem so natural and so normal to us and maintaining a critical distance towards it, and of adhering to the Qur’anic mandate that linked the consumption of that which is tayyib with good actions:

O ye messengers! Eat of the good things, and do right. Lo! I am aware of what ye do.”6

This matter is even greater when we honestly and humbly consider which positions of privilege we occupy, which actions we take contribute directly or indirectly to the fasaad (corruption) that abounds. It goes without saying that, given the principle that Allah (swt) does not burden a soul with more than it can bear7, the more complicit we are in those harmful structures, and the more power we have to change those patterns and habits within and without us, the greater our responsibility.

Conclusion

In future articles we will hopefully look at what precisely we each can do to support ethical consumption in our circles. Some of the topics we aim to include are: how to trace the sources of your consumed goods, how to seek tayyib products, how to support local, organic, and non-capitalist producers, how to support the improvement of workers’ conditions in the businesses you deal with, and investigating how almost all world economies contribute to environmental degradation, land, and resource exploitation often leading to war, immense waste, and much animal suffering.

The simple takeaway of this introductory article is to encourage each of us to look at ourselves, our lives, our patterns of consumption, our everyday acts no matter how small, with a certain foreignness and distance. The Prophet (saws) is reported to have said:

“Islam began as a strange [foreign] religion and will return to the state in which it began. Then blessed will be the strangers [those who, in following its teaching, will be alien amongst the people].” (Mishkat al-Masabih 159, Book 1, Hadith 152)

Perhaps the greatest prophetic Sunnah we can hope to emulate, is this. To defamiliarise that which seems second nature to us. To question how far our “normal” is acceptable to Allah (swt) and his Prophet (saws). To recognise the size and scope of our responsibilities, and to meet them accordingly. 

We pray that five months from now, we find ourselves as far away from “going back to normal” as possible, and making guided progress towards a “new” but Allah-conscious normal.

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tayyib Society team.

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Sources

  1. The Prophet (saws) said: "If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place." (Sahih al-Bukhari 5728).
  2. For further readings please see: Mohd Shukri Hanapi, Siti Mastura and Caturida Doktoralina, “Wasatiyyah-Consumerism Ethics in Al-Quran”, International Journal of Financial Research 10 (5) 204-207, Special Issue, 2019; Mohd Zaid Mustafar and Joni Tamkin Borhan, “Muslim Consumer Behaviour: Emphasis on Ethics from Islamic Perspective”, Middle East Journal of Scientific Research 18 (9) 1301-1307, 2013; Heather Fagan, “Islamic Iktisad: Solution to Consumerism as the Root Cause of Environmental Destruction”, Australian Journal of Islamic Studies, 1 (1) 65-80, 2016.
  3. Qur’an 6:38. Transl. Pickthall.
  4. Qur’an 2:168. Often translated as the lawful and the good/pure.
  5. For an extensive article that also cites helpful research, see Mohamed Ghilan, “The Halal Bubble and the Sunnah Imperative to Go Vegan”, https://almadinainstitute.org/blog/vegan-sunnah
  6. Qur’an 23: 51. Transl. Pickthall.
  7. Qur’an 2:286.
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This article was written by a Tayyib Society contributor.

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