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Piety for profit

Updated Mar 26, 2016 11:45am


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The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

THE other day I somehow wandered into an Islamabad store which specialises in Islamic honey. I was curious: how might it be different from, say, Australian honey? Would honey with a religious flavour earn me spiritual points as well? Although the storekeepers handed me a glossy 20-page brochure in Urdu, which I read later, I found their answers quite unsatisfactory. Still, the range of their honeys did seem rather appetising.

I was about to open my wallet to buy some varieties when another product caught my eye: ‘Islamic Nuts’. On the shelves were cans of various sizes, inscribed with Quranic verses. The listed contents included pecans and filberts.

But hang on! How could pecans and filberts ever have grown in desert climes? No one in this large store knew either their Urdu or Arabic equivalents. Besides, I was aware that filberts are named after St Philbert, a French saint. It seemed so fishy that I left the store without buying anything.

But suppose I had indeed decided to buy honey and nuts. My choices for payment would have been two-fold. Apart from plain cash, I could have used my ordinary credit card. Else, my newer Sharia-compliant credit card. (To be honest, I really don’t know why I have two. However, I do recall that the Sharia card salesperson visited me in my office two to three years ago. She was so persuasive and persistent that I surrendered to a second one from her bank.)

Business and commerce now freely use Islam as a brand name.

Today I use both pieces of plastic, sometimes randomly. What’s the difference? With either I can purchase the same things or use an ATM. Plus, the Sharia-compliant one charges as much as the ordinary one. Most importantly, although the Sharia card refuses to call it interest, the annual rates charged by both banks are similar. After all, a bank is a bank. And banks exist to make profit, not dispense philanthropy.

The wilful use of Islam to sell products continues to reach astonishing new heights every year. When I heard of an ablution bottle that lets you ‘Istinja like a Ninja’, I first thought someone was pulling my leg. How utterly gross! But then it turned out that you can buy it from in three colors — red, orange, and purple.

Business and commerce now freely use Islam as a brand name, a situation that gets worse with the year. There are now Islamic potato chips, Islamic soaps, luxury prayer mats, and designer abayas with Swarovski crystals. Religious sensibilities are cleverly exploited — such as when a Geo TV anchor handed out abandoned babies to childless couples during Ramazan. The goal was clearly to increase viewership, ie feed crass commercialism and compulsive consumerism. Profit trumps decency and morality.

How have various religions judged commercialism and consumerism from ancient times to the present? In The Sin of Greed, theologian Sheila Harty makes an interesting comparative survey. She says that when religions define sin, they begin with offences against the sacred — idolatry or blasphemy. Next, they focus on offences against the commonweal — murder, adultery, theft, usury.

Harty notes that usury is the only business practice condemned by all religions, including Islam. The reason was a deeply moral one. Usury — charging interest on a loan — was once a killer. Lenders with plenty could easily extend loans to borrowers, usually those short of cash, until the next harvest. No loan meant that you might starve. Therefore the rich could thoroughly exploit the poor.

But the 21st century is very different from the world of long ago. Survival is an issue today only for the very poor. On the other hand, the middle and upper classes live in a throwaway culture associated with greed, wastage and frivolous desires. Commercialisation, with advertising and marketing as its handmaidens, creates artificial wants. In this situation does usury still deserve to be called the greatest of sins? Or has it been overtaken by other sins so great that they now threaten life on this planet?

My friend John Avery, a professor of chemistry in Denmark, has a recent book on the new sins. He explicitly spells out how unbridled consumption imperils human civilisation and the world’s environment — perhaps irreversibly. Economies are obsessed with achieving a “never-ending exponential growth on a finite planet”, a result of American-style capitalism having invented a culture of desire that confuses the good life with goods. Goods require use of polluting resources such as fossil fuels and minerals. But, from a broader world perspective, this is unsustainable.

The rush to consume fuels the modern banking system. Every bank wants people to own more cars and more material goods. Its activities are shrouded in the technical language of finance — derivative products, equity swaps, adjustable mortgages, etc. No one, including top financial experts, can figure out how much usury occurs in such a complex system where everything is interconnected. Sharia-compliant banking has added to the confusion with its particular terminologies. But profit is the real god.

Inequality is built into the guts of this system; the veneer of morality is paper thin. If the owners and managers of the Islamic banks were genuinely moral people and concerned about sin, wouldn’t they pay themselves less? The lowest paid bank employee in a Pakistani bank — whether a Sharia-compliant one or otherwise — makes between 100-1,000 times less than his CEO, for whom a seven-digit monthly salary is perfectly normal.

To conclude: commercialised piety now rakes in profits, reducing religion and spirituality to business. It’s time to get priorities right. Eliminating interest on loans, whether advanced for real or frivolous needs, has so far grabbed all the attention. But would a just God prefer that you pray to Him on a luxury prayer mat — even if purchased with a Sharia-compliant credit card? Why would He give lower priority to the Quranic injunction of adl (justice)? In a system that is unjust at the roots, surely the fight to build a just, sustainable, and compassionate society should take precedence over form and ritual.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2016

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (44) Closed

Muzaffar Ali Mar 26, 2016 01:44am

This is called marketing!

Satyam Vada Mar 26, 2016 01:46am

Yes. Not religion in itself but politicization and commercialization of religion are the real problems of modern world. Politicization I guess existed earlier too but the unscrupulous ways in which it is exploited today is unmatched.

hani Mar 26, 2016 02:17am

Nice analysis,,, I'd relate it to ''Marxism'' an economic theory given by Karl Marx, he ascribed the key importance of ''commercialization'' which is a base of Capitalisation to occupy a slot while establishing the monopolies.....

Divergence Mar 26, 2016 02:20am

What's the point in outer show of cleansing and spirituality when the inner is deeply polluted?

hani Mar 26, 2016 02:25am

I fully agree with the writer.. sadly, nowadays nothing is debarred from the wave of commercialisation even a religion is analysed economically as the examples are given... but the problem is who will set aside the ''marketing and advertising '' elements from this society where the so called seasonal religious anchors are there to manipulate in front of t.v screens?? :(

TQ Mar 26, 2016 03:01am

excellent article.

Malveros Mar 26, 2016 04:16am

Fantastic. What a write-up !

SS Mar 26, 2016 05:19am

Nice and thought-provoking Analysis

Zak Mar 26, 2016 05:34am

Anything for piety.

Nadeem Mar 26, 2016 07:55am

Excellent! You nailed it sir! Religious exploitation must end..

Mohit ( USA) Mar 26, 2016 08:03am

Yet to read one of your article which does not leave me spellbound...Deep Respect Prof.

Mujtaba Mar 26, 2016 10:29am

Crass commercialism, aided by brutal advertising, is 21st century sin. Why else would you need to upgrade your perfectly working modern phone with the "next big thing!" Sadly no one seems to care about social justice and equality any more! Thank you sir for bringing up this issue as "thought of the day"

R.Kannan Mar 26, 2016 10:52am

While Prof Hoodbhoy writes about how people are using Islam as a way to sell goods and services, other religons are not immune to this. The Rig Veda ( the oldest of the vedas in India) has rituals which are based on the use of fire,water, grass, mustard & grain. Yet today, the rituals run into millions of rupees. Similar stories about the Christian & Jewish worlds as well.

Sami Mar 26, 2016 11:02am

nice observation, analysis and write up!

Saju Mar 26, 2016 11:28am

Islam is serving Muslims for so long, Muslims never serve Islam, this marketing in the name of Islam is relatively new phenomenon.

Hasaan Mar 26, 2016 11:52am

This is your best article so far.

Khaled Mar 26, 2016 12:00pm

A good analysis,

citizen Mar 26, 2016 12:25pm

Wish all the citizens to listen the saner voices like you...When our people will wake up from slumber?

Mahmmood Mar 26, 2016 12:39pm

Pure greed, and shameless audacity to exploit the faith for profit, while defrauding fellow-Muslims at the same time!!

wellwisher Mar 26, 2016 01:21pm

the money always wins. A rich preacher is revered and poor one is shunned.

Aqeel Aamir Mar 26, 2016 01:56pm

Thought provocation well executed! Now what sounds vivid that religious affiliation, inclination and affection is being used to make financial profit in the course of marketing. Apparently people in order to compete and earn, are willing to use whatever they can. I am hesitantly asserting that certain religious beliefs may have developed overtime in the similar fashion as under-discussion!

Known Unknown Mar 26, 2016 02:02pm

Make hay while the Sun Shines. I don't see the "bad" in it. It's just a way of doing business using religion!

Lotus Mar 26, 2016 02:38pm

Very well written article.

SUNIL Mar 26, 2016 02:47pm

If there are fools among the people, they can be fooled.

Fareed.hussain Mar 26, 2016 02:49pm

@Divergence A good point very well made.

Fareed.hussain Mar 26, 2016 02:51pm

Excellent points brilliantly made.

Azam Mar 26, 2016 04:06pm

Dr sahib Savvy & brilliant as always

Jamil Soomro, NEW YORK CITY Mar 26, 2016 06:54pm

Subtle humour and strong supporting background facts makes it a wonderful article to read.

Umer Mar 26, 2016 07:24pm

The writer has clearly brought into sharp focus the extent and depth of our moral bankruptcy. One the one hand we all hanker after the goods developed by the west in order to be able to live a comfortable life and on the other go around preaching about the virtues of patience, shukr and fairness.

A. Khan Mar 26, 2016 07:31pm

This is a good example for Council for Islamic Ideology to take up and dispense their knowledge. Instead of interfering on family laws, they should be focusing on how to stop profiteering through the use of Islam as a marketing ploy, to fool the people and prey on their misplaced sense of piety.

Rashid Mar 26, 2016 08:02pm

Mr. Hoodbhoy very good and thought provoking analysis. You are spot on and I agree 100%

Muzaffar Ali Mar 26, 2016 08:24pm

"just, sustainable, and compassionate society should take precedence over form and ritual."

Only when we RECOGNIZE this can change happen! Most of time we on autopilot. No thought to what is going on around us....the author brings that up beautifully.

Harry Mar 26, 2016 10:23pm

Banco Espirito Sancte e Commercial used to be one of the largest banks in Portugal. Disappointingly, Espirito Sancte was merely the name of one of its founders.

Taimur Khan Mar 26, 2016 10:58pm

As always, Professor Hoodbhoy is right on the dot. The term" Commercialized Piety" aptly describes what most holy vendors have been selling for centuries. It does not matter to them one bit that they were not able to persuade the professor, for they manage a humongously large clientele lining up for their holy merchandise! Such business ventures could well become case studies in the prominent business schools of the world!

Mohammad Afsar Mar 26, 2016 11:32pm

Thanks for sharing this informative experience.

Another example of labelling to benefit from from the prevalent wave of religiosity- analogous to bearded appearance of men and women in hijab

Muzamil Maqbool Mar 26, 2016 11:37pm

I agree with Prof: Hoodbhoy

Imran Ahmed Mar 26, 2016 11:38pm

Like sheep the majority of our population mindlessly allow themselves to be exploited by cleverly marketed pretentious pseudo religiosity which completely misses the spirit of justice and compassion.

Asif Mar 27, 2016 04:10am

There was no inflation before the 20 Century (1900's). in 1800's and earlier due to scarcity or droughts prices of items used to go up but then come back down. Since the 2oth Century due to modern finance there is rampant inflation and in some countries (like Pakistan) more than others. So there is no system that can be without some interest.

And centuries ago and now, without interest, the business would be based on trust. The lender has to trust the borrower to return the money with profit.

There has to be a system to link even a interest free loan (qard e hasana) so that the lender gets his rupees back with same value as before. Example make it a US$ value based loan. Otherwise in Pakistan if someone returns rupees after years in same amount then the lender will get much less back due to high inflation rate in Pakistan.

Javed Mar 27, 2016 04:41am

An excellent article that captures the ground realities. You have touched in journalistic form what I struggle to capture through academic reflection. My understanding is that Islam was to prevent exploitation but we managed to use it to exploit vulnerable through Islamic mimics that only penetrates heart of weak in our society. Why Islamic mortgages Loans for homes) should cost more than commercial home loans? I asked once someone. The reply was, are you not prepared to pay a little more for the sake of your religion? That captures designer wares which have nothing to do with Islam but everything to exploit the very vulnerable section of society. I agree it happens with all religions, Islam is not a single entity that is exploited, all religions are.

Skeptic Mar 27, 2016 09:49am

A pity. Piety has been turned into something so petty!

Omar Khayyam Mar 27, 2016 12:01pm

Dr. Hoodbhoy, I have yet to read an article written by you that is brilliant and thought-provoking. I wish you a very long and healthy life so that you can keep on treating us to your wonderful thoughts and articles!

Abid Hafeez Mar 27, 2016 03:13pm

I agree with writer that one should abstain from using religion for selling the products. I also request people to refain from messages which include conditions at the end like, "your wish will be fulfilled if you forward this message". This kind of approach leaves a very bad impact on the reader and especially on the believer who does this and later his wish does not get fulfilled. Taking religon so frivolously is not good as it leaves bad impression.

prasanna Mar 27, 2016 08:34pm

Well written article indeed.Request Dr.Hoodbhoy would write on science Vs religion (Not Islam per se,but religion as a whole lot) .

Anwar Mar 28, 2016 04:07pm

This happens and it will continue to happen in progress and evolution. When we are reaching to the height our moral begins getting down and then we see that every thing is fair in every way be it business or religion. The world is running after the material and you know material is dead so we are.