The Business of Islam
The Business of Islam
All Muslims are ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in Islam, but when it comes to the halal industry, business is business… Or is it?
By Ethar El-Katatney
SEX sells: an uncontested truth. But with approximately 1.8 billion Muslims across the world demanding products that comply with their religious principles — a demand that businesses are rushing to meet — it’s safe to say that Islam sells as well. Although the global halal market is often only thought of as relating to food, it is in fact all-encompassing, including all of the business sectors that affect the lifestyles of Muslims, from dress and travel to finance and real estate. Estimates of the market’s worth therefore vary depending on the basket of products considered.
Singapore International Halal Showcase (SIHS), an annual exhibition of halal products, put the halal market’s annual value at $560 billion (LE 3 trillion), while Halal World Expo, the huge Abu Dhabi-based event focused on the halal industry, put the figure as high as $2.1 trillion (LE 11.2 trillion). The Halal Journal, which calls itself the trade journal for the halal industry, estimates it to be worth $580 billion (LE 3.1 trillion). Clearly whatever the estimate, halal products are a lucrative enterprise.
In Egypt, religion plays an important role in the lives of most of its population. From the time of the pharaohs, Egyptians have been highly devout, whether pagan, Muslim, Christian or Jewish. With colonization, however, Egypt’s major cities began to be recognized as cosmopolitan trendsetters, rather than religious hubs. That was until the 1970s and 1980s when what has been referred to as an Islamic revival swept through the country, and a conservative Islamic identity began to take precedence over the national identity for Egypt’s Muslim population.
This revival is reflected in the number of mosques in Egypt: According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), in 1986, there was one mosque for every 6,031 Egyptians. By 2005, there was one mosque for every 745 people though the population had nearly doubled.
Today, with an estimated 90% of its population — around 72 million people — considered Muslim, this ‘reemergence’ of Islam has resulted in an influx of businesses looking to cash in on the growing interest in halal products. These businesses are looking to satisfy a previously unsatisfied need: making it possible for people to fulfill the commandments of Islam in a contemporary world. Whether it is about dressing conservatively but fashionably, or making the pilgrimage in style, companies are lining up to accommodate this booming market.
Business Today Egypt interviewed market leaders in four industries where profits are directly linked to Islam, to find out what it is like to do business where the secular and divine intertwine.
Once a minority, muhajabat (women who wear a headscarf) are now an overwhelming majority in Egypt. Understanding that this was a market with huge potential, businesses immediately began to make products to satisfy the needs of their veiled customers.
Perhaps the first company to respond was The Tie Shop, a store dedicated exclusively to providing women with headscarves of all colors, styles and fabrics. From velour to chiffon garnished with sequins or beads, these veils quickly began flying off the shelves.
Previously a piece of cloth wrapped once or twice around the head, the hijab (headscarf) has not been free from the influence of fashion — donning the veil can now take up to an hour. It has also spawned complimentary businesses — magazines such as the local Hijab feature models wearing the garment in a variety of ways and pages dedicated to explaining how to create new styles. Hairdressers have also jumped onto the trend — muhajabat can visit a hairdresser who will tie their veil for them in the desired style (rosette and braid for example) or for prices ranging between LE 100 to LE 700, specialized stylists will visit homes to tie the hijab in private.
And after the hijab? Clothes, of course. Catering to the conservative Muslim woman has become big business, with some shops stocking only ankle length skirts, high-necked shirts and the like. Al-Salam Shopping Center near the Ramses Hilton caters to an almost exclusively veiled clientele, selling everything from hip fashions to abayat (the long Islamic dress that is typically black).
Some shops such as the chain Muhajaba release new designs every few months and use advertising gimmicks such as bringing in well-know actresses that have donned the hijab to advertise their new styles. Like the Islamic revival, the rise in muhajaba wear has extended to all segments of society, with many exclusive designer stores also opening shops where the cost of a basic black abaya starts at LE 1,000.
Perhaps the most successful product created to serve the needs of muhajabat is the seamless long sleeve high-neck top that molds to the body and sells for LE 60. Carina, the major producer of these tops, has been so successful that the company’s name has become synonymous with the style. The company has opened 25 stores around the country in three years — a phenomenal success story, according to Carina Marketing Executive Hana Youssef, who claims the product is worn by at least 90% of women in public universities.
“Before we created the Carina top, muhajabat simply couldn’t wear anything they wanted. So we designed a top with a high neck and sleeves that muhajabat can wear under anything they want, and still be conservative,” says Youssef. Carina uses Lycra from Switzerland that is breathable, elastic, seamless and molds to the shape of the body.
“We’re not only targeting Muslims,” says Youssef, who says that the garment is useful for non-veiled women as well, “It’s a product for any woman who wishes to dress conservatively . It just so happens that most of our clients are Muslim.”
With the success of the classic long-sleeved top, Carina immediately branched out to other similar products, beginning with the t-shirt cut, long-sleeved top, to the tank tops that are used as outerwear by girls under 14. Its product line now includes over 60 underwear and outerwear products for women, ranging from leggings and corsets to long-sleeved sequined tops and hijabs.
Carina has three factories, a customer service department and a team that travels to Italy twice a year to attend fashion shows. According to Youssef, Carina even beat international clothing chain Mango in introducing the ‘hot’ silver and gold leggings two years ago. “We do everything we can to release products that mirror the latest fashion,” she says.
Although Youssef would not divulge the amount, she admits that Carina’s marketing budget is “substantial.” A billboard on Sixth of October Bridge has been up for months; Carina Sucettes (mini-billboards) are everywhere and small Carina booths are found all over the country. According to Youssef, Carina has left the competitors in the dust. “I don’t see that we have competitors at all. There are of course companies that have copied us,” she says.
With the market flooded with clothing options, retailers have found another niche market to target more conservative women: Women-only services such as women-only gyms, women-only beaches, women-only hairdressing salons and women-only cafés.
Sabaya, a hairdresser/café/shop owned by the recently veiled actress Hanan Turk, is only open to veiled women. Turk says Christians and uncovered women are not allowed because the business is based on Islamic standards, and beautifying a woman who will reveal herself publicly is counter-Islamic.
Turk claims she is choosing her beliefs over profit, barring a large number of potential clients in favor of her conservative values. But in other cases, the motive seems more likely to be conservative money rather than values, as some businesses charge inflated prices to clients seeking special halal products, services and locations. For example, the entrance fee at the women-only La Femme beach in Marina is LE 100. The beach provides a women-only environment but otherwise bears no relation to conservative Islamic ideals. Women arrive in abayat, strip into bikinis and are entertained with music and dance — aspects that conservative Muslims would claim contradict proper Islamic behavior.
The Sound of Religion
Books were once the only readily available source of Islamic knowledge, but they were expensive for the average Egyptian and a large portion of society was illiterate. Men often preferred to attend mosques to join others in listening to a sheikh’s sermon.
Even so, there was no way to re-listen to the sermon afterwards or recordings for those unable to attend. Although cassettes were introduced in the 1960s, only Qur’an recitations were available in the country, as Al-Azhar did not provide licenses for taping lectures, supposedly fearing the ideas that such lectures could propagate. This resulted in vendors discretely recording lectures and selling the tapes under the table. Hajj Ibrahim El-Tablawy, however, soon changed all that.
Son of the renowned Qar’e (Qur’an reciter) Sheikh Mahmoud El-Tablawy, El-Tablawy created Misk for Islamic Recordings in the early 1980s to record his father’s lectures. He continued in this vein for some time, recording his father and other sheikhs through his father’s connections. This was the case until 1991, when, while riding in a car with a friend, El-Tablawy happened to hear a cassette lecture about the death of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) by Sheikh Mohammad Hassan. Inquiring where the lecture was produced, he found that it was produced illegally.
“So I asked, why not try to do it properly?” says El-Tablawy. “I said we should try.  So I took the tape and went to Al-Azhar and told them what I wanted to do. It was the first time anyone had ever done this. The general manager asked for time to think about it. A week later I visited him again. He asked me to extract from the tape the main points and give him two copies of the document and two copies of the tape. I did this and 20 days later, they gave me authorization.”
To play it safe, El-Tablawy also obtained a license from the Ministry of Culture. And that was it. The floodgates opened.
“The response was overwhelming,” says El-Tablawy. The tape of Sheikh Mohammad Hassan’s lecture — the only cassette that could be legally sold — was guzzled by the public. Newspapers reported that it was the highest selling tape in the country.
But bit by bit the market became saturated. Merchants who used to sell their product under the table followed in El-Tablawy’s footsteps and competition became cutthroat. At this year’s annual Cairo International Book Fair in Nasr City, a vast section was dedicated to religious tapes and books. At its peak, the tape industry was turning a 20% profit for El-Tablawy. But more than that proved impossible, as Islamic tapes are sold for between LE 0.95 and LE 1.35, compared to the more lucrative music industry which sells tapes for LE 5 to LE 10.
“At the beginning, the curve was high because the market was untouched. There was a huge boost in production. Then the amount per company decreased because there were [so many] players in the market,” explains El-Tablawy.
With the growing popularity of televangelist Amr Khaled in 2000, the Islamic tape industry received a boost. Those rushing to buy Khaled’s tapes also created an increase in the sales of Qur’an tapes and cassettes featuring other lecturers. And although Khaled copyrights belonged to Al-Noor Company, the current market leader, profits flowed on to other tape producers. Tape sales soared, and the target market grew from older people in rural areas to youth from all segments of society.
Despite this, many companies today get their profits from manufacturing tapes, not by recording new sheikhs. Misk outsources production and tries to bring in new sheikhs from all over the world, but the company and its competitors are no longer turning big profits. And with the introduction of CDs, which are restricting recording sales to the more affluent (since the rural are still attached to their tapes) and with the advent of satellite TV, the market is not going to grow, says El-Tablawy.
“Now, we have satellite,” he explains. “People have access to both voice and audio on all channels. People see them [the sheikhs] every day and can even phone in and talk to them live. Even for listening to Qur’an, there is the Al-Majd channel and people can listen to them. So things have changed.” To survive, El-Tablawy is going to enter the field of portable electronic Qur’ans. He says that he will stay in the tape production business, despite the decrease in profit because he feels he is. “offering something to Muslims.”
“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in,” continues El-Tablawy. “I may have a beard and wear a galabeya and steal. It’s your intention that matters. As long as the product is not haram, you can do anything. You can’t work with wine or in the gambling industry and say ‘I’m working with conscience’. The fact that my business is related to religion shouldn’t matter. You should be honest in [all your dealings]. Then God will put baraka [blessings] in your work. If you work in real estate, for example, you can tell someone that the flat is 200 meters but in reality it is 150 meters. You should use the same benchmarks for any business. There’s a hadith [prophetic saying] that says the bankrupt person is he who prays and fasts and practices Islam outwardly, but in his treatment of others and in his daily life, he is dishonest.”
Although tapes of Islamic lectures and Qur’an recitations may be decreasing, another type of Islamic tape is rising in popularity: nasheed (Islamic songs). More Islamic bands are appearing on the scene every day, but the pioneer in this field is of course, Sami Yusuf.
Bara Kherigi, co-founder of the Awakening Records music label, and Yusuf’s childhood friend and lyricist, stumbled on the lucrative market: youth who want to listen to music but fear that the lyrics about sex and violence are haram. Believing the market was underserved, Kherigi swooped in, along with co-founder Sharif Hasan Al-Banna. With few options available to those who wanted alternative types of music, Yusuf’s first album, Al-Mu’allim (the teacher) released in 2003, was a massive success, selling millions of copies — his songs seemed to be the ringtone of every mobile phone in Egypt. Yusuf’s second album, My Ummah, sold over three million copies globally.
Not only did Kherigi introduce this genre of modern Islamic music, he also brought image to sound by creating the first Islamic music videos. The response was phenomenal. Sami Yusuf’s Hasbee Rabbee was shot on location in four different countries: the United Kingdom, India, Turkey and Egypt, an unparalleled feat in the history of music videos, according to Kherigi. The song hit the top of the charts on TV channels across the world, airing on most mainstream Arab music channels including the nation’s two most popular music channels: Melody and Mazzika. The result: International sales of five million copies of Yusuf’s albums and 16 million website hits.
“Rather than tread the paths of our competitors, Awakening Records intends to set new standards in every way possible — respecting the past but with an eye on the future. We wish to present a modern and dynamic view on Islam through our products,” says the company website, and Kherigi stands by this. “Our products are of the highest quality, entertaining, enlightening, and spiritually uplifting. […] Through its Islamic music albums, Awakening Records seeks to re-define the term ‘Islamic’ to mean ‘all that is good’ and show the compatibility of modern life with Islam,” he says.
Awakening Records has become an established market leader with a strong brand name, receiving demos from aspiring artists daily and with a distribution network covering 52 countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Australia. The company is now an umbrella company called Awakening Music Group, with three companies underneath it.
Awakening Records secured partnerships with international couriers DHL and UPS, and owns its own warehouses, studios and website — http://www.awakening.com — with e-commerce facilities, which, Kherigi says, “enables us to sell directly to the public without a middle-man, thereby raising profitability.” The company now has three offices worldwide with the Middle East branch located in Egypt hosting a customized in-house recording studio. To date, Awakening Records has signed on 13 artists, released six albums, held over 150 live concerts, secured corporate sponsorship of more than $1 million (LE 5.35 million) from multinational companies, signed distribution deals with Paramount Pictures, iTunes, MSN Music and Virgin, and has mobile communications multinational Vodafone as the sponsor of Sami Yusuf’s videos on satellite television.
Turn on the Dish
Religious programs via satellite television may have contributed to sinking the tape industry, but the TV industry itself is soaring internationally. Iqraa (recite), the first word of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), is also the name for the first religious channel founded by Sheikh Saleh Kamel.
A market giant, this free-to-air channel went live in 1998, before which no channel was fully dedicated to providing viewers with religious and entertainment programs. Iqraa’s five offices are spread throughout the Middle East: Its two main studios are located in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, while its other offices are in Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait. For six years, Iqraa held a monopoly over the market and — according to a survey carried out by the Egyptian cabinet — it was the most viewed satellite channel in the entire country in 2004.
Iqraa airs religious programs that tackle issues from every facet of society — women, family life, fatwas, live phone-ins, how to read the Qur’an — on four continents around the world. Though many competitors have launched similar channels, it remains the most recognized brand name, with a loyal following.
Mohammed Sallam, Iqraa’s executive manager based in Saudi Arabia, has been with Iqraa since its inception.
“Iqraa was created to serve the segment of society that didn’t watch TV, believing it overstepped a lot of [moral] boundaries,” says Sallam. “But to our surprise, three years later, we discovered that a variety of groups watched our programs, not just the conservatives.” In response, Iqraa began offering programs to suit a wider audience, seeking to increase its number of viewers.
In 2004, new Islamic channels began to emerge, beginning with Al-Majd and Resalah, which, like Iqraa, offered religious programs targeting a variety of viewers. El-Fajr was also launched as a channel solely dedicated to Qur’an recitation. Today there are approximately 30 other competitors in the field, springing not only from the Middle East: Islam Today in Europe and Bridges in America are two examples of non-Middle Eastern channels.
“But I would call them all competitors in khayr [good],” says Sallam. According to monthly reports Sallam receives from research companies, Iqraa is no longer among the Top 10 most viewed channels in the Middle East. “When you are number four when there are five religious channels is not the same as when you are number nine with 30 religious channels,” says Sallam, describing the impact of increased competition and viewing options.
“But what we noticed is that [our viewers] were very loyal, and the perception of the brand name is very [good],” says Sallam. “Iqraa is to be credited with the fact that it raised Islamic awareness among people in both Arab and Muslim countries. Ten years ago when you’d talk to people about seera [Islamic history], they had no knowledge about it.”
Sallam explains that at first audiences absorbed everything they heard like a sponge and were content listening to any sheikh speak to a camera. Now, explains Sallam, to stay competitive, Iqraa has to maintain the attention of an audience that not only have a multitude of channels to choose from, but have more knowledge and are therefore pickier in what they watch.
“Now, we have to get certain names that [people expect],” says Sallam. “We changed aspects of our presentation: Now, you can have guests in the studio who participate in the discussion. [We bring in new features] like Moez Masoud’s last show where he took to the streets. We must look for new ways that are more impressive and attractive to our [viewers].”
Iqraa targets “everyone: heads of family, the newlyweds, the sheikhs, the young and the old,” says Sallam. The channel uses online polls, email, telephone feedback, focus groups and book and tape sales to find out which sheikhs are most in demand. It is no secret that some sheikhs are more popular than others, and some more controversial. So do the channels choose which sheikhs to pursue?
“Differences in opinion exist in everything or else we wouldn’t have four madhabs [schools of thought],” says Sallam. “We have to give every person what they want and we don’t allow our channel to move in a certain direction to satisfy only one type of Muslim or another.”
Despite being a household name, Iqraa does not turn a profit; in fact, it does not even break even, covering only approximately half of its running costs. The answer to how such a business can survive while making losses is due to its roots in religion.
“Iqraa is not a profit seeking business; it is a huge humane Islamic da’wa [calling to Islam] project,” says Sallam. “We are lucky to participate in such an amazing project, and get paid for it.  Sheikh Saleh Kamel [the founder] covers the losses and considers this his personal da’wa.”
Although Sallam admits that expenses could be less and that the more than generous budget assigned to various areas like marketing could be cut, he attributes the losses to the fact that commercials on religious channels do not bring in as much money as commercials on entertainment channels. As for the annoying SMS banner at the bottom of the screen? “It brings in malaleem [dimes],” he shrugs.
There’s no two ways around it. Here is a business where apparently (for one person at least) business goals are secondary to its ultimate goal: increasing Islamic awareness and knowledge. And although Iqraa’s marketing is substantial, with above the line and below the line advertising, the goal is more than just money. “When we advertise or campaign for our channel, it’s not just for monetary gains, we are [sending a message] and promoting our ideology,” says Sallam.
There is some controversy around whether the sheikhs appearing on the television programs share a similar ideology when it comes to making an income from what could be seen as their religious duties.
Although the earnings of preachers and sheikhs are not available, Egyptian press has attempted to estimate their income. Akhbar Al-Barlaman reported last September that Amr Khaled receives LE 2 million for every new program. In the same month, Al-Misa’iyya Al-Masriya reported that Muhammad Hussein Yacoub and Muhammad Hassan (the first sheikh to have tapes produced legally in Egypt) each collect LE 100,000 per month, while Khaled El-Guindi receives LE 60,000 per month and Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi receives LE 10,000 to be a guest on a show. These figures are highly disputed; the second newspaper cited claimed that Khaled receives no payment for his work.
Forbes Arabia differs upwards on the numbers; in March the magazine crowned Khaled the world’s “richest Islamic preacher,” with an estimated income of $2.5 million (LE 13.4 million) in 2007, although Khaled has denied this amount both in press and in person.
On the Forbes list Khaled was followed by the Kuwaiti preacher Tariq Al-Suwaidan whose net income was estimated at $1 million (LE 5.35 million). A’aid Al-Qarani, the Saudi author of the popular self-help book La Tahzan (Don’t be Sad), came third with $533,000 (LE 2.9 million), followed by UAE-based Egyptian preacher Omar Abdel-Kafi with $373,000 (LE 2 million) and Saudi’s Salman Al-Ouda with $267,000 (LE 1.4 million). Forbes calculated net income based on a variety of sources including payments for TV appearances, intellectual property rights from record labels and profit from the sale of books.
“I’m one of those who believe that sheikhs, da’ays [preachers], or scholars that [benefit] monetarily from TV, lectures or travels is no problem,” says Sallam. “On the contrary, it’s necessary [to pay them well]. When I guarantee a da’ay enough income for him and his kids and his family and a good standard of living  he will not be burdened with [worries about] how he will live. He will be better equipped for daa’wa and reading books and contributing. Football players get tons of money, as do singers and actors. The sheikh has a profession and a much needed one, so there’s no problem in giving him what he wants and more.”
As for his own channel, Sallam expects wider audiences for Iqraa in the future. “People have gotten sick of tafahat [trivialities] — what else can they watch? What will they watch after they have seen music videos, television series, football? They will [start watching us].”
Perhaps the industry most well known for bringing in the cash is religious tourism — including the hajj and umrah (lesser pilgrimage) trips. With hajj being one of the five main pillars of Islam and Umrah a much venerated ritual, the number of people who go on hajj is increasing every year by the thousands. Last year, approximately two million people went on hajj. More than this entire mini-industries have been created to satisfy the off-shoots of the pilgrimage including dedicated barber shops outside the kaa’ba to assist pilgrims with executing the appropriate hair trimming customs and slaughter houses to slay the sheep required in the hajj.
The cheapest hajj package goes for around LE 18,000, while first class hajj will set back a pilgrim a whopping LE 120,000. Ashraf Sheeha, owner and founder of Hanove Travel, an elite five star religious tourism agency based in Egypt, organizes high-end hajj. After graduation and his mandatory military service, Sheeha worked at a three star religious tourism company for several years. After learning the ins and outs of the business and making valuable contacts, he started Hanove Travel 19 years ago with a group of friends.
“We put our minds to it and said that we have to focus and specialize and become distinguishable from all other competitors. We chose the field [of religious tourism] because it is never-ending,” says Sheeha. “Year by year our credibility has increased and now we are the most well-known [company] in this field.”
Hanove’s trips include the hajj and umrah once a month, except for Ramadan and Sha’aban, the month preceding Ramadan, where Sheeha sends four and two trips respectively, to cope with an increased demand. For the last several years, according to Sheeha, Hanove has had the highest number of flight reservations on Saudi Airlines and EgyptAir. His office walls are plastered with certificates of appreciation from the airlines and the hotels.
Sheeha says that his team of 30 employees in Cairo works meticulously to satisfy the needs of their 5,000 clients per year. “People say that we are expensive, but [you get] what you pay for. The market has lots of prices, and everyone chooses the level he wants,” he says. Despite weathering criticism over the ever-escalating price of performing hajj, Sheeha believes that if his customers were not satisfied with the price and service, he would not have a waiting list of 400 people for the hajj trip. He also attributes his prices to general price increases in the industry.
“If [the] Hilton sells me rooms for 30,000 riyals [LE 42,725] one year and then 46,000 riyals [LE 65,600] the next, it’s not my fault.” Sheeha’s margin, which he says should be 10%, is actually between 3.5–4%.
“My profit margin is stable. And when I saw that prices became very high, I didn’t feel like I could raise my price [any more].  The way I see it is that a high percentages of profit is not always the most important thing, my aim is to see that my customers are satisfied.”
Does this attitude stem from the fact that the business is Islam-related? “Of course,” he answers. “We seek to please [our customers] and it pleases us to work harder because we take thawab [Islamic concept of reward] for this in this world and the afterlife. [The fact that I am doing something for Islam] makes me feel very good, and I feel that God created me with the abilities to do this job. Therefore I am very careful with it.”
As for the other accusation that hajj with Hanove is like a five-star vacation, complete with lobster buffets and people sitting around in tents chitchatting during the days of worship, Sheeha says that he tries to prevent hajj from becoming simply a festivity by offering customers a comprehensive religious experience, including coordinating the sermons given at the time of the hajj. “I try and get sheikhs that suit all tastes — one for fatwas [religious verdicts], one for Qur’an and du’aa [supplication], and one for general talk.  As much as I can I take care of the religious side like I take care of the administrative side,” he says.
Does he think there is a contradiction between experiencing something that is supposed to be so humbling in a private plane? “I satisfy a certain segment of society,” says Sheeha. “And isn’t it better for us [inside Egypt] to satisfy those needs [rather than have] someone else from abroad do it? People used to get VIP planes from Switzerland. So why not create products for a target that may not think of this product, but have the ability to buy it.” In the end, he says, he is just supplying a service to customers; whether that service is extravagant and expensive or not is irrelevant.
The world has taken notice of the vast and yet-to-be exhausted Islamic market and Egypt is no exception. The industries mentioned in this article are only the tip of the iceberg. From Islamic finance and the moulid industry to books and Islamic schools, the market is an immense industry with the potential for considerable growth.
Businesses in the halal industry share common ground with those in other sectors, but the old adage that business is business does not quite hold true. For some in the business of Islam, the fact that their business is linked with their faith makes all the difference, allowing them to look beyond the bottom line to their service of something that is more than money can buy. bt