Proper Islamic consumption by J. Fischer
Proper Islamic consumption: shopping among the Malays in modern Malaysia
Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008
258 pp. ISBN 978-87-7694-031-7, hb £40
ISBN 978-87-7694-032-4, pb £17.99
Reviewed by V.T. King, University of Leeds
Consumption practices among those who follow a particular set of religious beliefs which constrains certain kinds of behaviour and encourages others have long been a focus of sociological attention since Max Weber’s comparative studies of religion and economic action. One might have expected that this would have already become an important topic of investigation for scholars interested in the impact of globalisation and capitalism on Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. Yet there has been surprisingly little detailed research on the interaction between Islam and consumption (‘mosque’ or ‘market’, and ‘spirituality’ and ‘commerce’) in the region.
This situation has been remedied to some extent with the publication of Johan Fischer’s study, which emerged from his doctoral work in suburban Kuala Lumpur embarked upon in 2000-01. Indeed, the book has a doctoral feel about it. Fischer notes appositely in his Preface that there is a large and increasing literature on Islamic revivalism in Southeast Asia, and there has been a very rapid expansion of research on consumption and middle class lifestyles, but very few systematic studies ‘of the way in which middle-class consumption is understood as a particular mode of Islamic practice’ (p. xi). The promotional blurb on the back cover of the book then claims boldly that ‘this is the first book to explore how Malaysia’s emerging Malay middle class is constituted through consumer practices and Islamic revivalism’. My impression is, however, that rather more has been done on these themes in Indonesia.
This volume does make an important contribution to our understanding of the responses of socially mobile, religiously committed communities to the opportunities and perils presented by modernisation. It also tells us something about the debates concerning the meanings and practices of Islam within an aggressive, globalised, secularised modernity. In Malaysia this is an especially intriguing issue because it is the Malay-dominated state which has been crucial in generating and shaping a particular kind of modernity in order to address the problems posed for nation-building by a quite radical form of ethnic pluralism. Former Prime Minister Mahathir’s manifesto was to promote ‘a high-consuming yet Islamic modernity’ (p.9), but one which was also designed to counter the growing appeal of revivalist or dakwah movements and of the opposition Islamic party, an appeal which gathered momentum from the 1970s.
To get under the skin of Malay middle class lifestyles, ethnic identity formation and religious preoccupations, Fischer lived in a 14th floor condominium in Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI), a western suburb of Kuala Lumpur, about 15 km from the city centre. He carried out a questionnaire survey of 241 middle class households (which included Chinese) and then selected 14 adults from ten Malay households in TTDI for in-depth interviews in their own homes where he recorded ‘narratives’ of their everyday lives. In addition he conducted ‘participant observation’ at household celebrations, festivals and social visits, and on ‘shopping sprees’, and he kept a fieldwork diary for each household as well as a photographic record. The households selected provided a reasonable spread of income, occupation, age, and accommodation types. Interviews were also conducted with four younger Malays from other suburban areas as well as with key informants from the TTDI Residents’ Association, Islamic organisations, mosque committees, government departments, academic institutions and newspapers.
The key concept which structures much of Fischer’s ethnography is that of ‘halalisation’ – the identification and certification of those items and areas of consumption within Islam which are permitted and those which are not. This process of religious delineation also serves as a convenient, state-directed means of ‘localising’ globalised commodities. Valorising certain objects and services at the expense of others is also closely interrelated with the notion of consumption practices which are moderate and not excessive, and with the expression of a lifestyle which is modest, respectable and clean. In this exercise in ‘glocalisation’, western commodities, or at least some of them, tend to be viewed negatively rather than positively. Fischer also argues that ‘halalisation’ is part of the process of nationalising Islam, ‘ethnicising’ the Malaysian nation-state and encouraging ‘shopping for the state’. Nevertheless, I am not entirely convinced that Malay identities generally are being forged through consumption and that this is ‘the central focus of the ethnicised state’, although for the Malay middle class it may well be the case.
Fischer captures admirably some of the complexity of consumption patterns and the ambiguities in identity formation, and says something about ‘gendered’ and ‘aged’ consumption, though he simplifies this picture by making a broad-brush distinction between those informants whom he refers to as ‘purist’ and those who are ‘pragmatic’. He takes us through a range of items of consumption used to express (middle class) class and ethnic identity and explores individual narratives concerning their place in Malay social and cultural lives: food, dress and personal effects, housing, interior household goods and decorations, cars, services (banking and finance) and cultural consumption (particularly reading materials like magazines). Yet I felt the need for more detail. For example, his remarks about the strictures of Islam on women’s dress and that usually middle class women also experiment and want to be fashionable tell us very little about what precisely they wear (p. 81). We are also not really given details of what a typical Malay shopping trolley contains, though we are told where they shop and in broad terms which items of food and drink are specifically prohibited. There is a haziness about which western products do find their way into Malay homes (and stomachs) and how they are accommodated. What about the Malay consumption of the internet where one finds an enormous variety of Islamic websites? What of forms of leisure other than shopping (tourism, pilgrimages, cinema, eating out, television, film, music) given the expanding market in Islamic-derived commodities and services and the commercialisation of Islam?
My plea for more information is not meant as a criticism of Fischer’s work. After all his focus is shopping. He has made an important contribution to our understanding of Malay modernity and has given us a research agenda. But in exciting our interest we need to know much more and in more detail about consumption and the expanding role of Islamic-produced and -derived products in national and global economies. We might also look with profit at what is happening in Indonesia and the relations between Malaysian and Indonesian Islam, commerce and consumption.