The Growth of the Islamic Market 
in North America

By Yahiya Emerick

 

    When we think of Islam and the marketplace, stereotypical images of the Bazaar or Souk flash across our mind’s eye. I guess I’m guilty of erecting the same imagery as well, given that non-Muslims, and even we Muslims, tend to use the same artistic devices over and over when we portray some aspect of Islam, i.e. the desert, Arabian flowing robes, camels, palm trees and caravans. But those days are long gone for most of the Muslim world. Very few Muslims have ever even seen a camel or desert in real life, so I guess this means that we should update our self-image a bit.

    When we talk about Islam and business in the West, we face a unique paradox: in urban and rural America, there is no Muslim marketplace, per se, that is somehow the business center of our local community. Part of the problem is that few Muslims live around other Muslims and thus we have no communities anyway. There is no Muslim town or center. (There are Jewish towns, (all over New York) Amish counties (All over the mid-West) and Mormon states, (Utah) but no Muslim towns.)

    Now there are places, here and there, mostly in the bigger cities, that sometimes are identified as places where Muslims go to shop, but that is also a misleading stereotype. What such places offer is usually a motley collection of Halal meat stores, hijab stores, restaurants, jewelry shops and book stores. Muslims hardly limit themselves to only patronizing these types of businesses. In fact, most Muslims shop at their local non-Muslim supermarket, eat in non-Muslim restaurants (or cook at home), and buy their Islamically-oriented books and clothes once in a great while, usually from a vendor outside the Masjid on Friday or at conventions. Only the stalwarts, converts and culturally-oriented immigrant die-hards usually frequent "Muslim" shopping places.

    Of course, the difficulty in defining a Muslim marketplace is the fact that people need all kinds of goods and services, and that includes just about everything from toy stores to hardware stores. There’s just no way that you can make one of those businesses an "Islamic" one. So there is no need. What we have instead is Muslim people owning and operating stores of all types, with the vast bulk of their customer base being non-Muslims. This is their "bread and butter."

    The overtly "Muslim" stores such as clothing, Halal meat and book stores usually huddle together in certain areas so as to attract as much concentrated Muslim patronage as possible. If Muslims lived in real communities then the Halal meat store would be next to a Muslim-owned barber shop which in turn would have a Muslim-owned supermarket next to it and so on. This would be a version of small-town USA Muslim style.

    In the absence of Muslim communities, many Muslim-oriented companies have taken to the more far-reaching market of mail order business. In America today, you can order halal meat, Islamic books, hijabs, miswaks, plaques, adhan watches, rugs, jewelry, oils and just about anything else of interest to Muslims over the phone, through the mail or on-line. This creates a web of Muslim consumers and businesses that makes a sort of proxy-community.

    So if you’re Ahmed Doe living in Idaho, you can participate in the Souk as if you were in downtown Damascus. Given that most Muslims live in the odd places that they do based on their jobs and careers, with the national Muslim "business link" no one needs to feel isolated from the Ummah. Of course this won’t save your descendants from kufr, if you’re living fifty miles from the nearest Masjid or school, but it does give you the immediate advantage to stay connected in some small way.

    There are many very sophisticated Muslim businesses operating in the North American market.  Halal meat comes in a variety of canned and processed forms that can be UPS’ed to your door. The oils and perfumes are top-notch quality and the few videos and children’s programs we have available are now up to the Western standard of animation and quality. There are even several Muslim "music" tapes available for the youth to give them some kind of alternative to non-Muslim selections. (Why do they need an alternative anyway? They shouldn’t even be listening to music that much anyway!!!)

    Of course the offerings are still small, however. There are six million Muslims, if I read the statistics correctly, and yet the total number of quality children’s videos numbers less than twelve titles. There are only two movies created about Muslims (The Message and the Lion of the Desert, the producer of these also does the "Halloween" horror movies!). Those two movies were made twenty years ago, (Malcolm X was made by non-Muslims) and the numbers of really good, age-appropriate children’s and teenager’s books amounts to less than twenty titles. Why is this so? Especially given that the buying power of Muslims in America has been estimated at over a billion dollars.

    The problem is three-fold. The first problem is in defining the market. Just who will buy these Muslim-oriented products? The strange paradox is that most Muslims do not, I repeat, do not support the production of Muslim-style books, audios, videos, etc… Yes, there are a few Muslims who buy the items for themselves and their families, but most Muslims buy little or nothing if it says "Islam" on the cover. Of course, most non-Muslims don’t buy any books that say "Christianity" on it either, but the size of their population is in greater proportion to the Muslim population and therefore, the purchases made by five percent of the non-Muslim public supports the billion dollar Christian bookstore network. If only five percent of Muslims here buy Islamic products, there just won’t be enough money to go around and consequently, no one can afford to really make anything new. We don’t have an Islamic culture fully formed in America yet, though it is moving along a little bit every year.

    The second problem is in distribution. There is no database of all Muslims in North America. There isn’t even a central spiritual authority or organization to which Muslims can generally look towards for guidance or leadership, there are no Muslim communities either, and therefore, the number of Muslim bookstores is extremely small and the distribution network for new products is almost non-existent. (The irregular conventions have become the only showcases for new products.)

    How can you open a Muslim bookstore if you will only get one or two customers a day? Think about it. Every Muslim bookstore is on the verge of bankruptcy at any time and many wind up closing down sooner or later. The only ones that manage to survive are the ones near a Masjid, for obvious reasons.

    Because the bookstores are few and far between, whenever a new product does come out, there is no effective way to get it into the local bookstore and hence to the buying public. There are few if any agreements between wholesalers and retailers on a meaningful level and everyone is plagued with the problem of nobody paying anybody’s bills. So you may see the same products in the bookstores, year after year, with only a few flashy items stocked once in a while. Bookstore owners just don’t have the capital to stock every new item that comes along. To get around this problem, some Muslim producers and publishers have taken to pushing catalog sales for the products they develop. The five biggest Islamic-products producers in America are Astrolabe, Amana Publications, IBTS, Sound Vision and IQRA.

    These five companies publish beautiful and costly catalogs and send them to Muslims all over the world. They also spend huge sums of scarce capital on advertising. But even still, the response is often limited and money is usually rare for new projects. If every Muslim would resolve to buy from a Muslim company’s catalog at least four times a year this would boost the producers just enough to enable them to make more and better products. Then your family could have a wider range of items to choose from in their pursuit of an Islamic identity.

    The third major problem which is holding back the development of more Islamic books, videos and audios is of a more sinister nature. Have you ever walked outside a Masjid or visited a booth in a convention and saw someone selling loads of the most popular Muslim video-tapes for only five to ten dollars each? Everything from the regular mail order companies catalogs- but at vastly lower prices. The "Message" movie for five dollars, "Adam’s World" videos for five dollars, etc…

    Have you ever wondered what’s going on? Did you think you could make a bargain deal and get what you wanted without paying the normal prices? How can those brothers sell them so cheap? You and I both know what’s happening, but we often choose to look the other way when we see a haram action being committed. That is symptomatic of our own hypocrisy. Those videos are pirated, illegally made copies. Every time a Muslim business spends fifty thousand dollars or more making some needed video product, the "Muslim" piraters buy one copy and then take it home to their secret shops and make hundreds of poor-quality copies to sell for their own financial benefit. They even use scanners and color copiers to crudely duplicate the jacket covers! The cost of supplies is only about two dollars per tape so they make out "like a bandit."

    The legitimate Muslim business that produced the item has to sell it at a certain price, let’s say $18 just to try to get their expenses back while the pirater goes everywhere and sells it for a few bucks and thus not many people buy it from legitimate channels. The Muslim business winds up losing money while the pirater is the one who makes money. There are some "Muslims" who do this for a full-time business! A few will even give the excuse that they’re doing it "for da’wah." As if they aren’t putting the money right in their pocket! Anyway, how can something good, like da’wah, be built on a haram action like illegal piracy? It will be deprived of blessings in both this world and in the next. Muslim scholars are unanimous in supporting the concept of legal copyrights. Syed Darsh, the late Imam from Al Azhar, even wrote about this issue and quoted many others in support of this. (When you buy a book or tape the individual, physical object is yours to do with what you will. (You can burn it, read it or eat it. But you do not "buy the right" to make more of that particular item! The owners of that right are the ones who put their money into developing it, not you.)

    Have you ever wondered why there are so few videos with Muslim themes, have you ever wondered why there are no Islamic documentary videos that are of the same quality as the videos on the Discovery Channel? It’s because all the Muslim businesses are scared of losing out big money when the piraters rush their unlicensed copies to the market. I personally know the brother who is single-handedly responsible for producing the only few Islamic documentaries we have and he told me he lost so much money from piraters that he had to literally kill his desire to produce more and better documentaries.

    Who is supporting the piraters? The Muslim community is. So many Muslims are so interested in "getting a bargain" that they don’t even think about the implications of buying pirated (literally stolen) goods. I’ve seen with my own eyes crowds of "good believers" rushing to buy pirated videos from vendors and rejoicing at their "bargains." Are we so corrupt, dishonest or stupid? If a man opens up a suitcase and shows off some obviously stolen goods for a cheap, cheap price, will you as a Muslim in good conscience support him? Sadly, many will. Even the Blessed Prophet had to contend with greedy people running away from the Masjid when they thought they could make a quick buck.

    The culture of the pirated item is so ingrained now that many Muslims scoff at paying a fair price for anything "Islamic." I recently had a book table at a Masjid and one of the items we were selling was a beautiful cassette tape of children’s songs. The cassette was professionally produced, shrink-wrapped in plastic with a color jacket and it was going for only six dollars. A full dollar less than what we normally have to sell it for- we were just going to break even.

    A wealthy "Sahiba" lady- you know the type- came by in her bright Shalwar outfit replete with gold bracelets, Gucci shoes, heavy make-up and an expensive hair-do and asked how much the tape was. When I told her the price she practically jumped in anger, she said, "That shouldn’t be more than two dollars! You can buy tapes like that in Pakistan for nothing!"

    Shielding my eyes from the glitter of the gold jewelry all over her limbs, I calmly told her that if you go to stores or record stores, that tapes like this cost the same or even more. She still didn’t believe me so I had to tell it like it was. I explained that this tape was arranged and produced by a poor convert sister who has no money. Then I further explained that I, the person selling it, was also a poor convert who had no money. I closed by saying that everything we had was original and not a pirated version. The lady just dismissed me with an arrogant wave of the hand, threw a few dollars on the table and slipped one of the tapes in her Versace purse.

    You will find piraters everywhere, and they don’t just stop at videos and cassettes. Every time a Muslim publisher prints a new book, they immediately get scared and wonder how long it will be before one of those "Indian" presses will get a hold of it and make illegal copies by the tens of thousands. For example, that book, "Islam: Beliefs and Teachings" by Ghulam Sarwar, is such a huge target of piraters in India that more copies are produced each year by them than by the original, legal publishers in England. The author gets nothing. Almost all Muslim bookstores, in a dishonest effort to save a few dollars, stock at least a few pirated books as well.

    Are these people Muslims who do this? Are Muslims knowingly making and buying illegally produced items? As long as this goes on, the market for Muslim-oriented products will be weak and there won’t often be a wide selection. It’s sad to say that some of the most innovative products that we use are produced either overseas or by non-Muslims. For example, almost every book on Islamic art is produced by non-Muslims. Nearly every good teaching unit or story book or documentary is also produced by non-Muslims aimed at interested non-Muslims. We often find things against Islam in them but stand by helplessly and complain. We call CAIR and then go back to our busy lives.

    That spectacular video series, "Living Islam" was produced by the BBC and the most beautiful books on Islam are printed by non-Muslim publishers. (Such as the recent, "Mecca the Blessed/Medina the Radiant" book). Why? Because the non-Muslim publishers have the financial clout to take piraters to court, while Muslim businesses barely make enough to pay the electric bill every month. (Interestingly enough, the overseas press in Hong Kong that did the book printing of the afore-mentioned book secretly printed a few thousand extra copies which they sold illegally all over the world. The publisher is trying to sue them but its hard to sue in foreign courts. Non-Muslims are also just as untrustworthy sometimes.)

    If we really want to bring Islamic information up to the standard of the modern information era, if we really want our children to be proud of being Muslim when they see Muslim produced items, if we truly desire to have the tools to open the eyes of non-Muslims to Islam, then we have to stop being corrupt and dishonest ourselves. Part of this is in supporting legitimate products and shunning illegally made ones. Is it any wonder the two most corrupt nations on Earth happen to be Muslim countries? (Nigeria and Pakistan according to a recent international survey of businessmen all over the world.)

    While it’s true that most of us are barely Muslims in our morals, attitudes and manners, no matter how much we make our empty Salah or du’as, we can all at least desire to improve ourselves. When I see the crowds of adults at Muslim functions, I recognize immediately that most of them are there for ethnic or racial reasons, not Islamic ones. You can see the loss of Islam in their children so clearly that you literally get hot flashes as you wonder at the stupidity of the parents.

    There is so little opportunity to cement an Islamic identity in a child who will spend most of his or her time surrounded by the crushing influence of secular pop-culture. The only reason that Islam survived in isolated places like Bosnia, Kashgar, Tibet, Guyana and elsewhere, is because at least the Muslims lived around each other in villages and towns. You didn’t need lots of books, videos, oils or whatever.

    Today in the West, Muslims live isolated and if history is any example, the immigrant Muslims will be the last Muslims in their family trees. After all, tons of Arabs and Albanians came to America sixty years ago and where are their descendants? Every so often, with greater frequency, you find actresses, weird artists, dancers, models, etc… with very Muslim sounding names. As Muslim families lose their identity further, you will see more of their descendants seeping over into kufr. We are like a glass of grape juice that’s been poured into the ocean. How long can our concentrated color survive undiluted? We need to erect some barriers now.

    As we have seen, Muslim-oriented products are an important tool in the development of an identity. If a child grows up singing Islamic songs, reading stories with Muslim characters, watching Islamic cartoons, having loads of fun on the 'Eids, frequenting the Masjid, having Muslim friends, seeing Muslim institutions that work, and looking on happily as new converts stream into the fold of Eman, then you have perpetuated another Muslim individual who will raise their family in the same way.

    My fellow Muslims. Support the growth of the Muslim market, both locally and nationally. It doesn’t mean donating money or anything, it just means buying products that you like which reinforce an Islamic identity for yourselves and your family. Ignore the piraters, tell then to get out, for only then will we have more to choose from and be able to erect an image of our community which is tall and proud.

    I once had a student in a fourth grade class who asked me, "Brother Yahiya, why don’t Muslims have any talent?"

    I was so shocked. She meant that there didn’t seem to be any Muslim painters, cartoonists, artists, and the like. I tried to tell her that lots of Muslims had talent, it’s just that no one supports them so they don’t get to spend much time doing talented things. I even elaborated that Muslims are isolated and so if someone does something good somewhere, we don’t know about it.

    She just looked away and I knew she wasn’t buying it, because to a child, what matters is what you see, not what some adult tries to tell you. I felt like crying tears of anguish.

    Let’s support the growth of the Muslim market and show her and all the other children that Muslims have something unique of their own to offer too.

 

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