The internet is changing the way the ancient religion of Islam is being practised.
Muslims are turning to technology rather than their local religious leaders for the latest information on fatwas - bans, put in place by Muslim clerics, on products, people and activities because they are deemed bad for their community.
Winthrop Professor Dick Mizerski and one of his PhD students, Nazlida Muhamad Hashim, have contributed an article for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Islamic Marketing, the first marketing journal to focus on Muslim people and their culture.
Dr Hashim, a Muslim, conducted research that explored Muslim consumers' information sources for fatwa rulings on products and behaviours. Her work was limited to a Malaysian Muslim university but their paper offers insights into how fatwa rulings affect marketplace behaviours and their findings lead to suggestions on how marketers can manage fatwa rulings concerning their products.
While the best-known fatwa declaration in modern Islamic history is probably the death sentence declared on author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, there are many hundreds of fatwas, including a ban on buying or drinking Coca Cola, a ban on smoking, gambling and alcohol.
"Not all Muslims are intrinsic followers of their religion," Professor Mizerski said. "That is, they don't all follow the rulings and teachings closely and use their religion to direct their lives. Those who use it more for status or solace, that is extrinsically, are more likely to look for a view on a fatwa that allows them a way out. For example, in Saudi and in Pakistan, many Muslims smoke, and, in Malaysia and Bangladesh, they run lotteries. The study suggests that the intrinsically motivated Muslims are those who tend to put more effort in searching for information on fatwa rulings.
"Instead of just accepting the word of the wise man in the village as they once did, modern Muslims have the internet to find the information they want. Probably 80 per cent of Muslims with internet access get information on fatwas via their computer. It has changed the way they practise their religion," he said.
Many Muslims appear to acknowledge fatwa that were declared by foreign scholars, thus a fatwa ruling that bans the purchase of a brand in one country gains momentum to spread among Muslims world-wide.
Their paper, published this month, looked at hundreds of fatwa from official Muslim e-fatwa collections. They were analysed to examine the type of fatwa and the categories that may have potential to affect Muslim consumers' behaviours in the market place.
The top three were: the permissibility of insurance products; the permissibility of IVF conception; and divorce declaration made by SMS.
"In Islam, a man can divorce his wife by pronouncing ‘I divorce you'. Modern Muslims want to know if they can text a divorce message," Professor Mizerski said.
He said that 60 per cent of Malaysian consumers were Muslims, so the declaration of a fatwa and the publicity surrounding it could easily damage the images and equity of a brand. "This is especially true when you consider that there are almost two billion Muslims in the world," he said.
Danish producers suffered significant drops in sales world-wide after an unfavourable characterisation of the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish cartoonist in 2008. That resulted in a fatwa ruling that prohibits Muslims from purchasing Danish products.
"Some products were physically removed from the retail shelves. The Danes have had a rough time trying to get shelf space for their cheeses in many Middle east countries, while many Malaysian retailers decided to ‘red mark' Danish products on their shelves," he said.
Professor Mizerski is hoping his students will continue with more investigations into Islamic marketing, including looking at who the victims of a fatwa need to try to influence to get it lifted or ignored.
Published in UWA News, 28 June 2010.