As a student of Islamic finance, there are a number of important lessons captured over the years, and today’s focus will be why there is no real need to “Islamicise” everything.
I have been fortunate enough to be involved in many interesting conversations over the years from the potentially practical (Islamic stock exchange, Islamic LIBOR, convergence between Islamic finance and Halal industry), to potentially flawed (Islamic inflation, Islamic unemployment, consumer price index (CPI), Islamic car, Islamic washing machine), and the potentially feasible (Islamic currency, Dinar).
While some of these topics are ideally suited as conference panel sessions, research topics for academic papers, and even awards for innovation, we need to reflect on the source of ideas that connect to the roots of Muslims in a meaningful manner. Concurrently, these same ideas should also click and tick with the non-Muslim community.
Big Mac Index
Today, I would like to speak about the theory of purchasing power, but present it as something relatively simple and relevant that not only attempts to capture the purchasing power of (Muslim country) consumers, but also with something that is closely linked to historical Arabia and referenced in the Qur’an.
A purchasing power theory index has been around since 1986, and it’s linked to one of the most recognised global brands around the world. McDonald’s, the golden arches company, has made the “Big Mac” into a trademarked asset class, much like “Xerox” equated to photo-copying. Its signature product, Big Mac, is known worldwide and is often used as a symbol of American capitalism.
Why doesn’t the Muslim world, consisting 57 countries and nearly 25 per cent of world’s population, have something comparable? Are brands like Mecca Cola fit for purpose or is it pushing religion and confining to only Muslims?
In 1986, The Economist published the oversimplified burgernomics, as a tongue-in-cheek example of Big Mac PPP. It examines the purchasing power parity between nations, using the cost of a Big Mac as a benchmark. Obviously, this is the language utilised by a lay man and not an economist, but it conveys the essence of the index intent.
Put differently, the Big Mac index is about the amount of time that an average worker in a given country needs to earn to purchase a Big Mac.
Intuitively, intellectually, and practically the Big Mac index appeals to the common sense of the man on “any” street, Arab or Bumiputra or Main. Obviously, the Big Mac is not applicable to many Muslims, be it costs, halal certification, taste, or availability.
The million dollar question has two parts: 1. Does the Muslim world need to develop a Halal Big Mac equivalent index? 2. If so, what type of “food” could command the same brand recall as the Big Mac among the Muslims?
Yes, there is a desire to have a comparable (food) index that relates “more” to the Muslims due to its availability, acceptability, historical and religious significance. More importantly, it neither requires detailed explanation nor justification of the chosen “food”.
In going through the process of selecting the right food for the proposed index, obviously, it is worth looking at the various options considered to rival the Big Mac.
A rojak or oxtail soup index lacks the universality, as such cuisine may not be available or in demand outside of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Biryani is probably a better bet than rojak or oxtail at a global level, but should it be chicken, lamb, beef, or prawns based? A corresponding issue is the availability of the “flesh”, a luxury for many people living in the least developed countries, which coincides with them being Muslim countries.
Honorable mention needs to be made for bukhara rice, shawarmas, baklava, curry, bread, lentils, as index barometers, but somehow they do not quite encapsulate the notion of halal Kebabnomics.
Hence, the closest Big Mac match for Muslims could be the date. Obviously, there will be disagreements, not an uncommon trait found among Muslims, on comparing dates (natural food) to processed food (Big Mac) and the relevance of dates outside of Ramadan.
Dates are mentioned in the Qur’an as most beneficial for health, encouraged to be consumed at Iftar (breaking of fast) during the month of Ramadan, used as ingredient in a variety of foods, and are subject of economic scientific discussions, as its health components strike discourses at conferences and festivals.
Some of the references from the Qur’an include:
“…Would any of you like to have a garden of dates and grapes, with rivers flowing underneath and containing all kinds of fruits, then to be stricken with old age and have children who are weak, and then for a fierce whirlwind containing fire to come and strike it so that it goes up in flames?..” 2:266
“…Then we make grain grow in it, and grapes and herbs and olives and dates and luxuriant gardens and orchards and meadows, for you and your livestock to enjoy….” 80:25-32.
In Surah Maryam, the date has labour and post pregnancy replenishing benefits:
The pains of labour drove her to the trunk of a date-palm. She [Maryam] said, “Oh if only I had died before this time and was something discarded and forgotten!” A voice called out to her from under her, “Do not grieve! Your Lord has placed a small stream at your feet. Shake the trunk of the palm towards you and fresh, ripe dates will drop down onto you. Eat and drink and delight your eyes…” (Quran, 19:23-26)
It is in the holy month of Ramadan, that the sale of dates reaches its peak as Muslims worldwide abide by the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad ( PBUH ) to break fast with dates or water — as he said, this is undoubtedly the best thing for the health of our bodies.
The variants of date products include pickled dates, date ice cream, date cola, etc, modelled into different delicacies. The utilisation of dates today, have grown by leaps and bounds as it was once a upon a time, used as a provision to nourish Prophets and Messengers in their long missions and nomadic lifestyle.
Evolving from basic nutrition, the popularity of dates have now reached championship level with the birth of Liwa Date Festival, a ten-day affair, organised in July, in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The competition showcased education on date farming as well as dishes and handmade products made from palm and dates. Visitors came in droves to discover the world of ripe dates and hear stories about the tree that bears the noblest fruits.
The proposed Dates Index may be stated as: how much time is required for a person to work to purchase 5 kilogram of Medina dates. In knowing fellow Muslims, there may be differences of opinion of the appropriate dates, but we need to have an indicator, which we can call our own.
The Dates Index is more relevant than a Big Mac as it ryhmes with all Muslims regardless of their race/ethnicity, geographical and/or cultural differences.
May I now pass the challenge to Malaysia’s INCEIF and ISRA for a meaningful applied research on my Dates Index to be carried out?
* The writer is global head of Islamic finance for Thomson Reuters based in New York