Commercialization of Sacred Space

There is no call as important as the summons of the Lord

The masjid is a sacred place, a house of God, and among the ways that sacredness is respected is by refraining from idle talk while inside. Handphones have been a terrible scourge in this regard, with phones ringing, even being answered, in the middle of congregational prayer. No doubt this is why signs have proliferated all over the country bearing the message Tiada Panggilan Sepenting Seruan Ilahi: There Is No Call as Important as the Summons of the Lord. A lovely thought well expressed. But the moment I saw this sign, I became troubled, because there at the bottom, in large font, are the logos of the phone company and cellular provider who have paid for and distributed the signs. Now ostensibly to curb noise disruptions, we have corporate advertising inside the prayer halls of our masjids for the first time. In my neighborhood masjid, the sign is posted at eye level just to the side of the minbar!

I felt sure this was bad precedent, and indeed it was not long after that I spotted first one, then another masjid with a corporate-sponsored signboard. The company in this case is Bank Rakyat, a cooperative bank (akin to a credit union back in the states) that has been innovative and successful in the Islamic finance market. I bank with them myself. But having a mosque signboard emblazoned with a prominent logo is extremely problematic in several ways, not least is the danger to the company of compromising their own charity.

A sincere contribution

The etiquette of charitable giving in Islam, sadaqah, is for it to be as anonymous as possible, to protect the dignity of the recipient and to safeguard the giver from compromising his gift with worldy motives of pride, or worse, material benefit. And how can we not avoid seeing this as precisely the latter when the sign says Sumbangan Ikhlas, a sincere contribution, followed by a huge logo and then bank pilihan, a bank of choice? An signboard in exchange for advertising is not sincere charity, it is quid pro quo no different and no better than the Nescafe or Celcom-branded awnings adorning the sides of every other kedai runcit and kopitiam in Malaysia.

Posting a corporate logo at the front of a masjid amounts to an endorsement by the masjid. Presumably the acceptability of this branding (and the value of the advertising to the contributor, let’s not forget!) rests in the fact that this is a mosque and the bank provides Islamic finance. It is not hard to interpret it as a sign of preference over this or that other bank which may have Islamic banking products as well – CIMB Islamic, Maybank Islamic, etc. Let’s not forget, Bank Rakyat’s products and services may all be shariah-compliant, but that does not mean that this profit-making enterprise is somehow more holy than a Gardenia or Taka Bakery which produces halal breads and pastries. If we can accept a bank’s logo on our masjid, why not a bakery’s logo, or even a Nescafe awning like the kopitiams? Nescafe is a halal-certified product after all.

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But if for nothing else, our state Islamic departments and the hardworking brothers and sisters on the neighborhood masjid and surau committees should view the matter seriously for the sake of the humble worshipper for whom the masjid is a place of refuge from the affairs of the world, a place to turn to Allah and glorify His name, to leave aside all else. The masjid is virtually the only public space free from the intrusions of the marketplace, and that is worth defending.


6 thoughts on “Commercialization of Sacred Space

  1. Asalaamu Alaikum

    How depressing.People need to fight now to get rid of these things. Now that it is happening in a Muslim country, it makes me fear that we will be next. May Allah protect our places of worship. Amin. I thought this post was going to be about Mecca and how commercialized its become.

  2. Disgusting! The other I was giving the khutbah and 3 different cell phones went off … Can’t Muslims just let dunya go for less than hour?

  3. Salam alaikum.
    Advertising on things such as Ramadan prayer timetables has been commonplace for a number of years. The rationale being, I suppose, that the advertising helps pay for their printing and distribution. I had never really thought about this as Commercialisation — perhaps because the advertisers tended to be small local businesses. But you're right.
    Similar advertising comes on Friday when the imam runs through the donations of various local businesses to the masjid — mostly taxi firms and garages I believe.  I'm one of those awkward chaps who thinks charity should be given in secret, so I always find this a bit strange. However I understand there's an argument that talking it up helps the spirit of competion in giving.  
    Degrees of comercialisation I suppose.

  4. Wa alaykum salam Tim,
    I would take a milder position on it if our masjids and suraus weren't government held.  Funding is a major struggle for minority communities in the West, and you do what you can to keep the lights on.  But here in a muslim country with Islamic affairs departments and shariah courts and a Baitul Mal and zakat deductions from your paycheck in leiu of income tax, you'd think we could afford to forgo corporate sponsorship for a billboard.  

  5. I agree brother. I would go so far as to say that kind of signage is haram. There’s no way but down on this path. Eventually, you’ll have “But first, a word from our sponsors..” right before the sermon.

    Take a look at how Christmas, Inc. turned out…

    The calendar ads I have no problems with. It’s distributed usually outside the mosque as well.

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