Pop-Islam: The expression of a modern Muslim identity


Pop-Islam is a term originating in the West and indicating the link Muslims have created between their faith and pop culture. A part of the Muslim youth couldn’t relate to the way their parents expressed their faith and started to distance themselves from it. They broke away from the conventional Islam of their parents which signalled the beginning of pop-Islam. The 21st century, for them, is the era of claiming a double identity.


The media plays an important role in the appearance and spreading of pop-Islam. All kinds of initiatives to reach young Muslims are simultaneously on the rise. The internet is currently the most widespread and accessible media outlet. Islamic scholars were opposed to the idea of digital technology, but young Muslims have discovered and embraced its functionality. It is, in addition, it creates a widening gap with the religious practices of previous generations, who made no use of the internet, or to a much lesser extent.

At present there is a noticeable trend of Islamisation in technology. In the era of smartphones and tablets, there are also several Islamic applications, such as an application to listen to the Quran. Various websites, like Salamworld, the Islamic variant of Facebook, are tailor-made for Muslims. Likewise, online dating services for Muslims are expanding, as for example Half Our Deen, which was founded by Ali Ardekani.

Styleislam®Social media don’t just play a role at the individual level, there is also a virtual ummah (the community of all Muslims) being created. For the first time, people can look up and critically analyze religious issues, rather than relying on the local preachers. Several online forums offer room for religious discussions. The site YouTube is a mouthpiece for Muslims, too, being used by laymen and scholars alike to preach and spread ideas.

There is a significant digital revolution going on that is giving Muslims a voice and has made Islam tangible. Television companies are experimenting with so-called halal (permissible in Islam) channels. In addition to existing channels offering traditional Quranic recitations and sermons, they tried to meet the needs of the existing duality of the Muslim youth. In Egypt the channel 4Shbab [For The Youth], an Islamic version of MTV, started broadcasting in 2009.

The advent of pop-Islam opened new doors in the music industry for Muslim artists such as MosDef, Mecca 2 Medina and Sami Yusuf. Pop anasheeds (Islamic vocal music accompanied by percussion), Islam-rap and –hiphop, among others, were a response to the Muslim youth’s desire to be able to enjoy music permissible in Islam. Consequently the traditional view on music changed from deeming it wrong to seeing it as a means to share a message with the world.


The fashion world, an important and increasingly innovative part of pop culture, had expressed personal identity for many years. In the West, young Muslims, mainly Muslim women, had a hard time finding clothing in line with Islamic clothing regulations. Nowadays muslim fashion is one of the fastest growing markets. Muslim designers like Barjis Chohan set the basic standards for Islamic haute couture. Sarah Elenany, for example, combines street fashion with the Islamic clothing style. Important objectives of this new fashion trend are modesty, high quality and stylishness. Muslim women covering themselves with several layers of clothing is a thing of the past, as they now have access to a variety of online shops selling Islamic fashion. In addition, even everyday accessories acquire a new Islamic stamp, including jewelry, key chains, cellphone socks and bags. All are decorated with Islamic patterns or calligraphic prints. An Islamic agenda has been developed as well, aimed specifically at the modern-day Muslim, featuring prayer times and facts on Islam.


Q-bla bag


Two companies have made their name on the international level as a result of the pop-islamic touch they give to their products. Their founders are Muslims, but their extensive line of varied products are aimed at a Muslim and non-muslim clientele alike.

The trademark “Just Muslim” originated in the United Kingdom and was established in 2001. The brain behind the brand, Tayyar Ismail, phrases how he set out: “Although traditional ‘Islamic’ clothing was available to me I noticed a real bridge needed to be built within the ‘Muslim’ clothing market, a gap I sought desperately to fill.”


Styleislam® shop

The designer Melih Kesmen started the company “Styleislam” in Germany in 2008. He was triggered by the riots that broke out after the publications in Denmark of the cartoons on the prophet Muhammad. Melih Kesmen could not identify with the violent protesters, nor associate with Europeans who saw the cartoons as acceptable within the framework of freedom of speech. He started an intellectual protest by introducing a black T-shirt with a print reading: “I Love My Prophet”. This initiative raised great interest among the public and became the start of a new chapter. Over time, he added numerous other Islamic slogans such as: “Keep smiling, it’s Sunnah”; “Terrorism has no Religion”; “Jesus, Muhammad, Brothers in Faith”; “Hijab, My Right, My Choice, My life” and “Stop wars”.

Unlike Tayyar Ismail’s statement mentioned earlier, Melih Kesmen did not notice a gap, but rather Islam and its modern, artistic expression co-existing. In his own words: “Styleislam does not recognize any gap. This is what we want to show with our products. One can be a Muslim, and at the same time be living in 21st century Europe/Canada/Australia, you name it. These circumstances are not mutually exclusive.” The purpose of Styleislam is not to sell Islam, but to show people that modern development is possible, side by side with entertaining a Muslim identity. Comparing his own company with others, Melih Kesmen has this to say on the subject: “This becomes particularly obvious in the case of companies copying our designs. They do not come up with their own ideas, they are just copycats and do so for financial reasons. It’s not their intention to be both arty and Islamic.”


Despite the great fame pop-Islam attracted around the world and despite the rise of Islamic corporates, much doubt remains about these companies’ true purposes. But not only Islamic companies are juggling with faith and products. Recently an artist from the Netherlands registered ‘Allah’ as a brand name. The Muslim community reacted indignantly and worried about the intentions of the artist. The brand name has been rejected by the Benelux Office for Intellectual Property.

There is a clear controversy about labeling all kinds of products with the Islam brand. The question can be posed whether all this isn’t just a new trend in the commercialization of the Islam.

Photos: Styleislam®


This post is also available in: Dutch