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Good for the body, good for the soul, and good for the wallet.

Atif Ansari's dining table is loaded up with snacks and tea. He waits patiently while his four-year-old daughter figures out what she wants. Will it be a chicken finger or a fruit kebob? His son, 10, and elder daughter, 8, entertain the youngest child, a boy, who's just shy of two-years.

The Ansaris, Atif and wife Sobia, just moved into this townhouse in northeast Markham a few months back. The floors still shine and the white walls haven't yet been marked up with crayon and tiny fingerprints. It's a home like any other in this quickly-expanding neighbourhood just outside Toronto.

Like other observant Muslims, the Ansaris maintain "halal" practices. But unlike even ten years ago, they're able to do so fairly easily living and working in the GTA. Halal is the Arabic word for permissible and extends to all kinds of things including what Muslims eat and drink, what they wear, and how they conduct business. It's similar to the Jewish idea of Kosher. And so, just as they eat halal, when Atif and Sobia were ready to purchase a home they wanted to buy halal as well.

The halal products and services industry is growing by leaps and bounds. It's difficult to find hard numbers because there are few Muslim-specific statistics and no national organization that tracks halal data. But there are numbers for some sectors; the Canadian domestic halal meat industry alone is estimated at over $200 million (pdf).

When the Ansaris first thought about entering the housing market eight years ago they looked at Toronto-based companies. "At that time there were only two or three options but it was cost prohibitive because you were expected to make a large down payment on the house," says Ansari.

The main feature of halal, or Islamic, finance is that it excludes the use of interest. Instead of the traditional bank-borrower relationship, the financing institution functions as a co-op, entering into a partnership with the buyer to purchase the home outright. The buyer's input is in the form of the down payment and the balance is paid by the financer. After that, the individual buys out the co-op with a monthly payment plus fixed service fee.

By the time the Ansaris were ready to buy their current home the industry had grown and new players had come on the scene. One of them, a US-based company called Ijara, had set up shop in Canada. The company was able to contribute a larger sum toward purchasing the house leaving the Ansaris with a more affordable down payment. Theirs was the first Canadian transaction for the company and since then Ijara's partnered up to sell 25 more homes.

But the finance industry isn't just limited to selling houses. Firaaz Azeez is the managing director of Ittihad Capital, a Calgary-based company with an office in Scarborough. They specialize in investment opportunities and raising capital for new businesses.

He says in addition to Muslims there's a small but growing cross-over segment of non-Muslim investors who choose halal investment for ethical reasons. "The appeal for the non-Muslims is the transparency of the contract. No hidden fees or costs or ambiguous items so for the most part people are getting involved in joint ventures with all risks spelled out," he says. Plus, the investment opportunities exclude certain sectors like alcohol, gambling, pornography, weapons, and tobacco

Despite the growth in the finance sector, however, it still represents just a small portion of the entire halal industry. A cursory internet search for halal businesses in the GTA will lead to links for everything from pharmaceuticals and cosmetics to travel and clothing. Anecdotal evidence from business owners and service providers in the 416 and 905 suggests the industry has at least quadrupled in size in just the last decade. The World Halal Forum estimates the value of the global halal trade at $580 billion per year.

The overwhelming focus of halal business in the GTA is food. Initially it was butcher services, followed by small ethnic takeaway counters or fast food restaurants. Muslim consumers found shopping got a lot easier when mainline chains like Loblaw's and No Frills began offering halal meat products alongside their regular fare. But a growing demand from younger Muslims with more disposable income is for restaurants serving well-prepared western-style cuisine that fulfills halal requirements.

Afzal Bhatti runs such a place. He's a trained chef originally from Chicago and opened up Affy's Premium Grill in Pickering in July 2008. The meat is butchered in accordance with Islamic rules and the restaurant doesn't serve alcohol. But the place is still popular enough that since opening he's about tripled his seats to 140 and taken on the unit next door.

"I was very scared, honestly, because I didn't know if people would spend (their money). This is premium meat, AAA Black Angus. Our folks are used to spending $3.99 for a biryani. I saw my kids spending lots of money at fancy places eating fish and vegetables because they couldn't eat the meat," says Bhatti.

He says the lack of alcohol, while a choice he's perfectly happy and willing to make, does make running a restaurant difficult. A veteran of the food industry, he points out that it's the profits from alcohol sales that actually subsidizes the cost of food. At his establishment, there's no such cushion.

The next big push for his business is to target non-Muslim office workers in the area for lunchtime specials. He points out alcohol-free lunches are easier to market than alcohol-free dinners.

Bhatti says the Muslim community is established enough that people are not satisfied with products merely being halal. They want quality too and there's enough business out there and enough competition that consumers have a choice. He points out that the majority of his clientele treks out all the way from Brampton, an hour-and-a-half away. Bhatti says if they continue making the effort so will he. "Our community deserves it."

Naheed Mustafa is a freelance journalist living in Markham.

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