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Is Islamic Banking Truly Islamic, or is it just cosmetically enhanced conventional banking? May 26, 2007

Posted by islamicfinanceaffairs in Uncategorized.

Fiqh or Fiction
By Atif Khan
Islamica Magazine – Summer / Fall 2004

Is Islamic Banking Truly Islamic, or is it just cosmetically enhanced conventional banking?

bankers, caught between scholars and layman, devote much of their time
to an often-sceptical public about the authenticity of their products.
Time well spent. The purgative effects of ridding the Islamic financial
sector of pretenders (and there are many) at the hand of an educated
consumer are obvious. Too often, however, this educational process is
long on theory and short and practical relevance.

Perhaps the
easiest way to determine whether Islamic banking is true to Quran,
Sunna and customer is to see how it actually works in practice. The
Islamic banking discussed here is the same one that earns consensual
acceptance from the field’s leading scholars of the traditional schools
of jurisprudence. And while unscrupulous banks do exist, increasing
market regulation and customer sophistication ensures that those
Islamic banks that are truly Shariah-compliant lead the industry. By
learning the basics about these banks, individuals will be better able
to stand their ground when not-so-Islamic bankers push non-complaint
instruments in the name of Islam.

At the outset, though, it is
necessary to emphasize two important points. First, just because an
Islamic product and a conventional product are identical does not
render the Islamic product impermissible. As obvious as this seems, it
is an argument detractors often use to discredit Islamic banking. The
vast majority of Islamic financial instruments bear a strong a strong
resemblance to their conventional counterparts, particularly equity –
based ones (see “In Your Interest”, Islamica, Winter2003). What
distinguishes them from conventional instruments is usually nothing
more than a set of processes, which leads to the second point.

Islam, the difference between whether something is forbidden,
offensive, permissible, recommended or obligatory usually depends on a
validating process. Two couples, one married the other unmarried, may
look the same, but the agreement of simple marriage contract makes the
one Islamically valid and the other not. Two hamburgers, one using
Islamically slaughtered meat and the other not, may look the same, but
a simple process makes one valid. So too, two financial products, one
Islamic the other not, is differentiable by a set of steps: ostensibly
cosmetic, Islamically defensible.

The following are among the
most commonly asked questions by customers new to Islamic banking
(ordered in increasing degree of complexity).

There was no
Islamic bank during the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and give him peace)
time, so how can there be Islamic banking now? Sounds like a bida

Microchips, potato chips and Islamic banks
are examples of permissible things for which the Prophet (Allah bless
him and give him peace) gave us no specific guidance, Rather, he
forbade us from engaging in blameworthy innovations (bida) that would
contravene the Islamic Sacred Law (Shariah), rather than from new
things that possess no intrinsic blameworthiness. The bida is in the
blameworthiness, not in the newness.

Admittedly, some Islamic
banks do not carry out impermissible transactions, but that implicates
the entire field of Islamic banking no more than the sins of a few
Muslims incriminate the entire Islamic community.

As for the
claim that Islamic banking is just part of the “system” and is
therefore best avoided, is to put one’s head firmly into sand; romantic
anachronists need not apply. As long as Muslims, money and capital
markets co-exist, there will always be a need for Muslims to put their
money into some kind of a market (even a little money in a checking
account circulates into global capital markets). The question Muslims
should really be asking themselves is: their money in the most
Islamically acceptable manner available to them given the options. And
while new customers might be forgiven some level of healthy scepticism,
we should all understand the limits of our own unqualified ijtihads
when declaring something a bida.

Don’t Islamic banks simply change labels, by replacing the word “interest” with “profit”?

Islamic banks do just that. And here is the easiest way to find out the
truth: ask them if the profit amount (not the percentage amount) is
fixed, or if the customer profit is declared before the bank’s actual
profit is announced. If either of these is the case, their “profit” is
just another kind of riba (usury or interest).

Interest, the
additional charge over the loan principal, is the “cost” of using
money, and is strictly forbidden in Islam, whether given or taken, at a
low rate or a high one, to or from a Muslim or a non-Muslim, whether in
Muslim lands or not. The problem with exchanging one amount for a
larger amount of money at a later date is that there is no underlying
asset or service transacted.

Profit, rent and mark-up, on the
other hand, are asset and service backed, and permissible in Islam.
Profit is earned on the sale of goods and the provision of services.
Rent is charged on the usufruct of property. Mark-ups are added to the
cost of an asset. The most common financing products that an Islamic
bank will use in order to earn profit are musharakas (partnership
financing) and mudharabas (investment finance).

In a
Musharaka, two or more partners (even thousands of shareholders) commit
risk capital and share profit based on an agreed upon percentage,
enduring loss in proportion to their invested capital. Modern
corporations, like those listed on the New York Stock Exchange, are a
kind of Musharaka.

In a mudharabas, an investing partner
brings capital and a working partner brings time and effort to share in
profits and losses agreed upon beforehand. Venture capital firms, such
as the ones that financed much of Silicon Valley’s growth, are a kind
of mudharabas.

Unlike with interest, which is charged on a
borrower whether the business succeeds or fails, in a Musharaka and
Mudharaba the investor profits only when the business profits and
therefore the investor fully shares in the business risk. Some might
argue that an interest based lender also shares risk: the risk of
whether his money will be returned or not. But this is not a ‘Business
risk’; it is a ‘Credit risk’. The difference is a substantial, a
business risk only risks the business; a credit risk both business and
the borrower (by forcing repayment, in extreme cases through personal

Why does Islam forbid interest when money is just another commodity that comes at a price?

an actual commodity (like gold, which has traditionally been the
standard of measure for currencies), money has no intrinsic value. It
derives its value from something other than itself, namely, market
demand. So interest actually creates nothing. By creating money from
nothing, we bloat economies with asset-less, service-less pieces of
paper. And we all know what happens when the supply of anything, even
money, exceeds its demand. Its price drops. And when the “price” of
money drops, we get inflation; the money in our pocket becomes worth
less today than it was yesterday. However simplified and stylised this
description, it accurately illustrates the macroeconomic debilitation
of interest. Because interest serves the interest (coincidence?) of
capital owners like banks, governments, “development” agencies,
corporations and wealthy individuals, it is unlikely to go away.

treatment of money has a commodity is partly responsible for burgeoning
world poverty. (By forcing poor countries to allocate increasing amount
of capital away from social services, like health care and education,
towards debt servicing) and increased market volatility (by widening
the gap between the supply of money and the creation of real assets).
It is often asked how we would live in a world without interest. We
might instead begin asking how should we be expected in a world with

Where should I keep my money? Islamic banking
doesn’t adequately addresses the inflation problem and then you say
interest banking is forbidden. If today’s $1 is going to be worth 90
cents next year because of inflation, why cant I charge interest to
compensate for the loss?

The short answer: because
interest is still wrong. Charging interest to compensate for interest
is analogous to terrorising civilians to compensate for global
injustice: to wrong do not make a right. Far to many Muslims, sincere
practising ones no less, have some how reconciled the taking of
interest with their personal definition of what the Quran and Sunnah
say about the matter. But compensating for inflation is still no excuse
for taking interest; no matter how noble one might feel when taking
money from conventional bank. In order to compensate for inflation,
Islamic banks provide plenty of instruments that mimic the security and
liquidity of an ordinary savings account while also providing a
reasonable interest-free return (Meezan Bank’s monthly Musharaka
certificate is just one example, but all major banks, including
non-Muslim banks that sell permissible Islamic products, offer basic
consumer accounts).

If making a long-term personal loan, for
instance, one might consider denominating the amount in gold (e.g. an
individual lends $100 cash today and tells a borrower that he would
like gold equivalent amount back in 3 years; $100 buys X grams of gold
today; at the time of repayment 3 years later, X grams of gold buys
$120; the borrower returns the lender the lender $120 cash).

Stocks are like gambling, but Islam permits stocks and forbids gambling. Why?
returns to the basic principle of asset and service backing. Stocks
invest in real assets (a company’s property, plant and equipment) and
actual services (a company’s management expertise). Gambling invests in
nothing. Even if a lottery funds charities or finances public works,
the money with which it does so is still haram. Stocks provide
risk-based returns based on publicly available information. Gambling
provides only uncertainty and the distance prospect of huge gains based
entirely on chance.

To the casual observer “buying low and
selling high” resembles gambling, but because there is no Islamic
stipulation on the price at which something is sold and the duration of
which it is held, the primary concern relates to what is actually
bought and sold. Provided the main business of the company is
permissible, the company owns some illiquid assets, and the investor
removes the proportion of his profits that correspond to the company’s
interest earnings. Then purchasing the stock is permissible.

What’s the difference between an ordinary lease and an Islamic lease (Ijarah)? They look the same.

Ijarah lease, like a conventional lease, is an agreement to rent out
property and services. In an Ijarah lease the lessor (the person
granting the lease) maintains ownership of the property or service
while the lessee (the person to whom the lease is granted) gains use of
the property and the resulting profit. In conventional financial
leasing, the interest payments have to be made to the lessor whether
the lessee gains the benefit from the property or not. If the property
is damaged through no fault of the lessee’s, the interest payment is
still payable. So the ownership risk does not entirely rest in the
owner’s hands. Ijarahs, on the other hand, clearly distinguish between
ownership and usufruct, or the use and profit of a thing, and stipulate
the rental rates, unlike the interest rate, be known and agreed upon

The central component of a valid Ijarah agreement
is the appropriation of risk, specifically the ownership of risk. In an
Islamic lease, risk associated with the lease property or service
remains with the lessor, the beneficiary of the rental payments.

If Islam forbids fixed-income interest, what’s wrong with floating-rate interest? Doesn’t it allow raise and fall like profit?

does not forbid fixation. It is permissible to fix profits (in
percentage, not absolute, terms), prices, rents and instalment plans,
to name a few measure. But it is forbidden to exchange money for a
larger amount of money (unless the currency is different, in which case
it is permissible at spot). The unlike exchange of like moneys creates
riba. But exchanging assets or services for money and money for assets
and services is entirely permissible. So the problem does not relate to
whether an interest rate is fixed or floating, but to the interest

I don’t have enough money to buy factory equipment
(a car, or a home or pay for an education). How do I avoid interest and
still fulfil my short-term financing requirements?

(mark-up financing) is an example of an Islamic instrument that funds
short-term capital requirements. Because it is the most easily confused
with interest-based financing, it is worthwhile going through the basic
steps in a Murabaha execution:

A customer approaches an
Islamic bank with a request to purchase an item, promising to pay at
some later date. The bank assesses the product and the customer’s
collateral (collateral is an Islamically acceptably method of securing
a financial obligation) and agrees by making the customer his agent.
The customer goes to the market and selects the product. The bank pays
the vendor, charges the customer a mark-up, and the customer takes the
product agreeing to pay him later.

This is analogous to a
friend buying something on your behalf, charging a little extra for the
time and effort, and selling it to you with an expectation that you
will repay him at some later date. This is instead of giving you cash
to buy it now, and asking for the cash at some later date, charging you
interest in addition to the loan amount.

In a Murabaha, the
bank provides financial intermediation entirely free of interest, and
because the bank buys and sells an asset, even if at a profit, the
transaction is islamically permissible. The difficulty people have in
differentiating a Murabaha from a simple short-term loan is by not
appreciating the importance of the seemingly insignificant intermediate
step of the bank owning the item by paying the vendor directly. What
this does is satisfy the very basic Islamic requirement of backing the
transaction with an asset. The mark-up is no different from the profit
any business makes for having a legitimate service.

For home
purchases, diminishing partnership schemes (or “diminishing
musharakas”) also provide the buyer with a financing alternative. In a
diminishing partnership agreement the buyer approaches the bank with a
down payment. The bank pays for the rest of the property and the buyer
begins living in the property while paying the bank rent. Over time,
the buyer buys back the bank’s equity in the house and reduces his
monthly rent in promotion to his increased ownership of the house.
Eventually, the buyer becomes the sole owner. The important point is
that the Islamic bank participates the customer’s ownership risk.

Is there a secondary market for Islamic instruments?

secondary market is a fancy name for any exchange with securities (like
stocks) are bought and sold after there original issuance. Islamic
leases, or Ijarahs, are an example of a securitisable instrument.

lessors have the right to sell all or part of their leases to one or
more third parties without affecting the continuity of the lease
itself, Ijarah certificates may be traded like securities under certain
conditions. An Ijarah certificate represents the third parties new
ownership in the lease as well as the proportionate share in claiming
rent and suffering loss. Ownership, not the right to claim rent,
represents the tradable portion to the certificate. Islam permits the
trading the assets, not of money, for profit, and a rental claim is a
receivable that represents money. SO trading rental claims without
first transferring ownership is forbidden. But it is acceptable for
buyers seeking ownership and sellers seeking profit to trade Ijarah
certificates like common securities in a capital markets.

banks face an unusual set of competing demands today. On the one hand,
the Islamic banking sector is growing at about four times the rate of
the industry as a whole. But on the other hand, Islamic banks are
forced to conform to a regulatory environment that has traditionally
catered to a well-entrenched interest banking system. As a result,
Islamic banks now inherit a customer base so accustomed to dealing in
interest that to suggest an alternative, particularly one with a
well-laden “Islamic” label attached, is to imagine the seemingly
unimaginable. But in just the few decades of consumer-label
Islamic-banking, a centuries-old conventional finance sector is
beginning to acknowledge the importance of providing an Islamic
alternative, evidenced most tellingly by the creation of Islamic
subsidiaries within banks, whether Islamic or not, are profit-motivated
and demand-driven, it is important that the Islamic banking customer
demands products that are compliant, for which the first step is
self-education about what actually makes a financial product Islamic.

About Atif Khan:
Khan writes on Islamic economic and finance. He studied ecomonic
development at Harvard University and has worked as an investment
banker with Morgan Stanley in New York and London.


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