Islamic banking – opportunity or threat?

by Rodney Wilson
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Durham, England - Islamic banking, which implies the avoidance of interest, has become a substantial industry during the last four decades. One obvious question is whether its emergence further segregates Muslims from Western values and norms, creating a financial ghetto. An alternative view is that as increasing numbers of people in the West are dissatisfied or sceptical about the banking services they receive, and see them as exploitative or even unethical, the emergence of Islamic banking with its own distinctive morality results in Islam projecting a much more positive face.

Many Western bankers view Islamic finance as a curiosity, and perhaps even a business opportunity, but seldom as a threat comparable to that from Muslim extremism. Indeed, Islamic banking and finance can be regarded as a gentler aspect of Islam, and one that lends itself to dialogue between Westerners and Muslims.

Islamic retail financial institutions, including the Islamic Bank of Britain, the European Islamic Investment Bank and Lariba Bank in California, are now well established in a number of Western countries. Furthermore, the leading international banks, including Citibank, HSBC Amanah, Deutsche Bank and UBS of Switzerland, all offer Islamic deposits and shari‘a-compliant financing facilities.

There has been much dialogue between the Western bankers working in these institutions and the shari‘a scholars who advise what is, and what is not, permissible. This dialogue extends to insurance, where Islamic takaful companies have become increasingly active, their distinguishing feature being that they do not hold conventional interest-yielding bonds, and that shareholder funds and premiums paid by policy holders cannot be co-mingled, which could result in the former exploiting the latter’s misfortune.

As shari‘a is about universal, divinely inspired principles rather than national laws, leading international law firms have also become involved in Islamic banking and finance, as contracts need to be drafted under English or American law in a way that is consistent with shari‘a. Indeed, the main job of the shari‘a committee members who serve on the boards of Islamic banks and conventional banks offering Islamic products is to ensure that new contracts are compatible with shari‘a principles and, if they are not, to pursue a dialogue with the lawyers concerning amendments and redrafting.

The aspiration of many Islamists is to have divinely inspired shari‘a replacing man-made laws, perhaps even the establishment of a universal caliphate under which everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim, should live. Not surprisingly, such an aspiration is unacceptable for most non-Muslims, and indeed for many Muslims, as it denies choice.

Islamic banking and finance can point the way forward: it is about extending choice, not restricting options. As each institution has its own shari‘a board, shari‘a compliance is effectively privatised, rather than being a matter of national law. Indeed, each shari‘a board passes its own fatwas, or religious rulings, which further extends choice in the marketplace for religious ideas. Religion, of course, flourishes under competitive conditions and Islam is no exception, whereas when it is nationalised, its adherents soon become alienated.

The Islamic Republic of Iran can be regarded as an example of how not to encourage the development of Islamic banking and finance. There, all banking has been shari‘a- compliant since the Law on Interest Free Banking was passed in 1983. Bank clients have therefore no choice but to use the shari‘a system. The banks, however are state-owned and have little autonomy, even in determining what deposit and financing products to offer. They also do not have shari‘a committees, the argument being that this is unnecessary as the law ensures shari‘a compliance in any case.

The result has been that banking development has been slow, there is little financial innovation, and most Iranians do not have bank accounts. In contrast, on the Arab side of the Gulf and in Malaysia, where Islamic and conventional banks compete, Islamic banks have attractive products on offer and an growing client base. Al Rajhi Bank of Saudi Arabia has become the world’s largest Islamic retail bank, and its range of services and delivery channels compares favourably with the best that Western banks can offer.

Islamic banking is here to stay, is an opportunity rather than a threat, and has an exciting future. Gaps remain - there is no Islamic bank in Israel for example to serve its Muslim population. But if the Central Bank of Israel licensed such an entity it could create much goodwill. It might also encourage the Jewish population living there to question whether the operations of their own banks are compatible with religious teaching in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Ultimately Islamic banking and finance is about the emergence of a distinctively Islamic form of capitalism that may co-exist and interact with Western, Chinese, Russian or any other capitalism. Such a development should be welcomed and facilitated, and not hindered or suppressed.

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* Rodney Wilson is director of postgraduate studies at Durham University’s Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. He is co-editor of The Politics of Islamic Finance and co-author of Islamic Economics: A Short History. This article is part of a series on economics and Muslim-Western relations distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Visit the Washington Post’s interactive website to join the discussion on this article - http://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/
needtoknow/2007/01/west_should_promote_islamic_ba.html.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 January 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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