The West should promote Islamic Banking


Professor Rodney Wilson

 Durham - 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 side of Islam, and one in which those from the West can engage in dialogue with Muslims about.

Islamic retail financial institutions are now well established in a number of Western countries, including the Islamic Bank of Britain, the European Islamic Investment Bank and Lariba Bank in California. Furthermore, the leading international banks including Citibank, HSBC Amanah, Deutsche Bank and UBS of Switzerland all offer Islamic deposits and sharia compliant financing facilities. There has been much dialogue between the Western bankers working in these institutions and the sharia scholars who advise about 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 sharia 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 sharia. Indeed, the main job of the sharia 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 sharia 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 sharia replacing man-made laws, perhaps even the establishment of a universal caliphate under which everyone should live, Muslims and non-Muslims. 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 sharia board, sharia compliance is effectively privatised, rather than being a matter of national law. Indeed, each sharia 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 sharia compliant since the Law on Interest Free Banking was passed in 1983. Bank clients have therefore no choice but to use the sharia 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 sharia committees, the argument being that this is unnecessary as the law ensures sharia 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 product offerings and an increasing 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 be hindered or suppressed.

Professor 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.

Published in cooperation with the Common Ground News Service


Copyright 2007 Islamica Magazine.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or