I came across an interesting article titled Hidden Traps in Shariah Decision Making by bro Ehsanullah Agha (click on picture for full pdf article). The article summarises what we product developers have known for quite some time now, and has now become necessary tools in ensuring the products we design are approved by our Shariah Committee. It summarises the involvement of Shariah in decision-making in an IFI, as well as some of the “traps” that Shariah Committee falls into when making decisions.
The 4 “traps” mentioned are:
- Anchoring an opinion
- Adhering to the Status Quo
- Confirming Evidence to support a decision
- Framing of information
While the above is referred to as “traps”, I would rather refer these as “approaches” to solicit a decision, and perhaps all the above can come together (not exclusively) in considering a decision. Reading the above exclusively may give the impression that a product team can resort to a specific tactic in order to extract a certain decision. Admittedly, there are such cases, especially where management requires a specific decision to support a business. But Shariah Committees are often expected to be the gatekeepers for such decisioning.
A quick comment on the above points:
- Anchoring. While product teams do not consciously try to anchor an opinion before presenting to Shariah Committee, we often do so to provide perspective on the rationale for such proposal. This can be done by highlighting a crisis or regulatory danger to support the proposal. It becomes the baseline discussion point during the deliberation stage. And we do it to keep the discussion in focus to achieve the objective ie resolving the crisis.
- Status Quo. By far this is one of the main consideration of an approval by Shariah Committees. Usually we call it Urf ie customs or acceptable market practice on a certain product behaviour. Personally, decisions based on Urf is not something I prefer but it is sometimes necessary to quote as such, especially if there is no major criticism on its usage and practice by the public (which also includes religious scholars). There is nothing wrong with accepting the norms of the society; my only contention is that I may not fully understand the deliberation points when such decisions are made by other parties for the fear of missing out a critical argument that should have been known and resolved by my team. Two things come to mind; Ignorance is bliss, and Blind leading the blind.
- Confirming Evidence. This is also a key point where a certain decision is preferred over the other. When there is a bias for arriving at a certain decision, the product research, analysis and design (including practicality in operations) are equally biased in finding evidence to support reaching of that decision. Rightly so as mentioned in the article, the evidence to support the contract of Bai Inah in Malaysia is generally extracted from the Shafie school of thought while sidelining the rest of the opinion that is equally valid. The evidence provided for the acceptability is biased to enable the consideration to approve the structure.
- Framing. In my opinion, framing is a necessary tool for product development teams simply due to the amount of information available in the market. While we understand the need for a robust deliberation session with the Shariah Committee, the forums available to us (and the allocated time given) are usually restrictive. To go into full academic and technical discourse will be challenging especially when a quick decision is required. The information that we provide are those we deemed most relevant to support the proposed solution. There may be other decisions that the Shariah Committee can arrive at, if only we had provided more information. But the danger lies where the inclusion of too much information may result in indecisiveness or confusion. Sometimes too much information clouds the real issue further, and it takes time to bring things back into focus. Therefore, we frame the information relevant to the issues. The intention is not to exclude, but to include what is relevant.
A GOOD DECISION COMES WHEN ALL PARTIES ARE ENGAGED
When a product team goes into a proposal, discussion or request for a certain decision, the Shariah Committee is expected to be conversant with the topic at hand to be able to engage in a meaningful discussion. The product team brings in the technical requirements, with some general Shariah background information, market analytics and practical implication on process requirements expected by Shariah. The Shariah Committee must bring in their expertise in Shariah knowledge to dissect and analyse the team’s proposal, not just what is being presented as information but also the rationale, the intention and the technical nuances proposed for the product.
Asking the right question is important for the Shariah Committee, just as providing the right context and intention is also important for the product team. In general, the product team must not go into a Shariah proposition with the intention to manipulate, coerce or blindside the Shariah Committee into a “business” decision. The effort must show full consideration in compliance with Shariah. As much as the heavy burden placed on the Shariah Committee shoulders are real (with fines and jail-time outlined under IFSA2013 when there’s failure to execute their duties), the same burden must also be felt by the IFI’s product team whenever a product is being designed and launched. The people I work with, I see strong commitment and awareness on the need to do the right things, all the time.
WISH LIST FOR 2019
It is easy to expect Shariah Committee to be well versed in all aspects of banking and finance when the decision is required. And it is also easy to expect product development teams to be fully aware of all “relevant” information to be able to share them objectively with the Shariah Committee. Such an ideal scenario will mean all parties come to the table fully aware of all the potential issues, with sufficiently extensive information and in-depth theoretical research to support all the argument. This does not always happen in real life.
I believe the only way to bridge this expectation is to significantly increase the knowledge of all parties. We see this starting to happen at the Shariah Committee level where BNM now encourage at least 1 industry expert to sit in the Shariah Committee, even without a Shariah background. This is to promote knowledge sharing and a different point of view during decisioning, and take notice of any attempts to coerce a decision.
On this same vein, I believe the next natural step is to have Shariah-trained individuals to become product developers in IFI. Most Shariah-based graduates that we see, enter into the banking world via the Shariah department. But how about entering other departments such as sales, credit or more importantly product-development? Such background knowledge in Shariah may itself force a self-regulating approach when designing a products. The Shariah arguments will be the first filter when assessing a product; if it fails at that filter, it will not see the light of day. And Shariah Committee can take some comfort that the Shariah deliberation has already started at the onset of the product development process.
I have seen some impressively good work done by Shariah-based product developers. This should be the way forward in finding new Shariah-compliant banking solutions. Hope I get this wish next year. Looking forward to 2019.