Is Islamic Finance Suffering from the Wrong Model of Implementation?

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One of the things that attract me to maintain this website on Islamic Banking is the opportunity to interact and share ideas with the various practitioners and academicians in the industry. There are many discussion topics and we intend to bring such discussions to the open table as constructive as possible. Interaction with Ms Rosana is always interesting as she dare explore the Islamic Banking model itself, making comparison to other similar models in the market across geographies. And I do share some of her views on the industry, and I have written about it to some extend in my earlier postings. What is interesting about Ms Rosana is that she is taking the discussion a necessary step further in evaluating the existing Banking model, as to whether it is the right model to begin with. She has written a short discourse on this topic and looking to explore in-depth its implication in the near future.

She welcomes constructive feedback, comment and discussion points for this posting and hopes to decide on the next step forward gauging from your kind response. Do read and give us your opinion and comments. Thank you.

Is Islamic Finance Suffering from the Wrong Model of Implementation?

By Rosana Gulzar Mohd

In this blog’s latest post ‘Disruption: Islamic contracts’, there holds an imminent danger. The Islamic banks in Malaysia are not so much inching towards becoming just like the interest-based conventional banks they were supposed to replace but in fact, running towards them. Even as the industry celebrates its trillion size assets and formerly astronomical growth, there lies a darker truth. In a recent class I taught on the dichotomy between Islamic banking theory and practice, a participant, a new ‘Islamic’ banker, came up to me and wanted to discuss commodity murabaha. She said her team had just tabled the product for the bank’s approval but she did not feel comfortable. The head of the Shariah committee also seemed disappointed. His comment, according to her, was that we no longer need Shariah advisers. The industry only needs commodity murabaha experts now.

Post-IFSA 2013 which fines and jails CEOs and everyone above and below for any wrongdoing and a flurry of policy documents telling banks how to implement Shariah contracts, ‘Islamic’ banks in Malaysia are seeking refuge in tawarruq. Musharakah and mudarabah? All that is left of profit and loss sharing contracts, which some scholars say are at the heart of the ideal Islamic financial system, is the policy documents by Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM). I would be pleasantly surprised if anyone can show me a bank which is genuinely implementing them. The supposed mudarabah-based products brought on by IFSA, namely the investment accounts and the IA platform, are currently being mutilated to look almost like any guaranteed and fixed return deposit. The IAP, I believe, are unlikely to be successful for laughable reasons.

When commercial banking, with its inherent tendencies for excesses, profit maximisation and desensitisation to social welfare, is the problem, how does crowdfunding through commercial banks become the solution? Won’t the banks still look for credit-worthy companies with an almost guaranteed future to fund? Who then takes care of the small and medium-sized entrepreneurs who are also seeking financing? Are not the SMEs the backbones of the economy? Not to mention, where is the upholding of Islamic values such as justice, equitability and social well-being? Granted there are other organisations in Malaysia meant to help the lower incomes and SMEs but why do ‘Islamic’ banks call themselves ‘Islamic’ if they are far from embodying the ideal values in Shariah? Unfortunately, this sad state of affairs extends to other parts of Islamic finance such as takaful (apparently ‘Islamic’ insurance), sukuk, the other beauty pageant contestant in this parade, and other capital market products such as interest rate, oh wait, ‘profit’ rate swaps.

How did BNM envision the success of IFSA with no changes to the current environment? We are still in a dual system where ‘Islamic’ banks are pitted head-to-head against interest-based conventional banks. ‘Islamic’ assets are still only a quarter of the entire system despite the country allowing all sorts of controversial contracts such as bai al dayn, bai al inah and the one that takes the cake, tawarruq. Where are the educational campaigns to explain to customers this shift in the industry that the central bank expects to happen?

When customers, including ‘Muslims’, have been accustomed to deposit guarantees and fixed returns their whole lives, how do banks suddenly sell them an ‘investment account’ that promises neither? Is it any surprise that conventional bankers are using this as a selling point? They are telling customers to avoid ‘Islamic’ products because there are no guarantees. Theirs still do. When the chiefs of ‘Islamic’ banks themselves seem cloudy in their understanding of the new regulations, how did BNM envision people on the street, who are banking with its ‘Islamic’ banks, to embrace the changes? A deputy director unfortunately got defensive when I asked. Other central bankers claimed ignorance because they “are not from that department”.

While BNM seems keen to reform the industry, perhaps the answer it has been looking for is that the Islamic finance industry, and within it, Islamic banking, has been built the wrong way. Trying to make it work in the commercial banking space is what has led to the frequent comment that it is like squeezing a square peg into a round hole. Commercial banking, with its profit maximisation mantra and desensitisation to social welfare, is antithetical to the Shariah ideals of justice, equitability and social well-being as embodied in the maqasid. And isn’t it the one that has been leading the world from one crisis to another? Why then are we so busy emulating them? Isn’t it time the powers that be wake up and face facts?

So why did all the big organisations in Islamic finance, from the global standard-setters such as AAOIFI and IFSB to each country’s central banks and each ‘Islamic’ banks’ Shariah committees condone these practices? Perhaps because they were the easiest thing to do and allows for a fast build if the intention is to grab fame and fortune through one’s achievements in Islamic finance. The countless Islamic finance awards and conferences and the effusive back slapping there are testaments to this. Bankers are such happy people.

So what is the solution? I believe it is cooperative banking. The true, genuine type practiced in Europe and not the ones in Muslim countries because they are largely used to fund political cronies and thus suffer from questionable management and corruption. My next article will thus explain cooperative banking, how the model works and why they are a better fit for Islamic finance than the current commercial banking model. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts. Students of Islamic finance intuitively get it when I explain these arguments while some practitioners acquiesce (quietly agree). Another group reminds me of this statement in a book by Upton Sinclair, who ironically was also an investigative journalist (uncovers scandals and corruption) as I was in my former life and whose solution to the 1930s Depression in California is to create cooperative ventures for the unemployed. The idea, to his surprise, received wide support but his bid to run as governor was waylaid, according to him, by the oppositions’ “dirty tricks”. He wrote this statement in his book about the political adventure, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The reaction of the other group of bankers brings to mind this quote.

What do you think about her assessment and commentary on the Islamic Banking model? Do give us your feedback in the comment box. Thank you.

Check out her other contributions in the following page : Writings Rozana Gulzar Mohd 

The Difference Between Islamic Banking Financing and Conventional Banking Loans

I know the title of this post is a mouthful, but I am insisting on the title. Simply because today I came across another round of bashing by individuals on Islamic Banking. Again, the contention is that Islamic Banking is no different from conventional banking; worse still it is claimed that Islamic Banking is more detrimental than conventional banking. How can this be? I watched the video and aghast by the level of ignorance to the nature of Islamic Banking. And gauging from the response by the rest of the audience, it seems that the audience themselves knows no better.

It seems that a lot of individuals are still unconvinced about Islamic Banking. Furthermore, the impression that it is worst-off than conventional banking needs to be addressed. Islamic Banking, while on the surface is still banking, but it is built on a totally different foundation. There are significant difference which is brought about by a single requirement; Shariah-compliance.

Difference 1

The basic difference between Islamic Banking and conventional banking is the contractual relationship. This fundamental difference posed a totally different outlook on what happens after that. The contract between a customer and a conventional bank is simple; a loan where interest is charged upon. But look at an Islamic contract. It is much more complex, but once determined, it really makes total sense. The contract defines the relationship, the relationship defines the responsibilities and subject matter, the subject matter defines the sequencing and ownership requirements for the use in an economic transaction, the transaction defines the rewards and returns on the completion of the contractual obligation. Cause and effect, risks and compensating return, action and rewards.

Difference 2

There is a huge layer of governance surrounding an Islamic Banking proposition. Whatever features that it offers, it goes through strict scrutiny by the regulators as well as the independent Shariah Committee, whom are not under the jurisdiction of the Bank but reports directly to the Board of Directors. The decisions (or “fatwa”) given by the committee will be held solely by the committee themselves, therefore there is a huge responsibility to ensure their decisions have take into account all requirements of justice, customer protection, compliance to Sharia, interpretation to customary civil practices as well as practicality of implementation. In short, decisions my be clear and without any doubt to its validity.

Difference 3

The deployment of Islamic Banking funds is not for charity. It is still a business that needs to be sustained by investing in economic activities, therefore it is misleading to assume Islamic Banking is a holistic endeavor that “should not charge interest” or merely to “provide assistance to the ummah”. There are costs for running an Islamic Banking business, and as far as possible it should be at par to the costs of running a conventional banking business. Returns on Shareholder capital is also important to ensure that capital is continued to be invested into Islamic Banking for it to grow. With growth comes the ability to continue supporting the ummah. The key word is sustainable banking. You cannot grow or even survive if you are not competitive.

Difference 4

For me, the main difference between Islamic Banking and conventional banking is that the concept of justice to customer is not regulatory driven; it is conceptually driven by the idea of Islamic Banking itself. A lot of conventional banking practices are developed to maximize returns while minimizing risk, and risk-transference is a key consideration for conventional banks. Regulators have to be vigilant to ensure conventional banking toe the line to protect customer’s interests.

Islamic Banking, in its DNA is intended more than just being profitable. It is meant to be providing service to support the activities of the ummah (Muamalat) defined within Shariah-compliant transactions. There are specific rules that must be followed; breach of these rules means the penalties are non-negotiable i.e. whatever returns gained from these breaches must be given to charity. Care and consideration is a must. Justice and fairplay is always important in a decision by Shariah Committee. Release of customers burden is a priority.

Many customers still lack knowledge of what Islamic Banking is all about. They collate biased and misleading information from truncated and unverified sources on the internet, facebook postings that intends to be malicious rather than presenting the true picture, and comments by individuals who make generalized comments on their experience which may well be isolated cases due to misinformation, misunderstanding or just plain ignorance to the fact. And yet these comments are sensationalized, made viral and deemed to be the absolute truth without further exploration or verification.

Cut and paste seems to be the easy way forward. Yet people forget the discipline that is practiced by the companions of the Prophet; you must verify the information by determining it all the way to the source of the information, up to naming the individuals who made the first comments, and deciding whether the individuals are trustworthy and of good standing. This discipline is lost in this world of over-abundance of unverified information, where it has become increasingly difficult to separate truth from fact.

Hopefully those doubtful questions on Islamic Banking should be directed to Islamic scholars, Islamic banking practitioners or relevant academicians with stature, knowledge and qualifications before the ummah believes and spread untruth that will, in the end, become a disservice to the religion of Islam by spreading “fitnah”.

There really is a difference between Islamic Banking and conventional banking, and there are some of us trying very hard to make a difference in the compulsion towards riba’.

My earlier posting on roughly the same conversation:

  1. Consequence for Choosing Islamic Banking
  2. Shariah Banking in Malaysia
  3. Conversations on Islamic Banking in Malaysia
  4. Choosing the Right Options