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.

THE STRUCTURE 

The basic difference between Islamic Banking and conventional banking is the structure of how the Bank is set up. For a conventional banking, the purpose of set up is to collect deposit and to give loans. This is the shareholders understanding of what it should be. 2 very distinct function ie Collect Deposit and Give Loans, and the arrangement is managed by a Treasury function which tries to balance the returns to shareholders’ funds.

Conventional Banking Structure (Diff)

But what is Islamic Structure then? In essence, how an Islamic Bank is supposed to be set up is based on the theory of “Sources and Application of Funds”. There should be a single flow between the deposits and the financing / investment use of funds; this means there is no distinct function. It is a single function where customer deposits or investment pool is used to fund financing portfolio or deploy into investment instruments, from which returns are derived and recognise. Once the returns are determined, these returns are “shared” between the Bank and the customers (deposit/investment). This “Profit Loss Sharing” structure demands a different way of managing the Bank, although not all Islamic Banks are able to successfully pull this off 100% (especially when the Islamic Banks are still under the parentage of a conventional bank).

Islamic Banking Structure (Diff)

In my personal view, the structure of an Islamic Bank is most suited if it is built around the Mudharabah structure. It fits perfectly on how the Bank is to be managed. It should be the backbone of any Islamic Banks, where the set-up is linked end to end resulting in sharing of actual returns arising from a Shariah-compliant financing/investment activity.

Finally, the processes in an Islamic Bank and conventional Bank are also different, simply due to the structure of which it has been set up. There is a broader requirement for oversight and research required to ensure the Islamic products and services meets Shariah requirements. A lot more layers to comply with, a lot more details needed.

Islamic Banking Diff (Structure)

THE SHARIAH COMMITTEE

Shariah Committee is the most important difference between an Islamic Banking business and conventional Banks. It provides an oversight accountability in ensuring that all the operations of an Islamic Bank is consistent with the rules of Shariah.

Shariah Committee (Diff)

There is a huge layer of governance surrounding an Islamic Banking proposition. Whatever features that it offers, it goes through regulatory oversight by the Shariah Advisory Council of BNM, and stricter scrutiny  by the 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 Shariah Committee will be held solely by the committee themselves, therefore there is a huge responsibility for them. The Shariah Committee must ensure their decisions have taken 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 must be clear, defensible and without any doubt to its validity.

SUSTAINABLE MAQASID OF SHARIA

In Islamic Banking, matters really are determined by intentions. And the intention is to ensure the Maqasid (Objectives) of Shariah are met.

Maqasid

These Objectives are a key consideration in setting up an Islamic Banking operation. But it does not mean the operation of Islamic Banking and the deployment of its funds are for charitable purposes. It is still a business that needs to be sustained by investing in Sharia-compliant 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.

THE PRODUCT & CONTRACTUAL RELATIONSHIP

Designing and launching an Islamic product is not easy. The amount of work that needs to be done in relation to the fundamental difference between an Islamic Bank and conventional Bank. The fundamental difference is the totally different outlook on what happens after entering a contract. The contract between a customer and a conventional bank is simple; a loan where interest is charged upon over a period of time.

Key Diff - Product (Example)

But look at an Islamic contract. It is much more complex structure, 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.

What usually confounds practitioners (whom are not well versed in Islamic Banking contracts) are the level of detail. Some may consider the issues discussed in an Islamic Banking forum as “petty” but others expressed amazement in the level on consideration undertaken during discussions. For example, an Islamic Banking forum would discuss the nature of loan (Qard) and responsibilities of Qard, conditions of Qard, transferability of Qard, conclusion of a Qard Aqad (offer and acceptance), dissolution of Qard and implications of Qard when attached to other Islamic contract. This level of discussion is missing from the conventional banking space where in their view is that a loan is an amount given to customer where it is to be repaid back with interest.

OVERALL SUMMARY OF DIFFERENCES

There really are differences between Islamic Banking and conventional banking, and there are some of us trying very hard to make a difference in the compulsion towards Riba’. As a summary, below are some quick differences I have compiled from my earlier days in the industry on the differences between the models.

Difference 1

Difference 2

Difference 3

Difference 4

DNA OF ISLAMIC BANKS

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.

AVOIDING FITNAH

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 in the social media where direct accountability is undetermined, and it has become increasingly difficult to separate truth from fact.

I had always advised friends and critics alike to be careful of what they “recommend” when dealing with Islamic Banking due to the huge responsibility of such recommendations. If they are ready to criticise Islamic Banking as “same as conventional” or “open to back-door riba” without full understanding of what it really is, they should be ready to take responsibility for that. If their basis of stating as such is based on “viral whastsapp message” or “comments by third party islamic practitioners” or “explaination by insiders in the industry” or “commentary by blogs”, I do appreciate if we as practitioners can be provided with these “sources” for us to verify its accuracy. Many times I find the comments are based on partial information, taken out of context, outdated writings or information as well as just being malicious without proper basis or discussion. Some are not even Shariah related or relevant to Islamic Banking practices, just operational and processes defects.

Do think of the implications: Should a person make such comments that “Don’t take Islamic Banking products because it is not really Islamic and there is a lot of trickery to it”, and the person listening to that comment thinks “Owh then there is no difference between Islamic product and conventional riba banks’ product” and proceeded to take Riba-based loan products, the implication is that the person who made the comment had directly influenced another person, in my view, in making a wrong and sinful decision. Will that person be responsible for this act of “pushing another Muslim into taking Riba products”? It is a heavy burden to take, not just immediate but in the hereafter. So be careful when a person makes that comment.

And to imagine what will happen when the person who took the Riba product commented to another person (and another) that someone commented that “there is no difference between Islamic Banking and Riba Banking…” . It will become a tree with a massive root, grown by the single seed of the original comment by the first person.

MashaAllah

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”.

ISLAMIC BANKING IS EVOLVING

Evolution

Granted, Islamic Banking is a 30 year old structure, with many building blocks are still in progress. But it has not stopped evolving to existing times as and when new regulations and Shariah decisions comes into discussion. It is not perfect yet, but practitioners are aware of the difficulties of meeting all the requirements without enhancements and considerations to practicality. There is a misguided assumption that academia are aware of all the shortfall of Islamic Banking practices and the industry had turned a blind eye to these. Nothing can be further than the truth. Islamic bankers, Shariah Committees and BNM are well aware of all of the issues raised buy academia as well as other practitioners, with the benefit of global awareness as well. In truth, practitioners know more of the issues they faced on a day to day basis, as compared to academia where some of the issues had already been resolved by the industry but not as made known to academia.

Criticisms are always welcome, but ideally it should be constructive on how to improve. It is a heavy responsibility to ensure the differences between Islamic Banking (based on Shariah) and conventional banking (based on lending) are managed diligently. It is an on-going evolution that I am confident one day will reach its apex. Ideas are welcome and proposed solutions considered in earnest. And as I have always said to my product team; If you’re not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. So, let’s be the solution that we had always wanted.

Wallahualam

My earlier postings on similar conversation:

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