The New Shariah Governance Policy Document (2019)

SHARIAH GOVERNANCE POLICY DOCUMENT (2019)

One of the most anticipated documents by the industry is the renewed Shariah Governance Framework, which was last issued in 2011. Many were waiting with bated breath on what changes were made to the document. I had a quick look at it also and generally, there were a few fine-tuning done to existing regulations.

A quick summary of the points in the Shariah Governance Policy Document (2019) are as follows:

  1. The responsibilities of the Board of Directors are to approve the policies regarding Shariah governance, oversee the implementation of SAC’s ruling and internal control framework, oversee the performance of senior management and promote a culture of Shariah compliance in the bank.
  2. The Board of Directors also must interact sufficiently with the Shariah Committee including giving due regards to the Shariah Committee decisions, paying attention to facts and rational and the implication of implementing the decision, with proper conflict resolutions and record of all deliberations on the issues.
  3. The Board of Directors must also assess the performance of the Shariah Committee formally, at least annually and ensure the remunerations reflect members’ accountabilities.
  4. The key responsibilities of the Shariah Committee themselves are defined as follows:
    1. Provide a decision or advice on the application of SAC ruling and BNM standards on Shariah matters
    2. Provide a decision or advice on matters that requires a reference to be made by the SAC
    3. Provide a decision or advice on matters that may trigger Shariah Non-Compliant event
    4. Deliberate and affirm Shariah non-compliant findings
    5. Endorsing rectification measures for Shariah non-compliance event
  5. The Shariah Committee shall be accountable for the quality, accuracy and soundness in their decisions and advices.
  6.  The Shariah Committee must establish a robust methodology to guide decision making process including taking into account relevant business and risk practices.
  7. If Shariah decides to place additional restrictions on the business in applying SAC ruling (meaning : stricter than SAC rulings), the bank must document the deliberation, obtain Board of Directors view on the decision, and immediately notify BNM on the decision.
  8. The Shariah Committee must exercise objectivity in making a judgement or deriving a decision to avoid impairing professional objectivity. Sufficient time is to be devoted to prepare for and attend Shariah Committee meetings.
  9. The Shariah Committee must continuously develop reasonable understanding of the business and keep abreast of the latest market and regulatory development, to be led by the Chairman of the Shariah Committee.
  10. The Chairman of the Shariah Committee must be able to apply relevant procedures for Shariah deliberations, liaise with Board of Directors, ensure sound decisions are made, encourage healthy discussion on issues, and ensure maintenance of records supporting Shariah decisions.
  11. Shariah Committee meetings must be conducted at least once every 2 months  (at least 2 times a year for Islamic Banking Windows operations) and attendance of each member must be 75%. This information to be reported in the bank’s annual report.
  12. Appointment of the Shariah Committee must fulfil the following:
    1. the person is a Muslim
    2. the person is “fit and proper
    3. the person is either Shariah qualified person or an expert possessing skills, knowledge and experience (to support the Shariah function)
  13. Shariah Qualified Person means the person:
    1. hold a minimum bachelor degree in Shariah which includes studies on Usul Fiqh (principles of Islamic Jurispruedence) or Fiqh Muamalat (Islamic transaction/commercial law)
    2. possesses solid knowledge in Shariah with reasonable Islamic finance knowledge and experience
    3. demonstrates strong proficiency and knowledge in written and verbal Arabic.
  14. A Shariah Committee member shall not serve in the same Bank for more than 9 years, must not accept appointment on more than 1 licensed banks, 1 licensed takaful operator and one prescribed institution. The member must also not be an active politician.
  15. The Shariah Committee composition must consist of a Shariah qualified Chairman of Shariah Committee and the majority of the Shariah Committee Members are Shariah qualified.
  16. The Shariah Secretariat must provide the Shariah Committee adequate time to deliberate all Shariah matters.

HOW MUCH POWER DOES THE SHARIAH COMMITTEE REALLY HAVE?

As expected, the Shariah Committee must have full accountability in making decisions via robust deliberation of the issues, including considerations of business practices. This idea is consistent with BNM’s expectation that Shariah Committee must reach a certain level of competency in advising the banks. BNM, it seems, is prepared to provide authority for Shariah Committee to decide on the business direction, in line with the overarching SAC decisions. This indicates that the Shariah Committee is meant to be influential in the Islamic Banking industry.

However, BNM also allows the challenge on Shariah Committee decisions if the bank deems the decisions have not taken into considerations the practical and business sense, especially for decisions stricter than the SAC. In such circumstances, the Board of Directors provide a view on the decision, and must be escalated to BNM. To ensure that this scenario does not happen as often, both Shariah Committee and the business must align the understanding on the business direction and mitigate the discrepancies in understanding. The role of the Chairman of the Shariah Committee is important to manage the interactions between the Board of Directors and his Shariah Committee members.

The above underlines the seriousness of the Shariah Committee function. With great powers comes great responsibilities. To hold such authority, the Shariah Committee must reflect quality, accuracy and soundness in all their decision-making.

WILL A SHARIAH COMMITTEE FUNCTION REMAIN A PART-TIME JOB?

Books

Personally, I understand there are challenges for Shariah Committees to devote a sizeable amount of time to provide banks with high quality, fully deliberated decisions that is valuable. There are still a number of Shariah Committees only choosing to stay in their areas of expertise while concentrating on their day jobs. We hardly see a scholar having a full-fledge research house coming into the market with resources that can support the business requirements of an Islamic Financial Institution (IFI).

Nothing is mentioned on the expected level of research to be done by a Shariah scholar. That level is still left to interpretation although with the requirement to be “conversant in Arabic” implies Shariah scholar should be referring their research and decisions more consistent with global standards, where text, references and decisions are discussed and derived in Arabic.

IS AVOIDING CONFLICT OF INTEREST MORE IMPORTANT THAN KNOWLEDGE SHARING?

One wish that I had for the Shariah Governance is the composition of Shariah Committee itself. While the limitation of service of not more than 9 years is good for an IFI (to encourage rotation in the industry), I still feel the knowledge growth and development of Shariah Committees may not be as fast as the anticipated industry growth. What more, I feel that the limitation of a Shariah scholar to only serve in 1 (one) Islamic Bank, 1 (one) Takaful Company, and 1 (one) Islamic Development Bank do not allow the sharing of knowledge between entities and industries. Perhaps there is a concern where there could be a conflict of interest? I do not know. All I know is that globally, it is common to see one advisor sitting on multiple boards and from the knowledge gathering, can be a substantial resource for the IFI.

WHY NOT THE CURRENT STRUCTURE?

In my opinion, there is a real shortage of knowledge between the old guards and the new challengers in the areas of Islamic Banking. What I see nowadays are issues being re-discussed again and again, and some have been discussed at length in different forums or decades earlier, with solid resolutions. The new scholars do not have the full understanding of history, background and context on many issues (some of which have already been discussed), and the older guard of very prominent scholars are not able to share the history, perspective, experience, background and earlier discussions on matters of Islamic Banking. This gap remains huge as the young scholars run to catch up in terms of the understanding that the older guards have. This resulted in many real, new and current issues being somewhat ignored as past issues are again discussed.

SO WHAT IS MY DREAM TEAM FOR A SHARIAH COMMITTEE?

In my perfect world, I would love to see a combination of the following:

  1. The Shariah Committee Chairman. Senior person in the industry leading the committee, with vast experience of Islamic Banking operations, as well as Shariah Qualified and conversant in written and spoken Arabic. Must have leadership qualities to be able to manage the Shariah Committee.
  2. Prominent Scholar. One prominent scholar should sit in as part of the Shariah Committee for the purpose of providing guidance, mentoring, advising and coaching to new Shariah Committee members and Industry Experts. This scholar should come from a list of 10-15 “A-Rated” Shariah scholars who have been in the industry of more then 15 years. Must have some capacity in BNM’s Shariah Advisory Council or is a Consultant with a reputable Shariah research house. Must have international exposure or sitting in an international Shariah board. Is allowed to sit in up to 5 (five) local Islamic Banks, Development Banks or Takaful Companies. Also conversant in Arabic, both written and spoken.This list of “A-Rated” Shariah scholars must be maintained or endorsed by BNM, just like how the Shariah Advisory Council (SAC) of BNM is maintained.
  3. Combination of Shariah Scholars and Industry Experts. Can be appointed based on expertise and academic background with strong background in research. Must be Shariah Qualified and conversant in written and spoken Arabic. For Industry Experts, must be a specialist in the give area and have sufficient experience. This group is to be groomed to be included into the “A-Rated” Shariah Scholars upon completion of tenure. Training and exposure to be given, with the assistance of the Prominent Scholar, on how to upscale and up-skill the knowledge in Islamic Banking.   And to be included into the “A-Rated” Shariah Scholars list, the scholars must undergo an overseas / international attachment with an international Islamic Bank as part of the Shariah Committee, perhaps for a period between 1 month to 3 months. This attachment should ideally be sponsored by BNM as part of the development of the Shariah Scholars exposure and capabilities.

Conclusion : The Shariah Governance Policy Document remains a strong upgrade from the previous SGF and should provide a more serious undertone to the overall workings of a Shariah Committee. This shall lead to stronger governance but I am not convinced on the development of Shariah Committees with the limitations imposed on appointments into Islamic Financial Institutions.

Wallahualam.

No Pork No Lard : The Shariah-Neutral Transactions

TO COMPLY OR NOT TO COMPLY, BUT THERE IS A THIRD OPTION

Following my earlier writing on the Digital Wallet / ePayments and how such transactions may have not breached Shariah requirements but lacks the validation to ensure all elements do not touch the prohibited elements, I am called to further expand on the topic. In my opinion, there are possibilities that more Shariah-Neutral products and transaction enter into the space of Islamic Banking, but without the validation of Shariah scholars or committees and yet, it will remain acceptable. It is possible, and it is already happening now.

“NO PORK NO LARD”

It is an interesting situation in Malaysia now, when it comes to food. In general, Malaysia as a Muslim country, the expectation is that the food consumed must be Halal and more importantly certified as such. The reason for it is that it gives comfort to the public that certain standards are adhered to according to religious requirements. To walk into a restaurant with the Halal signage gives us Muslims confidence to consume the food till our bellies are filled.

But there are challenges. The desire to ensure the standards are met has resulted in difficulties for restaurants getting certification quickly. The process is detailed and granular, and this is a good thing, but can be disheartening when the certification drags. And in some cases it is impossible to obtain, especially if the eatery has halal standard food but also offers alcoholic drinks to its non-Muslim customers. The Muslims know (or assume) the food is halal if they see there is no pork on the menu, and will ignore the alcoholic drink. This is now a common sight in Malaysia.

And thus the loop-hole or short-cut is discovered. Rather than going for certification of Halal for their restaurant, many owners now deemed it sufficient that the signage “No Pork / No Lard” will result in a Halal understanding. And this may be true; many small roadside businesses do not carry a Halal certification but is nonetheless patronised by Muslims as it does not carry pork on the menu. That cue is taken by the restaurant owners and over a period of time, the “No Pork / No Lard” now is understood to be serving halal food but without Halal certification.

DOES “NO PORK / NO LARD” MEANS IT’S SHARIAH NEUTRAL?

Taking that concept into the banking world, will consumers eventually be accepting Shariah Neutral products and services as the new norm? A product or services with no prohibitive elements that is deemed acceptable by both the producer and consumers but without any Shariah Committee validation. For many years some conventional banks have been offering Shariah compliant third party Takaful or Unit Trust products which was vetted by the Shariah Committee of the providers.There is total reliance on the providers validation for Shariah compliance.

Additionally, there are products and services that is by nature, very close to meeting the Shariah requirements in a contract. For example the leasing products which is perhaps 95% in line with Shariah requirements for Ijarah such as rental arrangements, ownership transfers and roles and responsibilities of lessor / lessee. The contention will always be the penalties and perhaps some operational practices, but in my view, these can be amended.

THEY WALK AMONG US

Believe it or not, there are already efforts on becoming Shariah-neutral where it is deemed acceptable practice for attracting Muslim consumers. Some non-Islamic banks have been aligning some of their products features to be consistent with Islamic banking practices under the guise of responsible financing or sustainable banking. For example, the compounding late payment interest which some non-Islamic banks no longer practice. Another example is that some are considering to remove “Commitment Fees” from unutilised financing balances in overdraft / revolving credit to align it to Islamic banking practices. We are starting to see non-Islamic banks realigning themselves to be on par with Islamic banking practices. Just to regain the competitive edge.

This will eventually lead to offerings that remove the prohibited elements and validated as acceptable by the public themselves, without further validation of Shariah scholars. Can a non-Islamic bank eventually offer products that it deemed as meeting the Shariah expectations? Surely, Shariah Committee will not have jurisdiction over a non-Islamic bank offering Shariah-Neutral offerings.

The more crucial question is perhaps : Will the public eventually become not so demanding for a stricter (or complicated)  Shariah Compliant product, and begin accepting Shariah-Neutral products that is offered by non-Islamic banks? Is that possible?

Such offerings may be offered via the digital world where the contractual lines are not so clear. Rebranding of a product can be done with minimal effort. The terms used can be made Shariah-friendly. How a transaction is handled behind the scenes may be less important  with the convenience of using Apps or Mobile Banking. And without Shariah scholars prohibition or decision on such matters, the public will hold to the opinion that it is deemed compliant and thus acceptable. Eventually, this opinion will become customary and generally accepted.

No Pork No Lard” may one day become the new acceptable norm in the non-Islamic banking space. And my suspicion, a lot of sceptics of Islamic Banking already hold this view. Maybe it is time to make clear of the colours of the offering; is it white or is it black? Otherwise, the colour of grey will become the new white.

To read the earlier posting, click on the following: https://islamicbankers.me/2019/01/15/e-wallets-did-you-forget-us-again/

Why Choose Islamic Home Financing in Malaysia?

ISLAMIC FINANCING HAVE SHOWN SUSTAINED GROWTH. WHY?

In the course of our job, we are often asked what are the value proposition and selling points of taking an Islamic Financing product as compared to a conventional loan. Are there certain conditions to qualify a person for taking Islamic Home Financing? There are misconceptions that Islamic financing are expensive, but if that is true, why would there be a growth in Islamic financing? Would people have to be extremely religious to accept an expensive / inferior product no matter what just because it is Shariah compliant?

There are certain features in-built in an Islamic structure that gives benefits that appeal to certain types of customers, based on their needs and requirements for the product. On the flip side there are also consumers that prefer other features not possible for an Islamic structure. It depends on your requirements when it comes to your usage.

BENEFITS OF ISLAMIC HOME FINANCING

  1. No Lock-in Period or Early Settlement Penalty for financing . In the banking world, there is a lot of effort to on-board a customer for a particular financing, and home financing is one of them. The process can take 3-9 months and involves a lot of people and it is natural for a bank to want to earn income as much as possible, as long as possible from the customer. That would not happen if the customer settles early. The bank will impose a minimum “lock-in” period of between 3-5 years where customers are prohibited to sell, settle or refinance their houses. If they do, an early settlement penalty (usually 1.0% on the amount to be settled) will  be imposed. Under Islamic financing, this feature is not generally accepted due to the concept that “Debt Cannot be Forgiven, even in Death”. Therefore to impose a penalty when a customer is attempting to pay off its debt remains an issue in the area of Islamic Banking. This is outline in the Ibra (Rebate) Guidelines issued in 2011 which prohibits such charge (Item 8.3). But that is not to say any penalties cannot be charged for the product. Such allowances are given if the product is sold based on a promotional rate, for example 2.0% p.a. lower than the normal financing rate for special campaigns or conditions. In such cases, the bank can recover the “discount” if the financing is settled within the lock in period. Actual cost or loss incurred by bank can be recovered (to avoid abuse). Another example is when a bank absorbs the legal fees for the financing, that actual expense can be recovered if early settlement is made within the lock in period. This Shariah requirement have proven popular for customers seeking short-term financing (plans to upgrade their properties within a few years) as well as property investors seeking for options to dispose properties when opportunities arises.
  2. 100% Stamp Duty waiver for Home refinancing. This feature is available in Malaysia where the government agrees to allow for a 100% stamp duty waiver for Islamic Financing when it is refinanced from a conventional bank. This is to encourage the refinancing market as it appeals to customers seeking additional financing on a property’s capital gains. For example, 10 years ago the customer took up  a loan for RM500,000 on a RM600,000 property which is now worth RM1,000,000. As the balance outstanding on the loan now is RM300,000, the customer is seeking another RM400,000 cash to finance a renovation. If the customer intends to move the loan, the customer will incur a stamp duty for RM700,000 (i.e. RM300,000 existing + RM400,000 additional). However, moving it to an Islamic bank, the existing  stamp duty for RM300,000 will be totally waived and only the additional (top-up) amount of RM400,000 will incur the normal stamp duty. This waiver is applicable for all refinancing from conventional bank to Islamic banks on the amount refinanced (provided the original loan has already paid for the stamp duty prior to the refinancing). This applies for individual customers as well as companies.
  3. Ceiling Rate Price Protection. While many years ago, this feature is mis-sold by many sales person as being oppressive and expensive, with the current climate of changes, this have instead become a competitive benefit for Islamic Banks. The key changes that happened in the past few years was first the Ibra’ (Rebate) guidelines issued by BNM in 2011 and also the Reference Rate Framework in 2014 (Item 8.10). The Ibra’s guidelines says it is ok for the bank to charge a ceiling rate to formalise the Aqad, but the day-to-day charging of the customer must be based on a mandatory rebate mechanism where the effective rate is at par which what a conventional normal benchmark rate is. This means that the customer is not overcharged. More importantly, the customer will not be charged more than the ceiling rate should the normal benchmark rate increase to above the ceiling rate. This provides the customer price protection against high fluctuations of the benchmark rates. Some might say that there is no way rates will breach the ceiling rate but if you look at the length of a financing product of up to 30 years, who is to say the benchmark rates won’t breach during an adverse economic cycle? More importantly, the Reference Rate Framework allows for punitive pricing where banks are allowed to increase the loan/financing rates based on customer’s risk profile to up to Effective Rates +3.50% p.a. If a commercial financing of BFR + 3.50% is about 10.30% p.a., that is not too far away from a normal ceiling rate ranging from 12% to 15% p.a. So, with a Ceiling Rate you get the best of both worlds; if the benchmark rate is below the ceiling rate, you enjoy the benchmark rate (same as conventional loans), and if the benchmark is above the ceiling rate, you only pay based on the ceiling rate (not the same as conventional loans).

GIVING BETTER SOLUTIONS THAT SATISFY SHARIAH REQUIREMENTS

The top 3 reasons above are some of the main drivers for Islamic Financing. For item 1 it is the BNM effort to provide Islamic Banks with a competitive edge based on Shariah instructions. For item 2, it is the government of Malaysia initiative to provide stamp duty incentive for a specific segment ie refinancing segment. For item 3, it is the Shariah requirement to have a ceiling rate which protects the consumer from uncertainty. All these 3 elements come together to provide a competitive advantage to banks and benefit to consumers.

There are a few smaller advantages to an Islamic financing structure (based on specific products such as No Commitment Fees for Islamic Revolving Credit or Overdraft), but it is too many to list down. Granted, these features are incentives and assistance by relevant parties to make the products attractive, and may not be applicable for products outside Malaysia.

In conclusion, the above demonstrates the ability to take a Shariah requirement to make it into a benefit for consumers. This aligns with the idea that Islamic Banking products must contribute to the sustainable practices that offers fair an equitable solution to consumers.

E-Wallets : Did You Forget Us Again?

THE SHARIAH CONSIDERATION FOR E-WALLETS AND PAYMENT APPS.

Apps are everywhere. Everyone has a mobile phone where people start to get used to online banking, e-money, e-wallets and e-payment. All at the touch of the screen. I use it extensively and there are a few very convenient ways to survive a city without the need of actual cash in your wallet. Everything is digital and floating somewhere out in the clouds.

As I no longer use credit cards, I relied heavily on Debit Cards as my main payment medium which is linked to my Islamic Current and Savings Account. So the Debit Card deducts the amount from my account for each purchase for settlement. Technically, it is a Service (Ujr) where the Debit Card serves as a payment instrument, linked to the account based on Wadiah or Qard or Tawarruq or Mudarabah.

But at the same time, I am all-in into the tech-thingy as well. And no doubt, there must be a future in these thingies… For the past few months, I have been using these few apps. Here is a short review of 2 apps that I have to admit as my favourites.

Boost was one of the first eWallet that I downloaded. It requires me to “fund” the wallet, and when you make payment using the money in the eWallet, you can shake your phone to get “digital rewards”. So far, I have only gotten maximum RM2 for my phone shaking, with the promise of random potential rewards. I am motivated to shake, maybe I can win the grand prize (it changes from period to period). What is the Shariah contract here? Boost eWallet is funded from my Islamic bank account, so what is the contract for the eWallet? Is it a Qard (loan), or Wadiah (safekeeping)? We potentially may get a return (profit?) after a purchase by shaking our phone. Is that considered discretionary returns i.e. Hibah? Promised returns? In a way it is a promised returns but the amount is based on luck. And what does Boost do with our money when we are not using it and is it used for Shariah compliant purposes? Is it potentially a Musyarakah (partnership) or Mudarabah (profit-sharing) arrangement as customers are the Rab Ul Mal (Fund Provider) and Boost is the Mudarib (Manager) or Shirkah (Partnership). The Capital is guaranteed so it is maybe a deposit arrangement. The fact that we can transfer it back to our account sound like it is a Qard arrangement where we can ask our cash back on demand. But getting to shake for a guaranteed reward (even though it is RM0.20) may pose Qard as problematic for offering rewards.

 Fave is another app that I use, which is slightly different from Boost. Where Boost is an eWallet, Fave is a Payment Gateway where the cash is taken directly from your Bank account to settle a purchase. And depending on the merchant, you get cash back on your purchases which could be deducted from the your next purchase amount, ranging from 5% to 10% (some don’t offer cashback, but rarely). In Fave’s case, Fave do not retain any cash from you, as your cash still remain in your Bank account. So Fave seems to be more of an Ujrah arrangement, where we presume the service fee is collected from merchants instead of you. To encourage you to use this App so that Fave collects their fees, Fave gives the cash-back based on % of your purchases which seems like Hibah (gift) to me. For example, I pay for RM100 and gets a “cash-back” of RM5 for my next purchase at the merchant, so that sounds like a gift. Or is it a commission that we get for using the App, redeemable for the next purchase? I don’t know.

THE SHARIAH IMPLICATION

When we use these Apps, it is not clear the modus operandi of the operator and it seems obvious that no Shariah consideration took place on the usage as well as the contractual relationship. Should there even be any consideration or is it necessary?

In my view, a lot of products and services in the market fall into the category of “Shariah Neutral” instead of Shariah Compliant / Non-Shariah Compliant. For example a transaction may look like an Ijarah where the payment is based on rental but its documents may not be completed or contain all the tenets of the contract. Without the elements of all the shariah tenets, will it fall into either Shariah-neutral or non-compliant?

The question : If the transaction is Shariah Neutral, is there any requirement to look at by Shariah scholars? How do we decide if it is Shariah Neutral and therefore should be ignored from Shariah oversight?


Have Shariah Scholars considered the digital world or are we still only concerned on the traditional products to see their process validity and documentation? I feel there is a growing gap of what we see developing in the fintech, mobile banking and digital commerce space where Shariah may or may not have an issue on.

For example, the issue of Aqad in the digital space. The questions that I have are the following:

  1. Are the minimum tenets the same between a transaction between people, and a digital transaction? For example the tenets of a Murabahah in the digital space. Buyer / Seller / Price / Asset / Offer Acceptance. Will the tenets in the physical world still apply in a digital world?
  2. I presume the Buyer is the customer. But the Seller is a program that shows a picture of a product and is automated. Will the Seller as an Apps (representing the Seller) qualify as a real seller under the tenet? Generally I would think so but the responsibilities of the Seller must be clear somewhere.
  3. Would an Apps Pop-Up notice sufficient to conclude an Aqad. These are sequential programming that gives notice/remark at certain points and can be timed to meet Shariah requirements. Is this sufficient for Shariah?

Maybe I have been too distracted by work that I have missed these discussions, if it has happened before and concluded.

SHARIAH NEUTRAL : IS THERE A NEED TO VALIDATE?

As far as I understand it, Shariah Neutral means a product or services that is not breaching any Shariah rules or prohibited items in its execution. For example, a remittance service, where the customer gives cash to a remittance company to transfer the amount to another party. The company provides a service and earns a commission for the service. There are no prohibited elements in such service even to the point that generally the tenets of the contract are deemed as embedded in the processes, intention and basic forms and documents. You don’t see the arabic terms or formal contractual relationships mentioned; by virtue that there are no prohibited elements, we deemed it Shariah sufficient.

WHAT IS SHARIAH’S REAL VIEW OF SHARIAH-NEUTRAL?

I may be ignorant in this area, but what is Shariah’s view on Shariah-Neutral transactions? Why is it deemed that certain transactions requires a written / documented contract with all relationships and responsibilities outlined and agreed upon for it to be Shariah-Compliant, while others are okay to remain in a Shariah-Neutral state and still be acceptable? What is the deciding criteria for qualification of Shariah-Compliant?

As we move into the digital world where buying and selling online become a norm, and payment of goods and services are effected via a mobile app, is there a need to see whether there is any presence of prohibited elements in the transactions? Is there a need to decide if there are elements of a Riba (usury), Ghrarar (uncertainty) or Maisir (gambling) in the transactions? How about justice, fairness and trickery in the documents or operations of a mobile commerce? Is it safe to assume at least Shariah-Neutral and therefore Shariah scholars can skip looking into it?

Can I now design a product that on the outset can look and feel consistent with a Shariah-Neutral approach?  With more and more Apps for commercial transaction being introduced, should I start to think about avoiding the prohibitive elements, without the need of complicated documentation and Aqad? As long as it avoids the prohibited elements, I guess it can survive unquestioned.

Does Shariah have a view on Shariah-Neutral transactions? How far do they see to decide if a transaction is Shariah-Neutral and therefore “outside” their jurisdiction.

SUMMARY

As we look forward to living into a progressively digital world, I cannot help but wonder on the necessity to have Shariah oversight online. The Apps developer won’t be going to Shariah scholars to get Shariah endorsements anytime soon, but are they aware of what they developed contains any prohibitive elements from Shariah? Often we are left out of such discussions; perhaps we ourselves feels such development falls into Shariah-Neutral and therefore requires no oversight. But then how do we decide how it falls into Shariah-Neutral territory? Are there checklists we can refer to?

These are the things that comes to my mind while I wait in line to purchase my next drink. And wondering how much I will get from shaking my phone for the rewards. I am hoping for something more than RM5 this time. Happy shaking your phone. What a different world we are living in now. Wallahualam.

Steering a Shariah Decision

Click on above picture to download the article in pdf

HIDDEN TRAPS IN SHARIAH DECISION MAKING

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:

  1. Anchoring an opinion
  2. Adhering to the Status Quo
  3. Confirming Evidence to support a decision
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The All New Shariah Advisory Council BNM Website

THE ONE-STOP SHARIAH ADVISORY PAGE OF BANK NEGARA MALAYSIA       

Finally it is here, the website dedicated to the works and reference regarding the Shariah Advisory Council (SAC) of Bank Negara Malaysia. There is a wealth of information on the decisions and fatwa of the SAC, and this will provide valuable reference point on how a particular decision is made. Good insights especially to leaners interested in knowing the methodologies and depth of deliberation that the SAC employs for a decision.

The Centre of Shariah Reference in Islamic Finance

The website itself looks clean and uncluttered and holds various sections of interest. They include:

  • Shariah Standards & Operational Requirements. Currently it covers the 12 Islamic contracts standards that has been issued up to today (21 April 2018). You can view the various standards individually as you scroll down the page. Click on the banner below to go to:

  • Shariah Resolutions 1997 – 2010. This is the English-language compilation of the various resolutions when the industry was in the infancy stages. Lots of very fundamental discussion happenning during this period in the industry. Click on the banner below to go to:

  • Shariah Resolutions 2011 – 2017. This is the continuing compilation cover a more advance level of discussions, as the products in the market become more sophisticated, More importantly, the introduction of Islamic Financial Services Act 2013 (IFSA 2013) provided a more robust consideration of operationalisation of the Islamic contracts. Personally, I learned quite a number of concepts during this segment of time. Unfortunately at the moment, the compilation is in Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian language). Click on the banner below to go to:

  • Educators’ Manual. This section interestingly mentions the existence of manuals for learning organisations that teaches Islamic Banking and Finance courses. I am sure these are useful documents if it is coming from the SAC. But you need to sign up and agree to adopt the standards for your institution to access these. Therefore I can’t really comment on the contents. Click on the banner below to go to:

  • Latest Shariah Rulings (Individual SAC Meeting Resolutions). This section allows the reader to have access to the decisions made on certain specific issues. It aims to provide the reader the understanding of how a decision is derived, based on relevant Fiqh evidences. Interesting read and quite comprehensive. Click on the banner below to go to:

  • Infographics. I believe this is part of the efforts to educate the public on the understanding on the workings of Shariah contracts as well as the process flows (and Shariah requirements) of a particular Islamic structure. As at current date, there are only 3 Infographics available ie Tawarruq, Istisna’a and Murabahah, but I am sure over time, the number of contracts infographics will grow. Click on the banner below to go to:

  • List of Shariah Committee Members in Islamic Financial Institutions. This is an interesting section because of the willingness to disclose to public the Shariah scholars responsible for the resolutions or opinions at the institutional level. It provides transparency and also reference of the Shariah Committee strength compared between Islamic Financial Institutions. Click on the banner below to go to:

There are many other sections in this website and I personally believe that this site will be one of the most complete point of reference for all the Shariah-related banking decisions. It   may provide a better understanding of how the SAC makes a resolution that impacts the overall industry. I personally encountered a few glitches but I hope the content accumulates further to finally become one of the prominent sites when it comes to Islamic Banking.

Also, hoping someday the website will publish a hardcopy of the resolutions because some of us do read actual books. But if there is a plan for an e-book, do let me park it here on my website. For free.

Overall, I think the SAC website looks awesome and would definitely be one of my reference website for Islamic Banking products, processes and issues.

P/S Somehow I am not able to register as a subscriber yet (April 2018). Maybe still developing this area of the website? Hope it is sorted out soon.