The Tawarruq Dilemma

Islamic Banking in Malaysia is fast reaching a crossroad. While Islamic Banking continues to offer like-to-like conventional structures, the requirements by Shariah Committees and Policy Documents by Bank Negara Malaysia continues to challenge the way Islamic Banks implement and operationalise the products within a viable banking structure. Islamic Banks are becoming mindful of the need to comply fully to each policy requirements.

It is precisely this fear of being “non-compliant” to these requirements that pushes many Islamic Banks to develop the Tawarruq-based products into its most efficient form. As I have written earlier in Disruption : Islamic Contracts where I felt the Tawarruq arrangements has become the “go to” structure that Islamic Banks can easily comply with, the notion that other contracts such as Musyarakah or Ijarah or Mudharabah may now be left behind in its development due to perceived complexities. Or in some cases, difficulty to comply due to the existing banking set-up, especially in matters of risks, capital and operational processes which is intrinsically based on conventional banking infrastructure.


It is generally accepted that a lot of processes in the Tawarruq arrangement can be complied with. There were strong operational support and infrastructure both internal and external, such as the London Metal Exchange (LME) and Bursa Suq Al Sila which has an efficient commodity platform specifically designed to support Tawarruq with or without commodity brokers, to the choice structure that bridges the middle-east players to most of the rest of the Islamic Banking geographies. But that is by no means that Tawarruq is a perfect solution for Banks.

Despite Tawarruq is now greatly used over the last decade or so, there are still contention points that remains amongst financial practitioners and Shariah scholars. Most scholars want to have the view that Tawarruq should be the “contract of last-resort” but what we see now are quite the opposite. It is the preferred choice being used not just for Working Capital requirements, but now also for Asset Financing, Mortgages, Trade Financing, Fixed Deposits, Structured Investments, and even Savings Account. Whenever an Islamic Bank hits a roadblock with a particular product being developed or requiring compliance to the latest rules, the tendency is always to consider Tawarruq as the solution.

If this is the approach, how much do we really need other Islamic contracts which only addresses a single problem or requirement? Shouldn’t we develop Tawarruq as far as it can take us and make other contracts as “supporting” contract to cater for specific nuances?


Each year when Bank Negara Malaysia audit comes around, there will always be new compliance points to be proven and tested. Even at the level of understanding and interpreting the Policy Documents into processes and banking operations. Each Bank interprets the rules differently, and each banking set-up have different operational capabilities which more often than not, requires exceptional Shariah indulgence. So, the questions will remain unanswered whenever dispensation is obtained.

Many argue that the main issue of Tawarruq is actually the “intention” of the contract itself, and that intention is not to “trade in commodities” but to create debt via a trading transaction. This has been debated at length for many years in all types of forum, but we concede on some of the arguments by virtue of there being no other viable solution to cater for certain banking requirements. Islamic Banks, and its scholars, had to choose either:

  • Allowing for the Tawarruq arrangement with strict adherence to requirements until a solution arrives, or
  • Disallowing the Tawarruq arrangement which may result in customers being impaired in their Islamic business, which may result in the customer reverting to a conventional banking solution.

Is there a case of choosing the lesser of two evils?

Nonetheless, I won’t discourse what have been extensively discussed, but instead look at the operational issues of Tawarruq arrangements that I pick up going through the Tawarruq Policy Document. Among them that are still being debated in different forums are:

  1. The issue of Commodity Delivery – To demonstrate that the Tawarruq being practised by the Bank is real, the test of delivery of Commodity is a key qualifying factor. The Bank must have in place a mechanism that allows the customer an option to take delivery of the commodity whenever the customer calls for it, bearing in mind that may have not been the intention in the first place i.e. taking delivery of commodities. How a Bank prove this to Shariah Committee and regulators are crucial to demonstrate “real transaction” and paper transactions.
  2. The issue of Price Fluctuation – Depending on commodities, its price tend to fluctuate periodically, because these are actual live commodities being traded. Because of this, Banks have not been able to be precise in its documentation or price disclosures. Whatever price per commodity unit at 10am, it might change at  2pm, so how do you lock-in a specific price when the buy and sell of the commodity was not concluded immediately? The fact that Bursa Suq Al Sila states in its guidance notes that an Islamic Bank could not hold the commodities for more than 2 hours implies the issue of price fluctuation is a valid concern for Shariah Committees.
  3. The issue of Discrepancies of Terms – Because the Murabahah transaction in the Tawarruq arrangement is the most crucial contract, Scholars always insist on the details of the transaction to be as precise as possible to ensure what was offered was eventually rightly accepted. For example in a Personal Financing structure, the customer makes a credit application according to certain terms such as financing amount, or financing tenure, but what eventually gets approved might be a lesser amount or shorter tenure, which means differences in the initial “Agency” instruction to transact the commodity. Scholars question how do Banks re-engage customers with such “counter-offer” for their acceptance? At which point after the credit approval?
  4. The issue of Delay in Transactions – Some banks are more efficient than others. Some banks are able to conduct commodity trading on the same day while others can only do it in the next day after the day’s batch run. End of day batch runs are what conventional banking live by, and there is no motivation to conclude and consolidate all transaction in real-time; there is no requirements to do so. Batch runs allows for more systematic consolidation of records. But that becomes an issue for Islamic banks running next to a conventional banking proposition. So if an Islamic bank is limited to only end of day batch run to consolidate its records, it means the end of week transactions requirements will only be fulfilled on the next working day (across the weekend). This is a delay in the conclusion of the initial instruction given by customer to conduct Murabahah which may impact specific terms including price of commodity and its availability. There is also the danger of missing out delayed transactions as those instructions are not “current” anymore. There is a provision in the Policy Documents that “delay” in transaction should not be more than 2 days (T+2), but there are also periods where the off-days are more than that due to public holidays and other disruptions.
  5. The issue of Qard in Tawarruq – An extension of the above scenario where Commodity transactions are delayed, the next question will be “what is the status of the funds when no transaction is done?” Is it a Qard (Loan) contract until the transaction is fulfilled, or is it an Amanah (Trust) arrangement? In either case, for the scenario of Tawarruq Deposits, how do you accrue the profit for both contracts which forbids “interest” or “returns“? Profit is only realised once the Murabahah (trade) takes place. Without the trade being transacted, profit accruals can only be justified by arguing that Islamic banks should not penalise customers who, in this case, has done nothing wrong. Dispensation is always given for the reason of fairness. And this “Incidental Qard” issue has also been discussed at the Shariah Advisory Council of Bank Negara Malaysia, where the fatwa on Incidental Qard and its conditions were issued. But the fact that it was discussed, indicated that this issue is not as easily brushed aside as one like to think.
  6. The issue of Agency and Dual Agency – There are still some banks that feels the Dual Agency structure contributes greatly to the notion of “arranged” Tawarruq and thus stays away from it. The Dual Agency structure is where the customer appoints the Bank as both the Buying Agent and Selling Agent. This gives the Bank the full right to conduct trading without any Customer intervention (given mandate), which makes the “ability or option to take delivery of commodity” redundant or unnecessary requirement. It effectively removes the proof of Murabahah i.e. deliverability of the Commodity.
  7. The issue of Physical Commodity – One of the main contention is the ability to ascertain the availability of Commodity. While on paper it can be evidenced but nonetheless the challenge is to ensure the Commodity is identifiable and deliverable according to quantity. Efforts have been made to split into smaller denominations whenever needed, and commodities like Crude Palm Oil (CPO) is easier to be allocated. But there is always suspicion whether this is superficial where proof of otherwise is actually much more difficult to obtain. Where is the certainty that the assets being traded are the right physical ones?


So is there any other alternatives to Tawarruq? The above questions have so far not been answered satisfactorily and scholars while do not prohibit its usage, still frown on how much Tawarruq has impacted everyday banking life. It is truly a “love/hate relationship,

I believe there is such “replacement” contract that can address most, if not all, of the above concerns. But it needed to be proofed and challenged and at the end of the day, we question such necessity and thus the rising dilemma to replace it after all the work done. Tawarruq has really taken root with so much invested in perfecting the structure, and expertise in its documents and mechanism. It solves a lot of problems, yes. But will Tawarruq be the end of innovation for Islamic Banking?

I like to think there must life beyond Tawarruq. It just needed courage to acknowledge the big task required for such massive structural changes in replacing Tawarruq. Such replacement must not just be an equal substitute but also addresses the Shariah concerns. That is the ultimate test of any Islamic Banking contract; the reason for being.


Disruption : Islamic Contracts


Under IFSA 2013, it is no longer about Product Innovation. It is about Product Compliance.

2 weeks ago I had a session with some bright individuals discussing the Islamic contracts commonly used in Corporate Banking financing structures. We went through almost all the available Islamic financing contracts such as Murabaha, Ijara, Musyaraka and Mudharaba, where I highlighted that all these contracts now have their own Policy Document issued by Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM). The Policy Documents, in my opinion, are a concise version of a lot of Sharia regulations and great reading source. It becomes a reference point where management roles and responsibilities are outlined, operational behaviour laid down, and theoretical basis is justified and explained.

It is a matter of time, I told the participants, that these Policy Documents are taken in their full context and finally developed into a comprehensive structure with clear compliance to Sharia requirements. We, as Islamic Bankers, are in for an exciting period of development where we will have a chance to develop “real” Islamic banking contracts.

The moment I said that, I realised it is NOT TRUE!!!


The popular belief is that IFSA 2013 is meant to realign all the Islamic Banking regulations in the Islamic Banking Act, Takaful Act and various major guidelines into a single overarching Act. IFSA 2013  consolidates the various practices into more clarity and re-classification of concepts. However, the perception that Islamic Banking in Malaysia as an innovative development hub would no longer hold true. “Innovation” was the key thinking and pride-point prior to IFSA 2013; now I believe the right word is “Compliance”.

163170_477596024332_7522334_nWhen we first started the Islamic Banking journey in late 1990’s and early 2000s, BNM encouraged a lot of product innovation from Banks as there were no existing guidelines. We looked at the various structures that provides the desired outcomes and discussed with Shariah Committee on the design and component of products without breaching Sharia rules. BNM was supportive on us developing these “innovative” products. Some may have been controversial (such as Bai Inah, Bay Ad Dayn, Wadiah and Bai Bithaman Ajil) but it encourages discussions alongside the mantra that “whatever is not explicitly prohibited, is permissible“. Sometimes we were forced to think outside of the box, especially for sophisticated products mirroring conventional. We also received support from Sharia Committees whom temporarily approved “innovative” products with the understanding that over time, a better solution were developed as replacements.

Now with the issuance of the Policy Documents, such innovation becomes limited. Innovation is now ring-fenced around compliance to Shariah rules (either from regulators or internal Shariah Committee), and the Banks are expected to follow these rules to the letter. Breaches to these rules becomes the responsibility of the Bank’s Shariah Committee and detailed deliberation is greatly expected to provide the solution. Compliance first; if it is not covered in the documents, it probably cannot be done without a lot of effort.


With compliance now being the vogue vocabulary with BNM, Banks had to look hard to the Policy Documents to ensure the requirements are identified and gaps filled for fear of breaches or fines. The gap analysis falls into the line whether “are we complying to the requirements?” and not “how do we do this without it becoming a gap or compliance issue?”. Both Shariah and Bank’s Product teams would now look on how to comply with Policy Documents instead of using the Policy Documents as a reference to develop a product.

What I noticed since 2014 is the obsession to comply with Islamic contract requirements, and if the team feels it is difficult to comply, the next logical step is to avoid such contract altogether and seek an alternative contract which is easier to comply with. For example, the Murabaha Policy Document issued in 2014. I have to say it is a beautiful document, and outlines the requirements for Murabaha Purchase Orderer (MPO) that reflects the full Sharia requirements of ownership transfers, risk taking, profit and management of actual assets.

These requirements, which in the eyes of many Banks, may be difficult to fully comply with due to many reasons: shortage of expertise, systems infrastructures limitation, people understanding, complicated processes, operational risks, credit issues and fund management requirements. Instead of the risk of breaching the Policy Documents, Banks opt for something less “complicated” which offers “similar” structure. The default solution is Tawarruq Arrangement i.e. Commodity Murabaha.

Or, the teams looks at Ijara Policy Document. It outlines further the roles and responsibilities of lessor and lessee, while the asset remained in the Bank’s ownership throughout the lease tenure. Again, if a roadblock occurs where a Bank cannot fully comply… Tawarruq Arrangement provides a quick solution. With very defined rules outlined in Tawarruq Policy Documents, the Banks are confident that offering Tawarruq will not breach any guidelines.

Tawarruq, therefore becomes the default Islamic contract in the market. When I asked the participants during case-studies to the question “What contracts should be used for this structure?”, the answers are unanimous “Tawarruq”. And they are not wrong.


155228_469014969332_6259944_nMaking Tawarruq as the “all-problems-solved” structure is having an unfortunate result to the industry. While the issuance of the Policy Documents as a reference was to galvanise the development of various Islamic contracts, the Banks have an easy way out in Tawarruq. Now, the rest of the contracts are in danger of being sidelined in favour of continuous development in Tawarruq.

For example, the Home Financing product which had evolved from BBA in the 1980s to Diminishing Musharaka in the 2000s. When BBA was introduced, practitioners and Sharia teams identified several practical issues that over a period of time needed to be resolved such as ownership transfer, rights to sell, and sale of properties under construction. These issues led to the development of Diminishing Musharaka as an alternative solution.

But with Diminishing Musharaka, there are still operational and legal issues that have yet to be resolved until today. For example, the “right” contract to be used for period of construction, the application of Ijara and the extensive outlining of Wakalah roles and responsibilities. Failure to understand the issues and provide real solutions puts the Bank at risk. There are also legal infrastructures that have yet to be addressed such as land joint-ownership by the Bank (as a partner), and different practices of land offices for the registration of Bank as a partner. These are roadblocks (and credit risks) to the Banks to take the structure further.


25547_378676189332_2665364_nMalaysia is in danger where I foresee that one day the industry itself will became the absolute global expert in Tawarruq and Commodity Murabaha. With Bursa Suq Al Sila as the leading commodity trading platform for the country, backed by the government (as a national bourse), the Tawarruq structure is expected to evolve into an efficient Islamic-structure engine. The processes of Commodity Murabaha will become seamless, and may even integrate into a Bank’s core banking system, the operation for buying and selling commodity will become commonplace and familiar, and this will result in effective processing, awareness of Shariah risks, compliance to trading requirements and well as reduction in overall operational risks.

Banks will one day become so well versed in Tawarruq, they will question the need for other types of Islamic contract, where they may not able to fully comply with.

With such development, more and more:

  1. capital investments will be made into perfecting the Tawarruq infrastructure, and Banks will also be able to comply with BNM requirements by investing in human capital familiar with Tawarruq.
  2. product structures will be developed around Tawarruq and once these products are established, it will be difficult to unwind as a prefered product simply due to the ease of the Tawarruq contract requirements.
  3. variations and hybrid products will be introduced based on Tawarruq, or containing elements of Tawarruq to solve “difficult scenarios” for compliance.

We will one day have an innovative and world class Tawarruq product, but no development in the other major Islamic contracts. Innovation will stall and Banks will choose quick returns and operational ease of Tawarruq. It is a dilemma of the industry where it is heading to “one” major solution for almost all “sale-based products”.

It is unfortunate if Banks chose to abandon the other contract alternatives, where such contracts will never reach its full operational and theoretical potential.

Hoping that a Bank will take the lead to develop products based on all the various Policy Documents instead of relying on only Tawarruq and its variations. The industry needs expansion and enhancement and by focusing on only Tawarruq, the industry will not be able to explore exciting products and expand its horizon. The Policy Documents, as beautifully written as they are, may tragically one day just becomes an academic relic issued by BNM.


Earlier writings on Tawarruq and Commodity Murabahah:

  1. Reliance on Commodity Murabahah
  2. Financing : Commodity Murabahah and Tawarruq

Interesting article in LinkedIn