Basics of Islamic Banking and Finance
Many of the products offered by Islamic financial institutions are comparable to Western or conventional finance even though interest and speculation are forbidden. Banks are by far the biggest players in Islamic finance — some of them are exclusively Islamic while others offer sharia-compliant products but remain mostly conventional.
Aside from the absence of interest rates, the key concept of Islamic finance is risk sharing between parties in all operations. Here are some of the key sharia-compliant products offered by banks — they have Arabic names but in most cases we can find an equivalent in conventional Western banking.
Murabaha or cost plus selling: This is the most common product in asset portfolios and applies only to commodity purchase. Instead of taking out an interest loan to buy something, the customer asks the bank to purchase an item and sell to him or her at a higher price on instalment. The bank’s profit is determined beforehand and the selling price cannot be increased once the contract is signed. In case of late or default payment, different options are available including a third-party guarantee, collateral guarantees on the client’s belongings or a penalty fee to be paid to an Islamic charity since it can’t enter the bank’s revenues.
Ijara or leasing: Instead of issuing a loan for a customer to buy a product like car, the bank buys the product and then leases it to the customer. The customer acquires the item at the end of the lease contract.
Mudarabah or profit share: An investment in which the bank provides 100% of the capital intended for the creation of a business. The bank owns the commercial entity and the customer provides management and labor. They then share the profits according to a pre-established ratio that is usually close to 50/50. If the business fails, the bank bears all the financial losses unless it is proven that it was the customer’s fault.
Musharakah or joint venture: An investment involving two or more partners in which each partner brings in capital and management in exchange for a proportional share of the profits.
Takaful or insurance: Sharia-compliant insurance companies offer products comparable to conventional insurance companies and functions like a mutual fund. Instead of paying premiums, participants pool money together and agree to redistribute it to members in need according to pre-established contracts. The common pool of money is run by a fund manager.
The fund can be run in different ways when it comes to the surplus distribution and the fund manager’s compensation.
There are three big models:
- The wakala– where the fund manager receives a fee and the surplus remains the property of the participants.
- The mudarabah– adapted from the banking system where profits and losses are shared between the fund manager and the participants.
- The hybrid model – A mix of mudarabah and walkala.
In some cases, the fund manager creates a waqf, or a charity fund.
Sukuk or bonds: Sharia-compliant bonds began to be issued in the 2000s and standardized by the AAOIF — a Bahrain-based institution that promotes sharia-compliant regulation since 2003. Today, about 20 countries use this instrument. Malaysia is the biggest issuer and issuers outside the Muslim world include the UK, Hong Kong, and Luxembourg.
Sukuk issuance took off in 2006 when issuance hit $20 billion and peaked in 2012 at $137 billion before the pace slowed down significantly in 2015. According to Moody’s ratings agency sukuk issuance reached $95 billion in 2017. That year, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) markets pushed the growth with Saudi Arabia’s first sovereign sukuks for a total amount of $17 billion as well as contributions from Oman and Bahrain.
“While sukuk issuance increased significantly in the first half of 2017 thanks to jumbo deals by some GCC countries, we think they were the exception rather than a new norm” wrote credit ratings agency Standard & Poor (S&P) in its 2018 report on Islamic Finance.
In the first half of 2018, S&P’s reported total sukuk issuance amounted to $44.2 billion, a 15.3% drop from $52.2 billion during the same period in 2017. The decline was even steeper for foreign currency sukuk issuance which dropped 45%.
Like conventional bonds, sukuks are very appealing to governments for raising money to spend on development projects. Their main challenge remains standardization; buyers tend to find it more difficult to assess risk than with regular bonds.
Islamic finance also exists in the form of investment funds.
Islamic finance offers products and services that comply with Islamic law (sharia) but who decides what is and is not sharia-compliant and what mechanisms exist to enforce those judgments?
Sharia Supervisory Boards
Each Islamic finance institution has a sharia supervisory board (SSB). The board is composed of at least three jurists. They are paid by the bank but act as independent consultants. Their role is both consultative and regulatory: They answer the staff’s questions, advise on charity contributions (zakat), verify operations and certify products.
SSBs decide what is allowed (halal) or forbidden (haram) based on the two main sources of Islamic law: the Quran and the Sunnah—or what the Prophet Muhammad reportedly said and did during his lifetime. Board decisions are taken by majority vote and binding on the bank.
SSB members are typically religious scholars who specialize in Islamic jurisprudence. In Western countries like the UK, they can also be non-Muslims experts who have studied such matters extensively.
Over the past 10 years, Islamic finance has rapidly expanded across the world and finding qualified people to sit on SSBs has become challenging. In the world of Islamic finance, reputation is key and sharia non-compliance can be fatal to a bank.
A number of private firms have emerged over the past few years offering sharia compliance services or consultancies. Their clients are Islamic banks but also conventional lenders and companies who wish to develop products or acquire certifications that will allow them to tap into the Islamic market.
These consulting firms usually employ a group of Islamic scholars who function like an externalized sharia board, providing guidance and issuing Islamic rulings (fatwas) in exchange for a fee.
International Standards and Central Banks
At the international level, there are two supervisory bodies for Islamic finance: the Bahrain-based Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) and the Malaysian Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB).
These bodies collaborate with institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank to promote sharia compliance globally. The AAOIFI sets basic standards for the Islamic finance industry while the IFSB issues recommendations based on risk assessment.
In Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, AAOIFI standards are mandatory but in most countries, their standards and recommendations are not binding. If a bank doesn’t comply, there are no sanctions. It is up to each country’s government to enforce certain rules through their central banks that impose those rules on sharia boards.
In all countries—except Sudan and Iran—Islamic finance exists alongside conventional banking. For Islamic banks, this means navigating a dual regulatory framework: the country’s laws and regulations as well as sharia compliance.