Islamic finance rests on the application of Islamic law, or Shariah, whose primary sources are the
Qur'an and the sayings and practice of the Prophet Muhammad. Shariah, and very much in the
context of Islamic finance, emphasises justice and partnership.
The main principles of Islamic finance are that:
Wealth must be generated from legitimate trade and asset-based investment. (The use of
money for the purposes of making money is expressly forbidden.)
Investment should also have a social and an ethical benefit to wider society beyond pure
Risk should be shared.
All harmful activities (haram) should be avoided.
The following activities are prohibited:
Charging and receiving interest (riba). The idea of a lender making a straight interest
charge, irrespective of how the underlying assets fare, transgresses the concepts of risk
sharing, partnership and justice. It represents the money itself being used to make money.
It also prohibits investment in companies that have too much borrowing (typically
defined as having debt totaling more than 33% of the firm’s average stock market value
over the last 12 months).
Investments in businesses dealing with alcohol, gambling, drugs, pork, pornography or
anything else that the Sharia considers unlawful or undesirable (haram).
Uncertainty, where transactions involve speculation, or extreme risk. This is seen as
being akin to gambling. This prohibition, for example, would rule out speculating on the
futures and options markets. Mutual insurance (which relates to uncertainty) is permitted
if it is related to reasonable, unavoidable business risk. It is based upon the principle of
shared responsibility for shared financial security, and that members contribute to a
mutual fund, not for profit, but in case one of the members suffers misfortune.
Uncertainty about the subject matter and terms of contracts – this includes a prohibition
on selling something that one does not own. There are special financial techniques
available for contracting to manufacture a product for a customer. This is necessary
because the product does not exist, and therefore cannot be owned, before it is made. A
manufacturer can promise to produce a specific product under certain agreed
specifications at a determined price and on a fixed date. Specifically, in this case, the risk
taken is by a bank which would commission the manufacture and sell the goods on to a
customer at a reasonable profit for undertaking this risk. Once again the bank is exposed
to considerable risk. Avoiding contractual risk in this way, means that transactions have
to be explicitly defined from the outset. Therefore, complex derivative instruments and
conventional short sales or sales on margin are prohibited under Islamic finance.
As mentioned above, the receipt of interest is not allowed under Shariah. Therefore, when
Islamic banks provide finance they must earn their profits by other means. This can be through a
profit-share relating to the assets in which the finance is invested, or can be via a fee earned by
the bank for services provided. The essential feature of Shariah is that when commercial loans
are made, the lender must share in the risk. If this is not so then any amount received over the
principal of the loan will be regarded as interest.
There are a number of Islamic financial instruments mentioned in the Financial Management
syllabus and which can provide Shariah-compliant finance:
Murabaha is a form of trade credit for asset acquisition that avoids the payment of
interest. Instead, the bank buys the item and then sells it on to the customer on a deferred
basis at a price that includes an agreed mark-up for profit. The mark-up is fixed in
advance and cannot be increased, even if the client does not take the goods within the
time agreed in the contract. Payment can be made by instalments. The bank is thus
exposed to business risk because if its customer does not take the goods, no increase in
the mark- up is allowed and the goods, belonging to the bank, might fall in value.
Ijara is a lease finance agreement whereby the bank buys an item for a customer and then
leases it back over a specific period at an agreed amount. Ownership of the asset remains
with the lessor bank, which will seek to recover the capital cost of the equipment plus a
profit margin out of the rentals payable.
Emirates Airlines regularly uses Ijara to finance its expansion. Another example of the Ijara
structure is seen in Islamic mortgages. In 2003, HSBC was the first UK clearing bank to offer
mortgages in the UK designed to comply with Shariah. Under HSBC’s Islamic mortgage, the
bank purchases a house then leases or rents it back to the customer. The customer makes regular
payments to cover the rental for occupying or otherwise using the property, insurance premiums
to safeguard the property, and also amounts to pay back the sum borrowed. At the end of the
mortgage, title to the property can be transferred to the customer. The demand for Islamic
mortgages in the UK has shown considerable growth.
Mudaraba is essentially like equity finance in which the bank and the customer share any
profits. The bank will provide the capital, and the borrower, using their expertise and
knowledge, will invest the capital. Profits will be shared according to the finance
agreement, but as with equity finance there is no certainty that there will ever be any
profits, nor is there certainty that the capital will ever be recovered. This exposes the
bank to considerable investment risk. In practice, most Islamic banks use this is as a form
of investment product on the liability side of their statement of financial position,
whereby the investor or customer (as provider of capital) deposits funds with the bank,
and it is the bank that acts as an investment manager (managing the funds).
Musharaka is a joint venture or investment partnership between two parties. Both parties
provide capital towards the financing of projects and both parties share the profits in
agreed proportions. This allows both parties to be rewarded for their supply of capital and
managerial skills. Losses would normally be shared on the basis of the equity originally
contributed to the venture. Because both parties are closely involved with the ongoing
project management, banks do not often use Musharaka transactions as they prefer to be
more ‘hands off’.
Sukuk is debt finance. A conventional, non-Islamic loan note is a simple debt, and the
debt holder's return for providing capital to the bond issuer takes the form of interest.
Islamic bonds, or sukuk, cannot bear interest. So that the sukuk are Shariah-compliant, the
sukuk holders must have a proprietary interest in the assets which are being financed. The
sukuk holders’ return for providing finance is a share of the income generated by the
assets. Most sukuk, are ‘asset-based’, not ‘asset-backed’, giving investors ownership of
the cash flows but not of the assets themselves. Asset-based is obviously more risky than
asset backed in the event of a default.
There are a number of ways of structuring sukuk, the most common of which are partnership
(Musharaka) or lease (Ijara) structures. Typically, an issuer of the sukuk would acquire property
and the property will generally be leased to tenants to generate income. The sukuk, or
certificates, are issued by the issuer to the sukuk holders, who thereby acquire a proprietary
interest in the assets of the issuer. The issuer collects the income and distributes it to the sukuk
holders. This entitlement to a share of the income generated by the assets can make the
arrangement Shariah compliant.
The cash flows under some of the approaches described above might be the same as they would
have been for the standard western practice paying of interest on loan finance. However, the key
difference is that the rate of return is based on the asset transaction and not based on interest on
money loaned. The difference is in the approach and not necessarily on the financial impact. In
Islamic finance the intention is to avoid injustice, asymmetric risk and moral hazard (where the
party who causes a problem does not suffer its consequences), and unfair enrichment at the
expense of another party.
Advocates of Islamic finance claim that it avoided much of the recent financial turmoil because
of its prohibitions on speculation and uncertainty, and its emphasis on risk sharing and justice.
That does not mean, of course, that the system is free from all risk (nothing is), but if you are
more exposed to a risk you are likely to behave more prudently.
The Shariah board
The Shariah board is a key part of an Islamic financial institution. It has the responsibility for
ensuring that all products and services offered by that institution are compliant with the
principles of Shariah law. Boards are made up of a committee of Islamic scholars and different
institutions can have different boards.
An institution’s Shariah board will review and oversee all new product offerings before they are
launched. It can also be asked to deliver judgments on individual cases referred to it, such as
whether a specific customer’s business proposals are Shariah-compliant.
The demand for Shariah-compliant financial services is growing rapidly and the Shariah board
can also play an important role in helping to develop new financial instruments and products to
help the institution to adapt to new developments, industry trends, and customers’ requirements.
The ability of scholars to make pronouncements using their own expertise and based on Shariah,
highlights the fact that Islamic finance remains innovative and able to evolve, while crucially
remaining within the bounds of core principles.
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