The aim of this work is to outline the main characteristics which differentiate Islamic banks from conventional ones. Despite the restrictions imposed by the shar’ia, Islamic finance has shown significant capacity for diffusion throughout the world, especially since the mid-eighties. This diffusion has reached out from Arab countries to South-East Asia, as far as Australia, Europe and North America. It manifests in western operators such as UBS, BNP Paribas, Generali and HSBC) all of which are strongly interested in the opportunities offered by the financial markets in the Persian Gulf and in South-East Asia, to the point of establishing specialist operational units there in the management of Islamic financial operations.
The work furthermore outlines the interest of the Italian economy in the Arab world as an opportunity of business. For Italy, there are advantages in greater liquid savings of the Islamic community coupled with greater social integration. Certainly, there are economic and social problems that derive from banking integration. However, it is possible to conclude that the research into integration between Islamic banks and conventional ones represents in itself an attempt at a meeting point in the search for widespread social wellbeing, typical of modern society, and the principles of solidarity and cooperation that, in the Islamic vision, should underscore every economic activity.
The Islamic bank has started to adopt its own identity conforming with the principles of Islamic finance in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed fourteen centuries ago. Let us be reminded that the ‘Shari’a’ (Islamic law) does not allow riba, which is to say that receiving a fixed interest rate is not permitted. In fact, on the basis of Islamic principles the return on an investment is only justified if the capital assumes the form of a real activity, not monetary capital, and if the said return reflects a sort of assumed enterprise risk. Consequently, the Islamic bank is configured as a management or distribution entity of funds, activities and ventures.
The Islamic bank assumes the responsibility for identifying ventures in which its own money and that of its clients is invested. Therefore the depositors are not creditors of the bank for the sum deposited but are investors in that same bank. There are different natures of deposit but those which are most utilised are “investment accounts”. The remuneration of these deposits does not represent a fixed rate of interest but it comes from a share of the earnings of the bank. Therefore the depositor is exposed to the risk of seeing the devaluation of the deposit in the event that the bank suffers losses. In this manner, the bank can transfer the risk of its activities directly to the depositors. In a conventional bank, the investment account holders play the part of intermediary figures between the investor and the depositor not only in the function of raising funds but also in that of financing: The Islamic bank has as its objective the valuation of the profitability of its venture and not the credit risk assessment of the financial venture, nor an analysis of its capacity to furnish guaranteed returns, as happens in the case of conventional banks.
The Islamic banking system is considered to be one of the elements in most rapid expansion in the Middle Eastern financial services market. Compared with the financial situation just thirty years ago, with the approval of the ‘shari’a’, it now handles financial funds of around 200 billion dollars with the institutes capitalisation in excess of 7 billion dollars and an annual growth rate of 15%.
* The Author would like to thank Donna Murphy Vizzini (LLB, MA, CIPD, University of Manchester) for precious suggestions.
The Islamic Banking phenomenon is mainly concentrated in the following areas:
- Middle-East (Bahrain, Iran. Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE);
- South-East Asia (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Phillipines and Thailand);
- Indian sub-continent (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan);
- Africa (Egypt, Algeria, The Gambia, Sudan, South Africa);
- Other countries with a very strong presence in the Islamic Community are Turkey and the UK.
This banking activity shows the largest concentration in the middle eastern region (more than 90%), with the greatest portion in Iran (60%); followed by Saudi Arabia (13.5%) and Kuwait (8.4%). Generally, we are in the presence of a system, of a public nature, which is on one hand completely Islamic (as in the case of those in Iran, Pakistan and Sudan), or one which shows intermediate characteristics of Islamic banks which co-exist with ordinary banks (such as those of Arab or eastern capital).
2. The Functioning Principles of the Islamic Finance System
The Islamic finance system if founded on six fundamental pillars:
1. Any pre-agreed payment more and in addition to the effective sum of funds is not permitted. Islam allows only one type of loan named qard-el-hassan (literally ‘good loan’) where the lender does not debit any interest or additional sum to that which is lent. Allah, so says the Qur’an, permits sale but prohibits riba (interest and usury).
2. The lender has to share the profits or losses resulting from the commercial venture between those who have lent the funds.
Islam encourages Muslims to invest their money and to become partners, dividing the risks and profits of the activity between themselves rather than to become creditors. As the Shari’a (Islamic law) enforces, Islamic finance is based on the credence that whosoever furnishes the capital and whosoever uses it should share the risks of the commercial enterprise in equal measure, whether this concerns factories; agricultural business; service companies or any simple commercial venture. In other words, the depositor, the bank and the debtor should each divide the risks and the earnings which come from the financing of commercial enterprise. This makes it different to the commercial banking system which is based on interests, where all the pressure falls onto the debtor (the debtor is obliged to repay his loan, together with the determined interest, regardless of the success or failure of his commercial enterprise). Thus, Islam encourages investment as long as the community can benefit from it.
3. Earning money from money is not acceptable:
Money represents one means of exchange; one way to define the value of a thing. It does not have any intrinsic value and therefore should not be able to generate further money through the payment of fixed interest, albeit by simply depositing it in a bank or by loaning it to others.
Muslim legal practitioners consider money as potential capital rather than as capital in the strictest sense, (in the fact that the money comes from capital only when it gets invested in a commercial activity). Muslims are encouraged to purchase and are discouraged from maintaining inactive funds. This is the reason that, for example, to accumulate money is an unacceptable practice. In Islam, money represents the power of purchase and is considered to be the only legitimate use of money. This purchase power (money) cannot be used to create greater purchase power (more money) without passing via the purchase of goods or services. 4. ‘Gharar’ ( uncertainty, risk or speculation) is prohibited. This veto implies that any transaction effectuated should be absent from uncertainty, risk or speculation. The parties to the deal should understand perfectly the counter value which will be exchanged as a result of their transaction. The rationale behind the prohibition is the desire to protect weak individuals from exploitation. Therefore investments and futures (promises of future purchase and sale) are considered non-Islamic just as financial transactions in overseas currency are (because exchange rates are determined by differing rates of interest).
5. Shari’a condemns the non-use of financial resources. In particular, hiding money at home or depositing it in bank without using the money in any way is disallowed because this could provoke a rarefaction of the offer of money over the course of time. This type of saving gets discouraged with the imposition of the zakat. The zakat is the obligatory charitable hand-out which represents the fourth pillar in the Islamic doctrine and it is imposedin order to block monetary accumulation by channelling it into a productive usage.
6. Investments should exclusively favour practices and products which are not forbidden or discouraged by Islam. Islam disallows investment in activities relating to rearing swine and the production of food produce containing pork; the production of alcoholic beverages; the cultivation and refinement of tobacco; conventional financial services (banks and insurance) and certain forms of entertainment (casinos, betting, pornography, cinema and music) .
Methods of Financing in Islamic Finance
As far as the working practices are concerned, different methods of financing have been created which are compatible with the forbidden principle of riba. Such practices can be divided into two macro categories: PLS (Profit Loss Sharing) and NO-PLS (No Profit Loss Sharing).
- Methods of Financing PLS: This concerns ways of financing in which the parties (bank, investors and savers) divide the risk of the investment. In PLS the use of a guarantee (collateral) is not demanded, except in exceptional cases to protect against opportunistic behaviours of fund collectors and not as a guarantee for the bank. Islamic economists think that these techniques to a certain degree favour efficiency and the stability of the economic system as the risk is sustained both by the bank and by the investors. Thus, in the event that there are shock consequences, they are absorbed quickly. In addition, this model favours a greater transparency in the accountable information. However, there are also a series of problems with this, such as: The inefficient allocation of savings in real goods (gold or other precious metals), which guarantee capital; the difficulty of managing the policies (e.g. the Qur’an’s veto of interest rates) and of managing public debt .
Now to address the main methods of financing PLS.
– Mudaraba is a contract for profit-sharing with which a society is created between the capital of the bank and the participation of the shareholder, a condition which returns a percentage of the profit generated to the latter financier. In this scenario, the risk gets charged to the owner of the capital. In this type of contract the parties involved are mudarib (agents, businessmen) and the rabb al-mal (Islamic bank). The first brings the work and the skills to the project, while the second brings the capital. The main characteristic of this contract is that both parties participate in the profits while the losses are picked up only by the rabb al-mal.
– Musharaka represents a contract of partnership, which may not be written, in which two or more people agree to put together capital and the work to divide the profits or the losses derived from the contract itself. Each of the partners, differing from Mudaraba, has the right to participate in the running of the society and the partners assume the same rights and obligations.
2) Methods of financing NO-PLS.
Unlike PLS, the practices of NO-PLS are not based on the division of the assets or losses, moreover they are often used as exchange mechanisms for goods and/or services with the application of a mark-up in the resale price. The practices of NO-PLS are used in cases in which the forms of financing PLS cannot be applied ( as in the case of debtors who are too small or in consumer credit). They have a predetermined return and are an associated form of guarantee, as for example the reservation of ownership of purchased goods in ‘hire/purchase’ leasing arrangements.
The main techniques of financing NO-PLS are:
– Murabaha is a contract for sales and purchases over a fixed term, where the bank purchases the goods or merchandise in name and on behalf of the client and then sells them to him at the cost-price plus a pre-determined profit margin (mark up). Such a contract respects the vetos imposed by the Qur’an in that the bank by purchasing the goods assumes the risk of the operation. This risk is any potential devaluation of the goods for the time in which the goods remain its property.
– Ijara (leasing) is an agreement in which the bank purchases goods on the direction of the client, who makes use of them by paying a periodical rental fee to the bank. In this manner, the cost of the investment gets picked up by the entrepreneur over a lengthier period of time, while the Islamic bank collects a greater sum than the purchase price by the end of the leasing period. In a Ijara contract, as long as the earnings above the initial price are not hiding profit from interest, it is necessary that the bank takes on a portion of the risks. It is for this reason that the transfer of property could come about only at the end of the leasing period and not at a preceding time. Usually Ijara contracts contain a clause through which the entrepreneur may choose (at the end of the financing period) whether to assume ownership of the goods by paying an additional sum, or whether to leave ownership with the bank. The second option is only available by the time the goods could be considered obsolete or are deteriorated.
– Bai’a Salam represents a purchase contract with immediate payment and delayed consignment. The seller agrees to furnish the buyer with some specified goods which will be consigned at a future date. Payment is advanced for a fixed price stipulated in the contract. This type of contractual undertaking is applied to those contracts for which it is possible to establish the quantity and the quality of the product in advance: for example those of which the object is agricultural produce.
– Bai’Mua’jjal is a product which is sold on the basis of deferred payment, which can come about in the form of a rate or through a forfeited sum. The seller and the buyer agree on a price which cannot include any add-ons for the deferred payment. This is used especially in consumer credit.
– Istisna’ is a contract in which the goods are bought and sold prior to becoming products. Hence, this refers substantially to goods which have to be manufactured or constructed. Although the manufacturer is ordered to produce a certain product, it is not necessary that the price is paid totally in accordance with that which is stated in the contract. The financier, according to the istisna’ contract, may construct an element of the product, or may (by stipulating a parallel contract of istisna’) be ordering a third part to construct the product. In this case the client orders the product from the bank and the bank purchases it in turn from the constructor prior to selling it on to the client. After, according to the stipulation in the contract, the client starts to pay the repayments of his own debt to the bank until such time as the product is consigned to the purchaser. Be reminded that such practices are applied in manufacturing and in for example the construction of aircraft, ships and heavy machinery.
The influence of PLS and NO-PLS tools in the complex portfolio of Islamic bank activities depends on the management choices of the individual financial institutions. This has revealed that the various ways of financing have a very diverse influence on the bank’s balance, which is always weighted in favour of NO-PLS methods. The widest used contract is the Murabaha, having a minimum bearing of 45% and a maximum of 93%. The bearing of the other contracts on the performance of the bank as a percentage is much less (musharaka 1-20%, Mudaraba 1-17%, Ijara 0-14% and other methods 0-30%). Overall, the greatest influence of the two main methods of PLS (Mushraka and mudraba) is not higher than the minimum effect of murabaha. This scarce usage of PLS tools .can be explained by the difficulty of some financial operations in lending themselves to the application of PLS (in for example consumer credit, commercial credit and importation credit). It is also attributable to the fact that the NO -PLS tools guarantee the bank a certain profit ( fixed return) and remove the lesser risks (only the product devaluation risk is left but for the contracts of brief duration this is almost inexistent) .
Characteristics of the Islamic banking system
Islamic banks represent a meeting point in the search for diffuse social wellbeing, (a peculiarity of modern society), and the principles of solidarity and co-operation which, in the Islamic vision should be assigned to every economic activity. Hence, the Islamic banks consider themselves to be an instrument through which sustainable development is achievable in Islamic countries.
The ties between Islamic banks and local development has been evidenced since 1963, when the Egyptian economist al-Najjar, on returning to Egypt and thanks to the funds of the Egyptian government and a group of German financiers, attempted to reproduce the model of the agricultural credit bank, which through the application of German savings, were making a relevant contribution to the reconstruction of post-war Germany.
Analysing the management peculiarities of the Islamic bank model, the elimination of interest allows a greater economic stability and relieves tendencies to inflation, in as much as the creation of money is strictly tied to productive investments and to the central commercial activities of the bank. In addition, the mechanisms of PLS bring the bank to make a more attentive selection of financial undertakings and to keep constant control over the strategic performance of operations. However, there are some points of criticism, such as the complicated international regulation of these credit institutions. Some countries present rather ad hoc laws in relation to this, and this could be the very thing which has slowed down the development of Islamic finance in many countries. Moreover, the prohibition of riba, excludes Islamic banks from operations in the deposit banking market.
Finally, another problem to note concerns the secondary market of Islamic negotiability of ownership. According to Islamic law, a debt cannot be sold but for its own nominal value. Dealing with titles of ownership on the secondary market can be considered more problematic: the possibility allows a change in the actual right incorporated into the title in ready liquidity, without waiting the date of expiration.
To overcome this limitation, the Islamic markets have enhanced the tools which, respecting the shari’a, reproduce the same cash flows as a bond: the periodic payment of a return and the reimbursement of the capital at the expiry. These instruments, named Sukuk, to absolve their primary function of creating liquidity for a brief period, do not have to be similar to titles of credit/debit, moreover, they have to incorporate a partial right to the substantial goods or materials. The Sukuk should be considered obligations, from the legal point of view they represent a property right and not an entitlement to a debt.
The relationship between Italian finance and Islamic finance
There are around ten million European Muslims in the continent; in reality Islam is the second most prolific of the world’s religions in all of the West. Italy has a population of around eight hundred thousand Muslims made up of Italian citizens who have converted as much as those who have immigrated (or descended from immigrants). The relationship between Italian finance and the Islamic world dates back some time. The Bank of Rome already had a branch in East Africa from the start of the nineteen- hundreds, even before it established a seat in the city of Milan. In Italy, interest in Islamic finance has tried to address operations of Islamic finance in a western context. Italian banking legislation is building the instruments which do not contrast with the principles of Islam, and which are able to coexist in a western context.
It would appear difficult to fully analyse the characteristics of the Islamic system in Italy. This is due to the fact that the Islamic bank has operated for such a brief period and there is not a sufficient number of Muslims to make adequate use of such a system yet (qualitatively and quantitatively). Furthermore, there are obstacles to the possibility of controlling Islamic finance institutions coming from the Italian central bank (Banca d’Italia). The problems arise at an operational level, such as not guaranteeing the return of deposits, on the basis of the principle of sharing the yield between those who have made the deposits and those who have managed them (this makes it extremely difficult to adhere to the inter-banking fund guarantee). Another difficulty comes from the necessary adaptation to the structure and the contracts, the normative limits of which are difficult to surpass.
According to the codes in the Qur’an, even non Muslims can create and manage a bank which is based on Islamic principles, on the condition that whosoever does so, should do so in good faith and not for any conflicting reasons. Such conflicting activities have to be separated from the non-Islamic activities, as much as from the legal point of view as from the financial one, as the cash-flows of the two activities risk getting united. At the base of every economic relation, we find equity and transparency, which are two fundamental principles that prepare the parties for a fair gamble in any commercial venture.
The Associazione Bancaria Italiana (ABI), has estimated that the potential market for the instruments of Islamic finance would total around two hundred billion euros. However, in Italy they do not foresee a rapid insertion of Islamic banking operators for the following reasons: The cost of setting up and of managing stable operations are still too high in respect of the potential market offered by the Islamic community, both in quantitative terms as in terms of the capacity for investment. Furthermore the uncertainties around the Islamic model’s compatibility with the normative model in the banking and financial circle still persist (the only example of an Islamic bank in Italy is the Iranian bank Sepah, with its branch in Rome).
It would seem to be more realistic, from a normative point of view, to create avenues of Islamic finance within conventional credit institutions, in which a series of financial services aimed at those who wish to respect the principles of the shari’a can work. It was Fabriano and Cupramontana who launched this opportunity in July of 2004 when they inaugurated the first deposits aimed at the Islamic community, without interest, but advantageous in the nature of their rewards and relations towards stock for example in the Bank of Islam of London. Following on from them, Carifac devised the extragentile mortgage which was structured as a type of hire/purchase leasing with a duration of 20-35 years, at the end of which the client decides to take on the goods. However, records show that Muslims are still too few and therefore the cost of creating the products on an ad hoc basis are exaggeratedly high. This means that the Islamic banking activity could become an effective business in Italy, on the condition that the potential Muslim clientele were to become more numerous and economically more developed.
Data collected by the Banca d’Italia (2005) seems to confirm the difficulty encountered by the Muslim migrants in relations with the banks. This investigation threw light on more than a third of interviewees who would refuse an interest loan, as the Qur’an prohibits such a thing. This response is more evident in those migrants who have spent a shorter time in Italy (less than three years) but it does not appear to be conditioned to any one educational level. Reluctance or refusal to accept a financial system based only on interest rates may slow down the process of integration and cause greater difficulty in setting up commercial activities or in accessing consumer credit. 5% of individuals interviewed would prefer a bank which was specialised for Muslims, able to effectuate the methods of financing and of savings which respect the principles of the Qur’an. Even if a third of interviewees claimed they would not make use of interest loans, the remainder (almost two thirds) declared that they did not have a problem in violating the principle of riba. This result may represent a greater signal for migrant integration, one that approves the use of the rules in the host community even at the cost of not adhering to a principle of the shari’a.
From a legal point of view, the creation of Islamic banks is achievable through the development of ad hoc laws, which are able to overcome the previous limits imposed by Italian law on the relations between banking and commerce which today impede the birth of an Italian Islamic bank. Furthermore, the Italian market would readily consent to having migrant Muslims with access to credit and to reducing the phenomenon of credit rationing.
The preceding analysis shows that the thing which differentiates the Islamic bank from the conventional bank is the emphasis on moral, ethical, social and religious aspects. From the fundamental prohibition of application of interest rates, a banking and finance system has established itself by building on the following principles:
- Prohibited interest loans or any type of payment on the basis of concession of a loan is not permitted.
- Diffusion of PLS (Profit and loss sharing finance). Islamic economic principles require the creditor to share the risks and resulting economic consequences of the investment. Therefore the savers are encouraged to invest their money, becoming partners in an industrial project in which they share the profits and risks of the business, rather than become simple creditors. Islamic finance is based on the principle that the provider and the user of the capital must share the risks of the venture equally. This means that, in the banking sector, the depositor, the bank and the receiver of the funds should share the profits and the risks which are associated with the investment venture proposed by the debtor. From a management point of view, the same principle draws the bank’s strong attention to the prospective profit and to the control of the operational and financial performance of the investment, and less consideration on real guarantees that the receiver of the funds is able to return them.
- Prohibition of financing types of production condemned by Islam. Businesses which operate in production sectors are governed by religious precepts and the types of production condemned by Islam cannot be financed by Islamic banks. Furthermore, there is a listing which makes clear the types of ownership which may be purchased by Muslims.
Islamic finance has shown a great capacity for expansion throughout the world ( Arabic countries, South East Asia, Australia, Europe & North America), especially since the mid-eighties. Western operators (UBS; BNP Patribas; Generali; HSBC) are very interested in the opportunities offered by the Persian Gulf and South-East Asia, to the point of opening operational units in these areas which are specialised in Islamic financing methods.
The Arab world has always been of interest for the Italian economy, and now embracing Islamic finance presents a business opportunity for it. The effective and potential liquidity created by the Islamic community, wherever it is possible, should be the object of Islamic finance’s integration in the internal economic-financial system. Moreover, that liquidity is not to be underestimated. For Italy, there are advantages in greater liquid savings of the Islamic community coupled with greater social integration. Certainly, there are economic and social problems to overcome before banking integration can be achieved; as for example in the case of Islamic clients, the religious principles are valid as much for the profit as for the loss, while in the case of the non-Muslim clients, the habits of western banking schemes can create difficulty in the compatibility of the distinctive aspects of the Islamic bank in the eventuality of a negative exit of the investments. Indubitably it will not be simple to overcome these themes as there is no easy solution around the corner, but to speed up the integration between Islamic banks and conventional ones would represent an attempt at a meeting point in the search for widespread social wellbeing, typical in modern society, and the principles of solidarity and cooperation, which, in the Islamic vision, should underscore every commercial activity.
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Ahmad K. (1994), Elimination of riba: concept and problem. In elimination of Riba from the Economy, Islamabad Institute of Policy Studies, pp. 33-63.
Anwar M. (2000), Islamicity of banking and modes of Islamic Banking, International Islamic University Malaysia, Professoral Inaugural Lecture series.
Artouf O., Errouaki A. e Tolouse J. (2008), Prefazione, in Siagh L., L’Islam e il mondo degli affari, Etas Libri, Milano.
Dell’Atti A. e Miglietta F. (2009) (a cura di), Fondi sovrani arabi e finanza islamica, Egea, Milano, pp. 87-95.
DeLorenzo Y. (2002), The religious foundations of Islamic Finance in Archer S. and Karim A., Islamic Finance, Innovation and Growth, Euromoney books and AAOIFI, London.
El-Gamal M. (2006), Islamic Finance. Finance Law, Economics and Practice, Cambridge.
El-Hawary D., Grais W. e Iqbal Z. (2007), Diversity in the Regulation of Islamic Financial Institutions, in The Quaterly Review of Economic and Finance, 46, n. 5, pp. 778-800.
El-Quqa O., Hasan F., Rout B. e Joubali A. (2008), Sukuks: a New Dawn of Islamic Finance Era, Global Research.
Iqbal Z. e Mirakhor A. (2007), An introduction to Islamic Finance, Theory and Practice, John Wiley & Sons, Singapore.
Nasser H. (2007), Le banking islamique Enchanges, mars, n. 241, pp. 1-68.
Nyazee I. (1998), Islamic Law of Business Organization: Corporations, Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad.
Wilson R. (2007), Islamic Finance in Europe, RSCAS, Policy Paper, 2007/2, European University Institute, Florence.
Yudistira D. (2004), Efficiency in Islamic Banking: An Empirical Analysis of Eighteen Banks, Islamic economic Studies, vol. 12, n. 12, pp. 1-19.
Usmani M. T. (2002), An Introduction to Islamic Finance, Kluewer Law 147 International, The Hague.