Courtesy of ALIWAY for Living Islam

Living Islam


I had the pleasure of joining the UK’s largest gathering of Muslims earlier this month. Dubbed the Muslim Glastonbury by some elements of the press, it’s nothing of the sort. More like the Muslim Hay-on-Wye.

With 5000 ticket holders, many of whom camped on site, the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the UK’s leading Muslim (and non-Muslim) thinkers was too good to pass and as my book was being launched at the same time, the organisers kindly invited me to present on the subject of Islamic finance at a couple of sessions.

I’ve heard some pretty unkind comments about Living Islam, including Lauren Booth’s diatribe on her blog, in which she suggests some people think of it as ‘Leaving Islam’, and lamenting the lack of celebrity speakers.

Anyway, for me it was a blast.  I love the way you could stop an inspirational teacher like South African civil rights activist Professor Farid Esack outside the burger stalls and chat. A lovely guy, he didn’t know me from Adam but made me feel my opinion was valuable to him (it wasn’t, I was just spouting nonsense).  The same goes for Khalid Anis, the director of the event.  I have no idea how he recognised me as we have only met once or twice in the last 20 years. Again this was a guy with not enough hours in the day to run a gargantuan logistical exercise, willing to be stopped by a stranger and chew the breeze. It’s a shame the same could not be said of another of the event’s leading lights who shall rename nameless: I had a bit of an Anchorman moment when I stopped this particular chap to say hello and was met with a shrug that said “I’m kind of a big deal and I’m sorry I wouldn’t remember you” (the second half of the sentence were his actual words). Hmm.

For the second session on Islamic finance the audience were packed into a hot stuffy room, many of them slumped on the floor, leaning against the walls, and even craning their necks in through the door.  I was delighted that so many of the audience had such a passion for the subject matter, even if the facts were sometimes trampled on underfoot as I was to discover in the Q&A!  Sadly in the time available, I didn’t have a chance to give everyone the attention they deserved and I felt there was so much more to discuss.  So here’s my chance to set a few facts straight:

1. Yes, there’s something wrong with the industry.  That much I have made clear whenever I discuss or write about this subject.  But take the time to examine carefully exactly what is wrong, and how we can (collectively) fix it.  If conventionally-trained bankers value form over substance, choose those products which value both form and substance and tell your bank that’s what you prefer.  If the non-Muslim salesperson behind the counter doesn’t know why you reject a commodity murabaha-based mortgage (the dubious contractual structure I find an egregious distortion of the spirit of Sharia), and why you would prefer an ijara (rent based mortgage), then he will keep pushing his shoddy crap in your direction. Because bankers are lazy and greedy.

2. Banks are not charities, and they have an internal cost of funding which they recoup in their costs to you, the customer.  The smaller they are, the riskier they are often deemed to be, and the more expensive their own cost of funding.  If you don’t move your money to them or buy their products, they will always remain small so there’s no point complaining about the cost.  It’s like the halal meat industry when our parents arrived in this country in the early 1960s: at first non-existent, then in the early stages expensive, and now that Muslims are a significant demographic and proportionately more likely to be meat-eaters, halal meat is now cheaper.  So move those funds!  Particularly as the likes of HSBC have demonstrated their (at best) apathy towards Muslims – and at worst outright Islamophobia – by firstly closing all Sharia-compliant Amanah accounts and now rejecting the accounts of Muslim charities doing relief work in Gaza. Vote with your wallets and reject these opportunists who care nothing about integrity or ethics (and who, by the way, continue to be rewarded for failing their retail customers by both the UK and Luxembourggovernments with high profile and lucrative Islamic bond mandates – go figure).

3. Stop making excuses for riba!  So many people tell me they find Islamic finance to be too expensive, or that they don’t think the industry is ‘Islamic’.  So they put their money into interest-bearing accounts and borrow conventional debt with interest. Na’udhubillah! Mufti Taqi Usmani has a great response to this, and it’s contained in his 2010 white paper on reforming the world’s post-crisis financial landscape. For more detail, see his historic judgement on the Sharia Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan which sets out in some detail the arguments against riba.

If still not convinced, read the book or drop me a line!

This article was originally published in, on 15 August 2014.

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