So You Want to Change the World?
So did I, 25 years ago. I still do. A few years after graduating, I was fortunate to find myself in a discipline where I genuinely could make a difference. Islamic finance – or more precisely the Islamic economic model - has the power to revolutionise the way people do business, to democratise capital in a way that can restructure society, and reduce the gap between rich and poor.
When people ask me in a professional context what’s my motivation, I tell them it’s to change the industry so that its ideals can be achieved. And although that’s an easy thing to say, I mean it. OK, so I haven’t succeeded in executing the plan just yet. The industry is a square peg in a round hole, a system of financing based on real assets and risk-sharing that operates within a fiat currency based fractional reserve banking system. But until real change is achieved, I’ll keep trying.
We have entered The Age of the Individual in which only our selfish desires matter. We have left behind The Age of Society in which the strong protect the weak, the mark of a just and equitable society, and a characteristic of the Islamic deen. If we want society around us to reflect universal values of justice and harmony, we will have to be the best that we can be in order to effect change. If we get soft and lazy, we will not move the needle.
I recently spoke to a group of Muslim youngsters from my home town in the UK about making themselves the best version of themselves. They are bright and articulate, and the older ones are about to make the jump to university. As a minority, and one that is amongst the most economically disadvantaged in the UK, they will have to work harder than their non-Muslim peers to gain social acceptance and achieve success in their careers. They will have to compete hard and put in their 10,000 hours, the amount of time popularly thought to make one a world class expert in a discipline.
But my advice was not intended as a platitudinous statement from a self-improvement blog. It was to remind them their lives are a blessing from God, their talents a gift. They have a duty to God and their community to make the most of what they’ve been given, to become the best version of themselves. Each of them has the capacity to become the next Prime Minister or Nobel Physics Laureate, if they are prepared to reach deep enough inside themselves and extract everything they have.
With the world around us changing rapidly, now is the time for those youngsters to seize the opportunities that change creates, to transform the world around us for the benefit of all, not just Muslims. For me, that opportunity has manifested itself through working towards a system of finance and commerce that encourages and rewards progress and innovation, and yet protects the weak and vulnerable. For centuries after the Prophet’s (pbuh) death, our brightest scholars and philosophers pushed the boundaries of human knowledge, but eventually we lost our way and today we languish economically, scientifically and culturally. Even the revolutionary ideas of our greatest minds from classical Baghdad and Cordoba are now popularly attributed to European thinkers.
And whilst modern Islamic banking battles to assert its core values, it continues to struggle to provide the solution it once promised. Perhaps one reason is because Islamic banks have failed to challenge received wisdom, and rather than emphasise an alternative economic model, they reverse engineer the existing one. An over-dependence on staid conventional bankers who themselves have never bought an Islamic finance product has resulted in woolly thinking and poor execution. No wonder some customers question the Shari’a compliance of a Shari’a compliant bank.
But something wonderful and fascinating is happening right now in Islamic finance. The millennials have arrived. They’re still in the process of putting in their 10,000 hours, but their passion and motivation for an ethical system of finance far exceeds that of the incumbents. Many of them have struggled to win jobs in the established banks and institutions, so they have turned instead to the non-bank finance sector. They are creating their own job market. Their awareness and usage of technology puts them at an advantage against the dinosaurs of banking. They are entrepreneurial self-starters. Their energy is palpable, disruptive and exciting.
A recent article in the FT about one of the fathers of modern physics, Niels Bohr, suggested that his contribution to the world’s GDP today may be as high as 30%. Why? Because his Nobel Prize winning work on quantum mechanics in the early 20th century led to the development of today’s electronic devices. His success was not a result of pouring money into his research. It was because he questioned accepted thinking, he challenged the status quo, and he showed faith in the upcoming generation of young scientists who were yet to be trusted by the establishment.
Today’s millennials have the guts to throw away conventional thinking, and do things differently. They have embraced financial technologies to create peer to peer lending platforms and crunch big data. They disagree with Jamie Dimon that Bitcoin is a fraud. They know crypto currencies have the power to grant people economic freedom by decentralising currency and removing stealth taxation by artificial devaluation, thus returning money to its true purpose: a medium of exchange, not a commodity to be traded. How Islamic is that!
So perhaps I’ve been engaging with my industry too conservatively. The future of Islamic finance may not be with the Islamic banks after all. It’s non-bank and it’s tech-driven. Can my background in traditional finance be usefully deployed in this brave new world? Maybe. Old school soft skills will always have value, and as smart and hard-working as they may be, the tech whizzes still need a little guidance and polishing.
So it’s time for me to strike out in this new world as well. Within the last month, I’ve left the secure womb of a traditional financial institution and emerged reborn, blinking into the light. My new colleagues carry messenger bags, wear skinny jeans and talk so quickly it’s possible I may be squinting as I strain to keep up. Please bear with me, folks. Hopefully some of your energy may rub off on me.
I pray that we collectively realise the noble ideals of a real economy, risk-sharing economic model. And in doing so, that we change the world for the better.