Page last updated at 18:39 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 19:39 UK

Finance with a moral foundation

By Christopher Landau
BBC religious affairs correspondent

In the midst of turmoil in the global financial system, there is one branch of finance that aims to operate within strict moral and ethical boundaries - Islamic finance.

But how will it survive in the current climate?

Islamic Bank of Britain
Some say Sharia-based finance will better weather the storm

Opposite London's largest mosque, in the heart of the capital's Muslim community, is a branch of the Islamic Bank of Britain.

It is one of eight branches around the UK that bring Islamic finance to the high street.

It looks just like any other high street bank – but manager Abul Fozoll tells me that it offers finance with a difference.

“Every single product we offer here is all Sharia compliant. From home purchase plans to direct savings, these are all governed by Sharia principles.”

That means there's no mention of interest – instead, savers are offered a projected share of profits.

In practice, Muslims can still get a return on their investment, but without compromising their religious principles.

High street Islamic finance is just one small part of a thriving industry.

[Islamic finance] has a method to show to the world that things can be done in a different way which is more ethically sound and more financially sound too
Mufti Mohammed Zubair Butt, chairman of panel of sharia scholars

In London's Canary Wharf, I attended a conference of financiers assessing the prospects for Islamic finance.

Talk of the credit crunch was never far away, but some delegates believe the ethical principles that underpin Sharia-based finance mean it will better weather the current financial storm.

Mufti Mohammed Zubair Butt is chairman of the UK's first panel of sharia scholars, who rule on whether particular products or services meet strict Islamic criteria.

He is optimistic about the sector's future: “It has an alternative to present. It has a method to show to the world that things can be done in a different way which is more ethically sound and more financially sound too”.

One expert on Islamic finance, Durham University professor Rodney Wilson, points out that no Islamic financial institution has yet failed in the current crisis.

He contrasts “excessive risk-taking” in the mainstream financial sector with “a fairly classical banking model” still followed by Islamic institutions.


But there are challenges facing Islamic finance.

One key concern is the lack of regulatory framework within the sector, meaning that Sharia scholars are free to differ over what constitutes Sharia-compliance.

It can lead to inconsistency when it comes to rulings about what sort of investments are appropriate.

Andy Critchlow, middle east managing editor for Dow Jones, warned that Sharia boards consulted by financial institutions may not always be as independent as they appear.

“Companies appoint their own Sharia compliancy boards. Companies pay those Sharia compliancy boards to actually structure the Sharia compliant agreement for them,” he says.

“The industry in many respects is a house without foundation in that it doesn't have the foundation of regulation underpinning it.”

Of course, the value of regulation is currently hotly contested throughout the financial industry, but proponents of Islamic finance believe that its in-built adherence to Islamic law means it offers a fairer, more ethical financial system.

What no one can predict is the extent to which Islamic finance's principles will mean it is better shielded from the current financial storms.

Some fear that it is already so entwined with mainstream finance that its future is as risky as any other part of the global financial industry.

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