Dear Ali Sakti,
Today, the Islamic financial system is being viewed with a measure of envy and respect. There is growing appreciation of its symbiotic link to real economic activities. As the financial crisis reaches out to even more areas around the globe, some Islamic financial and related institutions are being affected, though not to the extent that has crippled many of their conventional counterparts.
This naturally means that the Islamic finance community should not be complacent; rather, it must continue to critically evaluate itself. Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi asks: “Have we truly established an alternative system, or are we still very much mimicking the established conventional system?” His challenge: Prove to the global market that the Islamic financial system is truly a robust and viable alternative to the conventional system.
The current financial crisis provides that opportunity. As it is, despite the crisis, new Shariah compliant banks continue to emerge in various places (Sudan, the Gulf and Malaysia); they continue to record strong profits (ABC Islamic Bank’s net profit for the first nine months of 2008 increased by 60% over the same period last year); Britain, despite being in the thick of the crisis, remains committed to launch the first Sukuk by a western government; and Gulf Finance House is embarking on its latest Energy City project, in Libya, worth US$5 billion. Additionally the International Swaps and Derivatives Association is to launch standards for over-the-counter (OTC) Islamic derivative contracts early next year that will be a key tool in Shariah compliant risk management.
As part of efforts to add depth to Islamic finance, the International Shariah Research Academy for Islamic Finance (ISRA) has been set up to foster collaboration between Muslim scholars in different countries to develop knowledge in areas of specific interest to the global Islamic finance community. In particular, it will help find a middle ground for the standardization of Islamic finance practices.
At the same time, Malaysia has embarked on an initiative to promote a more consistent application for Islamic financial contracts. The central bank’s “Shariah parameters” project is aimed at determining the essential features of Islamic financial products derived from underlying Shariah contracts such as Murabahah, Istisna, Mudarabah, Musharakah, Ijarah and Wadiah. These features will serve as a guide for Shariah contracts pertaining to Islamic financial products, and can be applied when designing new products or enhancing existing ones.
Even as these moves take shape in bringing about a certain level of standardization and uniformity in Islamic finance, a debate is ongoing: According to some scholars, binding legal standards for the industry would challenge the Islamic concept of Ijtihad, or reasoning, that continuously re-assesses Shariah law. Standardization, they argue, will also limit the diversity of Islamic finance products. On the other hand, regulators and industry practitioners contend that legally enforced standards are required to enhance investment certainty and reduce transaction costs.
Finally some of the largest pension plans in the US are reported to be restructuring their entire portfolio to venture into infrastructure investment in a major way. Experts estimate that infrastructure spending will average US$2 trillion a year through 2015 as emerging markets build and expand rapidly while developed markets are upgrading their existing infrastructure.
Opportunities beckon for Islamic finance!
Best regards,IFN team