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Historical background and development of Islamic finance



The notion of “Islamic finance” was born during the tumultuous identity-politics
years of the mid-twentieth century. Indian, Pakistani, and Arab thinkers contemplated
independence from Britain, and independence of Pakistan from India, within a context of
“Islamic society.” Islam was assumed to inspire political, economic, and financial systems
that are distinctive and independent of the Western (Capitalist) and Eastern (Socialist)
models of the epoch. The term “Islamic economics” was coined by Abu al-A`la Al-
Mawdudi, whose students and followers worked to develop an ostensible Islamic social
science (Kuran, 2004). Mawdudi’s influence on Arab Islamists began with the writings of
Sayid Qutb, the father of modern Arab political Islam, whose quasi-exegesis Under the
Qur’anic Shade referred exclusively to Mawdudi’s writings on economic matters. Mawdudi’s
migration from majority-Hindu Indian society to maority-Muslim Pakistan thus became a
prototype for Islamist migration away from secular political and economic systems.

From Islamic Economics to Islamic Banks
In the first few decades of its existence, Islamic economics focused on comparative
economic systems (a fashionable field at the time) as well as neo-Classical and Keynesian
modeling with a highly stylized homoislamicus (a moral and ethical individual who shuns
excessive greed and consumerism) in place of mainstream economics’ homoeconomicus (a
selfish utility and profit maximizer); Haneef (1995). As a byproduct, Islamic banking
emerged in the Islamic economists’ literature as a financial system based exclusively on
profit-and-loss sharing, which was argued to be more equitable and stable; Chapra (1996),
Siddiqi (1983). In the process, Islamic economists focused on the Islamic prohibition of riba
or usury, which they interpreted as a prohibition of all interest-based lending, in accordance
with earlier interpretations of the Judeo-Christian canon.
Classical Islamic jurisprudence had interpreted interest-based lending, the
cornerstone of fractional-reserve depositary banking, as riskless – and therefore illegitimate
and inequitable – return for idle capitalists. Indeed, the importance of credit and
counterparty risk for any financial analysis remains conspicuously absent from the writings
of the Islamic-economics faithful. The preferred financial model, they postulated, would be
based on the ancient silent-partnership model known in Islamic writings as mudaraba,
corresponding to the Jewish heter iska and the Christian-European commenda; Udovich (1970).
An “Islamic bank” was envisioned as a two-tier silent partnership. Thus, deposits
seeking a return (as opposed to fiduciary deposits, for which 100% reserves are required)
would not be guaranteed loans to the bank, but rather silent-partnership investments in the
bank’s portfolio. In turn, the bank’s investments of those funds would not consist of loans
and acquisition of debt instruments, but rather profit-and-loss sharing investments in other
silent partnerships. Thus, the Islamic bank would serve its financial intermediation function
(pooling of return-seeking savings and diversification of investments) through profit-andloss
sharing. This idea continues to serve as the cornerstone of Islamic banking today,
despite being thoroughly debunked by prominent jurists; Tantawi (2001), El-Gamal (2003).
Potential loss of return-seeking deposits was assumed by Islamic-banking
proponents such as the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB) to encourage depositormonitoring
and risk-mitigating market-based discipline. Thus, the grossly inadequate
depositor-protection measures supported by the industry have focused on transparency of
operations and profit-distribution mechanisms; IFSB (2006).

The Practice of Islamic Banking
This risk-sharing model has continued to shape the liabilities-side of Islamic banks’
balance sheets, with few exceptions in Europe and the United States, where regulators have
required Islamic financial providers that function as banks to guarantee deposits. The assetsside
of Islamic banks and financial providers, on the other hand, has utilized multiple
structured-financial models to replicate loans and fixed-return securities that limit the banks’
exposure to credit risk. The transformation from the idealistic profit-and-loss sharing model
of Islamic economics – which continues to be hailed as the “Islamic ideal” by industry
practitioners and commentators – to replication of modern financial products and markets in
“Islamic” garb coincided with the increased importance of classical methods of Islamic
jurisprudence and a limited rhetorical role for Islamic economics.
Early models in the subcontinent during the 1950s and in Egypt during the 1960s
notwithstanding, the true beginnings of Islamic banking and finance occurred in the mid
1970s. Islamic jurists including the Shiite scholar Baqir al-Sadr and many Sunni scholars in
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere collaborated with Islamist bankers to replicate loans
using ancient contract forms. Baqir al-Sadr, in his classical work The Non-Usurious Bank in
Islam had attempted to use similar structured products to replicate guaranteed bank deposit
on the liabilities side. However, since risk-sharing depositors were clearly beneficial to the
shareholders of Islamic banks, and because the latter drove innovation in Islamic banking
through the retention of lawyers and religious scholars, most of the “innovations” were
restricted to the assets-side of the balance sheet.

Murabaha (Cost-Plus Sale) Financing
The workhorse of Islamic banking has been the murabaha (cost-plus sale) contract.
The logical evolution of this form of finance is indicative of the general methodology of
Islamic finance to this day. In the early 1980s, Islamic banks in the Gulf were flush with
petrodollars, and Western corporations were eager to borrow from them as Western-bank
credit dried up following the petrodollar-driven Latin American debt crisis. Islamic banks
resorted to the easiest ancient trick: introducing a property to separate lent principal from
repaid principal plus interest.
In the simplest ruse, the bank could have sold some commodity to its potential
borrower on credit (for principal + interest payable later), and then bought it back for cash
(principal paid immediately), thus effectively replicating the cashflows of the loan, with the
commodity making a roundtrip from bank to customer and back. However, this ancient ruse
was forbidden by name as same-item sale resale (bay` al-`ina). In practice, one credit sale and
one spot sale of liquid commodities were still used to accomplish the desired goal by
conducting the second spot sale with a third party.
Interestingly, Al-Rajhi Investment Company in Saudi Arabia, which has one of the
strictest religious-scholar boards, received a question on the legitimacy of credit sale of gold,
and ruled that such sales were disallowed because gold is a monetary commodity. Promptly
thereafter, the same board was asked if platinum can be sold on credit, and issued a fatwa
that this was permitted. Thus, Islamic banks could simply trade precious metals, acquiring an
amount of platinum (or other metal excluding gold and silver) equal in value to the desired
loan principal. The metal was then sold on credit to the Western borrower under a murabaha
contract, with a credit price equal to the desired principal plus interest. The customer was
then able to sell the metal quickly to receive the desired borrowed principal, perhaps less a
small transaction cost.
This was the juristic solution first popularized by the late banker Sami Humud in his
book Evolving Banking Transactions in Accordance with Islamic Law (1976). The prohibition of riba
(usury) in the Islamic canon and subsequent juristic analysis left room for such ruses. The
Qur’an merely mentioned riba in the abstract without specifying precisely which transactions
were thus forbidden. The Prophetic tradition merely listed six commodities: gold, silver,
dates, wheat, barley, and salt, all of which were used at some point as commodity monies in
the ancient world, stipulating that those may be traded only hand-to-hand and in equal
amounts measured by weight or volume. One school of jurisprudence (Hanafi) expanded the
prohibition to all commodities measured by weight or volume, but still did not treat them as
money. Therefore, while trading platinum now for platinum later, or trading gold now for
silver later, would both be deemed impermissible based on the Hanafi interpretation, trading
platinum now for Dollars later was considered permissible.
Interestingly, the Halacha, developed by Jewish scholars prior and in parallel to the
development of Islamic Fiqh, forbade such embedded-interest credit sales (Reisman, 1995,
p.112). In contrast, all major schools of Islamic jurisprudence (four Sunni and four Shiite)
have allowed credit sales at prices possibly exceeding the spot price. Initially, this was only a
method for seller financing. Thus, the financier needed first to acquire the property before
selling it on credit. In addition, to give the contract an Islamic flavor, the industry adopted
the name of an ancient cost-plus sale – murabaha, a contract devised to protect buyers who
were unfamiliar with market prices, allowing them to negotiate prices by negotiating markup
over revealed cost.
The contract that emerged in the 1970s was formally known as “cost-plus sale to the
customer who ordered the initial purchase” (murabaha lil-‘amir bil-shira’ ). It was initially
subject to scholarly controversy, especially as bankers added provisions to eliminate all forms
of risk other than customer-credit. In order to eliminate property-related risks, which were
ironically the basis on which jurists allowed earning a return on the transaction, they allowed
banks to stipulate that the eventual buyer must guarantee buying the property on credit once
the bank acquires it. Eventually, wide consensus emerged and the contract became the
workhorse of Islamic banking practices from large multi-million-Dollar loans to Western
corporations to retail-bank secured lending.

Tawarruq (Monetization) Financing
In order to reduce transaction costs, especially for retail customers who wished to
borrow cash, Islamic banks in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries revived another
ancient financial trick: monetization. This transaction is very similar to the cost-plus
commodity-sale finance model, with the added complication that the Islamic bank executes
all three legs of the transaction: (i) buying the principal’s worth of metals at the spot price,
(ii) selling said metals to the customer on credit for principal plus interest, and (iii) selling the
metals back to the dealer, as the customer’s agent, for the spot price less a small fee. All
three transactions can be concluded within minutes via fax.
This transaction avoids the forbidden two-party sale-resale trick by adding not only
one commodity as a degree of separation between lent principal and repaid principal plus
interest, but also a third-trading-party degree of separation (the metals dealer) so that every
two parties formally trade the commodity only once. The commodity still completes a
round-trip (dealerbankcustomerdealer), spot cash in the amount of desired principal
complete one trip (bankdealercustomer), and the credit-sale-price payment of principal
plus interest occurs in the future (customerbank). This three-party variation on same-item
sale resale was also known in ancient and medieval practice, and deemed forbidden or
reprehensible by most schools of law. Some medieval scholars within the Hanbali school of
jurisprudence, which is dominant in the GCC, had permitted this practice. Despite the fact
that the most respected 14th Century scholars ibn Qayim and ibn Taymiya forbade the
transaction (as merely an expensive and potentially more hazardous type of usury/riba),
contemporary Hanbali jurists who dominate one juristic council in Saudi Arabia permitted
the practice in 1998. The same council later forbade the organized practice of Islamic banks
using this contract in 2003, but the practice continued to thrive.
Ijara (lease) Financing, Securitization, and Sukuk (Islamic Bonds)
Despite juristic approval of credit-sale-based financing methods, the practice
remained suspect in scholarly as well as general Islamist circles. In addition to objections that
the practice merely replicated interest-based financing with interest characterized as profit or
markup, there were problems with securitization and trading of receivables from murabaha
and tawarruq facilities. Those problems arose from the fact that most jurists, with the notable
exception of those in Malaysia, forbade trading of debts, except under very strict transfers at
face values and resale to the debtor. This prevented the development of secondary markets
that would allow banks to diversify their portfolios and sources of funds. Lease financing
provided a partial solution to both problems: it was ostensibly based on real assets that
continued to play a role throughout the life of the financial facility, and it was possible to
trade lease receivables on secondary markets as ostensible shares in the leased assets.
Jurists were adamant that Islamic lease or ijara financing must be truly asset-based,
and therefore must be structured as operating rather than financial leases. However, recent
advances in structured finance – which helped corporations such as Enron to move debts
and interest payments off balance sheets through sale-lease-back structures – had blurred the
line between operating and financial leases. As a result, a prestigious juristic council declared
in 2008 that more than 80% of lease-based bond (sukuk) structures were un-Islamic, since
material ownership of the underlying assets was not real.
Developed initially as another mode of secured lending, lease financing proceeded by
acquiring durable assets and leasing them with an option to buy – principal plus interest
passing to the lessor as rent plus potential final payment. For banks in countries that forbid
them from owning real estate, special purpose vehicles (SPVs) received credit that were used
to acquire the assets and lease them till maturity. Shares in those SPVs were treated as shares
in the leased properties, thus allowing them to trade on secondary markets. In the United
States, such structures were used to originate mortgage loans that were then securitized
through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and marketed both domestically and in the cash-rich
GCC, especially after the second wave of petrodollar flows began in 2001.
Bond structures were easily adapted from those financial forms. An entity that
wished to issue a bond would create an SPV, which sold shares for the amount of financing
desired. The proceeds of that sale were used to buy some asset from the originator, which
asset was promptly leased back. The originator would thus collect the proceeds of the sale of
its asset as principal, and pay principal plus interest in the form of rent and/or a final
repurchase price, which payments were passed through to the sukuk or bond holders. An
added advantage of this structure is that the payments were made ostensibly on shares in
ownership of the real asset, thus the contract could be advertised as a form of partnership,
which appealed to the earlier political-Islam inspired literature on Islamic economics.
Jurists further facilitated securitization of debts by allowing a portfolio of asset-based
and purely debt-based receivables (e.g. lease-based and credit-sale-based, respectively) to be
traded as long as the asset-based component exceeded 51% of the total face value; Usmani
(1998). This strange provision clearly imposed no significant constraints on securitization,
since successive portions of pure-debt receivables could be bundled iteratively with the same
asset-based ones, which may be repeatedly bought back for the purpose of bundling with
pure-debt tranches. Thus, Islamic finance became an equal partner in the credit bubble the
ensued in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In fact, the volume of sukuk remained
sufficiently small (relative to demand by Islamic banks) to merit abnormally high prices and
low yields relative to conventional debts issued by the same entities.

Islamic Mutual Funds
A widely publicized area of Islamic finance was the development of “screening”
methods to identify “Shari`a compliant” stocks. Those screens excluded stocks of companies
with significant forbidden activities (e.g. breweries), but also of firms with excessive debt or
interest income. The debt screen chosen by the industry was particularly perplexing, as it
excluded firms with debt to market capitalization ratios exceeding one-third. This rule clearly
forced fund managers to buy-high and sell-low in highly volatile makets. Moreover, the rule
diverted funds away from Muslim-owned companies, which were not allowed any degree of
unsecured-loan leverage, in favor of western firms with moderate levels of leverage. The
financial screens themselves had no foundation in Islamic law or reasonable economic
analysis, starting as they did at 5% debt to assets and evolving during the tech-stock bubble
of the late 1990s into 33% of debt to assets and then 33% debt to market capitalization. It is
not clear whether and when these rules can be replaced with sensible ones.

Takaful (Islamic Insurance) and Derivatives
One of the fast growing sectors in Islamic finance is an Islamic alternative to
commercial insurance known as takaful (mutual support). The rhetoric of this sector is based
on the idea of mutual protection against losses, but most takaful companies to-date have not
been structured as mutual insurance companies (wherein policyholders would be the same as
shareholders). Instead, takaful companies are generally shareholder owned and act through
silent partnership or agency to invest the policyholders’ premiums and pay legitimate claims
in the form of “voluntary contributions” – thus avoiding the Islamic prohibition of gharar,
which includes trading known amounts (policy premia) for uncertain future amounts (on
potential valid insurance claims). The prohibition of gharar was also invoked to forbid
derivative securities, but forwards and options were easily synthesized from the ancient
contracts of salam (prepaid forward sale) and `urbun (downpayment call option), respectively.
Substance and Form
El-Gamal (2008) has argued that the essence of the ancient religious law was
regulatory. It is well known in financial economics that financial innovators eventually find
means to circumvent outdated regulation, thus increasing systemic risk. Financial crises later
propel political and economic authorities to impose further regulations for innovators to
circumvent. In this regard, the ancient religious regulations enshrined in Medieval Islamic
jurisprudence, especially if interpreted naively as prohibitions of certain contracts and
permissions of others, is woefully out of date, and therefore have ceased to perform their
regulatory function centuries ago. Indeed, that is precisely why majority-Muslim societies had
abandoned those outdated contract-based frameworks before the Islamist revisionism of the
mid twentieth century. The ancient law, which is not uniquely Islamic, does contain many
lessons for today’s societies – Muslim and otherwise. However, rent-seeking behavior by
bankers, lawyers, and religious scholars on the one hand, and incoherent pietism and
adherence to fictional Utopian history on the other, have prevented societies from adapting
this centuries-old accumulated human wisdom for any purpose beyond short-term self
enrichment and identity-political appeasement, both of which increase rather than ameliorate
systemic risks.


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