Opinion: Is Islamic Finance ready for more standardisation?


When bankers from East and West gathered in Manama at the 18th Annual World Islamic Banking Conference in November 2011, one topic was prevalent at nearly all discussion rounds: standardization.

But while Islamic Finance is expanding to new frontiers such as Uganda, France, Egypt, South Korea and Oman, the objective to make Shariah-compliant financial products more standardized appears more and more like a far-fetched daydream.

Let’s take France, with its legal environment based on the Napoleonic Code civil. The French jurisdiction differs greatly from British Common law or Case law, the predominant legal framework in England, the centre of Islamic finance in Europe. How shall a financial solution, let’s say an Islamic trade financing based on Murabaha, be used by a London-residing bank if it was legalized in France? Calls for more standardization overlook the individual nature of national jurisdictions, which still exist even in the 27-member states European Union.

The Common law is also used in the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), one of the major Islamic banking hubs in the Middle East, while the jurisdiction in the UAE is based on a mix of the French Code Civil and Islamic law. “Both legal environments differ too much from each other,” says Houram Houssani, Partner at the GCC‘s largest law firm Al Tamimi & Co. in Dubai. “This is why we think the DIFC will, legally, continue to exist as a state in the state within the UAE.”

At the same time, Qatar has implemented a strict separation between Islamic and conventional banking, banning Islamic windows at all conventional lenders in the country, a first in the industry.

Divergent views on Islamic Finance’s future

Anecdotal evidence also shows that the leading market participants do not agree at all in the direction Islamic Finance shall take, as AMEinfo.com has learned when from interviewing experts at conferences. One Islamic Finance consultant based in Dubai blames some banks for not operating in an Islamic way at all but “running a Shariah-bank with a conventional window”. Other professionals are outraged that some financial firms try to develop Islamic derivatives or even Islamic hedge funds despite the fact that Shariah bans interest, short-selling and speculation.

In some cases, rules set by the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), one of the most accepted international standard setting organizations, are even stricter than the guidelines for the conventional world. According to Rohit Verma, product management director at Oracle Financial Services, the IFSB “has stricter capital requirements than those proposed in Basel III, with tier 1 and total capital requirements currently standing at 8% and 12% respectively. The minimum common equity requirements for Basel III are set at 4.5% and total capital requirements have been set at 8% with a 2.5% buffer,” Verma writes in an article published in New Horizon (Issue October – December 2012). Although Basel III does not distinguish between conventional and Islamic banks, the rules are primarily set for the conventional world, as the Shariah finance universe stands for 1% of the global economy.

“Focus on a few things, not many things,” is a favourite piece of advice from legendary investor Warren Buffet. Maybe it is time for Islamic finance to focus on its strengths, namely to provide a non-conventional, non-interest ethical way of banking and investing rather than trying to put the whole industry under one hat, labelled “standardization”, a task which seems to be “Mission: Impossible” as more participants enter the scene.