Opinion: Muslims on Wall Street, Bridging Two Traditions

By KEVIN ROOSE, New York Times

NAIEL IQBAL’S co-workers couldn’t figure him out.

He’d just started at a Midtown Manhattan hedge fund — the kind of elite enclave where overachievers in button-downs go to make a few hundred grand before heading off to Harvard Business School. But Mr. Iqbal, 27, a graduate of the Wharton School, wasn’t acting like a typical finance guy. He didn’t introduce himself around the office. Nor did he grab lunch with the other traders.

In fact, he didn’t eat at all. Or drink. Not coffee, not soda, not even a sip of water from a Nalgene bottle on his desk. All day, he just sat there, staring into his Bloomberg terminal. Was he sick? Nervous? A modern Bartleby?

None of the above: It was Ramadan, and Mr. Iqbal, a Muslim, was exhausted from fasting daily till sundown.

“I’m actually a huge foodie,” he recalls with a laugh. “When Ramadan ended, I was, like: ‘Guys, let’s go to this restaurant! Let’s go to that one!’ Nobody had seen that side of me.”

Mr. Iqbal — who doesn’t drink or smoke — is among a growing number of young Muslims who are disrupting Wall Street’s old-boy culture. Seen from a certain angle, the Street can still look like a monolith — a cohort of white males with Ivy League degrees and Roman numerals attached to their names. (This is especially true the higher you look; there are, for example, no black, female or openly gay chief executives at the nation’s largest banks.)

But as the Street adapts to greater regulation, lower profits and tighter costs, it is also experiencing change within its ranks. Among entry-level financiers, especially, a years-long recruiting effort at major banks has resulted in a diverse group of aspiring Masters of the Universe.

Young Muslims, one of the newest groups to make inroads in American finance, can face steep barriers to entry. Some obstacles are remnants of a less tolerant era. But prominent, too, are the limitations of Islam itself — a faith whose tenets, Muslim workers say, often seem at odds with Wall Street’s sometimes bacchanalian culture.

“I’m always the one drinking Diet Coke at happy hour,” Mr. Iqbal said.

Granted, for the many Muslims in New York and elsewhere who have made peace with a more secular culture, working on Wall Street may not pose any problem. And Muslims, of course, aren’t the only ones whose values can clash with the ways of Wall Street. Orthodox Jews, conservative Christians and other faithful working in finance have all, at one point, had to square their beliefs and practices with an environment in which money, not God, is king.

But for observant Muslims hoping to keep the values and practices of Islamic law, known as Sharia, intact even as they climb the ladder, the calculus can be messy.

For Aisha Jukaku, a former health care analyst at Goldman Sachs, getting started in finance carried additional challenges. Ms. Jukaku has worn a head scarf, or hijab, since she was 11. Like many conservative Muslim women, she avoids physical contact with men outside her family. (She makes exceptions for handshakes extended to her in a business setting that would be awkward to decline.)

“It’s not something I want to do,” she says of shaking hands with men. “But that’s the common American way of doing business.”

At Goldman, where she worked from 2006 to 2008, she developed a daily routine that let her preserve her religious beliefs while not missing a beat at work. She would wake before sunrise in her Battery Park City apartment, conduct her first of five daily prayers, then fall back asleep until around 8:30 a.m., when she would head to work. While at Goldman, she dressed more modestly than most of her colleagues, and found a room in the firm’s health center where she could pray during the day. During Ramadan one year, a staffing director, seeing how tired she looked after completing a big deal on an empty stomach, took pity on her.

“He said: ‘Take it easy for the next couple weeks. This can’t be fun for you,’ ” said Ms. Jukaku, who now works as a freelance financial consultant.

FOR many Muslims in finance, such delicate negotiations are part of life. Ali Akbar, 34, a Pakistan-born managing director at RBC Capital Markets, says that although he observes the Ramadan fast, he doesn’t always pray five times a day and doesn’t pray in his office to avoid drawing the attention of colleagues. And when the demands of his job collide with the teachings of his faith, a tough choice often follows.

“You can’t just get up in the middle of a deal and say, ‘I have to go spend two hours in a mosque,’ ” Mr. Akbar says.

Working in finance is straightforward enough in a Muslim country, where prayer breaks are typical and holidays like Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, are built into the calendar. But Muslim bankers in the United States have fewer resources. Many don’t have dedicated prayer rooms at work, and leaving the office to attend Friday prayers at a mosque can mean shuffling duties to a co-worker.

“We have a concept called law of necessity,” said Rushdi Siddiqui, global head of Islamic finance at Thomson Reuters. “You have to, at one level, abide by the laws of the land that you happen to reside in, whether it’s the formal laws or the unwritten laws.”

Perhaps the biggest impediment to greater participation by Muslims on Wall Street is that, by some readings, the Koran prohibits riba, or interest. Some Islamic scholars have interpreted the ban to be more inclusive of modern finance, and a subgenre of Sharia-compliant financial transactions, known as sukuk, has tried to bridge the gap.

Still, a vast majority of Wall Street deals are not Sharia-compliant. So observant Muslims at traditional banks are often forced to shift their boundaries. “What I was doing wasn’t 100 percent legitimate in terms of religious ruling,” Ms. Jukaku says of her work at Goldman. “But after a while, you stop feeling guilty, I guess.”

In 2006, three Muslim twenty-somethings formed a group to help fellow young professionals negotiate issues that arise. The organization, Muslim Urban Professionals, nicknamed “Muppies,” began as a Google group of around 50; members traded messages about job openings, notices of apartments for rent and announcements of group dinners. It has expanded to about 1,000 members globally, roughly half of whom work in finance, according to Mr. Iqbal, the hedge fund trader, who is now a national administrator of the group.

As the Muppies’ ranks have grown, more intimate questions have surfaced. Earlier this year, one member, who was about to start a job at a well-known consulting firm, e-mailed the group for advice. How, he wondered, could he succeed at his new job without compromising his Muslim values?

The consultant’s plea, under the subject line “Avoiding Alcohol and Opposite Gender Handshakes in the Corporate World,” received a vast range of responses. In regard to the alcohol issue, Muppies respondents divided into liberal, moderate and conservative camps — those who suggested that going to bars with colleagues was permissible, those who thought “drinking-focused events” were unadvisable but that dinners where alcohol was served were O.K., and those who insisted that places serving alcohol were to be avoided.

“The dominant opinion is that it’s still mustahab (recommended) to get up or leave a gathering where alcohol is served, but many consider it mubah (permissible) to stay seated,” the consultant wrote.

On the matter of handshaking, some urged the consultant to shake hands with women when prompted, but not to initiate handshakes himself. Others suggested adopting “a tactful technique to avoid” shaking hands, such as pretending to be sick or wearing gloves.

“I think Muslim professionals are too sensitive and underestimate our co-workers,” the consultant wrote, summarizing his own views. “People in our society are actually quite understanding of these things and we just freak out, thinking, ‘OMG, what will they all think if I don’t shake her hand??!!’  Just trust in God and He will guide you and give you more than that which you give up for him.”

The Muppies also draw on a network of older, more experienced mentors in finance and investing. One such mentor, Iftikar A. Ahmed, a general partner at the venture capital firm Oak Investment Partners, says the Muppies fill an “amazing need” in the community.

“It’s telling them that you can follow an American way of life while not denying the fact that you happen to be a Muslim,” Mr. Ahmed said.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief executive of the giant bond house Pimco and one of the highest-ranking Muslims in American finance, said in an e-mail interview that he had never experienced “religion-based impediments” in his decades-long career. He said he would advise young Muslims to “seek the opportunities and firms that speak to their set of values, expertise and passion.”

Left unsaid by senior Muslims, but understood by many Muppies, is that being Muslim can be an asset for one’s employer and clients. Muslim bankers, for example, may have to leave work at 1 p.m. on Fridays to go to the mosque. But they also may be less likely to rack up a huge bar tab on the company card and may be better positioned to compete for business in Arab markets.

“Rightly or wrongly, if you’re religious, you’re considered to have a reasonable degree of integrity,” says Sohail Khan, a managing principal at StormHarbour Securities and former trader at Citigroup. He says that his business expenses are often lower than colleagues’ and that he considers his lifestyle an asset in negotiating deals.  “When you’re the only guy at the table that’s not drunk, it’s a great weapon,” he said. “You know more than anyone else at the table the next morning.”

Mr. Akbar of RBC agrees that “being a good Muslim helps you be a good banker” but acknowledges that the union of his religious beliefs and his work in finance has been less than perfect.

“When I made a decision to pursue a career on Wall Street, there were certain things I knew I would have trouble reconciling with my faith,” he says. “I did some research, and I gained comfort that God is all-forgiving.”

For some, though, the envelope can be pushed only so far. Farhan Malik, Mr. Khan’s cousin and former Citigroup colleague, found his faith tested last year when asked to work on a trade involving British pubs. Mr. Malik, who does not drink, decided that trading so-called pub securities would violate tenets of his faith. He asked to be taken off the assignment; his bosses gladly acquiesced.

For Mr. Malik, who has since left Citigroup and now works at a Bahrain bank that deals sukuk products in addition to more conventional ones, the notion of marrying Western bank culture with Islam’s demands came to feel like an uphill battle.  “If you’re going to go out for Friday prayers, if you’re not drinking, it’s like trying to box with one of your hands tied behind your back,” he said.

STILL, for the Muppies and other Muslims hoping to make it on Wall Street, the fight carries on. The goal, they say, is to be so good at their jobs that bosses and colleagues come to think of each as just another hard worker.

“Wall Street is basically blind to religion,” said Mr. Siddiqui at Thomson Reuters. “What it’s concerned about is deal flow, assets under management and transactions.”

Mr. Malik, the former Citigroup trader, said it another way: “You could be worshiping Satan. As long as you’re making money, they’re happy.”