How Do Islamic Banks Make Money?

A young man makes his career choice and decides to become a successful banker, just like his father. He wants to prepare for the role and asks his father “What must I do to become a successful banker, just like you?” “Son,” says the father, “You must follow these three simple rules: first, don’t lend money to those who don’t have any; second, don’t lend money to those who need it badly; and third, the most important, don’t lend your own money.” Sound advice in these troubled times. It is a shame that many of today’s bankers either never received this sound advice, or ignored it!

In a previous article I presented the argument that Islamic banking institutions were weathering the present financial crisis comparatively well as they were, or certainly should be, insulated from the disasters in the interbank market and the mess in the derivatives markets. A number of readers raised the logical question of how Islamic banks manage to stay in business without charging interest.

To recap, one of the basic principles of Islamic banking is the prohibition of riba (usury or interest). Up until the 1980s riba was generally interpreted to only apply to usury but it is now accepted practice to refer to all interest. Other principles are based on simple morality and common sense, which are by no means unique to Islam. For example, usury was also prohibited by the Old as well as the New Testament. Even literary heavyweights such as Shakespeare weighed in against the practice.

Islamic banking is also by no means a recent phenomenon. The basic practices can be traced back to the early parts of the seventh century. Some experts even claim that many of the concepts and techniques so familiar to us today were later adopted by European bankers. Its fairly recent reemergence coincided with rising oil prices in the mid 1970s thus providing parts of the Muslim world with significant financial resources. The other crucial element was the accompanying search for ethical values in managing their financial affairs, something many of the traditionally western financial organisations could not provide. As this is a trend not only applicable to the Muslim world, the emerging Islamic banks are increasingly being accepted by non-Muslims who do not wish to invest in, or even deposit their savings with companies engaged in unethical and socially harmful activities, such as dealing in alcohol, gambling, pornography and tobacco.

The Islamic economic system is concerned with social justice to ensure that none of the parties involved in a transaction is being exploited without at the same time inhibiting individual enterprise. Extended to the Islamic financial system, this means that the funds individuals and/or companies put at risk share the profits or losses resulting from the enterprise. This concept of sharing the delights or pain of the outcome of business is a progressive one. To paraphrase Charles Darwin “It is not the strongest financial system that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Islamic banking encourages better resources management, in particular as outright speculation is not permitted by Shariah, ie Islamic law. The participants are keeping pace with sophisticated techniques and have developed products that are not only ethically motivated but also profitable.

Islamic financial solutions generally have Arabic names thus intimidating many potential buyers into saying it is all too complicated. At their core, most of these products are essentially the same as their conventional equivalents. The main differences are the absence of interest and often complicated procedures to ensure compliance with Shariah law.

For example, in Islamic housing finance the risks involved are shared between the bank and the borrower, rather than transferring all the risk to the latter. The most commonly used contract is the diminishing musharaka (partnership) contract. In this case the bank and the borrower form a partnership, with the bank providing up to 95 percent of the purchase price, and the borrower 5 percent.

The borrower buys out the ownership share of the bank which makes its profit from the rent paid by the client for the share the bank owns. This happens over a period of, usually, 15 to 30 years.

Should the borrower default on a rental or principal repayment, the bank may advance the borrower an interest-free loan to enable him to continue their payments in anticipation that he will pay in full when he is able to. The good news is that during this period of distress, the borrower retains his home rather than face eviction.

Having said this, Islamic banks still appraise credit risk, and indeed are more cautious about who they finance than conventional banks.


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