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“Interest” and the Paradox of
Contemporary Islamic Law and Finance
Mahmoud A. El-Gamal
Rice University
Often, the true grounds of legal decision are concealed rather than illuminated by the
characteristic rhetoric of opinions. Indeed, legal education consists primarily of learning to
dig beneath the rhetorical surface to find those grounds, many of which may turn out to
have an economic character.
Richard Posner (1992, p.23)
... [T]he manner in which an act was qualified as morally good or bad in the spiritual
domain of Islamic religion was quite different from the manner in which that same act
was qualified as legally valid or invalid in the temporal domain of Islamic law. Islamic
law was secular, not canonical... Thus, it was a system focused on ensuring that an
individual received justice, not that one be a good person.
John Makdisi (1999, p.1704)
I tell you, truthfully and without pretense, … that we went beyond choosing the “bank”
label [in “Islamic Banking”], to the point of adopting its central essence…
Consequently, we failed to give our financial institutions any characteristics beyond
simple financial intermediation. This is accomplished through Islamic banks’ favorite
investment modes that are essentially a hybrid between loans and investment; which
hybrid carries most of the characteristics of usurious loans…
Saleh Kamel (1996)
(founder of Dallah al-Baraka group, acceptance speech for the Islamic
Development Bank prize in Islamic Banking)
1. Introduction
Almost all contemporary writings in Islamic Law and/or Islamic finance proclaim that
Islamic Law (Sharī#a) forbids interest. This statement is paradoxical in light of the actual
practices of Islamic financial providers over the past three decades. In fact, the bulk of
Islamic financial practices formally base rates of return or costs of capital on a benchmark
interest rate such as LIBOR, and would easily be classified by any MBA student as
interest-based debt-finance. Nevertheless, jurists on the payrolls of Islamic financial
providers continue to proclaim all forms of interest as ribā, which is subject to the severest
The author is Chair of Islamic Economics, Finance and Management, and Professor of Economics and
Statistics, at Rice University in Houston, TX. Contact:

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Qur"anic prohibition. As quotations later in this article will illustrate, this dual role of
jurists (condemning conventional interest-based financing, while supporting and
personally profiting from its “Islamic” twin) is supported through excessively formalistic
interpretation of the letter of the Law.
Minority opinions permitting modern forms of interest have surfaced from time to time,
and they were occasionally championed by holders of highly respectable (though, often
politically appointed) religious posts. Perhaps the oldest such pronouncement was made
by Ebusuud Efendi, the Mufti of Istanbul between 1545 and 1574 C.E., and holder of the
title ”eyhülislam towards the end of his tenure. Ebusuud defended the act of interest-taking,
especially by awqāf (pious foundations), as a practical matter of necessity.
As expected,
this minority opinion, while sanctioned by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, was rejected
by the majority of Muslim scholars around the Arab world, who continued to favor
interest-free lending and traditional partnership forms of finance. Consequently,
European modes of banking only became commonly practiced in the Islamic world in the
eighteenth century. Even then, this widespread adoption of “western” banking practices
appears to have been driven by external forces.
Most recently, Sheikh-al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi re-iterated a fatwā (issued
opinion in response to a question regarding Islamic Law) that he had issued in 1989, and
published in the semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram, when he was the Mufti of Egypt.
most recent fatwā, carrying the support of the Azhar Islamic Research Institute (IRI)
(Majma# al-BuÈūth al-Islamiyyah) as well as Tantawi’s own, differed little from its
predecessors in terms of substance. Indeed, parts of its text seem to be copied verbatim
from a book on banking operations published by Tantawi well before the elicitation of
this recent fatwā by a member of the IRI, who is also chairman of the board of directors of
a bank.
One interesting aspect of the two opinions of Tantawi and the IRI is that they deal
exclusively with the relationship between bank depositors and the bank, without
addressing the nature of banks’ assets.
The essence of the fatwā is that bank depositors
should be viewed as passive investors, and banks should be viewed as their investment
agents. The problem of interest on bank deposits is thus reduced to one of permissibility
of pre-specifying the “profits” to which depositors are entitled as a percentage of the
capital, instead of specification as a percentage of actually realized profits. This constitutes
a violation of the classical rules of the silent partnership contracts known as mu∙āraba or
qirā∙ (and analogous to the Medieval European commenda contract and the Jewish heter
MacColl (1881).
Pamuk (2000, pp.78-82)
See Mallat (1996) for a discussion of the 1989 fatwā. Numerous Islamic writers attacked Tantawi for this
fatwā, which was dismissed by the Pakistani SharÊ#a a Appellate Court as “the solitary opinion of Dr.
Tantawi of Egypt”. Numerous personal attacks against Tantawi questioned his knowledge, piety, and
incentives. For instance, see Al-Salus (1998, vol.1, pp. 356-410).
Many have noted – correctly – that both opinions were issued during periods when the Egyptian
government was worried about lack of savings mobilization. However, this article focuses on the concepts
and methods invoked by the opinions’ proponents and opponents, rather than the incentives of the two.

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Semi-official Egyptian press hailed the fatwā as “declaring bank interest licit”,
though the authors of the fatwā clearly exerted effort in its wording and conceptualization
to avoid using the term “interest” (fā"ida, pl. fawā"id). Supporters of Islamic finance were
outraged by the fatwā and, despite numerous earlier rejections of its substance, demanded
a prompt official rebuttal by the largest possible juristic body. A month later, in January
2003, the Council of the Islamic Jurisprudence Academy (IJA; Majma# al-Fiqh al-Islamī)
issued a rebuttal, reiterating many of the points its members and numerous other jurists
had made to reject the Islamic legitimacy of all forms of bank interest.
Such scholarly/scholastic debates abound in every religious tradition. What is puzzling in
this instance, however, is the very nature of the “Islamic finance” that the majority of
jurists support as an alternative to the forbidden interest-based financial model. In fact,
the IJA arguments correctly illustrate the incoherence of the IRI’s fatwā, which focuses on
the liabilities (deposit) side of banks, and ignores the fact that the bulk of conventional
banks’ assets (or, in their language, investments) take the form of interest bearing loans,
which all jurists – including Tantawi and others at Al-Azhar who supported the fatwā
denounce as the forbidden ribā. On the other hand, the IJA’s own position, and that of
the majority of jurists who denounce conventional interest-based finance but support
contemporary “Islamic” alternative, also seems incoherent upon examination of the
practice of Islamic financial institutions on both sides of their balance sheets.
In Sections 2 and 3, I shall provide a brief introduction to various notions of “Islamic
Law” as they exist today, as well as the common-law nature of Islamic Jurisprudence,
thus establishing the possibility of finding a compromise that renders minor modifications
of the existing juristic positions coherent. In Sections 4 and 5, I provide translations of the
entire Azhar IRI fatwā, and large excerpts from the IJA’s Council rebuttal, together with
discussions of the juristic backgrounds of both opinions. In Section 6, I discuss the
ideological roots of contemporary Islamic finance, which continue to shape Muslim views
– both for jurists and laypeople – regarding interest and permissible profit. In Section 7, I
provide a brief survey of the most prominent Islamic financial instruments, illustrating the
incoherence of juristic views that denounce “interest” and maintain that Islamic finance is
“interest free”. In Section 8, I conclude by proposing a possible compromise between the
two extreme views espoused by the IRI fatwā and the IJA rebuttal, which would allow for
a coherent juristic/financial nexus in Islamic finance.
2. Questions of Authority: A Hierarchy of Islamic Laws
In contemporary Muslim societies, one may speak of a number of different Islamic Laws.
The lack of a widely accepted contemporary legal codification based on Islamic
jurisprudence makes it difficult to speak with any authority regarding the Islamic
permissibility or prohibition of any given transaction. Perversely, it is precisely this legal
vacuum that allows many individuals to speak with authority regarding those subjects.
For instance, see “A slap to the face of extremists and peddlers of religion: Finally, bank interest is
permissible”, in the Egyptian magazine Rose al-Yusuf, December 13, 2002, 18-21, and “Now, shall we
cancel Islamic banking?”, ibid, p. 22.

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The source of this authority may be a post to which the speaker was politically appointed,
academic credentials sanctioned by a community of scholars, or public support from the
In officially “Islamized” states, such as Iran, Pakistan and Sudan, a codified variant of
Islamic law continues to play a central role in the legitimacy of ruling regimes. In the area
of Finance, this issue has been most prominent in Pakistan, which has witnessed in the
past two decades a series of banking laws, and Sharī#a Appellate Court rulings (most
recently overruled by the supreme court), all aiming to “eradicate interest”. The financial
systems in those states are therefore politically mandated to operate on an interest free
basis, despite the lack of a coherent demarcation between what is “interest-based” and
what is “interest-free”. Many of the early innovations in Islamic finance (e.g. alternatives
to government bonds) were advanced in those countries. However, the recent growth of
Islamic finance has been mostly driven by advances made in Malaysia and the GCC
countries, most recently with the assistance of multinational financial behemoths such as
Citigroup and HSBC.
Second in the hierarchy is the Islamic Law of Muslim states (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Egypt,
Syria, Jordan, etc.), some of which have long declared Islamic Law as their source of
legislation. In the area of finance, the Islamic sources of transaction law continue to rely
heavily on Majallat al-AÈkām al-#Adliyyah, the latest available codification of Islamic
Jurisprudence, commissioned and imposed by the Ottoman empire in its final days 1869-
1926 C.E., and based on \anafī jurisprudence. Even in countries (e.g. Egypt), where the
Majallah was never enforced, its general juristic rules continue to be quoted alike by
official judges and jurists of all schools. Of course, the actual civil codes in most Muslim
countries owe less to Islamic Jurisprudence than to European civil codes: Swiss in the case
of the Turkish republic (1926), French in the cases of Egypt (1949), Syria (1949) and Iraq
Paralleling increased general levels of religiosity in Muslim societies, the late Twentieth
Century witnessed a revival of Islamic Law at the official level. The Egyptian
Constitution’s Article 2, amended in May 1980, stated that all subsequent laws and
legislations must be derived from Islamic Law. This constitutional requirement was
further strengthened through the following Egyptian Constitutional Court’s ruling:
It is therefore not permitted that a legislative text contradict those rules of Sharī#a
whose origin and interpretation are definitive, since these rules are the only ones
regarding which new interpretive effort (ijtihād) is impossible, as they represent, in
Islamic Sharī#a, the supreme principles and fixed foundations that admit neither
allegorical interpretation, nor modification. In addition, we should not
contemplate that their meaning would change with changes in time and place,
from which it follows that they are impermeable to any amendment, and that it is
not permitted to go beyond them or change their meaning. The authority of the
High Constitutional Court in this regard is limited to safeguarding their
implementation and overruling any other legal rule that contradicts them.
Arabi (2001, pp.21,39-42,63-5).
As quoted in Arabi (2001, p.196).

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In Saudi Arabia, there have been a number of lawsuits whereby one counterparty refused
to pay interest or delay of payment penalties on the basis of the prohibition of ribā,
sometimes despite the fact that such payments were stipulated in a contract. A number of
lawsuits between non-Saudi and Saudi counterparties are currently underway, and
revolve precisely around the issue of whether or not payment of interest or late payment
penalties is forbidden under Islamic Law.
The revival of manifested (if not real) desire to implement Islamic Law at the official level
gave rise to international juristic councils, most notable among which are the following:
• The Institute of Islamic Research (Majma# Al-BuÈūth Al-Islamiyyah) at Al-Azhar
University, established in Cairo in 1961.
• The Islamic Jurisprudence Institute (Al-Majma# Al-Fiqhi Al-Islami) of the Islamic
League (Rabiãat Al-#Alam Al-Islami), established in Makkah in 1979.
• The Fiqh Institute or Academy (Majma# Al-Fiqh Al-Islami) of the Organization of
Islamic Conference (OIC: Munaíammat Al-Mu"tamar Al-Islami), established in 1984
with a home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This is currently the most widely cited
jurisprudential council, which is comprised of representatives from Islamic
member of the OIC.
Members of those institutes are appointed by their governments. Consequently, Islamic
Law pronouncements of those institutes inherit some official status.
The Islamic Law pronouncements at the three official levels (Islamized national level,
Islamic law within Muslim nations, and international institute level) often contradict one
another. For instance, the Malaysian Islamic banking laws allowed for trading in debt
(bay# al-dayn), which allowed them to evolve a relatively sophisticated “Islamic Money
Market”. In contrast, the Muslim states’ and Jurisprudence Institutes’ jurists (mostly from
the Arab world and Pakistan) rejected this type of debt trading. Consequently, Malaysian
Islamic finance has recently moved in the direction of increased conservatism (if only in
formalistic terms), to assist in building an international Islamic money market for its
bonds and other financial instruments. Simultaneously, innovations in the Arab world
permitted so called ijāra and salam ßukūk (bonds), which can serve as an alternative basis for
Islamic money market.
Another level of complexity affecting Islamic finance is added by a fourth category of
Islamic Law”: that endorsed by popular jurists, whose influence has increased
exponentially in recent years through satellite television channels and internet forums.
Those jurists tend to rely heavily on the medieval literature in Islamic jurisprudence, with
frequent quotations of Canonical Texts to support those earlier opinions. Their following
accept the maxim that “Islam is for all times and places”,
thus giving those medieval
Since those cases are still underway, it is premature to disclose their counterparties or document the
arguments used by each side.
With sufficient flexibility in the definition of what constitutes Islam, this statement would be rendered
tautological. With sufficient rigidity, it would be rendered patently false. Champions of this slogan span the
entire spectrum of degrees of flexibility between those two extremes. In the arena of Islamic finance, that
allows for profitable market segmentation according to the degree of conservatism of its adherents. El-

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texts, which were mostly driven by the contemporary concerns of their authors, current
Some of the “fathers” of Islamic Economics, the ideological dogma
that gave rise to contemporary Islamic Finance, belonged to this class of popular religious
figures who had a significant following during their lifetimes, and continued to have a
stronger following posthumously (e.g. Abu al-A#la al-Mawdudi, Baqir al-Sadr, and Sayyid
Qutb, who also – perhaps unsurprisingly – fathered contemporary political Islam in their
respective countries and beyond). Contemporary popular jurists (e.g. Taqi Usmani in
Pakistan, with close ties to Mawdudi’s Jamat-i-Islami, Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Qatar, with
close ties to Qutb’s Muslim Brotherhood in his native Egypt, etc.) mostly follow in the
footsteps of those founders of the populist view of “Islam as a way of life”, and its
manifestation in Islamic finance.
A fifth and final category of Islamic Law is responsible for the existence and growth of
Islamic finance: that of amateur jurists. Despite the clergy-like status granted popular
jurists, and in certain circles also granted official and semi-official jurists, Islamic
Jurisprudence does require the questioner to seek knowledge directly. While large
portions of the Muslim populations of various countries are willing to accept the opinions
of a particular jurist or institute blindly, a growing number of laypeople seek to educate
themselves about the various opinions and their basis in classical Islamic Law. This is
facilitated in large part by the affordable availability of printed copies of the classical texts,
as well as the availability of such texts in electronic form on various media. In fact, many
of the “scholars” serving on “Sharī#a boards” of various providers of Islamic financial
instruments have no formal degrees in Islamic Transactions Law. Rather, they are mostly
self-educated laypeople and generalist jurists who have helped facilitate a difficult
discourse between bankers on the one hand, and religious Law texts on the other. The
bridges now built by those amateur jurists may assist formally trained Islamic Legal
scholars to understand the basics of contemporary finance, and help them to build the
much needed transition from classical books of jurisprudence to a contemporary, relevant
and coherent jurisprudence of financial transactions.
Unfortunately, as the recent
episode discussed in this article illustrates, the rhetoric used by amateur and professional
jurists continues to obscure the relevant facts, and keep that much desired goal beyond
3. Islamic Transactions Law as Common Law
Even though contemporary writings on Islamic transactions law always cite Canonical
Texts (The Qur"ān and the Prophetic Sunnah) to support their opinions, Islamic
Gamal (2002) provides a formal model of this phenomenon, which also explains some of the paradoxical
behavior of jurists discussed in this article.
Claims, like those of the Egyptian Constitutional Court quoted above, professing that the Canonical
Texts are immutable and applicable for all time can easily morph into claims that classical interpretations of
those texts, or majority interpretations thereof, are equally authoritative. See Abou El Fadl (2001) for an
analysis of the contemporary problems of authoritativeness in Islamic discourse.
The current context of an Islamic law and finance, which evolves through fatāwa instead of formal
codification, is particularly problematic for the desired coherence of opinions. It is the nature of a fatwā that
it is given for a specific time and specific set of circumstances, and therefore a collection of fatāwa is highly
unlikely to exhibit any degree of internal consistency and coherence.

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transactions law is at heart a common-law system. Indeed, contemporary developments
in Islamic finance owe more to contemporary juristic understandings of the Canonical
Texts, and previous juristic analyses, than they owe to the Canon itself, by the admission
of the very jurists working in this field:
It must be understood that when we claim that Islam has a satisfactory solution
for every problem emerging in any situation in all times to come, we do not mean
that the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet or the rulings of Islamic
scholars provide a specific answer to each and every minute detail of our socio-
economic life. What we mean is that the Holy Quran and the Holy Sunnah of
the Prophet have laid down the broad principles in the light of which the scholars
of every time have deduced specific answers to the new situations arising in their
age. Therefore, in order to reach a definite answer about a new situation the
scholars of Shariah have to play a very important role. They have to analyze
every question in light of the principles laid down by the Holy Quran and
Sunnah as well as in the light of the standards set by earlier jurists enumerated in
the books of Islamic jurisprudence. This exercise is called Istinbat or Ijtihad...
[T]he ongoing process of Istinbat keeps injecting new ideas, concepts and rulings
into the heritage of Islamic jurisprudence...
In other words, Islamic jurists, by “injecting new ideas, concepts and rulings” make law in
a manner very similar to common law judges presiding over cases that lack common-law
precedents. In addition, it is worthwhile noting that the process of ijtihād discussed above
is restricted mainly to reasoning by analogy (juristic, rather than logical), following the
rules of Islamic Legal Theory as established by Al-Shāfi#ī and widely followed in all
juristic schools:
1323- He said: What is analogy (qiyās)? Is it the same as ijtihād, or are they two
separate notions?
1324- I (Al-Shāfi#ī) said: they are synonyms.
1325- He said: So what is in common between them?
1326- I said: Everything which was revealed for the Muslims contains either a
binding command, or a legal proof upon which future rulings can be based to
uphold Truth and Justice. Thus, if revelation gave us a direct ruling [regarding
the matter at hand], Muslims must follow that ruling; and if revelation did not
make a ruling on this specific matter, then a proof for the just and true ruling
must be sought via ijtihād. And, ijtihād is qiyās.
This emphasis on precedent and reasoning by juristic analogy gave rise to a body of
transactions law that is very similar to contemporary common law traditions:
In the course of studying Islamic law in its everyday practice I have been
increasingly struck with its similarities to the common law form in which I have
also been trained in the United States.
Usmani (1998, p.237).
Al-Shafi#ī (1939, p.477).
Rosen (2000, p.39).

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Misunderstandings this common law feature of Islamic transactions law has caused
significant problems in recently Islamized states:
... in Pakistan and Sudan the simple use of Islamic law as an arm of the state has
slipped through the fingers of those at the center. The reason, I believe is that
these regimes have been trying to apply a common law variant as if it were a civil
law system...
Thus, while Islamic jurisprudence has in fact evolved as a common-law system, the
rhetoric of opinions utilized by jurists suggests a civil/canon law procedure of interpreting
Legal Texts. I shall now illustrate this tension through an analysis of a fatwā issued by the
Azhar's Islamic Research Institute in December 2002, and the reaction it has elicited. Of
particular interest is the fact that both the text of the fatwā (and its supporting arguments
in other sources) on the one hand, and the rejection by the IJA jurists on the other, focus
on the Canonical nature of the Law, even when the application of a particular Text to the
practical issue-at-hand is very far-fetched.
4. The Azhar Islamic Research Institute Fatwā (December 2002)
The official fatwā (in Arabic) is reproduced in the Appendix, since the author has received
many requests by email from readers who wished to read the Arabic original and study its
specific wording. A translation of its full text follows:
Office of the Grand Imam, Rector of Al-Azhar
Investing funds with banks that pre-specify profits
Dr. Hasan Abbas Zaki, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Arab Banking
Corporation, sent a letter dated 22/10/2002 to H.E. the Grand Imam Dr.
Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Rector of Al-Azhar. Its text follows:
"H.E. Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi,
Rector of Al-Azhar:
Greetings and prayers for Peace, Mercy, and blessings of Allah
Customers of the International Arab Banking Corporation forward their funds
and savings to the Bank to use and invest them in its permissible dealings, in
exchange for profit distributions that are pre-determined, and the distribution
times are likewise agreed-upon with the customer. We respectfully ask you for the
[Islamic] legal status of this dealing.
He has also attached a sample documentation of the dealing between an investor
and the bank. The sample reads as follows:
ibid, p.64.
I am grateful to Dr. Anas Al-Zarqa for sharing a scanned version of the official fatwā.

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The International Arab Banking Corp.
Date / / 2000 A.D.
Mr/________________ Account number ____________
Kind Greetings
This is to inform you that your account with us, in the amount of L.E.
100,000 (only one hundred thousand Egyptian Pounds) has been
renewed. For the period 1/1/2002 until 31/12/2002 A.D.
Rate of return 10% resulting in a return of
L.E. 10,000
Total of deposit + return on distribution date L.E.110,000
New amount, including return as of 31/12/2002 L.E.110,000
His Excellency, the Grand Imam, has forwarded the letter and its attachment for
consideration by the Council of the Islamic Research Institute in its subsequent
The Council met on Thursday, 25 Sha#ban, 1423 A.H., corresponding to 31
October, 2002 A.D., at which time the above mentioned subject was presented.
After the members’ discussions and analysis, the Council determined that
investing funds in banks that pre-specify profits is permissible under Islamic Law,
and there is no harm therein.
Due to the special importance of this topic for the public, who wish to know the
Islamic Legal ruling regarding investing their funds with banks that pre-specify
profits (as shown by their numerous questions in this matter), the Secretariat
General of the Islamic Research Institute decided to prepare an official fatwā,
supported by the Islamic Legal proofs and a summary of the Institute members’
statements. This should give the public a clear understanding of the issue, thus
giving them confidence in the opinion.
The General Secretariat presented the full fatwā text to the Islamic Research
Institute Council during its session on Thursday, 23 Ramadan 1423,
corresponding to 28 November 2002 A.D. Following the reading of the fatwā,
and noting members’ comments on its text, they approved it.
This is the text of the fatwā
Those who deal with the International Arab Banking Corporation Bank – or any
other bank – forward their funds and savings to the bank as an agent who invests
the funds on their behalf in its permissible dealings, in exchange for a profit
distribution that is pre-determined, and at distribution times that are mutually
agreed-upon …
This dealing, in this form, is permissible, without any doubt of impermissibility.
This follows from the fact that no Canonical Text in the Book of Allah or the

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Prophetic Sunnah forbids this type of transaction within which profits or returns
are pre-specified, as long as the transaction is concluded with mutual consent.
Allah, transcendent is He, said: "Oh people of faith, do not devour your
properties among yourselves unjustly, the exception being trade conducted by
mutual consent…" (Al-Nisā":29)
The verse means: Oh people with true faith, it is not permissible for you, and
unseemly, that any of you devour the wealth of another in impermissible ways
(e.g. theft, usurpation, or usury, and other forbidden means). In contrast, you are
permitted to exchange benefits through dealings conducted by mutual consent,
provided that no forbidden transaction is thus made permissible or vice versa.
This applies regardless of whether the mutual consent is established verbally, in
written form, or in any other form that indicates mutual agreement and
There is no doubt that mutual agreement on pre-specified profits is Legally and
logically permissible, so that each party will know his rights.
It is well known that banks only pre-specify profits or returns based on precise
studies of international and domestic markets, and economic conditions in the
society. In addition, returns are customized for each specific transaction type,
given its average profitability.
Moreover, it is well known that pre-specified profits vary from time period to
another. For instance, investment certificates initially specified a return of 4%,
which increased subsequently to more than 15%, now returning to near 10%.
The parties that specify those changing rates of returns are required to obey the
regulations issued by the relevant government agencies.
This pre-specification of profits is beneficial, especially in this age, when
deviations from truth and fair dealing have become rampant. Thus, pre-
specification of profits provides benefits both to the providers of funds, as well as
to the banks that invest those funds.
It is beneficial to the provider of funds since it allows him to know his rights
without any uncertainty. Thus, he may arrange the affairs of his life accordingly.
It is also beneficial to those who manage those banks, since the pre-specification
of profits gives them the incentive for working hard, since they keep all excess
profits above what they promised the provider of funds. This excess profit
compensation is justified by their hard work.
It may be said that banks may lose, thus wondering how they can pre-specify
profits for the investors.
In reply, we say that if banks lose on one transaction, they win on many others,
thus profits can cover losses.

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In addition, if losses are indeed incurred, the dispute will have to be resolved in
In summary, pre-specification of profits to those who forward their funds to banks
and similar institutions through an investment agency is Legally permissible.
There is no doubt regarding the Islamic Legality of this transaction, since it
belongs to the general area judged according to benefits, i.e. wherein there are no
explicit Texts. In addition, this type of transaction does not belong to the areas of
creed and ritual acts of worship, wherein changes and other innovations are not
Based on the preceding, investing funds with banks that pre-specify profits or
returns is Islamically Legal, and there is no harm therein, and Allah knows best,
Rector of Al-Azhar
Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi
27 Ramadan 1423 A.H.
2 December 2002 A.D.
The second and penultimate paragraphs of the fatwā hinted to the common objection to
fixing profits in the Islamic silent partnership contract (mu∙āraba). As we shall see below,
jurists often claim that there is a consensus that the principal's profit share must be
specified as a percentage of total profits -- rather than a fixed percentage of the capital.
The text of the fatwā hints at the view that this opinion was only an artifact of the
historical thought of Islamic jurists who developed the principle, and does not rely on any
direct injunction in Canonical Islamic Texts.
Elsewhere, Tantawi elaborated on the fatwā's justification of fixing the profit share as a
percentage of the partnership's capital on moral hazard considerations:
Non-fixity of profits [as a percentage of capital] in this age of corruption,
dishonesty and greed would put the principal under the mercy of the agent
investing the funds, be it a bank or otherwise.
In his book, Tantawi also cited similar opinions by highly respected earlier jurists,
including Abdul-Wahhab Khallaf
, Ali Al-Khafif
, and others.
Most notable among
those quotations are the following:
In other words: regardless of whether or not profits are pre-specified, such cases of realized losses will
have to be settled in court.
Tantawi (2001, p.131).
ibid., pp. 94-104.
ibid., pp.165-204.
ibid., pp. 204-211.

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When one gives his money to another for investment and payment of a known
profit, this does not constitute the definitively forbidden ribā, regardless of the pre-
specified profit rate. This follows from the fact that disagreeing with the juristic
rule that forbids pre-specification of profits does not constitute the clear type of
ribā which ruins households. This type of transaction is beneficial both to the
investor and the entrepreneur. In contrast, rib
harms one for no fault other than
being in need, and benefits another for no reason except greed and hardness of
heart. The two types of dealings cannot possibly have the same legal status
The juristic condition for validity [of mu∙āraba] that profits are not pre-specified is
a condition without proof (dalīl). Just as profits may be shared between the two
parties, the profits of one party may be pre-specified… Such a condition may
disagree with jurists’ opinions, but it does not contradict any Canonical Text in
the Qur’ān and Sunnah.
The only objection for this dealing is the condition of validity of mu∙āraba that
profits must be specified as percentage shares, rather than specified amounts or
percentages of capital. I reply to this objection as follows:
First: This condition has no proof (dalīl) from the Qur’ān and Sunnah.
Silent partnerships follow the conditions stipulated by the partners. We
now live in a time of great dishonesty, and if we do not specify a fixed profit
for the investor, his partner will devour his wealth.
Second: If the mu∙āraba is deemed defective due to violation of one of its
conditions, the entrepreneur thus becomes a hired worker, and what he
takes is considered wages. Let that be as it may, for there is no difference in
calling it a mudāraba or an ‘ijāra: It is a valid transaction that benefits the
investor who cannot directly invest his funds, and benefits the entrepreneur
who gets capital with which to work. Thus, it is a transaction that benefits
both parties, without harming either party or anyone else. Forbidding this
beneficial transaction would result in harm, and the Prophet (P) forbade
that by saying: “No harm is allowed”.
We now note again that this fatwa is focused on the liabilities side of banking, and even
then addresses the issue from the point of view of depositors. Indeed Tantawi (2001)
argued that the depositor/bank relationship should neither be viewed as one of
depositor/depositary nor one of lender/borrower. Either characterization of the
relationship, he admits, would render any interest payment a form of the forbidden ribā.
In contrast, he argued, savers take their funds to banks to invest on their behalf.
Therefore, he argued, the relationship is one of principal/agent in an investment agency,
and the juristic problem discussed above is only regarding the permissibility of fixing
Quoted by Tantawi (2001, p.95), attributed to Khallaf, who in turn attributed the quote to Muhammad
Abduh’s article in Al-Manār (#9, 1906, p.332). Similar arguments were made by Rashid Reda, Al-Dawalibi,
and Al-Sanhuri, in various forms. Their arguments were based, respectively, on restricting the strict
Qur’anic prohibition to post hoc charging of interest, charging interest on consumption (as opposed to
production) loans, and charging compound interest. The current opinion of Tantawi is quite different, in
that it takes the issue away from one of interest-bearing loans to one of investment with pre-specified profits.
Quoted by Tantawi (2001, p.95-6), and attributed to Khallaf, Liwā’ Al-’Islām (1951, #4(11)).
Quoted by Tantawi (2001, p.95-6), and attributed to Khallaf, Liwā’ Al-’Islām (1951, #4(12)).

Page 13
profits as a percentage of capital in such investment agency. As we shall see shortly, the
rebuttal, representing the views of most jurists around the world, insists that the
relationship is initially one of deposit. Once the depositary uses the funds deposited
therein, classical jurisprudence suggests that the depositary has thus violated the simple
safekeeping duties of a fiduciary deposit, and must thus guarantee the funds for the
depositor. The deposit contract is one of trust rather than guaranty, i.e. the depositary
only guarantees funds against its own negligence and transgression, not unconditionally.
Therefore, the classical juristic argument concludes, the contract can no longer be viewed
as a deposit, and must be viewed as a loan, the latter being a contract of guaranty.
Indeed, Tantawi (2001) spends much of the book arguing that deposits at banks do not fit
the classical jurisprudence definition of “deposits” (wadī#ah), and rejects their
characterization as loans.
5. Rebuttal by the Islamic Fiqh Institute in Qatar (January 2003)
In the conclusions of the Fourteenth Session of Majlis Majma# Al-Fiqh Al- Islami in DūÈa,
Qatar, January 11-16, 2003, the Azhar IRI’s characterization of dealings with
conventional banks as a legitimate investment vehicle was rejected. The following lengthy
quotation from the official conclusions of the meeting summarizes the contemporary
overwhelming-majority view on conventional banking among jurists:
A. Conventional Bank functions:
Banking laws forbid banks from dealing through profit and loss-sharing
investment. Banks receive loans from the public in the form of deposits, and
restrict their activities – according to lawyers and economists – to lending and
borrowing with interest, thus creating credit through lending deposited funds
with interest.
B. Conventional Bank relationship with depositors:
The religious-law (shar#i) and secular-law characterizations of the relationship
between depositors and banks is one of loans, not agency. This is how general
and banking laws characterize the relationship. In contrast, investment agency is
a contract according to which an agent invests funds on behalf of a principal, in
exchange for a fixed wage or a share in profits. In this regard, there is a consensus
[of religious scholars] that the principal owns the invested funds, and is therefore
entitled to the profits of investment and liable for its losses, while the agent is
entitled to a fixed wage if the agency stipulated that. Consequently, conventional
banks are not investment-agents for depositors. Banks receive funds from
depositors and use them, thus guaranteeing said funds and rendering the contract
a loan. In this regard, loans must be repaid at face value, with no stipulated
C. Conventional Bank interest is a form of forbidden ribā
Qarārāt wa Tawßiyāt Al-Dawrah Al-Rabi#at #Ashr li-Majlis Al-Fiqh Al- Islami (Decisions and conclusions of the
fourteenth session of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council), Decision #133 (7/14), pp. 20-24.

Page 14
Banks’ interest on deposits is a form of ribā that is forbidden in the Qur"an and
Sunna, as previous decisions and fatāwā have concurred since the second meeting
of the Islamic Research Institute in Cairo, Muharram 1385 A.H., May 1965
A.D., attended by eighty-five of the greatest Muslim scholars and representatives
of thirty-five Islamic countries. The first decision of that conference stated:
“Interest on any type of loan is forbidden ribā”. The same decision was affirmed
by later decisions of numerous conferences, including:
... [List of conferences and Institute opinions prohibiting bank interest]
D. Pre-specification of investment profits in amount, or as a percentage of
the invested capital
It is universally accepted that interest-bearing loans differ from legal silent
partnership (mu∙āraba). In loans, the borrower is entitled to profits and bears all
losses. In contrast, mu∙āraba is a partnership in profits, and the principal bears
financial losses if they occur, as per the Prophet's (P) saying: “Al-kharāju bi-l-∙amān)
profits are justified for the one bearing liability for losses” (narrated by Ahmad
and the authors of Sunan, with a valid chain of narration)...
Thus, jurists of all schools have reached a consensus over the centuries that pre-
specification of investment profits in any form of partnership is not allowed, be it
pre-specified in amount, or as a percentage of the capital. This ruling is based on
the view that such a pre-specification guarantees the principal capital, thus
violating the essence of partnerships (silent or otherwise), which is sharing in
profits and losses. This consensus is well established, and no dissent has been
reported. In this regard, ibn Qudamah wrote in Al-Mughni (vol.3, p.34): “All
scholars whose opinions were preserved are in consensus that silent partnership
(qirā∙ or mu∙āraba) is invalidated if one or both partners stipulate a known amount
of money as profit”. In this regard, consensus of religious scholars is a legal proof
on its own.
The council urges Muslims, as it declares this unanimous decision, to earn money
only through permissible means, and to avoid forbidden sources of income in
obedience to Allah (S) and his Messenger (P).
This opinion contains four main arguments against the correctness and the relevance of
the IRI fatwā, and it would be helpful at this point to summarize those arguments:
1. The fatwā refers to banks with permissible investments, but banks are forbidden
from investing in any instruments other than interest-bearing loans and financial
2. Characterizing the depositor/bank relationship as one of investment agency is
incorrect. The correct classical characterization is one of lender/borrower.
3. There is a consensus that all forms of bank interest are forbidden ribā.
4. Even if the relationship was to be considered one of investment agency (silent
partnership), pre-specification of profits in such partnerships must be in terms of a
percentage of total profits, not a percentage of capital. The moral hazard

Page 15
argument is ignored, and the principle of return being justified by risk is
The first point is clearly valid. One can easily see that by focusing on the liabilities side of
banking, the IRI fatwā, and its predecessors, ignored the nature of bank assets, which are
legally interest-bearing loans, forbidden by all jurists as a form of ribā
This renders the
IRI fatwā not relevant for conventional banks, the investments of which are not deemed
On the other hand, as we shall see in Section 7, and noted in the third opening quote by
Saleh Kamel, Islamic financial institutions have managed to find permissible alternatives
to bank loans that are functionally equivalent to interest-bearing loans. On the other
hand, “depositors” at those institutions are not entitled to any rate of return, and
“investment account” holders are exposed to unnecessary levels of moral hazard and
adverse selection due to their exposure to losses. This problem has been solved practically
in Islamic finance by selling shares in closed-end “MurābaÈa funds”, which are essentially
securitized claims to the stream of fixed payments of principal plus interest (mark-up), in
which the only real source of risk is default risk, as in the case of interest-bearing loans.
While this solution provides some of the banking functions of pooling the resources of
many savers and diversifying the portfolio by financing multiple projects/purchases, it
falls well short of addressing all the prudential regulation standards to which banks are
We shall return to those issues in Section 8, arguing that a combination of the lax
opinions Islamic bank jurists have adopted and the IRI opinion on pre-specification of
profits as a percentage of capital can provide a coherent framework for Islamic financial
intermediation, and reduce current agency costs in the industry. Before turning to that
issue, however, we need to review briefly the background and practice of Islamic finance.
6. Ideological Roots of Islamic Finance: Islamic Economics
Islamic finance was conceived in the 1970s as the brain-child of contemporary “Islamic
Economics”. The latter began to take shape in the 1950s, based primarily on the writings
of Muhammad Iqbal and Abu Al-A#la Al-Maududi in the India and Pakistan, and Baqir
Al-Sadr and Sayyid Qutb in the Arab world.
Timur Kuran noted the importance for
that field of the concurrent emergence of a political independence movement, with
accompanying emphasis on national and religious identities.
He argued convincingly
that the ideology that gave rise to Islamic Economics, and – he argued – sustains it to this
day, is socio-politically (and not scientifically) based on religion.
Over the course of three decades, Islamic Economics morphed into a sub-field of
economics as suggested by contemporary leaders of the field:
See the survey of Haneef (1995) for summaries of the early Islamic Economics writers' views and
contributions to the field.
Kuran (1995, 1996, 1997).

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Islamic economics ... has the advantage of benefiting from the tools of analysis
developed by conventional economics. These tools along with a consistent world-
view for both microeconomics and macroeconomics, and empirical data about
the extent of deviation from [normative] goal realization may help…
[Islamic Economics] is the Muslim thinkers’ response to the economic challenges
of their times. In this endeavor they were aided by the Qur’an and the Sunnah as
well as by reason and experience.
Therefore, while “Islamic Economics” was initially conceived as an independent Islamic
social science, it quickly lost that emphasis on independence and identity:
[Islamic economics] failed to escape the centripetal pull of western economic
thought, and has in many regards been caught in the intellectual web of the very
system it set out to replace.
Similar to that convergence of Islamic Economics with mainstream economic thought,
Islamic finance quickly turned to mimicking the (interest-based) conventional finance it
set out to replace. However, writings in Islamic Jurisprudence, Islamic Economics, and
Islamic finance continued to assert that conventional interest based banking and finance
is the forbidden ribā. Thus, popular Islamic discourse continues to refer to conventional
banks as “ribawi banks”,
and to assert that the Islamic alternative is “interest free”. It is
this divergence between the fiction of Islamic finance and its facts that gave rise to the
paradox addressed in this article.
At its inception, Islamic banking was theoretically conceived on the principle of profit and
loss sharing through two-tier silent partnership (mu∙āraba), in place of the ribawi
deposit/loan-based commercial banking. Providers of funds would be viewed as
principals/silent-partners extending their funds to an Islamic bank, which is viewed as an
entrepreneur or investment agent. The Islamic bank would thus invest funds on the
principals’ behalf, in exchange for a share in profits. If investments were not profitable,
the bank/agent would lose only its effort, and the principals would bear all financial
losses. In turn, the bank would invest the funds by acting as a principal in other
investment agency contracts (silent partnerships), with its various customers.
This two-tier profit-sharing form of financial intermediation, potentially supplemented
with legal stratagems (hiyal) to fix profits as a percentage of capital, was hardly new.
Indeed, Avram Udovich has dubbed this practice in medieval Mediterranean trade as
Chapra (1996, pp.53-4).
M.N. Siddiqi in Ahmad and Awan (1992, p.69).
Nasr (1991, p.388).
One of the earliest distinctions between conventional banks and their perceived Islamic counterparts was
Sadr's Al-Bank Al-la-Ribawi fi Al-Islam (The No-Riba Bank in Islam, 1977), which followed on the heels of his
1961 publication of Iqtisaduna (Our Economics, 1961).. The early vision of Islamic banking is best illustrated in
Siddiqi (1983, 1983a). The earliest writing on this view of Islamic banking is currently attributed to Uzair
(1955), c.f. Vogel and Hayes (1996, p.130), Lewis and Algaoud (2001, p.40).

Page 17
“bankers without banks”.
The basic profit-sharing principle also bears very close
resemblance to the Jewish legal concept of the heter isqa (partnership clause) contract, a
silent partnership profit-sharing arrangement, to avoid the Biblical prohibition of ribit.
Like heter isqa documents,
Islamic bank documents avoid the use of any terms that may
result in a charge of violating the prohibition of ribā, such as “loan”, “interest”,
“borrower”, “lender”, etc.
Later refinements of the heter isqa allowed profits received by the principal to be a fixed
percentage of the partnership's capital, as a solution to the inherent moral hazard
problem in silent partnerships. The fundamental argument underlying the December
2002 ruling of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Institute revolves around the same issue of
fixing the silent-partner's profit percentage to solve moral hazard problems. However, we
have seen that this attempt to justify interest as a fixed profit rate in an investment
relationship has met violent opposition by the Islamic juristic community. The paradox,
however, is that this same juristic community has been supportive of an Islamic finance
movement that is at best an economically inefficient replication of the conventional
finance for which it purports to be a substitute.
7. The Paradox of Contemporary Islamic Finance
Scanning any news article on Islamic Finance, one is almost certain to read that
“Muslims are forbidden to pay or receive interest”.
On the other hand, one need not
read much further before facing our paradox. For instance, in a recent Fortune magazine
article dealing with Islamic auto-finance, the author cited a case study wherein a
customer of one Islamic bank chose a car that he wished to purchase on credit, and
negotiated its price with the dealer. The customer then asked the Islamic bank to
purchase the car at its cash price from the dealer, and then to sell it to him on credit. The
credit prices charged by Islamic banks include a pre-specified profit-margin (mark-up)
that parallels the market interest-rates for auto-loans with similar characteristics.
Reflecting on the transaction, the author of the article exclaimed:
The result looked a lot like interest, and some argue that murabaha is simply a
thinly veiled version of it; the markup [bank's name] charges is very close to the
prevailing interest rate. But bank officials argue that God is in the details.
Udovich (1981).
Most commonly understood within Jewish Law as a prohibition of charging interest on loans to fellow-
Jews, c.f. Stern (1982).
Often spelled heter iska (with a k), for sample forms, see:
In an interesting fatwā for HSBC Amana Finance in New York, two active Islamic bank jurists signed a
document that stated that such language (“borrower”, “interest”, “loan”, etc.) was only mandated in HSBC
documents by the state of New York, but – essentially – that the contract was interest-free nonetheless.
Interestingly, Qur"anic translations historically translated “ribā” as “usury”. With the advent of Islamic
economics, translations substituted “interest” for “usury”. See El-Gamal (2000) for a full discussion of the
similarities and differences between the three concepts.
Useem, J. “Banking on Allah”, Fortune, June 10, 2002. The cynical “God is in the details” is particularly
distasteful in light of those formalistic “details” documented later in this section.

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The bulk of Islamic finance operations today involve this type of mark-up credit sales, or
more sophisticated lease-to-purchase transactions with similar built-in mark-ups
designated as rent. Moreover, as we shall see shortly, the mark-up is explicitly based on a
market interest rate such as LIBOR, and jurists have defended this practice on the basis
of LIBOR serving “only as a benchmark”.
The same paradox can also be observed at the macroeconomic level. In June 2002, Bank
Negara Malaysia issued $500 million in “Global Sukūk”,
described as an “Islamic
Treasury Bond”, which operates on “Islamic interest-free financial and investment
principles”. The current Islamic bond market in Malaysia is estimated to be worth $20
In August 2002, the Bahrain Monetary Agency announced its third issuance of
Islamic leasing ‘ukūk worth $80 million, and paying a “four percent annual profit”.
Thus, such news articles paradoxically report on “interest free” financial instruments, and
shortly proceeded to report their interest rate. Calling such instruments “interest free” is
particularly problematic in light of attached government guarantees. Bahrain’s “Islamic
Leasing ‘ukūk” issue of $80 million in August 2002, which was 2.1 times over-subscribed,
was declared (along with earlier issues in September 2001) to be “directly and
unconditionally guaranteed by the government”.
Islamic banks have kept to the generally accepted principle of profit and loss sharing on
their liabilities-side, at least in principle if not in practice. Thus, depositors in Islamic
banks do not earn any return on their deposits, while those holding “investment
accounts” earn a profit-share and are exposed to potential losses. In practice, Islamic
banks use special accounts to smooth the profit distribution to their investment account
holders (thus keeping profit distributions close to market interest rates).
On the assets-side, Islamic banks avoid the risks of profit and loss sharing investment
arrangements by engaging mostly in cost-plus trading and lease financing. As noted by
Saleh Kamel in the opening quotes, both forms of finance mimic conventional bank
financing to a very high degree, with few technical details. One of the most active jurists
in the area of Islamic finance is Justice Muhammad Taqi Usmani, who has served on
The singular of ßukūk is ßakk, meaning a written documentation of financial liability. Most historians
maintain that the Arabic term ßakk is the root of the French/English ‘cheque’ or ‘check’, c.f. ibn Manzur’s
Lisan al-Arab (1992), Qal`aji(1996). Indeed, one of the most popular English-Arabic dictionaries translates
the English ‘bond’ as both sanad (the conventional Arabic word for government and corporate bonds,
plural: sanadat), and ßakk, c.f. Ba`albaki and Ba`albaki (1998). Earlier attempts to provide bond alternatives
through jurist-approved issues profit-sharing alternatives in Jordan and Turkey were limited in success and
scope due to the principal not being guaranteed, c.f. Vogel and Hayes (1998, pp.169-170, 191-193).
Pakistani ‘participation certificates’ and earlier experiments in Malaysia with ‘government investment
certificates’, in which the principal was guaranteed, failed to gain acceptance among jurists in other
countries, esp. in the Arab world. See El-Gamal (1999) for a full discussion of Islamic alternatives to
government bonds, and strategies for involving Islamic banks in open market operations.
Arab News, June 9, 2002.
Reuters, August 13, 2002
c.f. Reuters, August 28, 2002
C.f. AAOIFI (2000a, 2000b, 2000c).

Page 19
numerous Sharī#a boards of Islamic banks. He summarized the general reluctant
toleration attitude towards cost-plus financing as follows:
Murabahah is not a mode of financing in its origin. It is a simple sale on cost-plus
basis. However, after adding the concept of deferred payment, it has been devised
to be used as a mode of financing only in cases where the client intends to
purchase a commodity. Therefore, it should neither be taken as an ideal Islamic
mode of financing, nor a universal instrument for all sorts of financing. It should
be taken as a transitory step towards the ideal Islamic system of financing based
on musharakah or mudarabah. Otherwise its use should be restricted to areas
where musharakah or mudarabah cannot work.
Nostalgic references to the ideological roots of Islamic finance aside, Usmani explains the
formalist-legalistic nature of the distinction between interest-based loan-financing and
cost-plus based financing as practiced by Islamic banks in the following passage:
If in cases of genuine need, the financier appoints the client his agent to purchase
the commodity on his behalf, his different capacities (i.e. as agent and as ultimate
purchaser) should be clearly distinguished. As an agent, he is a trustee...
After he purchases the commodity in his capacity as agent, he must inform the
financier that, in fulfilling his obligation as his agent, he has taken delivery of the
purchased commodity and now he extends his offer to purchase it from him.
When, in response to this offer, the financier conveys his acceptance to this offer,
the sale will be deemed to be complete, and the risk of the property will be passed
on to the client as purchaser. At this point he will become a debtor...
Justice Usmani's conclusion of this long passage highlights the unease with which this
mode of financing has been widely adopted in Islamic finance:
It should be noted with care that murabahah is a border-line transaction and a
slight departure from the prescribed procedure makes it step ion the prohibited
are of interest-based financing. Therefore this transaction must be carried out
with due diligence and no requirement of Shari`ah should be taken lightly.
However, the same formulaic development is maintained in the official murābaÈa formula
endorsed by the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial
If Islamic bank jurists declare certain transactions to be permissible, it
seems at best naïve, and at worst disingenuous, to call for the restriction of use of those
instruments. A more realistic approach would be to conclude that Islamic products differ
from their conventional counterparts in the same manner that Kosher water bottles differ
from most other bottled water: certification by certain religious figures.
Coming under attack as mere window-dressing for conventional bank interest-based
financing, Islamic banks shifted some of their assets from murābaÈa (cost-plus sale) modes
to ijāra (lease) financing modes. In cost-plus sale financing, the fixed rate of return earned
Usmani (1998, pp.151-2).
Ibid, p. 152.
AAOIFI (2000a, b, c).

Page 20
by the Islamic bank was designated as a mark-up of the deferred price over the spot price
of the financed property. In lease financing, the fixed rate of return is designated as rental
payment for the underlying property. Hence, the property must have a legitimate
usufruct, which is an easy to meet requirement for financing real estate, auto, and
equipment purchases.
Needless to say, the rent component of lease financing is used by
Islamic banks to mimic market interest rates. Again, the formalist-legalistic approach to
this issue is evident from Justice Usmani's discussion of the matter:
... these contracts use the interest rate of a particular country (like LIBOR) as a
benchmark for determining the periodical increase in the rent.
This arrangement has been criticized on two grounds:
The first objection raised against it is that, by subjecting the rental payments to
the rate of interest, the transaction is rendered akin to an interest based financing.
This objection can be overcome by saying that, as fully discussed in the case of
murabahah, the rate of interest is used as a benchmark only.
In both Islamic cost-plus and lease financing, the distinction jurists make is that the
Islamic bank bears the direct risk associated with the financed property: throughout the
life of the lease in the case of leasing, and during the period between purchasing the
property and re-selling it to the customer in the case of cost-plus financing. Thus, jurists
can accommodate (with unease) those fixed rate-of-return forms of finance, while
maintaining the prohibition of conventional interest-based financing. Traditionally, their
argument rested on two main distinctions:
1. There must exist a physical asset that is the subject of financing. In the case of
lease financing, that asset must be sufficiently durable, and must have legitimate
usufruct. Thus, many jurists affirmed in the past that Islamic finance is “asset-
based” or that it is based on “money for assets” exchanges, as opposed to the
supposed “money for money” nature of conventional finance.
2. The financier must bear risks associated with this asset for some period of time,
thus justifying a rate of return on the basis of this risk exposure.
The first distinction is easily rendered vacuous. Some Islamic banks (e.g. Kuwait Finance
House) have long engaged in the transaction known as tawarruq (lit: monetization) to
accommodate their large customers’ liquidity needs. They would identify a commodity
(asset) with stable historical price behavior, buy the commodity from a third party at its
spot price, sell it to the customer at a higher deferred price, and the customer then sells
the commodity to the third party (or any other) at the spot price. The net result is that the
customer receives the needed cash immediately, and has a debt to pay the larger deferred
price to the bank. This three-way exchange bypasses the two-party sale re-sale procedure
Surprisingly, however, education loan alternatives were recently proposed on the basis of lease financing,
“education” being seen as the usufruct of a college or university. It is not yet clear how well this innovation
will be received.
Ibid., pp. 169-70.

Page 21
known as bay al-`ina, and forbidden explicitly in a Prophetic tradition. Tawarruq is
permitted by a minority opinion in the \anbalī school. Recently, National Commercial
Bank in Saudi Arabia, and Al-Shamil bank in Bahrain, have offered tawarruq-based
consumer loans under the names of al-taysīr and tamwīl al-shāmil, respectively.
Consequently, the “asset based” distinction seems inconsequential.
The second distinction listed above addresses the risk or guaranty/∙amān issue that played
a central role in classical jurisprudence. It does so in a trivializing and highly formulaic
Consider for instance a cost-plus financing arrangement wherein the customer
is appointed as purchasing agent of the Islamic bank, as described by Usmani. The actual
time-period during which the bank is exposed to ownership-risk can be made
infinitesimal, while the fixed rate of return it earns for extending credit to the customer is
set equal to the market-determined price of credit (interest rate). In this regard, the credit-
risk component of the financing is clearly infinitely more important than the formulaic
risk borne between the time the agent purchases the item on behalf of the bank and the
time he sells it to himself, also on behalf of the bank. However, as we have seen from
Usmani’s statement above, it is the latter risk that is deemed to distinguish between
Islamic and conventional finance.
Starting in the late 1980s, Islamic finance moved beyond the simple Islamic banking
model of paying investment account holders a variable profit or loss share (which
nonetheless tended to mimic market interest on deposits). This procedure does remain the
core-business of Islamic banks, but deposit alternatives have ceased to be an important
source of funds for the latter. With the advent of securitization technology in the mid
1980s, market-oriented Islamic finance models were quickly devised. Devising what one
may call “Sharī#a arbitrage” methods along the lines of the regulatory arbitrage methods
of contemporary structured finance, “Islamic financial engineers” marketed securitized
products to Sharī#a scholars as legitimate investments in physical assets, which thus entitle
owners to collect rent. Simultaneously, the actual legal structures employed by this
movement in structured Islamic finance had to meet local (e.g. U.S. or U.K.) regulators’
requirements, which often render the security a mere claim to the accounts receivable.
Thus, a bankruptcy-remote “Special Purpose Vehicle” (SPV) or “Entity” (SPE) is created,
and Islamic investors buy shares thereof. The SPV may be a subsidiary of a conventional
bank, receiving a credit line thereof, for which it pays conventional interest. The role of
the SPV is to insulate the Muslim investor, through a single degree of separation, from
the interest bearing debt transaction. Islamic finance jurists have concluded that what
matters for juristic purposes is the relationship between Muslim investors and the
financial provider, regardless of the source of funds, and the provider’s other transactions.
Needless to say, this has created a lucrative structured Islamic finance industry, wherein
Sharī#a arbitrage profits can be collected in various forms by banks, lawyers, and jurists.
Despite thousands of references to the legal maxim “al-kharāju bi-l-∙amān” (return must be justified by
guaranty/risk) in the Islamic Jurisprudence and Finance literature, I have yet to read a single satisfactory
explanation of what it means. If we include credit risk in the formula, then the statement is merely
tautological, saying basically that there is no arbitrage opportunity (or free lunch). If we insist that ∙amān
must refer to commodity or asset risk, then we are inviting the legal stratagems described in this section. In
either case, it is difficult to understand the substance of this oft quoted maxim.

Page 22
The “one degree of separation” principle of contemporary Islamic finance allows
conventional banks and others to use conventional banking funds, provide “Islamic
products that cost the same as conventional ones, and in some cases securitize the latter to
provide investors with a fixed rate of return alternative to banking interest. The ability of
conventional financial providers to market essentially conventional products as Islamic
was summarized very clearly in a “frequently asked questions” release from HSBC
following its launching of an Islamic vehicle finance program:
2. How can a conventional (interest-based) bank offer a Shariah compliant
financial service?
Answer: Islamic law (Shariah) does not require that the seller of a product be
Muslim, or that its other services be Shariah compliant as well. This is the
considered opinion of our Shariah Supervisory Committee.
Conventional banks charge and pay interest, and the HSBC Group, or which we
are a part, is a conventional bank. But we are also a customer-driven institution,
and we provide Shariah compliant products to serve a genuine financial need
among Muslims. Of course, our Shariah compliant products are available for
Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
3. Since HSBC is an interest-based bank, what would be an acceptable source
of funding for HSBC MEFCO? Are you going to mix conventional and
Shariah compliant funds?
Answer: The Shariah (Islamic law) does not require that the seller of a product
be Muslim or that his/her own income be halal (permitted). We will therefore,
initially use funds from conventional sources to finance Amanah Vehicle Finance.
Muslims may be understandably concerned about mixing conventional funds
with Shariah compliant funds. It is important, however, to understand where the
two can and cannot meet according to Islamic law (Shariah). To open an account
or invest money, funds must be segregated from interest-based funds so that
returns are halal (permitted). To buy something or obtain financing, however,
funds do not have to be from a halal source. The relationship with the seller must
be in line with the Shariah-the seller’s relationship with other parties, however, is
not the purchaser’s responsibility. This is the opinion of HSBC’s Shariah
Supervisory Committee.
4. How do you calculate the price of Amanah Vehicle Finance? Are the
payments similar to a conventional vehicle loan? If so, is this acceptable
under the Shariah (Islamic law)?
Answer: HSBC MEFCO determines the rates on Amanah Vehicle Finance
using a fixed payment scheme that is competitive with conventional vehicle loans
Published in the Islamic Finance section of on February 03, 2003. This constitutes a
very clear, though perhaps unintentional, admission of the “one degree of separation” principle as I
described it in the previous paragraphs.

Page 23
available in the market. As determined by our Shariah Supervisory Committee,
Shariah permits using the conventional market as a benchmark.
According to the Shariah, the profit rate in a Murabahah transaction can be set
at any value agreed between the buyer and seller. Also under Murabahah
financing, HSBC MEFCO is acting as a vehicle seller and not a moneylender.
There is no particular reason why a vehicle financed Islamically should be any
more or less expensive than a vehicle financed using a conventional vehicle loan.
The criterion for acceptability by the Shariah is that the transaction be compliant
with Shariah, regardless of the price of the good or how that price is determined.
Together with the one degree of separation principle, Sharī#a arbitrage requires a dual
characterization of simple debt-finance structures to jurists and regulators to obtain
simultaneously: (i) approval from regulators that the proposed transaction falls within the
broad categories of conventional finance, and (ii) approval from jurists and the Muslim
public that the proposed transaction is Islamic in nature, in the sense of being similar to
medieval transactions described in classical books of Islamic jurisprudence. In this regard,
the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of the Controller of the Currency (which regulates
all national banks in the U.S.) issued two letters of understanding on murābaÈa and ijāra
financing as practiced by Islamic banks (attention was initially paid to those contracts as
practiced by United Bank of Kuwait in New York):
OCC #867, 1999:
... lending takes many forms ... Murabaha financing proposals
are functionally equivalent to, or a logical outgrowth of secured real estate
lending and inventory and equipment financing, activities that are part of the
business of banking.
OCC #806, 1997:
Today, banks structure leases so that they are equivalent to
lending secured by private property ... a lease that has the economic attributes of
a loan is within the business of banking. ... Here it is clear that United Bank of
Kuwait's net lease is functionally equivalent to a financing transaction in which
the Branch occupies the position of a secured lender ...
This allows “Islamic finance” providers to replace interest bearing loans on the asset side
of their balance sheets with murābaÈa or ijāra -based contracts, which can be conjoined
with other investment or commission to manufacture contracts. On the liabilities side,
Islamic finance providers need to replace paying interest on loans and money market
instruments with an Islamic securitization fiction. For instance, jurists profess that there is
a fundamental difference between an Islamic securitized lease and an interest-bearing
instrument by viewing the investors’ interest as (direct?) ownership of the underlying
It should be remembered, however, that the [lease] certificate must represent
ownership of an undivided part of the asset with all its rights and obligations.
Misunderstanding this basic concept, some quarters tried to issue Ijarah
certificates representing the holder's right to claim certain amount of rental only
Both documents are available on Simply search for “murabaha” or “ijrara”.
Usmani (1998, p.179).

Page 24
without assigning him any kind of ownership in the asset... This type of
securitization is not allowed in Shari`ah…
In Islamic equity investment, a similar fiction is required for the marketing of Islamic
mutual funds. Jurists have long maintained that ownership of common stocks in
companies that engage in permissible activities is permissible, provided that the
companies do not earn or pay substantial amounts of interest. This led to the creation of a
universe of listed company stocks that qualify as “Sharī#a compliant”. The screening
criteria imposed by the Dow Jones Islamic Index have gained near-universal acceptance.
Those screening criteria exclude companies whose primary business is unacceptable (so-
called sin industries such as breweries, tobacco, etc., as well as a number of other
industries deemed un-Islamic), companies with a debt-to-market-capitalization ratios
greater than one-third, and companies with accounts receivable exceeding 45% of total
In addition many screens put a limit on the interest-income to total income,
usually in the 5 to 10 percent range. Islamic mutual funds usually start with the Islamic
equity universe created by the DJII or similar set of screens, and then apply standard
portfolio management criteria for creating mutual funds. Similar to their understanding
of securitized leases, surprisingly many jurists who are active in this field continue to view
ownership of shares in such mutual funds as direct ownership of the underlying assets
(common shares), and allow ownership thereof based on that understanding.
In summary, Islamic finance has thrived based on Sharī#a arbitrage, by creating an
environment wherein jurists on the industry’s payroll denounce conventional financial
products as subjects of the severest prohibition in Islam, while facilitating the creation of
twin-products. This is accomplished through the two factors allowing for Sharī#a arbitrage:
(i) the one degree of separation principle, and (ii) juristic fiction about the nature of
structured Islamic finance products. In the meantime, traditional Islamic banks are forced
to continue to deal with their investment account holders on a profit/loss sharing basis.
8. Concluding Remarks: A Compromise Resolution?
We now return to the main topic of this paper: interest. We have seen that the fatwa of
the IRI does not in fact apply to conventional banks, as long as the latter continue to
accumulate assets in the form of interest-bearing loans. On the other hand, the principal
Those screens change occasionally. For instance, the debt ratio screen was originally constructed as a
debts-to-assets ratio not exceeding 33%. The criterion was later changed to using market capitalization in
the denominator. For the latest screening criteria, see
Needless to say, the entire point of securitization is that the security is a share in the SPV or Mutual Fund
and not the underlying assets themselves (be they real estate properties or publicly traded company shares).
I am not aware of any cases brought to court regarding the legitimacy of claims of pass-through-ownership
of underlying assets. In the meantime, it seems clear that Islamic debt instruments (e.g. lease-backed
securities sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as those placed privately in GCC countries by
specialized Islamic finance outfits) are virtually identical to interest-bearing debt instruments. In theory,
there may be some differences in risk allocation between Islamic instruments and their conventional
counterparts. However, until a few cases are brought to court to test possible discrepancies between the
juristic and the regulatory understandings of Islamic finance instruments, it is difficult to say whether or not
those differences are substantive.

Page 25
point of the fatwa – allowing for pre-specified profits as a percentage of capital in
investment agency contracts – can in fact apply rather naturally to the framework of
Islamic banking.
We have seen in the previous section that Islamic banks invest most of their funds in
fixed-interest cost-plus and lease financing, thus mimicking the assets side of conventional
banks almost perfectly, as admitted in the opening quote by Saleh Kamel. On the other
hand, Islamic banks have not been able to mimic conventional banks’ interest-bearing
deposit accounts, insisting instead on the profit/loss sharing formula for investment
account holders. This has led to the securitization-based Sharī#a arbitrage opportunities
discussed in the previous section, which allow Islamic financial institutions to pay
disguised interest to providers of funds who are characterized as buyers of lease
certificates, murābaÈa fund shares, etc. Needless to say, this is an inefficient solution, due to
additional legal costs as well as the fees paid to Islamic bank jurists, that ultimately
produces approximations of conventional products at a higher cost.
In the meantime, investment account holders in Islamic banks are exposed to significantly
higher agency costs than their counterparts (depositors) in conventional banks. This is the
case since Islamic bank investment account holders lack the protection of being primary
claimants as creditors of the bank, and lack protection from moral hazard through
representation on the board of directors of the bank. The latter represent the relatively
wealthier owners of the Islamic bank, who in essence own a call option on the bank’s
portfolio. In this regard, investment account holders absorb some of the portfolio risk, and
give the bank owners, and the bank management that answers to them, an incentive to
take even greater risks. This is clearly an unacceptable situation from a prudential
viewpoint that aims to protect the interests of small savers who are seeking a low-risk low-
return means of investing their funds.
It appears from Sections 4 and 5 that the argument against pre-specification of profits as a
percentage of the capital in an acceptable investment agency is weaker than objections to
other aspects of the fatwā, which as I have argued relate more to its relevancy to
conventional banks. The quotations in Tantawi (2001) suggest that there is no textual
basis for the classical consensus on profit and loss sharing rules. Indeed, some have argued
for a basis in Canonical Texts, but that point was not raised in the IJA rebuttal.
latter relied on the claimed consensus in Ibn Qudamah’s Al-Mughni, which in turn is
based on the view that pre-specifying profits to the principal in an investment agency may
result in legal disputation, since realized profits may be less than the specified amount,
On the website, Yusuf al-Qaradawi cited Prophetic traditions on the authority of
Rafi` ibn Khadij that report a Prophetic prohibition of pre-assignment of part of leased land’s produce for
the owner. Al-Qaradawi argued by analogy that silent partnership profits should not be fixed as a
percentage of the capital. I requested a meeting at Al-Azhar in January 2003, in the Saleh Kamel Center
for Islamic Economics, at which the Center Director Dr. M. Abdulhalim Umar was present, as well as Dr.
Mabid Al-Jarhi (director of IRTI at the Islamic Development Bank), Dr. M. Umar al-Zubair, and two
faculty from Al-Azhar: Dr. Abdullah al-Najjar and Dr. M. Ra’fat Uthman. The latter two provided a
debate over the authenticity and relevance of the Prophetic tradition to this case, but that discussion was
too technical to report in this article. A summary of the discussion is provided in a powerpoint presentation
on the Azhar fatwa on my website.

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and may indeed be negative, in which case fixed profit distribution would violate the rules
of investment. Tantawi and the scholars he quoted argue against that view by invoking
the law of large numbers that can be utilized through diversification, and meticulous
feasibility studies by banks to ensure that specified profits (interest) can be paid with a very
high probability. If the agent claims that losses were realized, Tantawi argued in the text
of the fatwā, the matter would be settled in courts in any case. On the other hand, the
argument goes, in the vast majority of instances, the larger concern pertains to moral
hazard – the agent’s incentive not to disclose the true profitability of his investments.
Some of the quoted authors in Tantawi (2001) also argued that there is no need to classify
contemporary transactions under the classical/medieval headings. Thus, even if the
consensus on mu∙āraba is to be upheld, the current contract may be given a different
name. Claims that this would amount to a legal stratagem to circumvent a prohibition
may be tolerated from an industry that holds itself to the highest standards of avoiding
such stratagems. However, we have seen quite clearly that Islamic banks have no trouble
replicating interest-bearing debt instruments on the asset side of their balance sheets.
Moreover, as we have seen in the HSBC auto finance example, when interest-bearing
deposits from Islamic banks are insufficient to finance interest (LIBOR)-based debt
instruments on the asset side, banks are allowed to use interest-bearing sources that are
not marketed as Islamic. It would seem only natural prima facie for the Islamic finance
industry to accept a variant of the IRI fatwā as a first step towards mimicking
conventional banks’ liabilities in the same manner that they have mimicked the latter’s
assets. In contrast, the vehement rejection with which the IRI fatwā was greeted has only
contributed further to the incoherence of Islamic bank jurists’ statements, and makes the
paradox of contemporary Islamic Law and Finance all the more impenetrable.
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Official Azhar Fatwā

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