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What Can We Learn From Islamic Finance?

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In over 70 countries, from financial centers in Malaysia to the Middle East, Islamic finance has been growing rapidly around the world. In fact, Shariah-compliant financial assets have increased from about US$5 billion in the late 1980s to about US$1 trillion in 2010. Even more impressive is that this class of financial instruments appears to have avoided many of the worst effects of the recent crisis, making it an increasingly attractive investment vehicle.

Given its rapid growth and relative stability, are there lessons we can garner from Islamic finance? Three years after the onset of the global financial crisis -- as regulators are still grappling with how to deal with predatory lending practices, opaque derivatives, and overly leveraged financial institutions -- can Shariah-compliant finance challenge our notion of conventional banking?

Perhaps it can. By and large, Islamic finance relies on the core principles of Islam concerning property rights, social and economic justice, wealth distribution, and governance. Two of its main tenants are the prohibition of interest on debt in any form and the removal of ambiguous contracts to enhance disclosure and proscribe deception. Among its other key precepts is a commitment to back all financial contracts by assets and activities in the real economy, as well as an emphasis on the principles of morality and ethics in conducting business.

According to the most recent Economic Premise, authored by World Bank Managing Director Mahmoud Mohieldin, these underpinnings have generally helped Islamic banks escape some of the worst effects of the 2008 financial crisis. To be sure, Mohieldin notes that "The recent financial crisis affected the asset quality of conventional banks adversely. In contrast, as shown in recent research, Islamic banks had higher asset quality, were better capitalized, and more likely to continue their financial intermediation role during crises than their conventional counterparts." As they were not exposed to subprime and toxic assets and had instead maintained a close connection to the real sector, only when the real economy contracted and real estate prices dropped did Islamic financial institutions begin to feel the second round effects of the crisis.

Yet as Islamic finance continues to grow, some challenges still need to be met. For example, the Economic Premise notes that many aspects of Islamic finance suffer from emulation and reengineering of conventional instruments, which result in inefficiencies and higher transaction costs. In addition, challenges associated with Basel III core capital requirements -- which place Islamic financial institutions at a disadvantage -- need to be addressed. By dealing with these and other issues, Islamic finance could increasingly meet the preferences of local cultures, augment financial inclusion and intermediation, and contribute to financial stability and development in the years ahead.

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