April 26, 2009

Jeremy Harding: The Money That Prays

Moon of Alabama linked to a longish essay on Islamic finance at the London Review of Books (LRB). That's an odd place, I thought, for an essay on this topic, so I read the article with a little fear (you know, expecting the usual Islamophobe's-got-an-axe-to-grind-type rant). However, the essay turned out to be rather fair, although, to be honest, I'm still not sure what the author's purpose was in writing the essay to begin with.

Below are three excerpts from the essay; while it may look rather long, this is only a small portion of the entire article, which prints out at 11 pages.

The prohibitions for Muslims are puzzling to the modern commercial mind. The first obstacle for a pious Muslim trading and banking in conventional economies is interest, the term I’ve been using for the Arabic riba, though its literal sense is closer to ‘excess’ and it is sometimes translated as ‘usury’. Often, in the Hadith and even more in recent proselytising on the internet, riba is said to be ‘eaten’. One of the objections to riba is its propensity to up-end the social order. A person who consumes riba bungles the proper management of need – his own and his debtor’s – whereupon the grand plan of give and take, sufficiency for rich and poor alike, begins to come apart. This, as Charles Tripp explains in Islam and the Moral Economy, is also a challenge to ‘the balance and proportion of God’s ordering of the universe’, which must be reflected in ‘human relations’. Islamic tradition warns that riba is likely to lead to injustice and exploitation.

There’s a categorical objection, too: that money may not be conjured up from money to generate like from like. The goods that served (we’re told) as currency in Islamic tradition – gold, silver, salt, grain and dates – can only be exchanged ‘hand to hand’, i.e. in a spot transaction, without deferment; and only at parity, one quantity for its exact equivalent, no more, no less. It’s not clear why you’d want to swap something – a gold weight, say – for its identical other, but the point here is probably that units of currency, unlike the shirt or the saddle for which they’re exchanged, must be beyond any cavilling with regard to value for the system to hold up: an Islamic marker set down 14 centuries ago against arbitrage. In a story told by Abu Said al Khudri, one of Muhammad’s younger companions, the Prophet describes the transaction of a greater number of low-grade dates for a smaller number of quality dates as riba.

The most famous chapter and verse on riba is in sura 2 of the Koran. It warns that dealing in riba will bring on madness or ‘torment’ (via ‘Satan’s touch’), and that if you’re not prepared to waive a mark-up on a debt, war will be waged against you by God and the Prophet. One sharia-compliant banker I met last year told me that’s about as bad as it gets. There is also an injunction to forgive debt in a broader sense: ‘If the debtor is in difficulty, then delay things . . . Still, if you were to write it off as an act of charity, that would be better for you, if only you knew’ (the rules followed by HSBC Amanah try to catch something of this). The charging of riba, it follows, is always a missed opportunity to act generously, to give where a gift is in order, a gesture highly prized in Islamic tradition. In a faith embodied by a trader prophet and espoused by an impressive trading community for which, at its height, knowledge was a key commodity, believers are admonished not to confuse riba with trade. From the second sura, again: ‘God has allowed trade and forbidden usury.’


Riba catches many non-Muslims out. After a long study of Islamic finance, the anthropologist Bill Maurer couldn’t settle on ‘interest’ as the perfect translation: it seemed clear at first but became streaky as he looked closer. ‘Usury’ is the obvious alternative, but are we to rely on the older sense of the term – any charge, however small, for the use of borrowed money – or on the way it’s understood today, as extortionate interest only? Wilson, a professor in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham who is intrigued by ‘the influences of religious belief on economic behaviour’, holds that riba is usury in the first sense. That’s the view of most practising Muslims; it seems to echo the meaning of the word in Deuteronomy, where Moses instructs the people of Israel not to lend to their own kith and kin at a rate: ‘Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.’ Very close to ‘interest’ after all then. Yet if, like Melanie Phillips, you believe Islamic banking in the UK merely hastens the day when a green flag is raised over Westminster, it’s important to think of ‘usury’ in the later sense, in order to insist that Muslim law is either deluded or deceitful: ‘The whole issue of sharia finance,’ Phillips wrote last year, ‘is based on a fabrication . . . sharia does not proscribe interest. It proscribes usury.’ Were riba just a term for exploitative lending, however, one or two countries might have shuffled nearer to a unitary sharia banking system. But the sharia has few attractions for exchequers and central banks in a modern economy, where the interest rate is a basic tool of monetary policy. The appeal of sharia-compliant banking and investing is in essence to the individual conscience.

The emphasis on risk-sharing in HSBC Amanah’s products – and all Islamic products – is related to the prohibition on interest: it’s obvious to the devout Muslim that collecting interest on a debt involves no risk worth the name; all that’s required, in this view, is for a creditor to sit back and wait. The exposure involved in the mere lending of money – self-evident to a non-Muslim – is an unticked box in Islamic tradition, while savings, for which non-Muslims see interest as a fair reward, give rise to worries about hoarding: money should be out there doing the work that enables trade to flourish. A Treasury expert would say Islamic tradition approves of narrow money; a historian would remember Bacon’s essay ‘Of Seditions and Troubles’ and his famous dictum that muck is ‘not good except it be spread’. (The essay goes on: ‘This is done chiefly by suppressing, or at the least keeping a strait hand upon the devouring trades of usury.’)

Risk-sharing, like generosity, puts human relations on an even keel in the Islamic view. A capitalist can weigh a risk but shouldn’t accept a promise from a partner to eliminate it: that would be ‘risk-transfer’, which denies the inherent truth of risk. (In the eyes of sharia scholars it also opens up a vista of potential exploitation, especially when risk is passed on in unknowable ways, say in the form of a mortgage-backed security with a dodgy rating.) No one must guarantee investors’ money, except against fraud.


Debt is a problem in its own right. Borrowing on a regular, matter-of-fact basis is open to question since sharia scholars are wary of conventional banking’s dependence on interbank borrowing. The ideal Islamic bank, Rodney Wilson told me, is financed entirely by its depositors’ money. In practice, there is plenty of imperfection, but a compliant bank will want to stay as close as possible to this model. Like riba, debt also raises fears about poverty and injustice (some Muslim NGOs are as evangelical about Third World debt as their Christian and secular counterparts). In the Hadith, debt presents a troubling face once the possibility of deferment arises, as it might with a debtor in difficulty. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to put off repayment? Does it matter whether the debtor is wealthy or poor? Bad faith is always threatening to break in on the relationship between a debtor and a creditor: a debtor says he can pay back a loan but how can he be sure? All this drags human relations into the realm of uncertainty – gharar – from which faith, the discourse of absolute certainty, was supposed to protect them. In commerce, gharar is best avoided. Whence the persistence of doubts about contracting for things that don’t (yet) exist: tradition might allow for a joiner taking orders on furniture he hadn’t yet made, but it disqualified the sale of a foal that was still in the body of the mare. Even the benign, textbook version of the forward contract – a farmer and a miller agreeing a grain price ahead of the harvest – brings a sense of uneasiness.

The concept of gharar doesn’t just apply to goods whose status is in doubt, but to bargains whose terms are ambiguous and contracting parties whose liability is vague. Though it’s often translated as ‘hazard’, it’s not the same as risk, which Muslim societies understand as well as anyone. Business risk is unavoidable and begins when a cargo plane taxis towards the runway. Gharar has more to do with the commercial imagination running ahead of itself: speculation still troubles Islamic scholars; many take a dim view not just of credit derivatives, the villains of the banking crisis, but of any instrument whose value is based on a contract for an underlying asset rather than the asset itself. This is changing, slowly, as a growing number of experts wrestle with intellectual tradition till they get to a place where derivatives, some in any case, appear acceptable. But no sharia adviser would approve of an Islamic financial institution bundling toxic mortgage debts into securities and packing them off to market, still less buying them up. To a conscientious Muslim, this is the perfect storm, in which opaque liabilities, the unknown nature of the underlying debt, fair-weather forecasts by ratings agencies, plus risk transfer and riba, conspire to wreck large parts of the fleet. Is there anyone clinging to the flotsam, post-9/15, who disagrees?

No comments: