An Introduction to Islamic Finance

Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani

[He served as a judge on the Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan from 1981 to 1982 and the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan between 1982 and 2002.]


Over the last few decades, the Muslims have been trying to restructure their lives on the basis of Islamic principles. They strongly feel that the political and economic dominance of the West, during past centuries, has deprived them of the divine guidance, especially in the socio-economic fields. Therefore, after acquiring political freedom, the masses are striving for the revival of their Islamic identity to organise their collective life in accordance with the Islamic teachings.

In the economic field, it was the biggest challenge for such Muslims to reform their financial institutions to bring them in harmony with the dictates of Shari‘ah. In an environment where the entire financial system was based on interest, it was a formidable task to structure the financial institutions on an interest free basis.

The people not conversant with the principles of Shari‘ah and its economic philosophy sometimes believe that abolishing interest from the banks and financial institutions would make them charitable, rather than commercial, concerns which offer financial services without a return.

Obviously, this is totally a wrong assumption. According to Shari‘ah, interest free loans are meant for cooperative and charitable activities, and not normally for commercial transactions, except in a very limited range. So far as commercial financing is concerned, the Islamic Shari‘ah has a different set-up for that purpose. The principle is that the person extending money to another person must decide whether he wishes to help the opposite party or he wants to share his profits. If he wants to help the borrower, he must rescind from any claim to any additional amount. His principal will be secured and guaranteed, but no return over and above the principal amount is legitimate. But if he is advancing money to share the profits earned by the other party, he can claim a stipulated proportion of profit actually earned by him, and must share his loss also, if he suffers a loss.

It is thus obvious that exclusion of interest from financial activities does not necessarily mean that the financier cannot earn a profit. If financing is meant for a commercial purpose, it can be based on the concept of profit and loss sharing, for which musharakah and mudarabah have been designed since the very inception of the Islamic commercial law.

There are, however, some sectors where financing on the basis of musharakah or mudarabah is not workable or feasible for one reason or another. For such sectors the contemporary scholars have suggested some other instruments which can be used for the purpose of financing, like murabahah, ijarah, salam or istisna.

Since last two decades, these modes of financing are being used by the Islamic banks and financial institutions. But all these instruments are not the substitutes of interest in the strict sense, and it will be wrong to presume that they may be used exactly in the same fashion as interest is used. They have their own set of principles, philosophy and conditions without which it is not allowed in Shari‘ah to use them as modes of financing. Therefore the ignorance of their basic concept and relevant details may lead to confusing the Islamic financing with the conventional system based on interest.

The present book is a revised collection of my different articles that aimed at providing basic information about the principles and precepts of Islamic finance, with special reference to the modes of financing used by the Islamic banks and non-banking financial institutions. I have tried to explain the basic concept underlying these instruments, the necessary requirements for their acceptability from the Shari‘ah standpoint, and the correct method of their application. I have also dealt with the practical issues involved in the application of these instruments and their possible solutions in the light of Shari‘ah.

In my capacity as chairman / member of the Shari‘ah Supervisory Boards of a number of Islamic banks in different parts of the world, I came across the points of weakness in their operations caused mainly by the lack of clear perception of the relevant rules and principles of Shari‘ah. This experience emphasized the need for the present book in which I have tried to discuss the relevant subject in a simple way which may be easily understood by a common reader who had no opportunities to study the Islamic financial principles in depth.

This humble effort, I hope, will facilitate to understand the basic principles of Islamic finance and the main points of difference between conventional and Islamic banking. May Allah Ta‘ala accept this humble effort, honour it with His pleasure and make it beneficial for the readers.

Muhammad Taqi Usmani Karachi

04.03.1419 A.H.

29.06.1998 A.D.

Some Preliminary Points

Before the details of Islamic modes of financing are discussed, it seems necessary to explain some points concerning the basic principles that govern the whole economic set-up in an Islamic way of life.

Belief in Divine Guidance

The foremost belief around which all the Islamic concepts revolve is that the whole universe is created and controlled by One, the only One God. He has created man and appointed him as His vicegerent on the earth to fulfil certain objectives through obeying His commands. These commands are not restricted to some modes of worship or so-called religious rituals. They, on the contrary, cover a substantial area of almost every aspect of our life. These commands are neither so exhaustive that straiten the human activities within a narrow circle, leaving no role for human intellect to play, nor are they so little or ambiguous that they leave every sphere of life at the mercy of human perception and desire. Far from these two extremes, Islam has a balanced approach to govern the human life. On the one hand, it has left a very wide area of human activities to man’s own rational judgment where he can take decisions on the basis of his reason, assessment of facts and expedience. On the other hand, Islam has subjected human activities to a set of principles which have eternal application and cannot be violated on superficial grounds of expediency based on human assessment.

The fact behind this scheme is that human reason, despite its vast capabilities, cannot claim to have unlimited power to reach the truth. After all, it has some limits beyond which it either cannot properly work or may fall prey to errors. There are numerous domains of human life where ‘reason’ is often confused with ‘desires’ and where unhealthy instincts, under the disguise of rational arguments, misguide humanity to wrong and destructive decisions. All those theories of the past which are held today to be fallacious, claimed, in their respective times, to be ‘rational’ but it was after centuries that their fallacy was discovered and their absurdity was universally proved.

It is thus evident that the sphere of work delegated to human ‘reason’ by its Creator is not unlimited. There are areas in which human reason cannot give proper guidance or, at least, is susceptible to errors. It is these areas in which Allah Almighty, the Creator of the universe, has provided guidance through His revelations sent down to His prophets. On the basis of this approach it is the firm belief of every Muslim that the commands given by the divine revelations through the last Messenger are to be followed in

letter and spirit and cannot be violated or ignored on the basis of one’s rational arguments or his inner desires. Therefore, all the human activities must always be subject to these commands and must work within the limits prescribed by them. Unlike other religions, Islam is not confined to some moral teachings, some rituals or some modes of worship. It rather contains guidance in every sphere of life including socio-economic fields. The obedience from servants of Allah is required not only in worship, but also in their economic activities, even though it is at the price of some apparent benefits, because these apparent benefits may go against the collective interest of the society.

The Basic Difference between Capitalist and Islamic Economy

Islam does not deny the market forces and market economy. Even the profit motive is acceptable to a reasonable extent. Private ownership is not totally negated. Yet, the basic difference between capitalist and Islamic economy is that in secular capitalism, the profit motive or private ownership are given unbridled power to make economic decisions. Their liberty is not controlled by any divine injunctions. If there are some restrictions, they are imposed by human beings and are always subject to change through democratic legislation, which accepts no authority of any super-human power. This attitude has allowed a number of practices which cause imbalances in the society. Interest, gambling, speculative transactions tend to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few. Unhealthy human instincts are exploited to make money through immoral and injurious products. Unbridled profit making creates monopolies which paralyse the market forces or, at least, hinder their natural operation. Thus the capitalist economy which claims to be based on market forces, practically stops the natural process of supply and demand, because these forces can properly work only in an atmosphere of free competition, and not in monopolies. It is sometimes appreciated in a secular capitalist economy that a certain economic activity is not in the interest of the society, yet, it is allowed to be continued because it goes against the interest of some influential circles who dominate the legislature on the strength of their majority. Since every authority beyond the democratic rule is totally denied and ‘trust in God’ (which is affirmed at the face of every U.S. dollar) has been practically expelled from the socio-economic domain, no divine guidance is recognized to control the economic activities.

The evils emanating from this attitude can never be curbed unless humanity submits to the divine authority and obeys its commands by accepting them as absolute truth and super-human injunctions which should be followed in any case and at any price. This is exactly what Islam does. After recognizing private ownership, profit motive and market forces, Islam has put certain divine restrictions on the economic activities. These restrictions being imposed by Allah Almighty, Whose knowledge has no limits, cannot be removed by any human authority. The prohibition of riba (usury or interest), gambling, hoarding, dealing in unlawful goods or services, short sales and speculative transactions are some examples of these divine restrictions. All these prohibitions combined together have a cumulative effect of maintaining balance, distributive justice and equality of opportunities.

Asset-backed Financing

One of the most important characteristics of Islamic financing is that it is an asset-backed financing. The conventional / capitalist concept of financing is that the banks and financial institutions deal in money and monetary papers only. That is why they are forbidden, in most countries, from trading in goods and making inventories. Islam, on the other hand, does not recognize money as a subject-matter of trade, except in some special cases. Money has no intrinsic utility; it is only a medium of exchange; Each unit of money is 100% equal to another unit of the same denomination, therefore, there is no room for making profit through the exchange of these units inter se. Profit is generated when something having intrinsic utility is sold for money or when different currencies are exchanged, one for another. The profit earned through dealing in money (of the same currency) or the papers representing them is interest, hence prohibited. Therefore, unlike conventional financial institutions, financing in Islam is always based on illiquid assets which creates real assets and inventories.

The real and ideal instruments of financing in Shari‘ah are musharakah and mudarabah. When a financier contributes money on the basis of these two instruments it is bound to be converted into the assets having intrinsic utility. Profits are generated through the sale of these real assets.

Financing on the basis of salam and istisna‘ also creates real assets. The financier in the case of salam receives real goods and can make profit by selling them in the market. In the case of istisna, financing is effected through manufacturing some real assets, as a reward of which the financier earns profit.

Financial leases and murabahah, as will be seen later in the relevant chapters, are not originally modes of financing. But, in order to meet some needs they have been reshaped in a manner that they can be used as modes of financing, subject to certain conditions, in those sectors where musharakah, mudarabah, salam or istisna‘ are not workable for some reasons. The instruments of leasing and murabahah are sometimes criticized on the ground that their net result is often the same as the net result of an interest-based borrowing. This criticism is justified to some extent, and that is why the Shari‘ah supervisory Boards are unanimous on the point that they are not ideal modes of financing and they should be used only in cases of need with full observation of the conditions prescribed by Shari‘ah. Despite all this, the instruments of leasing and murabahah, too, are fully backed by assets and financing through these instruments is clearly distinguishable from the interest-based financing on the following grounds.

1. In conventional financing, the financier gives money to his client as an interest-bearing loan, after which he has no concern as to how the money is used by the client. In the case of murabahah, on the contrary, no money is advanced by the financier. Instead, the financier himself purchases the commodity required by the client. Since this transaction cannot be completed unless the client assures the financier that he wishes to purchase a commodity, therefore, murabahah is not possible at all, unless the financier creates inventory. In this manner, financing is always backed by assets.

2. In the conventional financing system, loans may be advanced for any profitable purpose. A gambling casino can borrow money from a bank to develop its gambling business. A pornographic magazine or a company making nude films are as good customers of a conventional bank as a house-builder. Thus, conventional financing is not bound by any divine or religious restrictions. But the Islamic banks and financial institutions cannot remain indifferent about the nature of the activity for which the facility is required. They cannot effect murabahah for any purpose which is either prohibited in Shari‘ah or is harmful to the moral health of the society.

3. It is one of the basic requirements for the validity of murabahah that the commodity is purchased by the financier which means that he assumes the risk of the commodity before selling it to the customer. The profit claimed by the financier is the reward of the risk he assumes. No such risk is assumed in an interest-based loan.

4. In an interest bearing loan, the amount to be repaid by the borrower keeps on increasing with the passage of time. In murabahah, on the other hand, a selling price once agreed becomes and remains fixed. As a result, even if the purchaser (client of the Bank) does not pay on time, the seller (Bank) cannot ask for a higher price, due to delay in settlement of dues. This is because in Shari‘ah, there is no concept of time due of money.

5. In leasing too, financing is offered through providing an asset having usufruct. The risk of the leased property is assumed by the lessor / financier throughout the lease period in the sense that if the leased asset is totally destroyed without any misuse or negligence on the part of the lessee, it is the financier/lessor who will suffer the loss.

It is evident from the above discussion that every financing in an Islamic system creates real assets. This is true even in the case of murabahah and leasing, despite the fact that they are not believed to be ideal modes of financing and are often criticized for their being close to the interest-based financing in their net results. It is known, on the other hand, that interest-based financing does not necessarily create real assets, therefore, the supply of money through the loans advanced by the financial institutions does not normally match with the real goods and services produced in the society, because the loans create artificial money through which the amount of money supply is increased, and sometimes multiplied without creating real assets in the same quantity. This gap between the supply of money and production of real assets creates or fuels inflation. Since financing in an Islamic system is backed by assets, it is always matched with corresponding goods and services.

Capital and Entrepreneur

According to the capitalist theory, capital and entrepreneur are two separate factors of production. The former gets interest while the latter is entitled to profit. Interest is a fixed return for providing capital, while profit can be earned only when there is a surplus after distributing the fixed return to land, labour and capital (in the form of rent, wages and interest).

Islam, on the contrary, does not recognize capital and entrepreneur as two separate factors of production. Every person who contributes capital (in the form of money) to a commercial enterprise assumes the risk of loss and therefore is entitled to a proportionate share in the actual profit. In this manner ‘capital’ has an intrinsic element of ‘entrepreneurship’, so far as the risk of the business is concerned. Therefore, instead of a fixed return as interest, it derives profit. The more the profit of the business, the higher the return on capital. In this way the profits generated by the commercial activities in the society are equitably distributed to all those persons who have contributed capital to the enterprise, however little it may be. Since in the context of the modern practice, it is the banks and financial institutions who provide capital to the commercial activities, out of the deposits made with them, the flow of the actual profits earned by the society may be directed towards the depositors in equitable proportions which may distribute wealth in a wider circle and may hamper concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

Present Practices of Islamic Banks

It is sometimes argued against the Islamic financial system that the Islamic banks and financial institutions, working since last three decades, did not bring any visible change in the economic set-up, not even in the field of financing. This indicates that the boastful claims of creating ‘distributive justice’ under the umbrella of Islamic banking are exaggerated.

This criticism is not realistic, because it does not take into account the fact that, in proportion to the conventional banking, the Islamic banks and financial institutions are no more than a small drop in an ocean, and therefore, they cannot be supposed to revolutionise the economy in a short period.

Secondly, these institutions are passing through their age of infancy. They have to work under a large number of constraints, therefore, some of them have not been able to comply with all the requirements of Shari‘ah in all their transactions, therefore, each and every transaction carried out by them cannot be attributed to Shari‘ah.

Thirdly, the Islamic banks and financial institutions are not normally supported by the governments, legal and taxation system and the central banks of their respective countries. Under these circumstances, they have been given certain concessions, on the grounds of need or necessity, which are not based on the original and ideal principles of Shari‘ah.

Islam, being a practical way of life, has two sets of rules; one is based on the ideal objectives of Shari‘ah which is applicable in normal conditions, and the second is based on some relaxations given in abnormal situations. The real Islamic order is based on the former set of principles, while the latter is a concession which can be availed at times of need, but it does not reflect the true picture of the real Islamic order.

Living under constraints, the Islamic banks are mostly relying on the second set of rules, therefore, their activities could not bring a visible change even in the limited circle of their operations. However, if the whole financing system is based on the ideal Islamic principles, it will certainly bring a discernible impact on the economy.

It is to be noted that the present book, being a guide book to the present day financial institutions, has dealt with both types of the Islamic rules. At the outset, the ideal Islamic principles of finance have been elaborated and later on we have discussed the best possible concessions that may be availed of in the transitory period where the Islamic institutions are working under pressure of the existing legal and fiscal system. Shari‘ah has specific principles about such concessions as well, and their basic purpose is to avoid clear prohibitions by adopting a less preferable line of action. This may not serve the basic purpose of establishing a true Islamic order, yet it may help one refrain from a glaring sin and save him from the evil fate of disobedience, which, in itself, is a cherished goal of a Muslim, though at individual level. Moreover, this may help the society to advance gradually to the ideal target of establishing a total Islamic order. This book should be studied in the light of this scheme of Islamic Shari‘ah.

A copy of the full work can be downloaded here: an introduction to islamic finance

Topics include:

  • ~ Musharakah – it’s rules, nature, management and termination.
  • ~ Mudarabah –  Business of, distribution of profit, termination of, combination of musharaka and mudarabah.
  • ~ Musharakah & Mudarabah as Modes of Financing – project financing, some objections on musharaka financing, diminishing musharakah.
  • ~ Murabaha – rules, as a mode of financing, issues involved in, basic mistakes in.
  • ~ Ijarah – rules, lease as a mode of financing, securitization of Ijarah, head lease.
  • ~ Salam and Istisna – rules, as a mode of financing, difference between.
  • ~ Islamic Investment Funds – equity, Ijarah, compound, mixed.
  • ~ The Principle of Limited liability – waqf, Baitul Mal, joint stock, inheritance under debt.
  • ~ The performance of Islamic banks, a realistic evaluation.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s