Islamic Banking

During the Islamic Golden Age, which spanned approximately 500 years, between the 8th and 13th centuries, some early forms of capitalism and freemarkets existed. The dinar brought together previously economically independent regions. Before Islam, the city of Mecca was already a center of trade in Arabia, a place where not only goods but also ideas were exchanged. Islamic civilization grew thanks to its merchant economy. It was commerce, not holy war, that expanded the Muslim faith to Asia.

Islamic banking is based on the teachings of Prophet Mohammed, himself a merchant. During its heyday, shariah was the world’s most vibrant body of commercial law, its contracts recognized from the Arabian peninsula to the Iberian peninsula. The shariah issued fatwas or opinions on which transactions were Islamically acceptable and which were forbidden. Shariah prohibits the payment or acceptance of interest fees for loans of money, a principle as old as money itself and basic to Western banking. However, charging high interest rates to lend money is repeatedly condemned in the Bible, Aristotle denounced it, the Romans limited it, and it was prohibited by the early Christian church.

Back in the days of Mohammed, the reasons for rejecting interest were pretty obvious: loan-sharking was common and not paying a loan could result in slavery. By outlawing interest, Islam encouraged an economy based on risk-sharing, fair dealing, and equity. The reason for prohibiting interest is to keep everybody spending according to his limit, so inevitably this system involves more prudent lending. Western consumerism society is the result of a banking system that encourages buying today and paying tomorrow. For advocates of Islamic banking, Western capitalism is synonymous with speculation, volatility, inequality, large corporations and usury. Not that they are entirely wrong.

In an Islamic mortgage transaction, instead of loaning the buyer money to purchase the item, a bank might buy the item itself from the seller, and re-sell it to the buyer at a profit, while allowing the buyer to pay the bank in installments. There are no additional penalties for late payment. To protect itself against default, the bank requires a strict collateral. Some transactions, look a lot like interest, but any late fees must be donated to charity, and the bank cannot penalize a borrower who is genuinely broke. Financiers share borrowers’ risks and depositors are treated more like shareholders, earning a portion of profits. Financing deals resemble lease-to-own arrangements, layaway plans, joint purchase and sale agreements, or partnerships.

Interest-free banking as a financial concept is pretty recent. The earliest references to the reorganisation of banking on the basis of profit sharing rather than interest are found in the 40’s. But it wasn’t until the oil boom of the 1970s that it became a movement. Nostalgia for the lost golden era of Muslim power, when Islamic economy covered half the world, has been a strong impetus for Islamic banking. The region’s millenium-long material decline has been blamed both on moral decay and on colonialism, which imposed Western-style banking, a cause for resentment still today. However, the only countries that have officially Islamicized their entire banking systems, are Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan.

After the collapse of Wall Street institutions and a global recession, Islamic banking is seriously being considered a possible alternative to conventional banking. The biggest support has surprisingly come from the Vatican itself, which has been very critical of the destructive excesses of the interest-based conventional financial system. Two authors of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper, have said that the ethical principles on which Islamic finance is based may bring banks closer to their clients and to the true spirit which should mark financial services. After all, the Bible denounces that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Islamic Banking experiences a healthy growth of 10-15% per year. According to The Economist there are over US$822 billion shariah-compliant assets worldwide. Most international big banks now (JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank)  have Islamic banking operations and they employ shariah scholars, expert in both scriptures and in financial theory. These scholars are so rare, many have to sit on several boards. Ancient texts don’t address specific matters like derivatives, bonds, futures, warrants, stock options or day trading, so a delicate and very sophisticated form of extrapolation ensures transactions comply with the spirit of the writings in holy books.

Islamic banking is restricted to Islamically acceptable transactions, which exclude those involving alcohol, pork, gambling, etc. If a company makes 2% of its money from selling pork rinds, an investor must give away 2% of his dividends to charity, a process known as “portfolio purification.” Buying and selling stock is fine, because it represents real assets, and they can be traded safely today using the Dow Jones Islamic Index.

Islamic banking is not entirely free of guilt or suspicion, of course. With 60% of Muslims living in poverty, Islamic banking is perceived by some to be of little benefit to the general population. It has had its share of scandals too, like one Malaysian bank who apparently invested the majority of its Islamic funds in the gaming industry, something totally unethical and prohibited under Islamic principles. Goldman Sachs’ $2 billion Islamic bond program came under scrutiny after it was discovered that the scholars who were supposed to approve the operations had not even seen the prospectus. Islamic banking has also been accused of serving as a channel for financing terrorists. However it does seem that Islamic banking has important ethical principles well worth imitating, and proponents of Islamic banking say any socially conscious investor can agree with most limits, standards and criteria of Islamic banking, whether they are Muslim or not. 

-Still want more? Here’s an article in Fortune magazine

-The photographs of the Al-Quran and the Astrolabe were taken from this blog

To read my article in its original PDF form, go to: Islamic Banking

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Jamaraat Bridge

This monumental bridge structure that almost looks like a living creature from above was not built not to cross any river or to connect two mountains. It exists only to be a part of an ancient ritual that involves millions of pilgrims every year. In the photo below, a view of some of the camps set up for pilgrims around the bridge, which give you an idea of the magnitude.

The Jamaraat Bridge is located in Mina, 5km east of Mecca. It is dedicated exclusively to the stoning of the devil ritual of the Hajj. The original bridge was constructed in 1963, and expanded several times, but after a series of deadly stampedes, the worst of which occurred in 2006 and resulted in 346 deaths and 289 people injured, the Saudi authorities demolished the old bridge and started construction of a new multi-level building.

The current bridge was designed by architecture and engineering consultants Dar Al-Handasah and constructed by the Bin Laden Group. It is the only special-purpose structure of its kind in the world. It has been designed to handle 300,000 pilgrims an hour, a spectacular crowd. However, at certain times, over a million people may gather in the area of the bridge. The purpose of the bridge is to enable pilgrims to throw stones at the three jamrah pillars from any of the levels.

The new security measures implemented include wider pillars that are easier to hit by pilgrims, to prevent dangerous bottlenecks. Pilgrims on each floor move in the same direction. Exit ramps are wider than entrance ramps.

The authorities also recruited the world’s leading experts in crowd dynamics that use crowd behaviour simulation tools to predict the movement of people through the bridge, in order to design escape routes accordingly. Pilgrims have also been allowed to throw their stones at any time of day rather than only in the afternoon as before, which caused extemely dangerous situations.

The number of pilgrims continues to increase every year and is expected to rise to 20 million in the near future. The bridge will have to continue adapting and will eventually have 12 levels.

Total site area: 500,000m2

80 hectares of lanscaped pedestrian areas

4 floors, 600m long each. Total area of 385,000 m2

3 vehicular roads

1 Underground level for services with area of 21,000 m2, and 3,000 m of tunnel connections to surrounding area

6 Service buildings with total area of 25,000 m2

2 Heliports

6 Five-ton elevators

2 Bus stations with total area of 37,000 m2

Construction cost (2005) US $1,120 million

(To read my original article, published in Jan 2011, in PDF: Another Bridge in the Sand)

Cum Grano Salis

The English language expression “with a grain of salt”, which means to be skeptical or not taking something literally, appears for the first time in Pliny the Elder‘s Naturalis Historia. When Gnaeus Pompeius defeated Mithridates in 65BC, he found a recipe for an antidote for poison in his private cabinet. The recipe was: two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pounded all together and taken with a grain of salt. If a person took this mixture fasting, he thought, he would be protected from all poisons that day.

If anyone knew about poisons, it was Mithridates. After his defeat he fled to Crimea and attempted to organize a new army against the Romans but failed, his eldest son, Machares, was unwilling to help (and so, was killed) and another of his sons, Pharnaces II, led a rebellion against him. Seeing his loss of authority, he attempted suicide, but failed; because throughout his life -obsessed with assassination by poison- he had gained immunity to many of them taking tiny doses of all available poisons. He had to order his bodyguard and friend Bituitus to kill him.

That last part of Pliny’s translation of Mithridates’ handwritten recipe was adopted in the English language, no doubt, when classical scholars studied the Ancient Greek texts. It has been in use in English at least since the 17th century, when John Trapp, the English Anglican Bible commentator, said that the Old and New Testaments had “to be taken with a grain of salt”. But it has always meant to have common sense and a certain skepticism in Italy, where “to have salt in your pumpkin” (avere sale in zucca) means to have personal judgement and not believe things literally.

This cathedral, in Zipaquirá, a town in Cundinamarca, Colombia, was not built but carved within the tunnels of an underground salt mine. The “Salt Cathedral” is a popular tourist destination. Although mass is celebrated in it, the church has no bishop assigned, so it has no official status as a cathedral in Catholicism. The church visited today is not the original one inaugurated in 1954, dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners, however. Due to structural problems a new one had to be excavated, 200 feet below the old sanctuary. Still, some of the galleries used today were originally excavated by the Muisca people, who already exploited salt, at least since the 5th century. Alexander von Humboldt described this mining during his visit to Zipaquirá in 1801.

An surprising and original endeavour, this cathedral. But, like most things surrounding the holy Catholic church, and like religion itself…it must be taken with a grain of salt.

(To read the article on my magazine, in PDF format, published today: Cum Grano Salis)