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HomeGIFR 2020Translating Sustainability into Islamic Social Finance

Translating Sustainability into Islamic Social Finance

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Translating the meaning of sustainability from the realm of conventional capitalism (where the concept was originally conceived) to that of Islamic economics may recall the art of the dragoman, with an intellectual endeavour pursuing a dialogue between worlds that are distant and not harmonized (interest-based finance on one side and the interest-free market on the other side). Despite being so far one from the other, these two worlds have recently started sharing (at least in terms of a converging narrative) growing attention towards the issue of sustainability (inflected in financial, economic, ecological and social terms according to the passions of the addressees, if not, more cynically, to the interests of the addressers – as it happens for any political argument. This (alleged) convergence between apparently divergent worlds may well require some more intellectual effort by the interpreter to contextualize the junction of passions and interests (both in conventional and Islamic finance) around the new totem of sustainability. Referring to the art of the tarjumãn becomes consequently a helpful device (if not a need and a necessity) for us, next to the consideration of the English word ‘translation’.

Keeping these preliminary remarks in the progression of reasoning, this chapter shares some reflections about the ‘place’ of sustainability in conventional capitalism and Islamic economics as two alternative worlds that the word ‘sustainability’ seems to put in contact today. More precisely, by ‘carrying sustainability from one place to another,’ this chapter will try to transfer its contents from the context of conventional finance to that of Islamic finance, underlining how some ostensible convergence between the two worlds may actually hide a more deep-rooted persistent divergence among them. Considering this, the chapter will suggest in the conclusive section of the contribution how their ‘diplomatic relations’ (since conventional and Islamic finance do coexist today as competing reigns in the global market) could be arranged by means of Islamic social finance intended as synonymous of sustainability. For the sake of diplomacy, may the art of the dragoman be of good inspiration in this enterprise of translation, interpretation and mediation.

From World to World

Any experienced explorer knows that moving from one world to another involves fundamental issues of cognition (about what-is-known and how-to-know), as well as of recognition: the attempt of understanding something different from ourselves in the process of discovery, which involves the roots of our-self as much as it affects the perception of the others (themselves). On the subject hundreds (better, thousands) of books have been written by philosophers, social scientists, sociologists and anthropologists about how much our pre-assumptions interfere with (or, in a more neutral sense, affect) the representation (and hence understanding) of others. Any representation is, in fact, a signifying practice that reveals the cultural boundaries of the interpreter. Not by chance, all the contents of the well-known masterpiece by Edward Said on Orientalism (1978) is about how the modern Occident has shaped its own identity (its Self) by representing the Orient as the Other.

In this frame, problems of translation, which are usually conceived by the majority of people only in relation to the transfer of meaning from a natural language to another (e.g., from Arabic to English, and from English to Italian, etc), amplify their level of complexity into issues of perception, interpretation and understanding. As the famous Italian semiotician Umberto Eco (1932-2016) loved to remark, in any process of translation meanings are not carried ‘word by word,’ but ‘from world to world.’ Hence in one of his most famous books (1999), with a touch of wit, Eco indulges in describing how the Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324), when arrived in the island of Java at the end of the XIII century, misled rhinoceros (that he had never seen before) with unicorns. Polo’s European education provided him a ‘template’ for a unicorn that he applied to understand the nature of rhinos (as unicorns that were, in any case, “rather strange – not very good examples of the species, we might say – given that they were not white and slender but had “the hair of the buffalo” and feet “like the feet of an elephant” (Eco (1999), p. 57). With regard to issues of perception, cognition and misperception, Eco provides another notable example of the hermeneutical issues related to the discovery of new worlds by mentioning the meeting of the first Australian colonists with the platypus, a “strange animal” which seems to “have been conceived to foil all classification, be it scientific or popular” (ibidem, p. 58) by combining qualities that can be attributed either to “a beaver, a duck, or a fish” (ibidem).

The first Australian colonists to see the platypus found themselves in the same [Marco Polo’s] quandary: they saw it as a mole, and in fact they called it the “water mole,” but this mole had a beak, and therefore it was not a mole. Something perceptible outside the “mold” supplied by the idea of mole made the mold unsuitable – because to recognize a beak as a beak we would have to presume that the colonists had a “template” for the beak (Eco, 1999, p. 59).

It may seem at this point that classification of animal species do not relate at all to the subject of this chapter, but translating the meaning of sustainability from conventional to Islamic finance does actually raise hermeneutical issues (and may easily lead to cognitive mistakes) that are not so far from those experienced by Mr. Polo and the first Australian colonists. A certain ‘way of looking at the world,’ in fact, can easily lead the interpreter to confuse a rhino for a unicorn; a platypus for a water mole; and then the (Western) criterion of sustainability with its Islamic counterparty as currently nourished by the emergence of Islamic social finance. Hence, the tremendous challenge of ‘moving from a world to another world’ which is inherent in the practice of translation (in the broad sense of representing correctly the reality by means of a transfer of meaning) brings about the need for a mediation, the capability to connect distant worlds and to re-elaborate linguistic contents in semantic contexts. That is what the art of the dragoman was exactly about.

As far as the contents of sustainability in their Western context are concerned, in the persistence of the financial crisis that started in 2008, the initiative of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must be welcomed. It represents the most famous document known at a global level issued on the subject (United Nations, 2015). In any case, the concept of sustainability in the Western world has a much longer story, which can be traced back (at least in a terminological sense) to the XVIII century, when the German tax accountant and mining administrator Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645-1714) coined the term Nachhaltigkeit (from the adjective nachhaltig, ‘lasting’) in relation to a ‘continuous, steady and sustained use’ of forestry and timber as precious natural resources. But it was much later (in the XX century) that next to the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s the Club of Rome commissioned The Limits to Growth Report (Meadows at al.,1972) in defence of a world system that is sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse, followed by the UN Report on Environment and Development Our Common Future by the Brundtland Commission (United Nations, 1987), describing sustainable development in terms of a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

“TRANSLATING THE MEANING OF SUSTAINABILITY FROM CONVENTIONAL TO ISLAMIC FINANCE DOES ACTUALLY RAISE HERMENEUTICAL ISSUES, WHICH MAY EASILY LEAD TO COGNITIVE MISTAKES.”

As well-known, the echo of these contents have been recently mirrored in the context of Islamic finance through a series of valuable initiatives spanning from green Sukuk and social impact waqf crowdfunding to the promotion of Islamic FinTech as a tool for a more inclusive financial system1. More in general, I feel that a new tendency is emerging about translating ‘Islamic finance’ into ‘sustainable finance,’ a trend that seems to have replaced – at least in terms of how fashionable the word ‘sustainable’ has become in the literature. The self-feeding description of Islamic finance as intrinsically ethical, as has been an attempt in the past is equally applicable to sustainability. It should be well-accepted by Muslim believers, as it emphasizes the moral superiority of Islam. It should also be useful for Islamic financial institutions, which can enjoy a moral reputation and a sustainability advantage over their secular competitors.

In this light, the conversion that is currently occurring of Islamic finance into sustainable finance becomes somehow manifest in a consultative document issued on October 3, 2018 by Bank Negara Malaysia (and preceded by a Strategy Paper launched on March 12: Bank Negara Malaysia, 2018a and 2018b) to sponsor a new Value-Based Intermediation Financing and Investment Impact Assessment Framework (VBIAF), where VBI is defined as:

An intermediation function that aims to deliver the intended outcomes of Shari’a through practices, conduct and offerings that generate positive and sustainable impact to the economy, community and environment; consistent with the shareholders’ sustainable returns and long-term interests.

The manifest overlap between Shari’a and sustainability implied by this definition may well have struck some respondents that had been called to give a feedback on the document during the consultation period, and it does not come as a surprise that these lines cannot be found anymore in the final version of the Guidance Document (Bank Negara Malaysia, 2019). The VBIAF, aiming to be a reference for Islamic financial institutions that intends to incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk considerations in their own risk management system, has certainly to be welcomed as a valuable and praiseworthy initiative. What clearly emerges from the final version of the VBIAF document is the maintenance of a functional interrelation between sustainability and the objectives (maqaşid) of Shari’a, too. This important document recognizes a key difference between VBI and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), Ethical Finance and Sustainable, Socially Responsible Investing (SRI). The BNM-championed VBI claims to rely on Shari’a “in the determination of its values, moral compass and priorities” (Bank Negara Malaysia, 2019, p. 2). This is probably outcome of the points of criticism raised by commentators on the first version of the text. The assertion of a foreseeable, if not desirable alignment between sustainable and Islamic finance somehow remains the core concept of the revised document (see, for instance, p. 6; p. 8 about the convergence between UN’s SDGs and the maqaşid of Shari’a). The pre-consultation version (as it can be read above) was even more direct in depicting sustainability in terms of a “positive and sustainable impact to the economy, community and environment” which is generated by (good) “practices, conduct and offerings”, by means of which the intermediation function delivers the “intended outcomes of Shari’a.” The VBI was meant to deliver maqaşid to the extent to which (good) practices generated sustainability. Hence, sustainability implicitly overlapped the ‘intended outcomes’ of Shari’a. Thus, parameters of Shari’a compliance were (vaguely) replaced by criteria of sustainability.

One has certainly to recognize the work of a brave dragoman in the original VBI definition, with an attempt of a full mediation between sustainability and Shari’a in the light of convergence (overlap or even inter-dependence). This may be counted as an attempt, albeit too provocative for many observers, which would have risked translating (converting) the canon of Shari’a compliance into the criteria of sustainability of ESG and SRI. Subtly, the contents of sustainability substituted the contexts of Islam by the art of diplomacy, as if their meanings would have remained the same from the world of capitalism into the world of Islam. But in the end, in his attempt to mediate between the Occident and the Orient, did the dragoman simply play with words or confound worlds?

“TRANSLATING THE CANON OF SHARI’A-COMPLIANCE INTO THE CRITERIA OF SUSTAINABILITY OR ESG AND SRI COULD BE TOO PROVOCATIVE FOR MANY OBSERVERS.

Sustainable Debt, Tenable Islam

The word ‘sustainability’ derives from the Latin sustinere (tenere, ‘to hold’, with the prefix sub, ‘under’), meaning ‘to maintain,’ ‘to support,’ ‘to endure.’ Though referring to the capability for something to exist constantly, sustainability has started to indicate in the XXI century the capacity for humanity and the biosphere to keep coexisting in harmony (being the latter threatened in many ways by the former due to the greed for maximization of profits and consumption of natural resources). Accordingly, the notion of ‘sustainable finance’ can be referred to an endorsement of the ideals of sustainability by means of the adoption of a long-term investing strategy able to reconcile (i) economy; (ii) society; and (iii) environment, as the three pillars of an enduring human civilization able to sustain its needs from an inter-generational perspective without depriving the world eco-system of its equilibrium.

There is no doubt that all the ideas, targets, commitments and principles gathered around the concept of sustainable finance are difficult to summaries (to the extent that both practitioners and researchers in the subject usually refer to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) listed in the 2030 Agenda as a sort of benchmark of the contents of sustainability). Thus, the experience of translation should orient the interpreter also towards the understanding of the Western economic context from which the notion has arisen. If in the Occident, in fact, prior to the XVIII century there was no economics as a science (Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, 1776, being traditionally considered the first text of the discipline in the West), modern capitalism has grown since the very beginning by detaching the notion of economy both from society and the environment. Hence, in the Western world the idea of sustainability is emerging today as an antidote against the imperatives of ‘rational choices’ that have been conceived until recently from an ultra-liberal free-market-oriented approach. Imperatives which have necessarily shaped the meaning of sustainability in opposition to a utility maximization dogma intended in a crude material sense dominating the greed both of state economic policies and private ambitions. In a nutshell, the rise of passions for sustainable finance in the West has to be contextualized (both historically, sociologically and anthropologically) within a capitalistic model trying to endure its principles while moderating the pursuit of its own interests, among which interest-based debt financial instruments represent the epitome par excellence.

The tyranny of debt embedded in Western capitalism (where no broad censure to interest-based tools have been raised in the discussion about sustainability) leads at this point our path to evaluate:

  • How much debt is sustainable from an Islamic perspective.
  • Why the charge of interest inherently belongs to conventional capitalism; and
    • How the contents of the word ‘sustainability’ change when inserted within the context of the Islamic world.

Indeed, shifting from conventional to Islamic economics (as alternative contexts of the contents of sustainability) opens the gate to another semantic world enlightened for Muslim believers by Shari’a. A world of meaning where the semantics of conventional capitalism (forged around parameters of (a) scarcity of resources, (b) division of available property rights, and (c) the rat race of never-ending competition) is replaced in Islam by distinctive tenets of (a) abundance of goods, as promised by God to His believers; (b) distribution of property rights in a balanced equilibrium, and (c) mutual cooperation among economic agents in a community of shared prosperity5. Therefore, unpacking the passions and the interests that underlie the concept of sustainability in Western capitalism as a remedy to the excesses of its laissez-faire secular ideology may actually reveal how the meaning of istidama in the Islamic world becomes per se the intrinsic connotation of any financial endeavour following Shari’a. To tell it in another way, if in Western capitalism sustainability can work (if anything) as a tamer of a competition for natural and social resources based on the assumption of scarcity of goods that must be divided, istidama belongs to the very core of Islam for the Muslim believer who submits to God, whose Providence guarantees proper reward for any risk taken, an abundance of shared resources and their fair distribution to the participants in the socio-religious community. From an external constraint to economic greed, sustainability (aka istidama) becomes the inner engine for any tenable Islamic ecosystem.

Dealing with the translation of the word sustainability from the Western to the Islamic worlds, what we have found is a radical shift of paradigm. It is necessarily adoption of a scientific revolution (as Thomas Kuhn (1962) would have defined it) where the issue is not anymore how to sustain a capitalistic debt economy grounded on the exploitation of resources so to make the debt itself sustainable but to recognize how any debt is per se a source of exploitation. This exploitation derives in commercial dealings from the charge of interest (riba), which belongs intrinsically to the logic of capitalism. As a corollary, the contents of sustainability are transferred from the boundaries to the very core of a functioning ecosystem when we move from a Western to an Islamic context.

In a certain sense, as much the coincidence between the notion of the moral economy in the West and in Islam has led many scholarships to confuse the epistemology of Islamic economics with that of conventional economics6. So, the search for sustainability should not be conceived as an objective for the Islamic eco-system, but as an instrument to pursue Shari’a. And, as an instrument, it would be conceptualized as an essential element of the nature per se of Islamic economics so to reach the general objectives (maqãşid) of Shari’a. Reversing the process of understanding of these objectives by interpreting Shari’a in the light of (or inter-dependent, overlapping with) sustainability would in fact deviously substitute some sort of worldly (if not secular) viewpoint to the divine (religious) Shari’a, threatening the tenability of Islam as religion revealed to perfection.

“THE PROCESS OF UNDERSTANDING OF THE OBJECTIVES OF SHARI’A BY INTERPRETING IT IN LIGHT OF THE CONTEMPORARY VIEWS ON SUSTAINABILITY WOULD IN FACT DEVIOUSLY SUBSTITUTE SOME SORT OF WORLDLY (IF NOT SECULAR) VIEWPOINT TO SHARI’A, THREATENING THE TENABILITY OF ISLAM AS RELIGION REVEALED TO PERFECTION.

Anybody who cares about the art of the dragoman should take the epistemological issues related to the translation of sustainability into the world of Islamic economics with deep attention, so to properly locate its contents in contexts. In this sense, one should carefully highlight how it is not Islamic finance to be called to look at maqaşid as an instrument for sustainability, but how (reversely) it is the intrinsically sustainable essence of the shared prosperity underlying the methodology of Islamic economics to be functionally instrumental to pursue the final objectives of Shari’a, whose epistemologically centrality must be maintained in the light of the revealed principles of Islam.

Of course, this also implies the departure from a narrative about Islamic finance as a prohibition-driven industry, which has been widespread till recently both in academic literature and in the practice of the market. In actual facts, if the financial crisis has made the centrality of debt and its related instability increasingly apparent, the promotion of an entrepreneurship based on risk and profit-sharing, collaboration action and enhanced cooperation can find in a more deep-rooted social orientation of Islamic finance a tool to pursue the objectives of Shari’a. This must allow escape from the tyranny of debt as the virus nurturing the obligation-driven market of conventional capitalism.

While the phrase going “beyond debt” has been recently used in academic scholarship to summarise the nature of Islamic finance (Rudnyckyj, 2019), it is probably (once again) in an etymological research that some more meaning can be added to the argument here. The word ‘debt’ (which indicates in English any financial obligation to repay the principal amount, to which interest is attached as an intrinsic element of the transaction in Western capitalism) derives from the Latin debere, which stands for ‘(what) that is due’, ‘(what) for which one is obliged’ (hence debitum, ‘the thing that is owed’). The etymology of ‘debt’ sheds clear light over the relationship of power that belongs (‘is owed’) to the creditor over the debtor, who is entrapped in a duty for which he is obliged. In the end, all that Western capitalism relies on is an obligation-driven market which logically assumes somebody in power against somebody under power – a winner against a loser and a rich against a poor. All this is in an escapable competition for scarce resources to be divided.

Looking at the social orientation of Islamic finance as a way to comply with Shari’a does reveal how a chance of salvation belongs to the teaching of Islamic economics by means of a liberation from the tyranny of debt and the burden of riba. It is precisely in this direction that this chapter would like to conclude this contribution by highlighting how an intrinsic sustainability characterizes the practice of Islamic social finance, and how by recognizing that Islamic social finance equals sustainability. This is how the contents of the word sustainability can be actually translated into the contexts of the Islamic world.

Islamic Social Finance is Sustainability

Dealing with translation as an art that involves interpretive understanding, mediation and (then) some diplomatic skills in the transfer of meaning from a world to another world, this contribution has focused on some issues related to the comprehension of the contents of sustainability in a Western and an Islamic context. Although an enthusiastic affirmation of a possible convergence between sustainable finance and Islamic finance has been advanced by the passion of some dragomans (if not by the interests of many skilled policymakers), some warnings have been presented in these pages about the danger of a subtle hermeneutical trap.

If in the world of conventional capitalism, a dichotomy between economy and morality is assumed (with a detachment between economy, society and ecology that the contents of sustainability are currently tried to heal), when this dichotomy is removed, as it happens in the world of Islamic finance which is grounded in Shari’a, sustainability itself does not subsist anymore as an objective to be pursued in trying to put a limit (a boundary) to the excess of capitalism. On the contrary, sustainability becomes a tool to pursue the final objectives of Shari’a: a core instrumental principle (not an aim in itself) in order to follow the Islamic teachings. As remarked in the previous section, therefore, it is not Islamic finance to be called to look at maqasid as an instrument for sustainability, but (reversely) it is the intrinsically sustainable essence of the shared prosperity underlying its methodology to be functionally instrumental to pursue the objectives of Shari’a.

In this direction, if in the previous decades, the practice of Islamic finance has regrettably underestimated the self-beneficial impact of its own core principles of profit- and risk-sharing (maintaining a preference for debt-based financial instruments, instead of promoting more equity-oriented investing tools), it is in an interest-free market (intended as a departure from the obligation-driven socio-economic system of capitalism) that the social nature of maqaşid may find their best impact for all the humankind in the light of Shari’a.

By following Shari’a the Muslim believer makes his human life ‘sustainable’ as much as the financial system guarantees the sustainability of the entire eco-system in pursuing the maqaşid. Hence, it is only by adhering to istidama as an essential aspect of a proper Muslim life (influencing daily economic, social and ecological choices) that the objectives of Shari’a can be fulfilled (not by shaping the maqaşid in the light of sustainability and by reversing their semantics around a worldly – if not secular – experience). It is the core social essence per se of Islamic finance (when fully realised in its equity-oriented justice) that can lead to parameters of abundance, participation and cooperation in a community of shared prosperity able to remove the tyranny of debt that still affects the global economy. Of course, it can be good practice to highlight with the adjective ‘social’ what is (or should be already) inherent in Islamic finance, so to lead practitioners to care about Islamic social finance in order to pursue the objectives of Shari’a. But what the art of translation can suggest at the conclusion of our discussion is to remark once again how the contents of sustainability inherently belong to an economic system built within the contexts of Islamic (social) finance. In a nutshell, Islamic social finance intrinsically acts as a vehicle of sustainability, converting the human submission to debt to the human surrender to the objectives of Shari’a. In this context, Islamic social finance means, better, is sustainability.

“ISLAMIC SOCIAL FINANCE INTRINSICALLY ACTS AS A VEHICLE OF SUSTAINABILITY, CONVERTING THE HUMAN SUBMISSION TO DEBT TO THE HUMAN SURRENDER TO THE OBJECTIVES OF SHARI’A.”

In the light of this, keeping our commitment as dragomans, Islamic social finance itself can actually represent in the years to come a fundamental instrument of diplomatic relations with post-modern capitalism aiming at sustainability. If the tyranny of debt is still far to be defeated in the conventional economic system, the tools of Islamic social finance can offer (through their interest-free conceptual schemes) important insights into a fairer eco-system. Then, it will be the responsibility of any Muslim believer to translate Islamic social finance into a major factor both of sustainability of the world economy and of benefit for all humanity. In the end, if every man is not asked to be a dragoman in his life, any good Muslim is called to follow Shari’a and Islamic social finance (aka ‘sustainability’) must certainly be recognized as a precious tool to be carried in the path to salvation.

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