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Friday, July 19, 2024

Pause For Thought

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THE SUSTAINABILITY OF THE ISLAMIC ECONOMIC SYSTEM

The recent announcement of the Governor of the Central Bank of Sudan puts an effective end to the fully-fledged Islamic economic/financial system in Sudan. This means there is now only one country left in the world, which can claim to have a fully-fledged Islamic economic system, namely the Islamic Republic of Iran. The literature of the 1980s and 1990s used to refer to Pakistan, Iran and Sudan as the three countries that had announced their intent to Islamise their economic systems fully. In 2001, the new military regime of Pervez Musharraf officially reversed the policy and made Pakistan a “dual” economy, leaving Iran and Sudan as the remaining two contenders for having fully-fledged Islamic economic systems.

It all started with the military regime of Muhammad Zia ul Haq, who announced in 1977 that Pakistan was officially a country aiming to have a fully-fledged Islamic economic system. This was followed by Iran in 1979, and then Sudan wherein the government in 1992 announced its commitment to an economy-wide implementation of Islamic laws. Apparently, Pakistan unwinded what it attempted to pioneer as a potential global movement in the 1970s.

This lack of sustainability of the so-called “dual” system will lead to the failure of Islamic banks and financial institutions in offering financial solutions superior to their conventional counterparts

Now that the notion of an “Islamic economic system” has almost failed, there is an emphasis on establishing the so-called global and national centres of excellence for the Islamic (or Shari’a) economy. Dubai championed the idea and now the likes  of Indonesia are pursuing the dream. Is it going to be a new route to the successful implementation of the Islamic economic system or another lollipop for Muslim masses to quieten them? Only time will tell. It may not even be taken as a lollipop as a vast majority of Muslims aren’t sufficiently interested in an Islamic economic system. If so, it could simply be considered as political manoeuvring on the part of the leaders in the Muslim world to highlight (in a futile way) the importance of the Islamic economic system.

Whatever be the case, it should be a cause of concern for individual Islamic financial institutions (and more so for those who have invested billions of funds in them), as it is another step towards their gradual marginalisation and eventual disappearance into the annals of history. In an environment where three out of four Muslims believe that Islamic banking does not offer sufficiently differentiable financial products, only a fool would believe in the sustainability of such a system. This lack of sustainability of the so-called “dual” system will lead to the failure of Islamic banks and financial institutions in offering financial solutions superior to their conventional counterparts and, in fact, differentiable in economic terms. Mere Shari’a compliance will attract no more than one in four Muslims. Alarmingly, it will become increasingly difficult for Islamic banks and financial institutions to even find this “fourth” customer. At this juncture, one must ask some difficult questions like:

Why did HSBC wind up its global Islamic banking business? Where is Noriba Bank today?

Why once buoyant players like BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, Merrill

Lynch and others are involved in Islamic finance for just face-saving?

Why is the annual growth rate of the global industry on a constant decline (see Global Islamic Finance Report 2020-21)?

Honest answers to these questions will lead to a meaningful understanding of what is happening in the global Islamic financial services industry.

The apparent failure of the so-called fully-fledged Islamic economic systems in Pakistan and Sudan (and imminently in Iran) may have multiple dimensions and reasons. In case of Iran and Sudan, it could very well be due to the international sanctions as well. The fact of the matter, however, is that these countries have failed to present the Islamic economic system as capable of solving socio-economic problems faced by their people.

Does this mean that Islamic leadership has been in wrong hands? If political leadership isn’t sufficiently suitable for championing Islamic causes, is it the religious intelligentsia that must be given a more prominent role in this respect? Probably yes. The Islamic banks and financial institutions advised by Shari’a scholars have done a lot better than the macroeconomics of the Muslim countries run by the so-called able bureaucrats and politicians.

Also, it is worth pondering to see if private Islam is better than the public profile of Islam as depicted by governments in the Muslim world. Previous privatised attempts for the renaissance of Islam (e.g., jihad) have by and large failed and have indeed costed Muslim communities dearly in terms of loss of human life and more importantly in reputation. Privatisation of Islam through financial institutions has its own dangers, and one must not take their eyes off the potential harms that private Islamic banks may cause under the so-called “dual” banking systems. Complete privatisation of fatwa, for example, as opposed to regulated Shari’a governance, has resulted in numerous Shari’a controversies that might have otherwise been avoided.

These are some of the fundamental questions one must pause for a while to answer. We may not have immediate answers to all these, but at least it must allow us to check where we stand and whether this is the right place to be in.

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