Business | Features

A Sharia scholar’s place on the board

A recent report looks at some of the toughest issues facing Islamic finance

  • By Rushdi Siddiqui, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 May 12, 2010
  • Gulf News

Hussain Hamid Hassan
  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Hussain Hamid Hassan believes that the claim that Islamic banks are facing dangers due to the inability of the members of their Sharia boards to properly carry out their duties is not based on reality or evidence.
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Funds-at-Work, a research-based strategy consultancy focusing on the investment industry, recently released "Shariah Scholars - A Network Analytic Perspective," which links Sharia scholars to board positions. It is a more comprehensive study than previous Sharia scholar reports. Rushdi Siddiqui puts some challenging questions to four international Sharia scholars to get their view points:

  • Dr Hussain Hamid Hassan (HHH), eminent scholar and chairman of many Islamic financial institutions
  • Dr Mohammad Daud Bakar (MDB), international scholar and founder and managing director of Amanie Islamic Finance Consultancy and Education;
  • Yousuf Talal DeLorenzo (YTD), leading US scholar; and
  • Dr Mohammad Akram Laldin (MAL), Executive Director, ISRA, Malaysia.

Research is an important area in Islamic finance and you are well aware of the Funds-at-Work study, linking scholars to Sharia boards. What is your impression of the study?

HHH: The Islamic finance industry is young but growing. It needs specialists, not just in Sharia, but in law, accounting and feasibility studies.

There are very few scholars who combine the qualifications and experience needed for this field.

Therefore, it is only natural that they would carry a heavy load, for the industry is in need of development and the invention of new products which should be compliant with the Sharia, valid in civil law, and commercially viable.

There just aren't a sufficient number of specialists in these areas in light of the rapid growth and remarkable development of this industry.

In time, the young will gain experience, and people will then seek them out, after the generation that preceded them has passed away; and they, in turn, will be succeeded by another generation of young practitioners. That's the way of the world.

Furthermore, this study was lacking in precision, for it ignored a great number of up-and-coming scholars who are working as members of these same Sharia boards along with their teachers, in order to learn from them. Why didn't the study focus on them?

It focused instead on the first generation, whose careers developed apace with the growth of the Islamic finance industry and the Islamic banking movement.

The number of these [young scholars] far exceeds the number of senior scholars, who are now well over 60 years of age.

How can the study demand that the new Islamic finance industry be led by the young to the exclusion of those with long experience, who are considered the fathers and theorists of the Islamic finance industry (IFI)?

MDB: What is lacking in this research is the clear hypothesis of the research and in what way the readers could actually benefit from the research, as the data presented is quite extensive (although not necessarily accurate), but the data analysis needs to be improved.

YTD: The goal of research is knowledge and its application. There are very likely a great deal of practical applications for the Funds-at-Work study and this is welcomed.

Networking aside, there are far more important considerations, or there should be, in evaluating Sharia scholars and their work: Published work? Academic background? Affiliation with one juristic school?

Experience and exposure to various financial products and instruments? Relationships with international legal firms? Ability to function effectively as team members and meet deadlines? Ability to represent, if necessary, IFIs in international or regional forums or even in informal situations?

All of these are factors that may have varying degrees of importance for IFIs.

MAL: I believe it is a good move to provide the market players with the information about their involvements.

It will definitely assist the market player to engage the suitable Sharia advisor so as not to hinder their progress. I also strongly believe that we are not in shortage of Sharia advisors in the market. We do have competent people but not many are given the chance to serve on Sharia boards as some market players prefer to have certain scholars on their board. As a result you can find that some scholars sit on many boards.

There is increasing conversation about scholars serving on multiple boards and how this might present a conflict of interest. Are you in agreement?

HHH: It has never happened in the history of the Islamic finance industry that the members of any Sharia board divulged secrets that damaged an Islamic bank or an Islamic financial institution.

They are the people most worthy of confidence and trust, for they are leaders and role models.

History has not conveyed to us a single report of a scholar who issued a fatwa that was a secret which only the mustafti (questioner) was privy to, such that the mufti could not issue the same fatwa to someone else.

This criticism is the result of ignorance about the nature of the duty of Sharia board members.

They explain the rule of Allah in the issues presented to them, and their fatwas are not considered the property of the mustafti who asks them, such that the rule of Allah cannot be given to someone else.

We would like to ask: How many times in the history of Islamic banking — which is more than 30 years old — has an Islamic bank complained about a member of a Sharia board that he gave the same fatwa to another bank which he had already given to the first bank?

Indeed, the rule of Allah does not change just because the person asking about it has changed.

It is a principle of the Sharia that a scholar is not allowed to conceal knowledge; rather, he has to bestow it upon whoever wants it, based on Allah's statement: "You shall make it clear to people and not conceal it" (3:187).

MDB: Conflict of interest is a term, albeit a technical one, which should be used in specific cases is often misunderstood.

For all intents and purposes it disallows a person to be in a position whereby his decision (of doing or not doing) may be influenced by his own interest.

Could a scholar sitting in various Sharia boards be perceived to be in that position? If established, then this practice should be avoided.

What is the interest that is applicable to a scholar when issuing a fatwa?

Perhaps, many understand that Sharia advisors are equal, or should be treated similar to board of directors, hence, the perception of conflict of interest. Scholars are essentially not in the position of serving as the board of director of a bank, for example.

They are similar to other professionals such as lawyers, accountants, auditors, and actuaries.

YTD: The problem I see is not a conflict of interest but one of capacity, in terms of both quantity and quality.

A scholar who serves on multiple boards in addition to a fulltime teaching position at a university, for example, will have to be careful to balance his schedule so as to allot ample time for each of his responsibilities.

That's a matter of quantity; and each individual will have to make up his own mind as to what constitutes a reasonable workload. Some people simply have more energy than others. We have examples in our industry of scholars at advanced ages who serve on many boards; and continue to contribute in a positive manner. We also have examples of scholars who have cut back their commitments, or who have limited them to no more than a certain number.

Insofar as quality is concerned, I think the industry is beginning to demand a greater degree of specialisation, even from its Sharia scholars.

Thus, the concerns of equity fund supervision, of bank supervision, of takaful, leasing, real estate, infrastructure, private equity, home finance, commodity trading... all of these are different and require more than an introductory understanding, hence, the future will be toward specialisation because greater attention to detail will be required of scholars.

MAL: Yes there are many who sit on multiple boards and I have no objection to this provided that the respected scholars are able to discharge their duties in efficient manner. As for the conflict of interest, I do not see any issue for individual scholars sitting on different boards.

However, at present we see a number of scholars are operating Sharia advisory companies and if the person operates the company and at the same time provide advisory services, there might be some question regarding serving the interest of the company and providing independent Sharia views.

This conflict of interest may rise to Sharia compliance risk as not enough time to review all documents, hence, a real risk management issue for IFIs. Are you in agreement?

HHH: The Sharia boards undertake their duties regarding the transactions presented to them, based on their belief that all this is a religious duty which cannot be approached on the basis of whims. Rather, it requires penetrating and rigorous academic research.

Their conscience and sense of duty prevent them from deliberately issuing a fatwa opposed to the Sharia; as for mistakes, they do occur.

If one of them happens to make a mistake, he will be corrected by the other members of his own Sharia board or by another board altogether. At any rate, the Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) said that if someone makes ijtihad and is wrong he gets a single reward, and if he's right he gets a double reward.

And where are these risks that the Islamic banks have faced due to hasty or erroneous fatwas?

Are they issued by the senior members rather than the junior members?

The claim that Islamic banks are facing dangers due to the inability of the members of their Sharia boards to properly carry out their duties is a claim that is not based on reality or evidence.

MDB: If this perception is established, it must not be restated as conflict of interest term, as its misleading.

The issue of quality of works by advisors is the issue of the performance and not of the policy of having scholar on various boards.

This issue should be addressed administratively and not from a policy and regulation perspective, unless the bad performance is rather a phenomenon in modern Islamic finance industry.

YTD: If scholars do not have enough time to review documents, or if they require months to review documents and then need to schedule and reschedule before they can meet and take decisions, then something is clearly wrong.

But the fault is not necessarily that of the scholars. When establishing a Sharia board, an IFI must be cognizant of the scholars' other responsibilities.

Even the matter of time zones should be taken into consideration. And the IFI will need to be diligent and proactive in its management of the Sharia board's affairs so that meetings are scheduled well in advance of deadlines and time is managed effectively.

Many problems can be avoided by making a realistic and practical selection of scholars for the IFI's Sharia board.

MAL: I agree that if a person sits on too many boards, he might not be able to scrutinise all the details of the transactions, documents etc and it will lead to what is termed as "Sharia compliant risk" for the market player. On this issue, I am not blaming the scholars solely. The market practitioners are equally responsible as they are the ones who approach the scholars and appoint them.

With only a handful of scholars on so many boards, is there a risk to IF, especially looking at issues of age, health, and the travel demands of scholars?

HHH: This is not correct, for at this time we have specialised leadership in the Islamic finance industry and we have hundreds of young people who are members of Sharia boards. Therefore, the task is not limited to a handful of scholars.

The Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) has a Sharia Council comprised of 18 members. There is also the Islamic Fiqh Academy that is part of the Muslim World League and the International Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Between them they have hundreds of scholars to whom issues of Islamic economics, Islamic finance and newly developed products are presented, and they issue fatwas and resolutions. So it is not true that those who undertake the issuing of fatwas in Islamic banks and institutions are a small handful of persons.

I totally disagree that those who are leading the Islamic finance industry and its institutions, including banks, takaful companies, and financing and investment institutions, are a small number.

MDB: The meaning of risk in this context is not clear. The risk is and should not be confined to the issues of age, health and travel commitments as these also apply to other sectors in life, be it financial or non-financial.

YTD: Key man risk is always a problem in business. It is no different in our industry. Yet, at the same time, we all know that we need to do more to develop scholars for service in the Islamic financial services industry.

MAL: This is a real issue and if we look at present there are gap between the senior and junior scholars. Many senior scholars are ageing and there are no replacements.

There is a need to put a governance process to regulate the Sharia advisory services. In Malaysia we have started this process since 2005 when the Central Bank issues the guideline on Sharia Advisory services.

One scholar is only allowed to sit on one board as to allow the grooming of new generation of scholars. As a result, we now have more than 100 scholars on our list and the number is increasing especially with many young graduates who are interested in pursuing this career.

Should this type of study in IF be expanded to include law firms? Accounting/management consulting firms?

HHH: Yes. It will soon become clear that specialised expertise in Islamic banking is less expensive than that of firms that offer diversified services to hundreds if not thousands of clients.

Nor should we forget that our Arab and Islamic educational institutions have yet to concentrate on turning out graduates with qualifications and specialisations for careers in Islamic finance.

MDB: On one hand, the research should not be extended to other sectors unless the hypothesis and the benefits of doing this research are made vividly clear. Otherwise, this research may lose [credibility and] respect. Other hand, for comparative purposes, the investigation and examination should also be conducted on other similar services such as law firms, auditing firms, and actuaries, for example, so the industry will be getting a more comprehensive view on this perceived conflict of interest issue.

YTD: Yes.

MAL: Yes it is needed so as to give the information to the market players.

To address shortage of scholars, should scholars be compelled to have a junior (local) scholar (not well known) on the board so as to encourage apprenticeship and expand the supply of scholars?

HHH: This is the actual situation. A large number of up-and-coming scholars work on the Sharia boards along with their teachers. This process is due to the initiative of the elder scholars, who search for those with outstanding abilities in the new generation and nominate them.

However, we must emphasise one point: the danger of nominating an unqualified candidate. It is not appropriate, in the name of expansion, to appoint unqualified persons, for that will cause harm to the industry itself.

Graduating from a Sharia college is not enough by itself, for there are thousands of graduates. It requires experience, personal ability and the combination of knowledge of the Sharia, civil law and accounting.

MDB: In any industry, the practice of compulsion is not a healthy one. It is always about being passionate.

As much as the junior scholars are encouraged to be part of the service, they must demonstrate the minimum capabilities and professionalism required to undertake this task. The task of the scholar and consultant is different from other tasks, such as being an academic as it requires a bit of everything: research, original thinking, understanding of the current market, and it is time consuming.

YTD: I don't think that compulsion is the solution. But I do think that IFIs should be encouraged to do so. And I also think that the junior scholar solution is a good one.

I have also recommended a rotating scholar solution for SSBs such that one seat may given to a new scholar after the previous scholar has served a term of one or two years.

MAL: Actually, it is not the scholars who should be compelled to do so, but the market player.

This is because the market players determine who sits on the Sharia board and it is their responsibility to ensure that there is mixed of senior and junior scholars in their board.

We have done this in Malaysia and it works as pointed earlier.

In a recent event in Malaysia, Dr Mohammad Elgari presented a paper on Sharia governance. Is this the need of the hour?

HHH: Governance, in the perfect sense of that term, does not exist outside of the Islamic financial system which is based on divine revelation as expressed in the Book (the Quran) and the Sunnah.

No one in the industry can ignore that, or the [AAOIFI] Sharia standards. In addition, there is a further guaranteed level of governance and that is the presence of the Sharia supervisory board itself, made up of three, five or even seven scholars who perform their duties and opine collectively rather than as individuals.

Beyond that, Islamic financial institutions adhere to their own standards, the fatwas issued by fiqh academies, and the teachings and rulings of the classical jurists.

And then there is the academic community that monitors the work of our Islamic banks such that if ever a fatwa is issued which contradicts an Islamic teaching or principle, as a result of faulty reasoning or legal process, our academics will raise a hue and cry until the matter is corrected.

MDB: This is a welcomed paper to address the quality of Sharia advisory services, applicable to both the scholars and the stakeholders of Islamic finance.

The Sharia governance, as presented in the paper, argues for more transparency of the fatwa process and deliberations.

As a matter of fact, this (the detailed process of fatwa issuance and its argument) should be the focus of research of modern researchers instead of the perceived conflict of interest by multiple board membership.

The superiority of any Sharia board is the quality of arguments that lead to a strong and defendable fatwa by the board.

YTD: His was a very important paper and it addresses a pressing need.

As the industry matures, it becomes more and more important to have systems in place that ensure greater transparency and accountability.

Such systems will play an increasingly important role of the future development of this industry and they must be promoted.

MAL: I am one of the commentators on his paper and in many forums I have express my views that it is very important to have a comprehensive Sharia governance framework for Islamic finance.

This shall be spearheaded preferably by the regulator. In Malaysia, ISRA have initiated the establishment of Association of Sharia Advisors (ASA) in order to regulate the Sharia advisory services.

We are in the process of setting up this association and its function will be similar to other professional bodies such as the Bar Council and Medical Association that regulate the practices of its members.

ASA will be the body that regulates the conduct and lays down the ethical code of the Sharia advisors and we will get the body to be the sole body that accredits Sharia advisors for them to practise in the market.

ASA will also provide licence for the scholars to practise in the market.

Funds-at-Work research is welcomed as it shows the landscape of scholars and boards, but needs expansion to include scholars' total activities and work. And the study should be enlarged to include other stakeholders in the Islamic finance consulting role. Finally, Islamic institutions have not knowingly contributed to over-reliance on name-brand scholars, but must now actively contribute to governance and involve junior scholars to manage Sharia compliance risk, for expansion beyond natural borders.

The interviewer is the Global Head of Islamic Finance, Thomson Reuters. The interview was conducted in his personal capacity and does not reflect the views of his organisation.

Do you feel there is a lack of standardisation in Islamic finance? What type of reform would you like to see in Islamic finance?

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