Although Islamic banking has grown rapidly over the last three decades, the volume of transactions touched $1.086 trillion (Dh3.98 trillion) in 2011, accounting for only one per cent of the world's total.
This point was made at a seminar organised last week by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi in cooperation with the Paris Institute of Geo-Political Studies.
The seminar also highlighted global interest in Islamic banking, motivated by the growing economic importance of Islamic countries and the increasing number of Muslims in places such as Europe. Even China is entering the market, recently approving a licence to set up the first Islamic bank in the country.
More than 310 Islamic financial institutions currently operate in more than 75 countries, and in the GCC the sector continues to flourish. The recent announcement that the world's largest Islamic bank, with a capital of $100 billion, would be headquartered in Bahrain, will boost this trend.
But despite the global interest and new trends, Islamic banking still faces many challenges. Many of these challenges have complicated Sharia and professional characteristics.
Regarding Sharia, there is a wide variation in fatwas in each Islamic bank. Some of these fatwas contradict each other, thus creating hurdles in the progress of the sector.
This disparity reflects conflicts of interest and competition among Islamic banks on the one hand, and among scholars on the other. Some financial instruments adopted by some Islamic banks are prohibited or treated as undesirable in other lenders, which may hinder their adoption and the mission of the banking business in general.
On the professional side, although one of the most basic fundamentals of Islamic banking is based on the profit-and-loss sharing principle, the interest rate in Islamic banks mirrors interest rates in traditional banks, in that it moves up and down in accordance with the interest rate of the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor) on the London Stock Exchange. This is the average interest rate that leading banks in London charge when lending to other banks.
Even though fatwa departments in Islamic banks are currently considering a substitute for this interest rate mechanism, in reality, Islamic banking is part of the global banking system and will remain so due to the integration of the economies of Islamic countries with the global economy.
This is because economic globalisation does not allow for such a separation between Islamic banks and traditional banks.
The impact of the global financial crisis on Islamic banking stand as evidence of strong association between Islamic banking and global banking, despite the fact that the effects on Islamic banks were less serious than those suffered by traditional banks. Let us not forget that one reason for this is that Islamic finance prohibits overestimating assets without sound financial foundations, and financial derivatives — two major causes of the crisis.
The efforts of Islamic banking to go global are important, particularly if they want to achieve the stature of French banks, for example, but it also requires finding a solution to the currently existing Sharia and professionalism-related problems.
Dealing with global fin-ancial markets is different from dealing with local and regional markets, especially given that there are complicated financial instruments and derivatives that are difficult to deal with in terms of Sharia only.
There are also major stock exchanges for commodities, gold and oil that deal with billions of dollars daily, thus putting big burdens on financial institutions because of the size and speed of transactions.
But if these issues can be resolved, it would be possible for Islamic banking to constitute an important part of the world banking system.
Dr Mohammad Al Asoomi is a UAE economic expert and specialist in economic and social development in the UAE and the GCC countries.