Islamic Finance or Financing Islamism?

For people familiar with both the Quran and shariah, which, unfortunately, most Muslims are not, some of the above examples show to what extent shariah postulates diverge radically from the Quran. To cite just a couple of examples, unlike the Quran, shariah mandates the death penalty for both apostasy from Islam and adultery and fornication. Similarly, shariah makes the establishment of the Caliphate a Muslim communal obligation, while the Quran discusses neither the Caliphate nor an Islamic state at all. There is also no mandate in the Quran and, for that matter, in the Hadith, for the female sexual mutilation (cliterectomy) called for by shariah – a truly barbaric practice that apologists of shariah misleadingly belittle as female circumcision.

Undoubtedly, the reactionary, extremist nature of shariah is the main reason why contemporary Islamic extremists have elevated it to core doctrine of their ideology and its practical implementation as the number one objective of the radical Islamic movement.16

Yet, its radical prescriptions and Arab-centric nature made shariah historically impractical as a code of law in the rapidly expanding Muslim empires under the Umayyads, Abbasids and eventually the Ottomans. These empires not only  incorporated vast numbers of non-Arabs and non-Muslims, but those populations often  had more developed  juridical, socio-economic and political traditions than the desert Arabs and would not have taken kindly to shariah. As a result, while shariah was almost always paid lip service to in Muslim history and some individual aspects of it, such as family law, were often enforced, shariah as a complete system of Islamic jurisprudence was seldom if ever put into practice until the modern times examples of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan and, most recently, Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Instead, parallel systems of dispensing justice like customary law (urf) and courts of grievance (mazalim courts) began operating early on largely independent of shariah. With the founding of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century, shariah was pushed even further into the background and as of 1500, a mostly secular justice system called kanun (from the Greek word for law – canon) became the basis of jurisprudence in  the Ottoman Empire, which incorporated most Muslim lands at the time.17 This continued until the mid-19th century when even the last vestiges  of shariah were swept away to be replaced by a European–style civil justice code called mejele.

Islamic Finance: Myth and Reality of a Bogus Concept

As countless websites and publications by Islamic financial institutions presently assure us, Islamic finance derives its Islamic character from the  strict observance of  the ostensible Quranic prohibition of lending at interest, the imperative of almsgiving (zakat), avoidance of excessive uncertainty (gharar) and certain practices and products considered unlawful (haram) to Muslims such as gambling, drinking alcohol, eating pork etc. Of these the first is by far the most important as the raison d’etre and key justification of Islamic finance. 18 Yet, there is as much if not more evidence that the practice of riba declared unislamic in several verses in the Quran describes usury rather than interest as such.

Here is how Timur Kuran, the  author of the best documented, book-length study of Islamic finance explains it: “What the Quran bans unambiguously is the pre-Islamic Arabian institution of riba, whereby a borrower saw his debt double following a default and redouble if he defaulted again. Because it tended to push defaulters into enslavement, riba had long been a source of communal friction.”19

Kuran’s interpretation, which has been shared by many Islamic scholars historically, though not by the current crop of radical Islamic clerics, seems to be buttressed by the key Quranic verse (Sura Al Imran 3:130) on the subject which reads: “O believers take not doubled and redoubled riba and fear God so that you may prosper,” in one translation and “Believers, do not live on usury, doubling your wealth many times over. Have Fear of God, that you may prosper,” in another.  Additional evidence from the Quran that what was prohibited was usury comes from the elaborate instructions in Sura Al-Bakara 2:282 given to those contracting a debt to put it in writing and in front of witnesses with repayment dates clearly stated. Since it is not known that money was lent without interest in Arab society at the time of Muhammad, the transactions referenced in the above sura almost certainly involved interest.