Islamic banking and the finance industry is growing at an annual rate of 20%. Many international as well as local institutions have stepped into this multi-billion dollar booming industry by establishing its Islamic wings and units. International giant banks such as HSBC (HSBC Amanah), Citi Bank (Citi Islamic) and Standard Chartered have already established their Islamic units and functioning in the Middle East region.
In Sri Lanka, despite the Muslim population being just 8% of the total population, a considerable growth is reported in the past few years with the establishment of Amana, Ceylinco Profit Sharing, First Global and a new comer ABC Barakah. Recently it is reported that the largest state owned commercial bank, Bank of Ceylon intends to commence its Islamic banking unit in early 2008. All these new entries imply that this alternative banking system has drawn the attention of Muslims as well as non-Muslims due to its unique developmental characteristics.
The underlying principle of Islamic banks is the principle of justice which is an essential requirement for all kinds of Islamic financing. In profit sharing of a financed project, the financier and the beneficiary share the actual or net profit/loss rather than throwing the risk burden only to the entrepreneur. The principle of fairness and justice requires that the actual output of such a project should be fairly distributed among the two parties. If a financier is expecting a claim on profits of a project, he should also carry a proportional share of the loss of that project.
In contrast with conventional finance methods, Islamic financing is not centered only on credit worthiness and ability to repay the loans and interest; instead the worthiness and profitability of a project are the most important criteria of Islamic financing while the ability to repay the loan is sub-segmented under profitability.
One of the unique and salient characteristics of Islamic banks is that the integration of ethical and moral values with its banking operation. The ethical and moral consideration of Islamic banks cannot be detached and their behavior should be consistent with the moral and ethical standards laid down by the Islamic Shari’ah.
Unlike the conventional banks, the financing of Islamic banks are restricted to useful goods and services and refrain from financing alcoholic beverages and tobacco or morally unacceptable services such as casinos and pornography, irrespective of whether or not such goods and services are legal or not in a given country.
In contrast with conventional banks, Islamic banks do not consider only the credit worthiness and interest rate as standards; instead they must apply Islamic moral/ethical criteria in their provision of financing. This adds another merit for Islamic banks since there is a benefiticial impact on the productivity in the economy as it reduces the social and economic cost of such harmful products and activities.
Another important characteristic which forms the basis for the development of Islamic banks is the relationship with depositors. They deal with their customers on investment grounds rather than a pre-determined fixed interest rate. They invest the money of their depositors on high profitable projects after going through a strategic analysis in order to give a substantial return to their depositors. Thus in Islamic banking industry, each bank will attempt to out-perform other banks if it wants to attract funds from investors. And the ultimate result is that a high return on investments for the investors, which is unlikely in a conventional bank where it deals with their depositors on a pre-determined fixed interest rate.
Furthermore Islamic banks eliminate the barrier between those who save and those who invest, and bring them closer to the real market. The nature of the financial intermediation of Islamic banks significantly defers from conventional banks and it is in harmony with real market and developmental changes in it.
It is important to highlight some of the challenges faced by the Sri Lankan Islamic banks. Although there are many, the most important challenges are the lack of Islamic banking professionals and the lack of Shari’ah scholars who have specialized in Islamic economics. Further the Shari’ah board should have a fair influence on the bank’s operational and strategic planning. For this process to be successful, the Shari’ah boards of our Islamic banks should absorb Islamic scholars based on their technical expertise rather than their popularity.