In Part I, the following questions were answered. . .

. . . How is the riba Allah has forbidden the same as ordinary interest? I thought riba refers only to usury.

. . . How does interest harm society? Isn’t it a necessary part of every economy?

. . . Does Islam permit conventional mortgages?

. . . Aren’t Islamic home financiers simply changing labels, replacing “interest” with “rent”? What’s the difference between a conventional mortgage and an Islamic home financing?

. . . Isn’t home ownership an important step in establishing Muslim minorities in the West? Surely, that should make conventional mortgages permissible.

. . . What about necessity (dharura)? Are there any situations in which conventional mortgages are permissible?

7. Imam Abu Hanifa said that there is no riba in Dar al-Harb (lands where the rules of Islam do not exist), basing his opinion on a hadith.1 Doesn’t this entitle me to take a conventional mortgage?

The traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence consist of rulings and methodologies that rely on the expertise of a body of scholars who base these rulings and methodologies on a specific socio-economic context. It is not simply a matter of lifting an opinion from a classical jurist like Imam Abu Hanifa and inserting it, decontextualized, into a modern framework. The job of today’s scholars is to apply the interpretive tools of their respective schools within this framework.

The position of the Hanafi school and the Hanafi scholars with whom we spoke, including several leading muftis specializing in Islamic finance, is that one is not permitted to deal in riba, whether in Muslim or non-Muslim lands, or whether with Muslims or non-Muslims.

8. I don’t qualify for an Islamic home financing and I can’t afford to rent. But I do qualify for a conventional mortgage. Can I then enter into a conventional mortgage since this is my only reasonable option?

The qualificatory measures used by Islamic banks are much like the ones used by conventional banks. With the growing number of Islamic banks competing for our business, if one shops around enough one will eventually, God willing, find a suitable home financing. Often we impose a pre-conceived limit on the kinds of options available to us before we fully explore them. The monthly payments on a conventional mortgage, after adding principal and interest, property taxes, and the usual expenditures that go with home ownership, come to an amount similar to renting property, and in many localities, an amount greater.

But even so, if one is unable to qualify for an Islamic home financing, scholars mention that one is expected to explore all possible alternatives, including the inconvenience of a longer commute, the prospect of a less desirable neighborhood (provided it is not clearly dangerous or harmful), or, in the longer term, seeking work in another city.

9. Can I live in a conventionally mortgaged house that somebody else bought for me as a gift and is currently making payments on?

Scholars have permitted one to live in such a house, though it is still best avoided. Of course, one is not permitted to assist in the decision-making process or transaction of obtaining the property through unlawful means.

10. Why do Islamic banks charge more for a home financing than a conventional bank? How is that Islamic?

Rates are a function of market dynamics, not sincerity.

In Pakistan, where it is often cheaper to purchase property using Islamic finance than it is to borrow funds through a conventional bank,2 a diversified and dynamic Islamic baning market offers rates competitive to the conventional market. Pakistan’s current backlog of Islamic banking licenses means that growing market competitiveness, and the resulting growth in volumes, ensures that financing rates will continue to fall. The country’s Islamic banking market is a textbook case of economies of scale in action.

Islamic banks in the West are catching up. On the supply side, rates continue to fall as more Islamic home finance providers enter the market. On the demand side, a rapidly growing and increasingly sophisticated customer base is asking for greater Shari’a-compliancy at competitive rates.

In relation to conventional mortgage transactions, which number in the millions each year in the U.S. and U.K., Islamic home finance transactions are but a fraction. But within only a few years, Islamic banks in the West have made considerable strides in lowering financing rates, with one Islamic home finance provider stating that its product is “no more expensive than a 30-year fixed-rate [conventional] product…”3

11. Islamic banking is inherently less competitive because extra paperwork for Shari’a-compliancy means higher costs.

To return to the above example, the Pakistani market has arguably the world’s most stringent standards for Shari’a compliancy, to be expected in a country with a high ratio of Islamic finance scholars to Islamic bankers. And yet Islamic banks there remain competitive with conventional banks and, on occasion, at lower rates.

Shari’a compliancy is less a matter of additional paperwork – which is often necessary – than a matter of properly executing existing paperwork.

12. What about the moral hazard of Islamic banks using their own paid-for Shari’a boards?

Shari’a advisors are paid a fee for their services regardless of their legal opinions. These opinions are not commission based, volume-based, or linked to the success of any given transaction. The Shari’a advisor plays an auditory role, not an executional one, so there is no financial incentive for the advisor to win hearts.

The relative simplicity of Islamic banking products and the fact that industry-wide Shari’a standards4 are accessible to everyone, including customers, central bank regulators, and independent auditors, means that there is little room for advisors to exercise personal agendas.

Notwithstanding the handful of scholars whose more expethent fringe positions are well known to the industry, if there is a worldly motive that a Shari’a advisor might aspire to, it is the need to preserve his reputation. If one is ever uncertain about a particular scholar’s position, or the compliancy of a particular product, one should speak directly to the Islamic bank and then checkits responses against the opinions of a qualified scholar.5

13. In an Islamic home financing, the rent follows the rate of interest and is always a certain percentage above the base rate. Does this mean that the rent is simply replacing the interest to make it sound permissible?

Interest is forbidden on the basis of it representing “rent” on the use of cash. The concept of benchmarking, on the other hand, in which rental rates are measured against a well-known benchmark, like the U.S. Federal Funds Rate or LIBOR (London Inter-Bank Offering Rate), constitutes a measurement, not an actual interest charge.

Scholars cite the example of selling wine: a Muslim vendor selling juice would be perfectly entitled to measure the price of his product against those of his wine-selling competitors in order to remain competitive.
The variation in rental rates after the contract is signed could be a potential source of uncertainty leading to dispute (gharar), but scholars provide two mitigante: ?) mutual agreement by both parties to benchmark against a wellknown measure; and 2) flooring and capping of rate levels. Although scholars permit benchmarking, they acknowledge that it is the less ideal (though still no less permissible) alternative to a truly Islamic measure.

14. Islamic banks use the word “interest” in their documentation. Is this permissible?

In the absence of government documentation specific to Islamic home financing in most countries, Islamic banks are required by law to use conventional home mortgage contracts, including those that use the word “interest” in their documentation. Scholars state that this does not compromise the permissibility of the transaction, because the legal substance – and reality – of an Islamic home financing contract is not affected in this case by a third party’s terminological usages.

15. Islamic home financiers require clients to be insured. Is this permissible?

Given that property insurance is a legal requirement in most, if not all, localities in the West, and given that properly capitalized Islamic cooperative insurance (takaful) options do not exist in the West, scholars have allowed the use of conventional property insurance for homebuyers.

16. Islamic banks use credit scores similar to the ones conventional banks use to check on the eligibility of a potential homebuyer. Is this permissible?

Credit scoring, among other risk assessment measures, is only a measure. Just as one would check on the credentials of a potential business partner before entering into a partnership, so too, an Islamic bank checks on the customer before entering into what amounts to an actual partnership.

Credit scores provide institutions with a clearer understanding of a prospective customer’s credit worthiness. In order to be sustainable and continue to provide Muslims with Shari’a-compliant financial alternatives, Islamic banks must remain financially stable, and credit scores are an indispensable tool for promoting this stability.

17. If I am not allowed to take a conventional mortgage, am I permitted to work in the conventional real estate business?

The solicitation, execution, or provision of any form of assistance in an interest-based conventional mortgage is impermissible, though scholars have permitted accountants and others to make post-transaction records in financial statements and the like.

Growing globally at an annual rate of 15% to 20%,6 and considerably faster in some countries, career opportunities in Islamic banking abound, particularly for those already familiar with conventional finance, as many real estate professionals are.

18. How do some banks claiming to be “Islamic” trick me?

Although there is no end to the possibility of indiscretion on the part of insincere “Islamic” bankers and lawyers, the customer’s final line of defense, amid the paper shuffling, is a quiet read of the actual contract.

Whether in a diminishing musharaka (declining partnership or declining balance), ijara (Islamic lease), or murabaha (cost-plus financing) contract, if the financier never owns the property, one is not engaged in an Islamic home financing transaction.

One “Islamic” home finance provider in North America claims to “conceptually own the shares in its name as expressed as a lien on the property,” and a provider in Australia “assumes an interest in the property (‘rights’) other than a right to possession.”

According to scholarly consensus, neither of the providers’ claims represents actual ownership. That some scholars permit these transactions as legitimate does not change the fact that a legally significant scholarly consensus considers them otherwise.These banks in effect charge rent on a claim or a right (as opposed to the valid rent on an asset, service, or usufruct), a practice that is not acceptable in any of the four schools of jurisprudence.

In the absence of a governing regulatory body that unifies and imposes global Shari’a standards, customers are on their own. The Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions is widely regarded as the industry’s leading compliancy body, and may one day provide the criteria for global licensing and auditing. But it currently only serves as a guide, not as a watchdog.

Even so, as one bank learned when it was stripped of its “Islamic” label by its government regulators in Pakistan, word gets around.

19. The concept of ownership has changed since the classical jurists first formulated their rulings.

Some have argued for a new theory of ownership, stating that, among other financial innovations, a lien represents a new form of conceptual ownership that did not exist when the classical jurists declared all forms of riba forbidden.

A conventional mortgage is a lien against a property, not an interest in it. The liabilities associated with the property never return to the lender. Not convinced? Light a bonfire in your front lawn this weekend and see whom the authorities fine, you or the lender.

20. Interest is now a customary practice in most of the world. Don’t rulings change in the Shari’a when something becomes customarily acceptable?

Customary practice (‘urf) affects rulings related to the permissible, not the decisively prohibited.

As always, changes in rulings are subject to the agreement of qualified scholars, who must possess, among other things, a highly sophisticated understanding of the primary texts, classical Arabic, the rulings and methodologies of previous scholars in their respective schools, a thorough understanding of the needs of our time, and deep familiarity with the specific topic the ruling relates to, in this case, finance and economics.

21. After much thought, I have decided to leave interestbased finance. What should I do now? What happens to the mortgage and the property?

When one takes the means to extricate oneself from the mortgage, one would be religiously obligated to remove oneself from the situation. If this is not reasonably possible, one should repay the loan as quickly as possible by the most effective means available, most readily by reducing one’s expenditures and, if possible, taking interest-free loans from friends and family. Ownership in the house itself and proceeds from its eventual sale are both considered lawful. A number of Islamic banks now offer refinancing options that convert one’s conventional mortgage into its Shari’a-compliant equivalent.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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