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The Nature of Money

Islamic Banking and Conscious Capitalism

An Afghan money changer holds a bundle of Afghani money at an open market in Kabul February 16, 2009. Ahmad Masood / Reuters

At the January 2010 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, the erudite and prolific Sharia scholar, Muhammad Taqi Usmani, was invited to present a paper with a somewhat radical theme: reforming the world’s post-crisis financial landscape through the lens of religion. The paper generated little interest from the world’s media, which preferred instead to focus on the forum’s lack of reform plans and the predictably defensive stance taken by bankers. Had they read the 37-page document, though, they might have concluded that “caring capitalism” had the potential to be more than a mere romantic notion.

Usmani’s paper proved inspirational for introspective Islamic bankers searching for direction. It questioned the very nature of money, inviting a radical philosophical shake-up of their ordered universe. Perhaps few in the audience (if any) were moved that day to tweak their banking practices, but they nonetheless came away with the counsel that social awareness ought to be the underpinning of finance.

When newspapers announce the launch of new Sharia-compliant financial products or institutions, it is often assumed that they are only referring to products that conform with Islam’s ban on interest, as if that were the only relevant criterion and a bank’s only job to make loans. Perhaps as a direct consequence, there are even Muslims who find the modern practice of Islamic banks abhorrent and little different to the practice of conventional banks. Their reasoning is that if Islam prohibits the receipt or payment of interest, then the only business that Islamic banks should be engaging in is interest-free lending, conveniently ignoring the fact that an interest-free loan is construed as an act of charity in Islamic law, and no enterprise driven by the profit motive can be predicated on charity.

Indeed, bank profit is emotive subject for Muslims, particularly when set in the context of a world economy creaking ominously under the weight of capitalism. To what extent is the pursuit of profit acceptable in Islam, if at

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