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Islamic Finance: Just For Muslim-Majority Nations?



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By Chloe Domat

Islamic finance is today a $2.5 trillion industry spread over more than 80 countries with the bulk of it concentrated in very few markets. Data compiled by the Union of Arab Banks’ research department shows that just 10 countries account for almost 95% of the world’s sharia-compliant assets. Iran leads the way with 29% of the global total followed by Saudi Arabia (25%), Malaysia (11%), the United Arab Emirates (8%),  Kuwait (6%), Qatar (6%), Turkey (2.6%), Bangladesh (2.1%), Indonesia (2%) and Bahrain (1.8%).

These countries drive the growth of Islamic finance, set industry standards and foster innovation. Over the past decade, Islamic finance grew at an exponential yearly pace of 10%–12%. According to Arab News’ 2019 State of Global Islamic Economy report, total sharia-compliant assets will grow to $3.5 trillion by 2024 although that depends on the economic well-being of these 10 markets.

Middle East and North Africa

Islamic finance’s primary sphere of influence is of course the Arab world thanks to its Muslim-majority populations and abundance of petrodollars. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA, which excludes Iran) are home to 190 Islamic banks.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dominates the world of Islamic finance with over 90% of the MENA region’s sharia-compliant assets (see table below). In 2018, 41 GCCbased Islamic banks ranked in the global top 100.

Country # of Islamic Banks Assets ($ Bil.)
Saudi Arabia 4 194.7
UAE 7 169.2
Kuwait 5 120.5
Qatar 5 113.3
Bahrain 10 57.8
Egypt 2 9.8
Jordan 2 9.6
Sudan 7 9.4
Oman 2 4.5
Algeria 2 3.4
Tunisia 1 1.4
Syria 2 N.A.
Yemen 1 N.A.

N.A. — Not available. Source: Union of Arab Banks.

The region’s 10 largest Islamic banks are GCC-based and accounted for nearly $477 billion in assets Q2 2020. These banks sometimes branch out abroad. Bahrain’s Bank al Baraka for instance, has offices in more than 15 countries.

Up until recently, North African countries considered Islamic finance to be an unwelcome interference from Gulf states. Islamic banks and financial products were outlawed or strictly monitored. Then in 2017 these countries took important steps to boost “participatory finance” as they call it. The Central Bank of Morocco allowed five Islamic banks to start operating in the kingdom. The country also issued its first Islamic bond or sukuk in 2018. In Algeria and Tunisia where Islamic banks already existed, governments are pushing for conventional banks to develop and commercialise sharia-compliant products.

If MENA represents Islamic finance’s past, the Asia-Pacific region—where the majority of the world’s 1 billion Muslims live—may represent its future.

Country Bank Assets Q2 2020 ($ Mil.)
Al Rajhi Saudi Arabia 111,382
Dubai Islamic Bank UAE 80,326
Kuwait Finance House Kuwait 66,870
Qatar Islamic Bank Qatar 45,550
Al-Inma Bank Saudi Arabia 35,157
Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank UAE 33,901
Al Baraka Banking Group Bahrain 26,127
Bank Al-Jazira Saudi Arabia 24,498
Bank Al-Bilad Saudi Arabia 23,686
Total Assets 477,535

Source: Union of Arab Banks.


Today, the Asian-Pacific region represents almost 25% of the global Islamic finance market. In Malaysia, sharia-compliant institutions account for close to one-quarter of the financial sector. Kuala Lumpur is one of the main drivers of the global sukuk market and weighs in on international compliance with the Islamic Financial Services Board, one of the world’s two major Islamic finance regulatory bodies.

Other mature Asian Islamic finance markets include Bangladesh, Brunei and Pakistan where sharia-compliant assets make up more than 15% of total bank assets.

Surprisingly, Islamic finance is still in its infancy in Indonesia even though its population is 90% Muslim. In 2020, sharia-compliant assets accounted for only about 8% of total banking assets. In recent years, the authorities began to see the potential of Islamic finance and developed a roadmap to develop the sector with the help of Malaysian expertise. Three Indonesian Islamic lenders are expected to merge in the coming months, creating one of the world’s biggest sharia-compliant banks. The country is also a pioneer of green Islamic bonds.

Australia is about to be the new kid on the block. The country is expected to welcome it first Islamic bank early 2021. Fully digital, it will target the growing Australian Muslim population. In other parts of the world such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Islamic finance is just beginning to take off.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa only represents about 1.5% of the global Islamic finance industry but with the world’s fastest-growing population, 80% of people unbanked and a 16% of the world’s Muslims, opportunities seem endless for Islamic financiers. Several countries have already started to adapt their laws and regulations to allow Islamic finance to grow.  South Africa pioneered the trend decades ago with the first African branch of Bahraini Bank el Baraka back in 1989.

Today, we see new players. Kenya has sharia-compliant banks, several conventional banks offering Islamic products. As east Africa’s largest economy, Kenya wants to position itself as the region’s Islamic banking hub. The government is undertaking structural reforms so that it can begin issuing sukuks as soon as possible. Ethiopia is trying to catch up—regulators granted the country’s first full-fledged sharia-compliant banking licence in October 2020. The new Zamzam bank will operate alongside conventional banks already offering Islamic windows.

In west Africa, Nigeria—with over 90 million Muslims—is also looking to be a hub. So far, the country only has two banks providing Islamic services. The nature of the African market—huge territories, little financial education, lack of regulatory frameworks—makes it challenging for Islamic banks to establish a presence in most Sub–Saharan countries. If sharia-complaint finance is to develop on the African continent, chances are will be led by banks from Egypt, Sudan and Morocco.

At this stage, Islamic finance in Africa tends to spread through private or sovereign bonds rather than brick-and-mortar banking. African governments see Islamic finance as a tool to raise development funds on international markets and diversify their pool of investors.

“African governments have increased their presence in Islamic capital markets in recent years with numerous debut issuances. Average annual sukuk issuance for Africa was negligible until 2012 but during 2013-19 has averaged $433 million per year. Expanding into Islamic Finance would diversify funding sources for African economies and reduce funding shortfalls, currently exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic,” according to Moody’s rating agency in its latest report about Islamic finance in Africa.


In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, Islamic finance appeared as a relatively safe alternative to the teetering Western banking system. Sukuks seemed like a good way to tap into new markets, Islamic funds represented opportunities to access large amounts of liquidity and Islamic banking was a way of monetizing local Muslim communities. London positioned itself to become the hub for sharia-compliant finance in the Western world. Today, the UK boasts five licensed Islamic banks, over 20 conventional banks offering Islamic financial products.

Other European countries where Islamic finance made a remarkable start include:

  • Luxembourg, the first Eurozone country to issue a sovereign sukuk and where 49 sharia-compliant funds are domiciled.
  • Germany has several sukuk issuances over the past decade and its first full-fledged Islamic bank (KT Bank AG) in 2015.
  • Switzerland with more focus on Islamic insurance or takaful.

France—which has the largest Muslim population in Europe—is also a promising market. Authorities (including France’s former minister of finance and IMF director Christine Lagarde) have pushed hard for the development of Islamic finance there, yet banks have largely failed to respond due to fears that being associated with Islam at a time when the country is targeted by terrorist attacks would damage their reputation.

The Americas

Elsewhere in the world, some US banks have started offering sharia-compliant products but such offerings remain a very small niche. South America is the last continent where Islamic finance is taking root. In December 2017, Trustbank Amanah, the continent’s first Islamic bank, bank opened in Surinam.

Courtesy: Global Finance Magazine

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How Shariah-Compliant is Islamic Banking?




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Islamic banking has garnered significant attention globally, especially among Muslim communities seeking financial solutions that align with their faith. Rooted in Shariah law, Islamic banking aims to offer an alternative to conventional banking by adhering to principles derived from the Quran and Hadith. But how Shariah-compliant is Islamic banking in practice? This comprehensive blog post explores the core principles of Islamic banking, the mechanisms ensuring Shariah compliance, and the challenges and criticisms faced by the industry.

How Shariah-Compliant is Islamic Banking?

Core Principles of Islamic Banking

Islamic banking operates on several fundamental principles that distinguish it from conventional banking:

  1. Prohibition of Interest (Riba): The most well-known principle is the prohibition of Riba or interest. Instead of earning interest on loans, Islamic banks earn profit through equity participation, trade, leasing, or investment in Shariah-compliant projects.
  2. Risk Sharing: Islamic banking promotes risk-sharing between the bank and its clients. This is achieved through profit and loss sharing (PLS) contracts, such as Mudarabah (profit-sharing) and Musharakah (joint venture).
  3. Ethical Investments: Investments must adhere to ethical and socially responsible principles. Islamic banks cannot invest in businesses involved in activities considered haram (forbidden) such as alcohol, gambling, and pork.
  4. Asset-Backed Financing: All financial transactions must be backed by tangible assets or services, ensuring that speculative practices (Gharar) are minimized.
  5. Transparency and Fairness: Contracts and financial transactions must be transparent, fair, and agreed upon by all parties involved.

Mechanisms Ensuring Shariah Compliance

To ensure adherence to these principles, Islamic banks implement several mechanisms:

  1. Shariah Boards: Each Islamic bank typically has a Shariah board consisting of Islamic scholars and experts in Islamic finance. This board reviews and approves all financial products and services to ensure they comply with Shariah principles.
  2. Shariah Audits: Regular Shariah audits are conducted to assess and verify that the bank’s operations and transactions comply with Shariah guidelines. These audits ensure that any deviations are promptly addressed.
  3. Product Structuring: Financial products are carefully structured to align with Shariah principles. Common products include:
    • Murabaha: A cost-plus-profit financing structure used for purchasing goods.
    • Ijara: Leasing agreements where the bank buys and leases out assets to clients.
    • Sukuk: Islamic bonds representing ownership in a tangible asset or a pool of assets.
    • Takaful: Islamic insurance based on mutual assistance and shared responsibility.
  4. Continuous Education and Training: Islamic banks invest in educating their staff and clients about Shariah principles and the importance of compliance. This helps maintain a high standard of Shariah adherence across all operations.

Challenges and Criticisms

Despite these mechanisms, Islamic banking faces several challenges and criticisms regarding its Shariah compliance:

  1. Standardization: There is no universal standard for Shariah compliance, leading to variations in interpretations and practices across different regions and institutions. This lack of standardization can create confusion and inconsistencies.
  2. Replicating Conventional Products: Some critics argue that certain Islamic banking products are merely replications of conventional banking products with minor modifications to appear Shariah-compliant. This raises questions about the authenticity of these products.
  3. Limited Shariah Expertise: There is a shortage of qualified Shariah scholars with expertise in both Islamic jurisprudence and modern finance. This scarcity can hinder the development and approval of innovative Sharia-compliant products.
  4. Operational Costs: Ensuring Shariah compliance can be costly due to the need for Shariah boards, audits, and continuous education. These costs can make Islamic banking products more expensive than their conventional counterparts.
  5. Market Perception: Some potential customers remain skeptical about the genuineness of Islamic banking, questioning whether it truly adheres to Shariah principles or if it’s merely a marketing strategy.

To address these challenges and enhance Shariah compliance, several measures can be taken:

  1. Developing Universal Standards: Efforts should be made to develop and adopt universal standards for Shariah compliance. Organizations like the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) are working towards this goal.
  2. Enhancing Shariah Governance: Strengthening Shariah governance frameworks and increasing the number of qualified Shariah scholars can improve compliance and innovation in Islamic banking.
  3. Transparency and Education: Increasing transparency in product structuring and operations, along with educating the public about the principles and benefits of Islamic banking, can build trust and acceptance.
  4. Innovation and Differentiation: Developing truly innovative and differentiated Islamic banking products that go beyond merely replicating conventional products can enhance authenticity and attractiveness.

Islamic banking, with its foundation in Shariah principles, offers a viable alternative to conventional banking for Muslims and ethically-minded individuals worldwide. While it faces challenges and criticisms regarding its Shariah compliance, ongoing efforts to standardize practices, enhance governance, and promote innovation are crucial for its growth and success. By addressing these issues, Islamic banking can better fulfill its promise of providing ethical, equitable, and Shariah-compliant financial solutions.

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Afghanistan Central Bank Joins Global Islamic Economics Forum in Malaysia




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The Afghanistan Central Bank, also known as Da Afghanistan Bank, has recently sent a delegation to Malaysia to participate in the Global Forum of Islamic Economics and Finance. This forum aims to foster discussions on the development of Islamic banking, support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and the expansion of financial markets. Haseebullah Noori, the spokesperson for the Central Bank, emphasized the significance of this event, highlighting that representatives from central banks and financial institutions from various countries are expected to attend.

Noori stated, “A delegation from the Afghanistan Central Bank traveled to Malaysia to attend the Global Forum of Islamic Economics and Finance. Representatives from central banks, Islamic banks, and financial institutions worldwide will also participate in this forum.” This gathering presents an excellent opportunity for Afghanistan to strengthen its financial sector and align with global banking standards.

In addition to attending the forum, the Afghan delegation is scheduled to meet with several Malaysian officials to discuss establishing and enhancing bilateral relations. These meetings aim to address various economic challenges and explore potential collaborations that could benefit both countries.

Economic experts in Afghanistan believe that standardizing the banking system and developing Islamic banking are crucial for the country’s economic growth. Shaker Yaqoubi, an economist, remarked, “The more our banking system in Afghanistan meets global standards, the better we can align with the global economy. Regulated trade and investment will take shape, and given that Afghanistan is an Islamic country, Islamic banking is a crucial need.”

The Chamber of Commerce and Investment in Afghanistan also stressed the importance of addressing the challenges related to money transfers through banks during these meetings. Mohammad Younis Momand, First Deputy of the Chamber of Commerce and Investment, expressed his hopes, stating, “We hope the global community and the Central Bank’s proposals will address Afghanistan’s banking issues so that the problems we face with money transfers can be resolved.”

Abdul Nasir Rashtia, another economist, added, “The more we normalize our relations with the world and lift sanctions and restrictions, the better we can expand our international trade and provide more facilities for traders.” The lifting of sanctions and restrictions is seen as a critical step towards enhancing Afghanistan’s economic stability and growth.

Previously, the acting governor of the Afghanistan Central Bank met with the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations to discuss the negative impact of international sanctions on Afghanistan’s banking sector. The acting governor emphasized that these sanctions have hindered the country’s financial stability and urged for their removal to foster economic growth.

The participation of the Afghanistan Central Bank delegation in the Global Forum of Islamic Economics and Finance is a strategic move towards integrating Afghanistan’s banking system with international standards and promoting the growth of Islamic banking. This initiative aligns with the broader goal of stabilizing Afghanistan’s economy and fostering sustainable development through enhanced financial cooperation and economic integration.

By addressing key issues such as money transfer challenges and advocating for the lifting of sanctions, Afghanistan aims to create a more conducive environment for trade and investment. The focus on Islamic banking, given Afghanistan’s cultural and religious context, further underscores the importance of this financial model in the country’s economic landscape.

As Afghanistan continues to navigate its economic challenges, the efforts of the Central Bank to engage with international counterparts and seek collaborative solutions are vital. The outcomes of the forum and subsequent meetings with Malaysian officials are anticipated to pave the way for significant advancements in Afghanistan’s financial sector, contributing to the overall economic resilience and prosperity of the country.

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ICB Islamic Bank Faces Challenges in Repaying Depositors




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By Ameer Yaqub

The ICB Islamic Bank, which emerged from the collapse of Oriental Bank in 2008, is currently grappling with a severe liquidity crisis that has left it unable to repay depositors. This situation underscores the vulnerabilities within the bank and the broader challenges facing the Islamic banking sector in Bangladesh.

The crisis has had a direct impact on depositors. Abdul Hamid Mahbub, with a deposit of Tk 1,00,000 at the bank’s Moulvibazar branch, recently faced the stark reality of the bank’s financial troubles. “On Tuesday, I went to the bank with a cheque for Tk 55,000, but the branch manager said they had no money at the time,” Mahbub told The Daily Star. Similar stories are being reported across other branches, including in Dhaka’s Paltan and Karwan Bazar areas.

In a bid to mitigate the crisis, ICB Islamic Bank sought Tk 50 crore in collateral-free liquidity support from Bangladesh Bank (BB) on January 31. However, this plea was denied two weeks later due to the bank’s existing liabilities, which total Tk 425 crore. BB’s Off-site Supervision Department has since requested the Banking Regulation and Policy Department to take corrective measures, as the bank’s operations are severely hampered by the liquidity crunch.

The liquidity crisis is compounded by a range of systemic issues. ICB Islamic Bank is dealing with frozen deposits, a significant capital shortfall, and high levels of defaulted loans. As of the end of 2023, the bank faced a capital shortfall of Tk 1,823 crore, with 87% of its total loans amounting to Tk 790.4 crore classified as bad.

The crisis has also affected the bank’s ability to pay its employees. Currently, ICB Islamic Bank employs 350 people across 33 branches, and delays in salary payments have become routine. According to Muhammad Shafiq Bin Abdullah, the bank’s managing director, the influx of depositors seeking withdrawals has exacerbated the situation. “This year, we repaid our depositors Tk 50 crore,” Shafiq noted, emphasizing the unprecedented nature of the current crisis.

Legal complexities surrounding the bank’s ownership have further muddied the waters. Issues stemming from its previous owner, Orion Group, have left ambiguities regarding current ownership, and a related case is still pending in court. This uncertainty has hindered efforts to stabilize the bank and secure necessary funds.

ICB Islamic Bank’s roots trace back to 1987 when it operated as Al-Baraka Bank. It was rebranded as Oriental Bank in 2004 and later dissolved by the central bank in 2006 due to significant irregularities. The restructured bank renamed ICB Islamic Bank in 2008, saw Swiss ICB Group and Malaysian investors take majority ownership. Despite these changes, the bank has struggled to achieve financial stability.

Efforts are ongoing to address the liquidity crisis. Md Mezbaul Haque, executive director and spokesperson of Bangladesh Bank, highlighted that a large portion of ICB Islamic Bank’s funds are tied up with leasing companies, contributing to the liquidity shortfall. “We asked the Malaysian shareholder of the bank to inject fresh funds,” he stated, expressing hope that the crisis could be resolved soon.

ICB Islamic Bank’s struggle to navigate this crisis is a crucial test for the resilience of the Islamic banking sector in Bangladesh. While the bank’s management remains hopeful, the path to recovery will require strategic interventions, regulatory support, and renewed confidence from depositors and stakeholders.

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