Friday, May 05, 2006

Opium of the people

After returning from the Harvard Islamic Finance Forum a couple of weeks ago, a friend from Canada called to tell me that his friend (a Canadian Muslim lawyer) hated my presentation on mutuality in financial intermediation: "El-Gamal's Marxist view of Islamic finance", he called it.

I was reminded today of Marx's [in]famous statement that religion is the opium of the people as I sat through a khutba (Friday sermon), wherein the khateeb prescribed spending more time at the mosque (praying dawn and evening prayers there in congregation) as the cure to all the ills of Muslim societies. "Opium of the people", I thought to myself. Of course: no one can argue against spending more time in the mosque. I dared once to argue with a fellow parishioner after my khutba that if one spends so much time in the mosque (early mornings and evenings), then one will have no time for one's family, especially children who would wake up to find one in the mosque and go to bed while one is in the mosque. Needless to say, that fellow parishioner was outraged: "they let just about anyone get on the pulpit and give a sermon", he complained, "What kind of a Muslim would argue for not spending more time in the mosque?"

But that is another story: let's get back to Islamic finance. At Harvard, jurists, bankers, and economists were all in agreement: "you cannot expect Islamic finance to solve all the economic problems of Muslims, we are merely trying to help Muslim businessmen live according to the percepts of their religion." I had my own outburst as a response: "if the customer wants the smoke and mirrors circus show, fine, give them the circus show, but for Heaven's sake, try to provide some value in the process". "It is my hope to drive [the current breed of Islamic finance practitioners] out of business, if I can."

The form-above-substance approach is nothing but opium, very expensive opium. The poor still have no access to credit in the Islamic countries, but now the multi-millionaires and billionaires can get their murabahas and sukuk as multinational banks and law firms make their millions, and the jurists-for-hire make their hundreds of thousands. I was attacked by one of those jurists in Kuala Lumpur (when I was still being invited to Islamic finance conferences): "he writes that we have sold our souls to the devil", he complained; "but the lawyers who structure the deals make a lot more money", he said. "Yes, indeed, they are the devil", I replied jokingly from the audience (to nervous laughter from the young Malaysian students sitting around me).

Opium abounds in the Islamic world:

  • You can keep increasing the gap between rich and poor, but the rich can now do their financing "Islamically"
  • We can separate men and women, cover the women head to toe, and ignore rampant homosexuality and adultery
  • We can monopolize resources, deprive the poor from their financial rights through various zakah-shelters (homes are exempt, and I have 2 in Monaco, 2 in the Bahamas, etc.), but claim to be abiding by the Shari`a
  • We can leave our children confused about religion, in a culture that encourages critical thinking, and spend more time with other escapees at the mosque

We can do all that and more, and claim to practice Islam.

Opium of the people, indeed!


Blogger Mahmoud El-Gamal said...

Qaradawi also wrote and spoke about his shock when he first went to Malaysia. At the time, his fame was based on his dissertation on Zakah (perhaps the best study of the subject to date). He was shocked to find out that the rich plantation owners didn't pay zakah, because they grew trees (for rubber), and their jurists told them that zakah is only due on grains and fruits. He argued that the Prophet (p) took zakah on grains and fruits because those were the agricultural products in Madina and its surrounding area. He (p) would certainly not have taken zakah from the poor farmers who sell grains and fruits and leave the rich plantation owners claiming that there is no zakah on trees. In that sense, he clearly favored substance above form.

6:08 AM  
Blogger Islamic Law, Etc. said...

Other opiates, narcotics, and mind-bending substances preferred by Muslims masses:
1- Conferences
2- Fundraisers
3- Rallys for (_Insert suppossedly islamic nation of choice_)
4- "Halal" anything restuarants
5- any form of clothing, accessory, or bead collection associated with "Islamic" identity

Funny that you mentioned homes as Zakat shelters. In the KSA the Shura council is contemplating charging zakat on uncultivated land, being that some of the big guys have plots worth a few billion. Just what if that money actually was spent on the poor?

5:35 PM  
Blogger Abi Faiza said...

Yeah i feel the same way too. In Indonesia most of product being sold is a margin financing scheme products. Islamic Bank only finance company which is bankable. Not enough money goes to micro which they think is not bankable.
So where is the spirit of islamic?

8:12 AM  
Blogger Panni said...

Islamic Finance is a complete alternative to Western Capitalism. The basic difference lies in the conception of money. For capitalism, money itself is a commodity just to be traded like any other commodity. For Islam, money not FULLY backed by real commodity, say gold, is not permitted. Most money of today's world is fiat money, or money that gets its value by virtue of the order of the central bank. The central bank can issue and is issueing any amount of money, or currency, in the market. For Islam, all these money that is not backed by real assets is a crime.

10:23 AM  

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