Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Research Report on Islamic Banking – Part 1

by Mohamed Ariff, University of Malaya, taken from Asian-Pacific Economic Literature, Vol. 2, No. 2 (September 1988), pp. 46-62

Islamic banking is a new phenomenon that has taken many observers by surprise. The whole banking system has been islamized in both Iran and Pakistan. In addition, there are some thirty Islamic banks in operation in other parts of the globe, including the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank (IDB) but excluding numerous non-bank Islamic financial institutions (see Appendix). What is more, the speed with which Islamic banks have sprung up and the rate at which they have progressed make it worth-while to study them systematically. An attempt is made in this paper (a) to survey the growing literature on Islamic banking, in particular (b) to trace the growth and development of Islamic banking, and (c) to highlight its salient characteristics.


The first modern experiment with Islamic banking was undertaken in Egypt under cover, without projecting an Islamic image, for fear of being seen as a manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism which was anathema to the political regime. The pioneering effort, led by Ahmad El Najjar, took the form of a savings bank based on profit-sharing in the Egyptian town of Mit Ghamr in l963. This experiment lasted until l967 (Ready l98l), by which time there were nine such banks in the country. These banks, which neither charged nor paid interest, invested mostly by engaging in trade and industry, directly or in partnership with others, and shared the profits with their depositors (Siddiqi l988). Thus, they functioned essentially as saving- investment institutions rather than as commercial banks. The Nasir Social Bank, established in Egypt in l97l, was declared an interest-free commercial bank, although its charter made no reference to Islam or Shariah (Islamic law).

The IDB was established in l974 by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), but it was primarily an inter-governmental bank aimed at providing funds for development projects in member countries. The IDB provides fee- based financial services and profit-sharing financial assistance to member countries. The IDB operations are free of interest and are explicitly based on Shariah Principles.

In the seventies, changes took place in the political climate of many Muslim countries so that there was no longer any strong need to establish Islamic financial institutions under cover. A number of Islamic banks, both in letter and spirit, came into existence in the Middle East, e.g., the Dubai Islamic Bank (l975), the Faisal Islamic Bank of Sudan (l977), the Faisal Islamic Bank of Egypt (l977), and the Bahrain Islamic Bank (l979), to mention a few.

The Asia-Pacific region was not oblivious to the winds of change. The Philippine Amanah Bank (PAB) was established in l973 by Presidential Decree as a specialized banking institution without reference to its Islamic character in the bank’s charter. The establishment of the PAB was a response by the Philippines Government to the Muslim rebellion in the south, designed to serve the special banking needs of the Muslim community. However, the primary task of the PAB was to assist rehabilitation and reconstruction in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan in the south (Mastura l988). The PAB has eight branches located in the major cities of the southern Muslim provinces, including one in Makati (Metro Manila), in addition to the head office located at Zamboanga City in Mindanao. The PAB, however, is not strictly an Islamic bank, since interest-based operations continue to coexist with the Islamic modes of financing. It is indeed fascinating to observe that the PAB operates two ‘windows’ for deposit transactions, i.e., conventional and Islamic. Nevertheless, efforts are underway to convert the PAB into a full-fledged Islamic bank (Mastura l988).

Islamic banking made its debut in Malaysia in l983, but not without antecedents. The first Islamic financial institution in Malaysia was the Muslim Pilgrims Savings Corporation set up in l963 to help people save for performing hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina). In l969, this body evolved into the Pilgrims Management and Fund Board or the Tabung Haji as it is now popularly known. The Tabung Haji has been acting as a finance company that invests the savings of would-be pilgrims in accordance with Shariah, but its role is rather limited, as it is a non-bank financial institution. The success of the Tabung Haji, however, provided the main impetus for establishing Bank Islam Malaysia Berhad (BIMB) which represents a full- fledged Islamic commercial bank in Malaysia. The Tabung Haji also contributed l2.5 per cent of BIMB’s initial capital of M$80 million. BIMB has a complement of fourteen branches in several parts of the country. Plans are afoot to open six new branches a year so that by l990 the branch network of BIMB will total thirty-three (Man l988).

Reference should also be made to some Islamic financial institutions established in countries where Muslims are a minority. There was a proliferation of interest-free savings and loan societies in India during the seventies (Siddiqi l988). The Islamic Banking System (now called Islamic Finance House), established in Luxembourg in l978, represents the first attempt at Islamic banking in the Western world. There is also an Islamic Bank International of Denmark, in Copenhagen, and the Islamic Investment Company has been set up in Melbourne, Australia.


The essential feature of Islamic banking is that it is interest-free. Although it is often claimed that there is more to Islamic banking, such as contributions towards a more equitable distribution of income and wealth, and increased equity participation in the economy (Chapra l982), it nevertheless derives its specific rationale from the fact that there is no place for the institution of interest in the Islamic order.

Islam prohibits Muslims from taking or giving interest (riba) regardless of the purpose for which such loans are made and regardless of the rates at which interest is charged. To be sure, there have been attempts to distinguish between usury and interest and between loans for consumption and for production. It has also been argued that riba refers to usury practiced by petty money-lenders and not to interest charged by modern banks and that no riba is involved when interest is imposed on productive loans, but these arguments have not won acceptance. Apart from a few dissenting opinions, he general consensus among Muslim scholars clearly is that there is no difference between riba and interest. In what follows, these two terms are used interchangeably.

The prohibition of riba is mentioned in four different revelations in the Qur’an.1 The first revelation emphasizes that interest deprives wealth of God’s blessings. The second revelation condemns it, placing interest in juxtaposition with wrongful appropriation of property belonging to others. The third revelation enjoins Muslims to stay clear of interest for the sake of their own welfare. The fourth revelation establishes a clear distinction between interest and trade, urging Muslims to take only the principal sum and to forgo even this sum if the borrower is unable to repay. It is further declared in the Qur’an that those who disregard the prohibition of interest are at war with God and His Prophet. The prohibition of interest is also cited in no uncertain terms in the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet). The Prophet condemned not only those who take interest but also those who give interest and those who record or witness the transaction, saying that they are all alike in guilt.2

It may be mentioned in passing that similar prohibitions are to be found in the pre-Qur’anic scriptures, although the ‘People of the Book’, as the Qur’an refers to them, had chosen to rationalize them. It is amazing that Islam has successfully warded off various subsequent rationalization attempts aimed at legitimizing the institution of interest.

Some scholars have put forward economic reasons to explain why interest is banned in Islam. It has been argued, for instance, that interest, being a pre-determined cost of production, tends to prevent full employment (Khan l968; Ahmad n.d.; Mannan l970). In the same vein, it has been contended that international monetary crises are largely due to the institution of interest (Khan, n.d), and that trade cycles are in no small measure attributable to the phenomenon of interest (Ahmad l952; Su’ud n.d.). None of these studies, however, has really succeeded in establishing a causal link between interest, on the one hand, and employment and trade cycles, on the other. Others, anxious to vindicate the Islamic position on interest, have argued that interest is not very effective as a monetary policy instrument even in capitalist economies and have questioned the efficacy of the rate of interest as a determinant of saving and investment (Ariff l982). A common thread running through all these discussions is the exploitative character of the institution of interest, although some have pointed out that profit (which is lawful in Islam) can also be exploitative. One response to this is that one must distinguish between profit and profiteering, and Islam has prohibited the latter as well.

Some writings have alluded to the ‘unearned income’ aspect of interest payments as a possible explanation for the Islamic doctrine. The objection that rent on property is considered halal (lawful) is then answered by rejecting the analogy between rent on property and interest on loans, since the benefit to the tenant is certain, while the productivity of the borrowed capital is uncertain. Besides, property rented out is subject to physical wear and tear, while money lent out is not. The question of erosion in the value of money and hence the need for indexation is an interesting one. But the Islamic jurists have ruled out compensation for erosion in the value of money, or, according to Hadith, a fungible good must be returned by its like (mithl): ‘gold for gold, silver for silver, wheat for wheat, barley for barley, dates for dates, salt for salt, like for like, equal for equal, and hand to hand …’.3

The bottom line is that Muslims need no ‘proofs’ before they reject the institution of interest: no human explanation for a divine injunction is necessary for them to accept a dictum, as they recognize the limits to human reasoning. No human mind can fathom a divine order; therefore it is a matter of faith (iman).

The Islamic ban on interest does not mean that capital is costless in an Islamic system. Islam recognizes capital as a factor of production but it does not allow the factor to make a prior or pre-determined claim on the productive surplus in the form of interest. This obviously poses the question as to what will then replace the interest rate mechanism in an Islamic framework. There have been suggestions that profit-sharing can be a viable alternative (Kahf l982a and l982b). In Islam, the owner of capital can legitimately share the profits made by the entrepreneur. What makes profit- sharing permissible in Islam, while interest is not, is that in the case of the former it is only the profit-sharing ratio, not the rate of return itself that is predetermined.

It has been argued that profit-sharing can help allocate resources efficiently, as the profit-sharing ratio can be influenced by market forces so that capital will flow into those sectors which offer the highest profit- sharing ratio to the investor, other things being equal. One dissenting view is that the substitution of profit-sharing for interest as a resource allocating mechanism is crude and imperfect and that the institution of interest should therefore be retained as a necessary evil (Naqvi l982). However, mainstream Islamic thinking on this subject clearly points to the need to replace interest with something else, although there is no clear consensus on what form the alternative to the interest rate mechanism should take. The issue is not resolved and the search for an alternative continues, but it has not detracted from efforts to experiment with Islamic banking without interest.

  1. Research Report on Islamic Banking, Part 1
  2. Research Report on Islamic Banking, Part 2
  3. Research Report on Islamic Banking, Part 3
  4. Research Report on Islamic Banking, Part 4 – Glossary, Appendix and References