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A DUTY OF CARE

One of the first things that attracted me to Islamic finance and subsequently Islam in the early 1990s was the concept of “a duty of care”. My mentor, in  both Islamic finance and Islam, took great pains to explain to
me the Maqasid al Shari’a and he did this through demonstrating the responsibility that all Muslims have to
the rest of humanity and the planet as stewards on the planet Earth. He called it “a duty of care”.

I have never lost sight of that phrase and have always tried to uphold its values. Sometimes it has been
difficult. Trying to explain Islamic finance in riba and non-riba terms is challenging at the best of times,
particularly when most of the world is used to a conventional financing system that is based on the
promotion of debt that is encouraged by favourable tax and legal regimes. It is only in recent years that we
have been able to demonstrate the close alignment of the Maqasid al Shari’a with the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable
Development Goals. That alignment, which has always been there, demonstrates a commonality of values
that are far easier to explain than Arabic terminology and the concept of riba (even though all the Ibrahimic
faiths forbid riba).

Responsibility, good governance and ethical values are shared by many religions. This allows us to draw
upon the idea that there are more similarities than differences in all the major religions. However, in Islam,
with the objectives of the Maqasid in mind, we have a clear duty of care to follow the true path and to
demonstrate, through our leadership by example, our stewardship of this planet and all living things.

As ever, there is much to do and not a moment to lose.

THE RIGHTS OF NATURE

The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is in them exalt Him. And there is not a thing except that it exalts
[Allah] by His praise, but you do not understand their [way of] exalting. Indeed, He is ever Forbearing and
Forgiving (Quran 17:44)

According to the economist, Hernando De Soto, western capitalism’s triumph rests upon legally enforceable
and definable property rights.

Yet, as capitalism strives to spread property rights as a necessity, there is another type of inanimate right
(i.e. non-human right) that is rarely considered. Property rights refer to the position of Man’s ownership of
an aspect of nature. What we forget is the rights of Nature.

In 1972, the legal academic, Christopher Stone asked the question ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’. Property
rights enables Man to access the courts when there has been an encroachment on his owned property.
Nature does not have that fortune, but maybe it should.

Rights of Nature would limit individuals and companies from exploitating Nature for their own ends. The
irony is that Nature does not have a voice. It requires Man to be its defender. Purveyors of the halal
economy declare the moral superiority as it abides by God’s law. But Muslims rarely connect Islamic law to
Nature’s rights.

We see this with the large scale consumption of meat, considered acceptable because it has the imprimatur
of halal. Industrial production of slaughtered meat has made Muslims comfortable even as the extremitiesof the process are a reflection of the worst excesses of capitalism.

The protection of Nature’s rights as a legal responsibility on Muslims is not regularly discussed. The
philosopher Seyyed Hossain Nasr has been warning about environmental devastation and the Muslim
responsibility since the late 1960s. But efforts and the Muslim investment on this issue is limited.

The Quran is enigmatic on the relationship between Man and Nature, but it is clear that Nature is vibrant,
living. Insofar as this is a reality, then, is not the role of Man as a God’s deputy on this Earth a protector of
the rights of Nature?

PERSONAL DEBT

Quote: Ian, the prescient scientist from Jurassic Park who said: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with
whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”.

Much has been written debating the Islamic banking industry’s adherence to Shari’a principles and whether the
industry promotes the greater Maqasid of the Shari’a. The purpose of this article is not to join the cacophony
of voices on one side or the other. Rather, this article explores the issue of personal debt and the proliferation
of Islamic credit cards and asks the moral question should Islamic banks issue credit cards. [Note: This article
examines personal debt and not corporate or sovereign debt which this author, though not a scholar, views as distinct.]

Our classical scholars viewed debt as an individual and societal ill – something that should be avoided (and
discouraged) unless a necessity exists. And this is with good reason. Our beloved Messenger shared with us
numerous traditions warning against debt and made it a part of his daily adhkar (in the morning and in the
evening) to ask Allah’s protection from debt, and many companions relate traditions where the Messenger made
dua’ or taught someone a dua’ against the evils of debt.

I find it curious that despite all these traditions, Islamic banks and their Shari’a boards continue to “innovate”
to make it easier for individuals to take on debt. When I first started in the industry fifteen plus years ago, it
was almost unheard of for an individual to obtain personal financing from an Islamic bank for something other
than a home mortgage or auto financing. Slowly but surely Islamic banks became more and more accommodative
to the point where individuals were taking on debt to finance speculative stock purchases. Today, an individual
has a host of options from which to choose, with the simplest, quickest and most familiar being the Islamic
credit card.

In the digital age, most would recognize the need to have some form of electronic payment option and debit
cards and digital wallets linked to a bank account etc. more than suffice. But it is the allure of credit cards that
concerns this author and the ease with which credit cards promote excess and living beyond a cardholder’s
means. While there is not much hard data on Islamic credit cards, anecdotally, one can easily see that all the
major banks in the GCC and Malaysia now offer a variety of Islamic credit cards, each catering to a specific
market segment and offering benefits like rewards points, lounge access etc., just like conventional credit cards.
This all seems like a race to the bottom for this author. Being based in the United States, I am all too familiar
with the pitfalls of credit cards and access to easy credit.

Finance experts often warn people against over-extending themselves financially and point to credit cards as
the primary culprit. They also advise people who are in heavy debt to pay off credit card balances first as these
often carry the highest interest rates. It is a worrying trend that the Islamic marketplace has chosen to ignore
the Messenger of Allah’s concerns for personal debt and instead encourages individuals to take out credit cards
as a lifestyle choice, with all the benefits and perks that come with it. One can pray that this trend is short lived
and that the Islamic banking industry chooses the way of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)
and not blindly follow their conventional peers.