Isobel Lobo, Benedictine University
Frank Bonello, University of Notre Dame
In 1985, Pakistan declared that interest had been eliminated from banking. Its religious court ruled otherwise in 1991. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling and directed the government to bring a number of banking laws into conformity with Islamic injunctions by June 30, 2002. As the deadline approached, however, in a surprising last minute reversal, it remanded the case back to the religious court for reconsideration. Granted a reprieve, the country appears headed towards a dual banking system.
A Synopsis of the Elimination of Interest and the Evolution of Interest-Free Banking
Islam prohibits riba which is generally taken to include the interest banks pay and receive. Pakistan began planning for an interest-free banking system in 1977. It followed a cautious, and gradual transition that started with the acceptance of profit/loss sharing (PLS) deposits by the nationalized commercial banks in January 1981. The transition was declared complete in July 1985 when bank assets and liabilities (except for foreign loans and foreign currency deposits), were converted to various non-interest bases. The country’s central bank, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), provided the banks inter alia with a list of approved modes of finance and a method for calculating rates of return on the banks’ PLS deposits.
A number of “qualitative deficiencies” were, however, found to characterize the procedures used by the banks. [Institute of Policy Studies]. Recognizing this, the terms interest-free or noninterest-based (NIB) banking, rather than Islamic banking, have commonly been used to describe the system in place since 1985. One of the main shortcomings of the noninterest-based system is the banks’ almost exclusive reliance on a single mode of finance – mark-up with or without buy-back arrangements – that closely resembles interest, and their virtual exclusion of any form of PLS or partnership-based finance (e.g. musharaka or mudaraba) that many Muslim scholars of religion and economics consider more truly reflects the spirit of the Quranic prohibition of riba. In 1992, for example, mark-up based finance accounted for over eighty percent of the finance extended by the nationalized commercial banks (who at the time accounted for about 90 percent of bank assets), while their musharaka finance was insignificant. Another shortcoming is the fact that banks are (still) allowed to invest in (interest-paying) government securities.
As one writer concludes, the elimination of interest “was carried out without serious regard to Islamic legal doctrine, leaving the interest-based banking system fundamentally unchanged, but covering it with an Islamic varnish.” [Ray]. The elimination of riba (interest) had not been carried out with regard to the true spirit of the prohibition. [Makhdoom]. Moreover, the minimal nature of the change was apparent to most people. [Gieraths].
Key Judicial Rulings on the Banking System From 1991 to 2002
Monetary and fiscal issues had been excluded from the jurisdiction of Pakistan’s religious court, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) up to June 26, 1990. On November 14, 1991, after hearing 115 petitions challenging twenty banking and fiscal laws, the Court found that provision for interest in these laws came under the definition of riba and was, therefore, repugnant to the injunctions of Islam. It set a deadline of June 30, 1992 after which the various provisions would cease to have effect.
The Shariat Appellate Bench (SAB) of the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld the FSC’s ruling on December 23, 1999. The Bench explained its opinion of the modes of finance that appear in the different laws under consideration. Unlike the FSC, the Bench noted that a sale on mark-up (murabaha) is permissible if it is based on the genuine sale of a commodity. Mark-up may not be charged on a money loan. It endorsed the use of some modes of finance (including lease and hire-purchase in approved forms) while emphasizing musharaka and mudaraba as true alternatives to interest Its judgment indicates that: (i) any amount over the principal in a contract of loan or debt is riba forbidden by the Quran; (ii) the prevailing interest-based financial system has to be subjected to radical change to bring it into conformity with Islamic injunctions; and (iii) provisions for payment of interest in eight specific laws (on money lending) would cease to be have effect from March 31, 2000 and all other laws considered in the judgment would be ineffective from June 30, 2001.
The Appellate Bench suggested the following measures be taken to transform the existing system: (i) austerity measures to curtail government expenditure; (ii) laws to regulate government borrowing powers; (ii) laws to ensure transparency and freedom of information; (iv) establishment of an institution to control “white collar and economic crimes; (v) establishment of credit rating agencies; (vi) establishment of evaluators to scrutinize feasibility reports; and (vii) establishment of special departments and a Shariah Board within the central bank (to scrutinize and evaluate procedures and products).
The Bench directed the government inter alia to establish a Commission for Transformation of the Financial System in the SBP to prepare a strategy, and to constitute task forces in the Ministries of Finance and Law, for preparation and approval of model financing agreements, and for conversion of the government’s domestic borrowing into project-related financing (inter-government loans and central bank finance were to be interest-free). The SAB admitted it would be difficult to implement the prohibition of interest in the area of foreign loans. It directed the government to renegotiate existing loans, to avoid foreign debt, and to structure any necessary future foreign borrowings on the basis of Islamic modes of finance. The Bench set deadlines for the government to comply with each of its instructions.
On December 29, 2000 the government issued a prompt and categorical reassurance that banking transactions would continue to be protected and that Pakistan would honor its foreign debt commitments. Despite this, the SAB’s ruling cast uncertainty over the country’s dealings with international lenders. [Bokhari 2000]. During the period between the FSC’s judgment in 1991 and the SAB’s decision to uphold it in 1999, all financing arrangements in the country contained force majeure clauses referencing the possibility of the riba judgment being finally upheld. [Raja]
In 2001, the Shariat Appellate Bench extended its earlier deadline to June 30, 2002. The United Bank appealed the SAB’s verdict and it was joined by the government early in 2002. Some of the country’s conservative religious groups sent their own lawyers to defend the earlier ruling. [BBC].
On June 24, 2002 the SAB reversed its own decision of 1999 (which had upheld the FSC’s ruling of 1991) and remanded the case back to the FSC for re-determination. It has been suggest that revised national priorities may explain the SAB’s reversal of its own ruling. [Shah and Wasti]. A constitutional lawyer notes that it is significant that prior to the SAB’s reversal, the President of Pakistan had removed from office a member who had been on the bench since 1980. [Raja].
In arriving at its decision, the SAB took note of a number of points raised by the counsels for United Bank Limited and the Federation. The counsel for United Bank contended: that the SAB had not properly distinguished between usury, interest, and riba; that usury is a kind of riba; that what is prohibited is not what is reasonable and fair, but what is doubled and multiplied; that Quranic verses explaining the prohibition mainly contrast riba with sadaqat (almsgiving); that banks cannot be made to give alms to industrialists; and that the business of banking is covered by the term “bai,” an approved method of finance, which includes sale, business, investment and so forth.
Counsel for the Federation argued that the FSC had no jurisdiction to declare riba illegal or impermissible: the Constitution makes it the duty of the Federal Government (not the FSC) to eliminate riba. He stated also that, in pursuance of the SAB’s judgment of 1999, the government had formed a Commission and two task forces to direct the transformation of interest-based government borrowing to Islamic modes of finance, to effect a transition in the financial sector, and to establish a legal and regulatory framework for an Islamic economy. In an affidavit to the SAB, the government stated that after its best efforts to find ways to implement the SAB’s directives, it had found that implementation was neither practical nor feasible, and if attempted would pose great risk to Pakistan’s economic stability and security.
The SAB took note of a number of contentions of other counsel for the Federation including inter alia the arguments (i) that the “impugned judgment amalgamated legal and moral aspects of riba” in violation of injunctions in the Quran and the Sunnah and against the opinion of eminent jurists; (ii) that the SAB’s failure to define the word qarz (which is involved in almsgiving) rendered the impugned judgment against Islamic law since the word “loan” is not the exact translation of qarz; (iii) that exploitation is an essential ingredient of riba; (iv) that the present system of bank accounts and investments in various government savings schemes do not involve riba; (v) that the views of certain jurists and scholars on riba and banking practice had been ignored; (v) that the SAB ought to have asked the FSC to decide whether indexation was permissible; (vi) that the SAB had applied the prohibition to non-Muslims although this was not the issue before it; and (vii) that the Islamic banking system suggested in the judgment under review was a misnomer and that (except for Musharaka) all the other recommended modes of finance involve riba in disguise.
The Deputy Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan filed an affidavit with the SAB stating that after taking steps to promote Islamic banking and after considering all other practical problems of transforming the financial system, it was the considered judgment of the Bank that
“a parallel approach will be in the best interest of the country. This means that Islamic banking is introduced as a parallel system of which a beginning has already been made … .This approach will eliminate the risk of any major costs/damage to the economy, give a fair chance to Islamic banks to develop alongside conventional banks, and will provide a choice to the people of Pakistan, and the foreigners doing business in/with Pakistan, to use either of the two systems.” [SAB]
In remanding the case back to the Federal Shariat Court, the SAB directed the FSC to re-determine the issues after thorough research, and after comparative study of financial systems in other Muslim countries and to give a definite finding on all the issues involved (which the FSC had not done in 1991). It asked the FSC to make its determination
“in the light of the contentions of the parties noted above and the observations made which are germane to the controversy. Besides the points … , the parties would be at liberty to raise any other issues relevant to these cases and the Federal Shariat Court may also, on its own motion, take into consideration any other aspect which may arise or may be found relevant … .” [SAB]
Towards A Parallel Banking System: Establishing an Institutional Structure and a Regulatory Framework for Islamic Banking
In December 2001, even before the SAB heard the appeals, the central bank took a step towards promoting a parallel banking system that would offer consumers a choice by announcing criteria for the establishment of private sector Islamic commercial banks. The criteria covered eligibility conditions, licensing requirements, guidelines on set up, Shariah compliance and other operational matters. In September 2002, after the SAB’s reversal of its earlier judgment, an amendment was enacted in the Banking Companies Ordinance (the major banking law), making it possible for commercial banks to establish Islamic banking subsidiaries. The banks were also allowed to apply for permission to set up Islamic banking branches in the country. On January 1, 2003, the central bank issued Policies for the Promotion of Islamic Banking. In it, the central bank enunciated its strategy of promoting Islamic banks, Islamic banking subsidiaries of existing commercial banks, and stand-alone branches of existing commercial banks that engage only in Islamic banking.
In September 2003, the central bank established within itself an Islamic Banking Department to regulate and promote Islamic banking. This department is responsible for the licensing, supervision, regulation, Shariah audit, and training the personnel of Islamic banks and Islamic branches. The central bank established a Shariah Board within the department to ensure Shariah compliance, and to advise banks on modes, procedures, laws and regulations for Islamic banking. The Board includes three religious scholars, a banker and a lawyer. The central bank also arranged for an accounting firm to conduct Shariah compliance audits of Islamic banks, to create a Shariah audit manual, and to train State Bank officers. Further, the central bank initiated an Islamic Banking Awareness Program to train banking and other personnel and a Learning Program to learn from the experiences of other Muslim countries.
To establish either an Islamic commercial bank, an Islamic subsidiary of an existing commercial bank, or an Islamic banking branch of an existing commercial bank, permission must first be sought from the Director of the Islamic Banking Department (IBD) of the central bank. The proposed institution must also appoint a Shariah advisor in accordance with the “Fit and Proper Criteria” issued by the central bank’s Shariah Board, and the advisor must be approved by the central bank (the institutions may also appoint a Shariah Committee if they so choose). To prevent conflict of interest, the central bank mandated that a bank’s Shariah advisor must not serve in the same capacity at any other Islamic banking institution. This restriction does not apply to the central bank’s nomination of a Shariah advisor to its own Shariah Board. Islamic commercial banks and Islamic subsidiaries of (conventional) commercial banks are subject to prevailing banking and other laws and to the rules and directives of the central bank. Islamic banking branches of commercial banks are required to comply with all the directives and guidelines of the central bank, particularly those applicable to Islamic banking.
Criteria specific to the establishment of an Islamic commercial bank include capital adequacy requirements, standards for integrity of sponsors and directors, measures for broad-based ownership and measures directed against interlocking ownerships of banks and other institutions. Their financial transactions must be in accordance with the injunctions of Shariah. The application for permission from the IBD must indicate the modes of finance proposed to be used to raise resources and extend finance.
According to IBD Circular No. 2 of 2004, an Islamic commercial bank inter alia: is a public limited company; must be listed on the stock exchange; must offer at least 50 percent of shares to the general public; must have a minimum paid-up capital of Rest. 1 billion and maintain a minimum capital adequacy ratio of 8 percent of risk-weighted assets; and must have at least seven sponsor directors who subscribe at least 15 percent of total paid-up capital and retain their shares for at least three years (they must obtain the central bank’s approval if thereafter they choose to dispose of their shares). The sponsors may make foreign capital investment which is non-repatriable (dividends are repatriable). In addition, not more than 25 percent of the sponsor directors can be from the same family (as defined in the Banking Companies Ordinance). The directors cannot serve as directors of any other financial institution (nor can any one group own more than one bank). The proposed bank must begin operations within six months of permission and must open at least five branches within twelve months.
Existing commercial banks (who meet the central bank’s guidelines on capital adequacy and) who wish to establish subsidiaries to carry on Islamic banking must also apply to the IBD for permission. These subsidiaries are also public limited companies, and are considered to be Islamic commercial banks. Like the latter, the chief executive officer of a subsidiary of an existing commercial bank must be approved by the central bank. (In addition, each director of the subsidiary must be cleared by the central bank.) Applications for permission to establish both Islamic commercial banks and Islamic subsidiaries of existing commercial banks must submit risk management guidelines and plans for internal control. At least 51 percent of a subsidiary’s shares must be subscribed by the parent commercial bank and no more than 49 percent may be offered to the public.
Finally, existing commercial banks (including foreign banks) may apply to the central bank for a license to open stand-alone Islamic banking branches to offer Shariah compliant products and services. The applicant bank is required to maintain a minimum “Islamic Banking Fund” of Rs. 50 million funded by allocation from its head office (or 8 percent of the risk-weighted assets of its Islamic banking branches, whichever is higher).
In making its decision, the central bank will consider the financial strength of the bank. The applicant bank must inter alia indicate the number of Islamic banking branches it proposes to open in the next financial year and their location, the deposits, finance, investment, and other products and services proposed to be offered, how it will segregate the funds of its Islamic banking branches from the funds of its commercial banking branches, the accounting policies to be followed, and the profit and loss sharing mechanism.
After the central bank’s approval, the applicant bank must set up an Islamic Banking Division at its head office in Pakistan to control the Islamic Banking Fund and inter alia to ensure that all the central bank’s directives are followed including, for example, the statutory cash reserve and liquidity requirements. The Islamic branches have to meet the same cash reserve requirement as conventional banks i.e. 5 percent of their time and demand liabilities. They are, however, required to maintain a liquidity reserve of only 6 percent of their liabilities with the central bank – instead of 15 percent for the conventional banks – until such time as Shariah-compliant approved securities are developed. The central bank’s guidelines list the systems and control guidelines to be followed. For example, while the applicant bank may authorize some of its existing branches to sell Islamic banking deposit schemes, these branches must transfer the funds raised to the Islamic banking branch on the same day and must not receive or pay interest on such services. They may, however, receive a reasonable fee or commission on sale of deposit schemes.
On April 15, 2005, the central bank issued a press release communicating the “Essentials and Model Agreements for Islamic Modes of Finance” approved by its Shariah Board to “ensure compliance with minimum Shariah standards by banks conducting Islamic banking in Pakistan,” and to serve as guidelines which will eventually be enforced as prudential regulations for Islamic banks. The central bank also provided model agreements for the modes. Individual banks could, with the approval of their Shariah advisor, adapt these to suit the products they design. The main features of the approved modes are described below.
The seven Islamic modes of finance include: Murabaha, Musawama, Ijara (leasing), Salam, Istisna, Musharaka and Mudaraba. Only the last two modes involve sharing in profits and losses. For each of the five cases not involving profit (loss) sharing, the Shariah Board approved the stipulation of a penalty for late payment or default in the agreement. The penalty is expressed in terms of percent per day or per annum as an interest rate would be. The Shariah Board’s guidelines (and the model agreement forms) note, however, that the penalty will go to the bank’s charity fund and cannot become a source of further return to the bank. The bank may, however, ask a court for award of solatium, which is determined “on the basis of direct and indirect costs incurred, other than opportunity cost.” Furthermore, the bank is allowed to sell any collateral or security it holds (without court intervention). All of the agreements approved by the Shariah Board contain provision for insurance of assets under the Islamic concept of Takaful when this is available (and with a reputable insurance company until this time).
The Shariah Board defines murabaha as a sale of goods for cash or on a deferred payment basis. The seller is required to disclose the cost of the goods and a margin of profit is included in the sale price of the goods -- which once determined cannot be changed. The financier bears the risk for the period between the purchase of the good (by the bank’s agent) and its sale to the buyer (the bank’s client). As noted earlier, much controversy surrounds the use of Murabaha. The Shariah Board’s guidelines therefore include caveats: murabaha contracts cannot be rolled over (although the repayment date can be extended with no increase in the sale price), and buy-back arrangements are prohibited.
A Musawama is defined like a Murabaha except that the seller is not obliged to reveal his cost. Ijara is a permissible lease arrangement. A Salam is an advance payment against deferred delivery of goods. The approved guidelines note that it can be made with respect to homogenous units of goods (traded by counting, measuring or weighing) but not, for example, in precious stones or cattle heads each unit of which is different. A salam cannot require the seller to buy back the goods. The bank is allowed, however, to enter into a parallel salam contract with a third party under given conditions. In an istisna (which is a mode of sale), the buyer (bank) places an order to manufacture a commodity to be delivered at a future date. If the seller fails to deliver the goods in the stipulated period, the price can be reduced by a specified amount per day as agreed upon. The bank (as buyer) is allowed to enter into a parallel but independent istisna contract with a third party in which it is the seller.
Musharaka is defined as a relationship to share profits and losses of a joint enterprise. All partners make an investment and share profits as agreed in the contract and losses in proportion to their capital. A managing partner may (under a separate agreement) receive a fee. Assets are jointly owned in proportion to capital contributed. Like earlier definitions of this form of financing, the definition approved by the Shariah Board is silent on the extent of the partners’ liability (i.e. whether limited or unlimited). In fact, the circulated model agreement for a musharaka includes a clause stating that the agreement shall not be deemed to create a partnership or company and that in no way has the client any authority to bind the bank. The model agreement also contains a clause (as in the other modes of finance) for payment of penalty for default of a payment due. The penalty (as in the case of the other modes) is expressed as a percentage per day (or per annum) and is to be used by the bank for charitable purposes only.
A Mudaraba is an arrangement in which one person (e.g. bank) contributes money and the other, the Mudarib (who may be a natural person, group of persons, legal entity or corporate body) contributes his efforts. Profit is divided in the proportion contracted for and losses (except in the case of fraud, negligence or willful misconduct) are borne by the party providing the funds (bank) and are limited to this amount. Mudaraba contracts may be multi- or single purpose, open-ended or closed, for a fixed period or perpetual, restricted or unrestricted. The Mudarib may be permitted by the financier to invest his own funds in the business as well. In this case, the financier may not receive a share in profits that is greater than the ratio of his capital to total investment, and losses are shared in proportion to the capital invested. Neither the model agreement nor the guidelines for a mudaraba include provision for penalty, solatium or damages. The model agreement for a mudaraba indicates that it is not deemed to create a partnership -- just as the model agreement for musharaka does.
The central bank constituted a committee with the Institute of Chartered Accountants, Pakistan to develop accounting standards for Islamic modes of financing. The committee has prepared the standard on Murabaha and is working on the Ijara and Musharaka standards.
In August 2004, the chairman of the Shariah Board expressed his appreciation of the proactive role being played by the State Bank of Pakistan in promoting Islamic banking in the country. He observed that the current regulations governing Islamic banking are in line with the best and the most progressive regulations being followed in countries like Bahrain and Malaysia. In a speech earlier that year, the director of the Islamic Banking Department described the central bank’s introduction of Islamic banking side by side with “traditional banking” as a hybrid of the Malaysian and Bahrain models. The central bank has collaborated with the Bahrain Monetary Agency on Islamic banking regulations and on sukuks (Islamic bonds or government securities). It also arranged an orientation program on Islamic banking and insurance (Takaful) with the central bank of Malaysia. It is actively involved with other Muslim committees and forums on Islamic banking and finance.
Islamic Banking in Pakistan: Performance and Issues
The Meezan Bank, which was the first bank to be issued an Islamic commercial banking license in Pakistan, was already operating as an investment bank. It converted and began functioning as an Islamic commercial bank in 2002 and has 25 branches today. The bank has a paid up capital of Rs. 1.7 billion contributed by local and international financial institutions (from Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). According to its website, the bank strives to find “commonalities with the conventional banking system” while not compromising on Shariah rulings. Meezan Bank has a Shariah board staffed with Islamic scholars who also serve on the boards of Islamic banks in other countries. It recently introduced a new account, the Meezan Islamic Institution Deposit Account or MIIDA for Islamic financial institutions needing an outlet for their excess liquidity. Meezan Bank uses the deposit pool to provide financing on Islamic modes mainly on the basis of Murabaha and Ijara. The bank also issues a long-term deposit certificate for Pension Funds. Twenty percent of gross profit on the deposit pool goes to certificate holders. In September 2005, Meezan Bank’s Shariah Board approved of diminishing musharaka-based Islamic financing for medium and long term financing of plant and machinery and non-commercial vehicles. The Board also declared day trading (as currently practiced) unIslamic and approved an alternative product for futures trading.
Two other Islamic banks were issued licenses in 2005: Al-Baraka Islamic Bank, which is a foreign bank that converted to Islamic banking, and Bank Islami Pakistan, which was licensed on March 31, 2005. In addition, there are 29 Islamic banking branches of conventional banks (including two foreign banks) operating in the country. Al-Baraka offers a number of deposit accounts including PLS savings deposits, incentive accounts, khazana accounts, term deposits, AMI accounts, and foreign currency savings accounts.
According to the central bank, at the end of March 2005, the share of Islamic banking in overall banking in Pakistan was only about 1.6 percent. During the first quarter of 2005, the total assets of these banks in Pakistan had increased by 13.6 percent to Rs. 50.2 billion and their deposits had risen by 10 percent to Rs. 33.3 billion. Murabaha dominates as their preferred mode of finance (53%) followed by Ijara (28 percent), Diminishing Musharaka (8 percent), and Musharaka (1 percent). The central bank took up and resolved the issue of double taxation on murabaha transactions with the Central Board of Revenue. Savings deposits account for the largest share in the deposits of the Islamic banking institutions (47 percent), followed by fixed deposits (28 percent) and non-remunerative current account deposits (24 percent). The central bank is working on the creation of an Islamic inter-bank market once there is a sufficient number of Islamic banks.
Government securities that conform to Islamic principles are not widely available in Pakistan. The first Pakistani International Bond, the Sukuk Al-Ijara was launched in the international capital market at the beginning of 2005 and was heavily oversubscribed by conventional and Islamic institutions (resulting in a foreign inflow of $600 million). Meezan Bank, the first domestic Islamic bank was the local structuring advisor for the Sukuk issue and the government hopes that the issue will spur the creation of domestic Islamic capital and money markets.
According to the central bank’s strategic plan (2005-2010), a two-pronged approach will be followed to promote Islamic banking as a parallel and compatible system: attract international banks of quality to locate in Pakistan and nurture domestic professional Islamic bankers. The central bank also plans to design and implement new tradable instruments necessary for Islamic banking treasury operations. [SBP, Strategic Plan]. In addition, the plan briefly mentions the future enactment of new laws in the area of Islamic Banking.
The IMF believes that despite legal ambiguities regarding the process Islamization of the financial sector, the establishment of new Islamic banking institutions is likely to continue. It recommended inter alia close monitoring of the Islamic financial institutions, development and standardization of Islamic banking products and financial instruments, and the development of a specific framework for risk management and lender of last resort arrangements for the Islamic banking sector. The IMF regards the central bank’s vision of Islamic banking and conventional banking operating parallel to each other as appropriate since this set-up affords users a choice compatible with their religious beliefs and fits in with the country’s position as an emergent market that is integrated into the global economy.
The “conventional” banking system in Pakistan is the system in place since the transition to non-interest based banking. Banking in Pakistan has, however, undergone substantial reform in the last decade and more reform is envisaged. For example, the central bank’s strategic plan calls for a deposit insurance scheme. The structural changes already made include the privatization of four of the five nationalized commercial banks, the divestiture of a portion of the shares of the fifth bank, central bank autonomy, liberalization of the financial sector, and increase in the minimum capital requirements for banks from Rs. 500 million to Rs. 1 billion. The IMF noted improvements in financial soundness indicators as non-performing loans have fallen and profitability indicators such as return on assets and equity have begun to approach international norms.
According to central bank data, local private banks continue to dominate commercial banks in the private sector in terms of share in total assets (87 percent) although foreign banks are more numerous (20 versus 14). Foreign banks account for about 34 percent of profits of all commercial banks in the private sector although they only account for about 15 percent of deposits and 16 percent of advances.
The macroeconomic environment in which the banks operate has improved. The government of Pakistan’s data estimates real GDP growth at 8.4 percent in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2005 (making Pakistan the second fastest-growing economy after China). Indicators of social and living conditions are also better. The country’s public (and external) debt burden declined to the lowest level in decades. The inflation rate (9.3 percent) is high, however, and the current account just turned deficit after three years of surpluses.
There are about 300 Islamic banking institutions operating in some 70 countries with assets estimated at over $250 billion growing at the rate of about 15 percent per annum. The market is largely untapped, according to an article in Global Finance since the majority of Muslims still use conventional products. For example, Malaysia has 15 million Muslims, and nine Islamic financial institutions, but only 10% of total banking assets are held in Shariah compliant accounts.
Malaysia and Bahrain served as models for Pakistan’s dual banking system. In Malaysia, separate Islamic legislation and banking regulations exist side-by-side with those for the conventional banking system. The legal basis for the establishment of Islamic banks is the Islamic Banking Act (1983) which empowers the central bank with supervision and regulatory powers over Islamic banks. According to its central bank, Islamic banks in Malaysia offer over 40 financial products and services. An Islamic interbank money market began functioning in 1994. Takaful, an Islamic insurance system, began in 1985. Malaysia has set up a dedicated high court to try Islamic banking and finance cases.
Bahrain also has a dual banking system and the largest concentration of Islamic financial institutions in the Middle East region. It hosts a Liquidity Management Center and the International Islamic Financial Market, and its monetary agency has introduced a prudential and reporting framework that is specific to Islamic banking and finance. According to Pakistan’s central bank the interpretation and Shariah position of contracts (e.g. sale and purchase of debt instruments and grant of gifts on savings and financial papers) is different in Malaysia. Another source supports this view, “there is a certain polarization between the schools of thought centred in Asia and those centred in the Middle East with a general perception that the Middle Eastern schools of thought are more conservative in their views. This has a material effect on the acceptability of some Islamic investment products structured in Asia and offered to investors in the Middle East.”
The Federal Shariat Court’s re-determination of the case is widely expected to take several years and the IMF notes that “there remains a degree of legal uncertainty about the ultimate basis for banking activities in Pakistan.” In a letter of intent to the IMF, the government and the central bank, however, regard the Supreme Court’s decision as having cleared the way for the pursuit of “an evolutionary approach to Islamic finance, through encouraging the development of Islamic banking alongside traditional financial institutions.” Implicit in this view is the acceptance of the fact that interest is involved in the current operation of the traditional institutions. The central bank’s numerous explicit references to “interest” and interest rates” in its reviews and annual reports acknowledge the existence of interest in banking operations. It appears from the government and the central bank’s statements and actions that they implicitly believe (or hope) that the FSC will allow “traditional financial institutions” to continue functioning. It is not clear, however, whether these institutions will be able to revert to their original existence as truly conventional banks paying and accepting interest and forsaking the present unwieldy and burdensome trappings of an “interest-free” system.
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