Article by Wesley Mccormick
The primacy of a fatwa when accrediting an Islamic finance training program, and why Islamic finance scholars, not academic and professional bodies, should certify training programs for authenticity
Atif R. Khan, Ethica Institute of Islamic FinanceT (www.EthicaInstitute.com) Copyright ? 2011
A fatwa, or expert legal opinion of one or more Islamic scholars, is the highest level of accreditation granted a transaction, product, or institution in Islamic finance. Islamic banks esteem fatwas. And Islamic banking customers esteem fatwas. Yet Islamic finance training programs continue to turn to academic and professional bodies for Shariah accreditation. Why?
Whence this came one can only guess. Perhaps the word “accreditation” itself naturally harks one back to the leafy environs of one’s campus and conjures up images of stone pillars and gilded arches. After all, accreditation and academia have always gone hand in hand. Or perhaps it is the Islamic finance industry’s natural tendency to replicate the conventional finance industry, and thereby errantly impose upon the Islamic educational paradigm a western educator’s sensibility.
Whatever the origins of this mistake, Islamic finance is ultimately about Islam. And in Islam, accreditation is not about the sanctity of a particular hall of academia or the credentials of a professor; it is about the Islamic qualification of the accreditor – qualification proper to a particular Islamic science, in this case the application of Islamic commercial law, and qualification proper to the individual or institution issuing the opinion, in this case a fatwa.
After all, it was the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) who said, “Whoever is given a fatwa without knowledge, his sin is but upon the person who gave him the opinion” (Abu Dawud).(1)
What Does Standardized and Accredited Training Mean in Islamic Finance?
Of the many challenges now facing the Islamic financial industry, perhaps the greatest two are:
1. Accreditation by scholars, not academic and professional bodies: The importance of an Islamic finance scholar certifying a training program is paramount, and2. Standardization in training: The importance of this scholar-certified training conforming to a widely accepted Islamic finance standard.
There is not a single industry in the world except that it enforces standards: banking, construction, transportation, food, and drug, to name but a few. And yet Islamic finance training, the very building block of the industry, is conspicuous in its absence of standards. This is a root problem for all practitioners for which almost every other problem is but a symptom.
Lack of standardization is felt most acutely in the industry’s face-to-face training sector, where just about anyone with passable product knowledge stands before an audience of eager bankers and waxes lyrical about the virtues of Islamic finance. Of course, it would be acceptable if this trainer merely repeated the positions of those qualified to speak on the matter.
But more often than not, this unqualified trainer, professor, or writer assigns the role of scholar unto himself, guessing through an answer here, issuing a pronouncement there, with little regard for established industry standards. Seemingly innocent at first. But these same audience members then go out into the marketplace and begin putting what they learn to practice. If they remember nothing else from the trainer, they rarely forget his casual attitude towards the high standards of the Shariah, or Islamic Sacred Law, and his ready willingness to issue his own “fatwas” – a willingness they soon adopt. Non-scholar trainers may convey legal positions, but they may not create them.
Accrediting academic bodies like universities, degree programs, professional bodies, and accrediting institutes have a place, no doubt, in ensuring high pedagogical standards. Delivery standards in Islamic finance training span the spectrum from excellent to illegal. But pedagogy is not the same thing as Islamic finance.
In Islamic finance, accredited training means training approved by a scholar who confirms that the content fully adheres to a particular standard. And not just any scholar. In order to be qualified to approve something in Islamic finance, one must first be a trained and experienced Islamic scholar who possesses, foremost, deep knowledge of the Shariah with, at minimum, demonstrated, peer-reviewed competence in at least one of the traditional schools of jurisprudence. And second, he must bring practical, working knowledge of banking and finance, complemented by actual experience in the contemporary marketplace.
Standardized AAOIFI Based Training Promotes Shariah Harmonization
In 1991, the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI, pronounced “a-yo-fee”) formed as an independent, non-profit, standard-setting body with a remit to promulgate Islamic finance standards for the entire industry. Twenty years on, AAOIFI is now widely regarded by banks and governments as the de facto industry standard for Islamic finance practitioners.(2) In fact, numerous central banks and financial service authorities now recommend the standards as a source of guidance for local banks.
AAOIFI’s regularly updated texts have become the definitive reference work for those seeking a comprehensive rule book about Islamic financial products and practices. Its 85 standards cover everything from accounting and auditing to governance and product-specific Shariah standards. The 16 to 20 scholars – the number depending on the year – who sit on AAOIFI’s Shariah Board are leading Islamic finance scholars who come from the Gulf, South Asia, South East Asia, Africa, and North America; each of them legally qualified to issue a fatwa and adjudicate on matters Islamic finance.(3) And for a religion that deeply values scholarly consensus, or ijma, as one of the main sources for legal derivation in Islamic jurisprudence, it is a relief to hear one scholar put it this way: “AAOIFI is the closest thing we have to ijma in Islamic finance.”(4)
Training Accreditation by Scholars, Not Academic and Professional Bodies
According to AAOIFI’s “Stipulation and Ethics of Fatwa in the Institutional Framework”(5) the standards for issuing a fatwa are, at minimum, knowledge of:
1. Islamic jurisprudence in financial transactions2. How to derive rulings from primary sources3. Islamic jurisprudential contributions of other scholars4. Contemporary issues in the financial industry
Moreover, the individual should demonstrate discernment, scrupulousness, and peer-reviewed competence within the financial industry.(6)
In order to fully comprehend the complexity of the scholar’s task, one should reflect upon the competing demands placed upon him when deriving a ruling from the Quran and hadith (prophetic traditions) corpus; hadith which number in the tens of thousands for those that are rigorously authenticated (sahih) and exceed one million when counted as separate chains of transmission. As one scholar notes, knowledge of the primary texts consists in knowing, among many other things, “the ‘amm, a text of general applicability to many legal rulings, and its opposite; the khass, that which is applicable to only one ruling or type of ruling; the mujmal, that which requires other texts to be fully understood, and its opposite; the mubayyan, that which is plain without other texts; the mutlaq, that which is applicable without restriction, and its opposite; the muqayyad, that which has restrictions given in other texts; the nasikh, that which supersedes previous revealed rulings, and its opposite; the mansukh: that which is superseded; the nass: that which unequivocally decides a particular legal question, and its opposite; the dhahir: that which can bear more than one interpretation.”(7)
This lengthy description of the minutiae facing the scholar in only one area of ijtihad, or personal legal reasoning, is particularly relevant in an age when pretenders to the task open the doors of scholarship unto themselves. Lest one decry that such high standards only complicate matters, and that God’s word is divinely protected, we should have the humility to remind ourselves that divine protection relates to the word of God, not to our ability to derive rulings from it.
It is not lost on anyone the rareness of such individuals in present times. In a perfect world, such a scholar would be the trainer himself. But until there are enough scholars to go around, the best that we can do, and the least we must, is obtain their consent when accrediting a training program.
“Fatwa Shopping” and the Harms of Less Than 100% Standardization
When training content is anything less than 100% standardized to AAOIFI, discrepancies between the learner’s knowledge and the market’s practice abound. This rift widens into a chasm of confusion and leads to what can only be euphemistically described as the banker’s penchant for “fatwa shopping”: finding the right fatwa to fit your needs, rather than tempering your needs to comply with the fatwa. At best, this occasionally costs some banks and customers their money. At worst, this laxity costs the whole industry its credibility.
A number of Islamic finance trainers now work with guidebooks and other material that is merely “authored” by a scholar or “supervised” by a scholar. But what we often end up with is material that is 80% or 90% AAOIFI-based; “Shariah compliant” according to somebody, perhaps. But not uniformly Shariah-compliant according to any particular mainstream collectivity.
When trainers fail to conform their content 100% against a widely accepted standard, newcomers get confused: “Why is this guidebook telling me a product is unacceptable