Generally speaking, when Americans hear about shar’ia it conjures up images of bearded and turbaned Taliban executioners gleefully stoning women to death in an Afghan soccer stadium. It is an unfair stereotype of a great legal tradition, and it is also one that misses some of the most important issues that shar’ia raises for the modern world. As usual, if you want to find the real action follow the money.
In a nutshell, there is a lot of money sloshing around the Islamic world. 20 percent of the world’s population is Muslim and at least part of the population sits atop oil fields that churn out an enormous amount of cash every day. What is an observant Muslim, one who cares about Islamic strictures against usury to do? Islamic law forbids the taking of interest, but certain transactional structures that allow some return in exchange for tying up capital are allowed. For example, a straight out purchase-money loan with interest secured by a mortgage on a the purchased house would violate Islamic injunctions against usury. On the other hand, if the bank buys the house, leases it to the resident for a period of years, followed by the resident’s purchase of the house at the expiration of the lease for a nominal sum, it does not violate the injunction. The game in Islamic finance is to come up with ways of structuring transactions so as to generate an attractive rate of return for investors without running afoul of the strictures of shar’ia. The result has been a cottage industry of banks and lawyers experimenting with various transactional structures and then rushing to find a reputable Islamic legal scholar willing to issue a fatwah validating the deal for Muslim investors.