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Finding a Muslim speaking or acting normally on a mainstream broadcast is a rare feat; but the upshot of winning at "Muslim Mainstream Bingo" can be quite rewarding.

An Elusive “Normal Muslim” on American Media Highlights the Need for Islamic Finance Gurus

I really geek out on podcasts. I even make lists of my favorites. I'm a junkie, simply put.

The various downloads on my iPod really run the gamut, too. From sports, to news, to general academics, my typical day's playlist can be quite eclectic. Being a father, I also consult iTunes for the latest tips and trends in personal finance. To that end, I'm a big fan of Marketplace Money.

The show, which airs weekly on various public radio networks, dissects all the latest financial news and provides genuinely insightful commentary. There's a segment, too, where personal finance experts answer questions from callers on a wide range of subjects. Imagine my surprise though when a recent episode of this program featured a question from a Muslim mom on shariah-compliant savings.

You can listen to Sr. Emily's story at the end of this post. She comes in at around the 19:50 minute mark. (NOTE: As with most podcasts, this one includes musical interludes)

To summarize her tale: Sr. Emily is the mother of five boys..including two sets of twins…may Allāh grant her sabr! Add to that, one if her kids is a special needs child – a challenge that presents both unique difficulties and blessings, as Sr. Abez recently documented. Sr. Emily called in to the show to get some advice on building up savings that took into account the financial demands of her large family and her household's low income. As she made sure to note and explain, any advice the expert gave had to also adhere to Islam's prohibition on interest.

Before extracting some larger points from Sr. Emily's story, I'd just like to remark on how much strength it takes to be in her position. Raising one child is not easy, let alone five (no doubt rambunctious) boys. The stress of financial worry makes things all the more difficult. Yet, she faces these challenges head on and doesn't do so at the expense of her deen. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it's rocks like her that are the worldly foundation of this ummah and of everything great it accomplishes. May Allāh grant all our mothers the highest reward in the hereafter. Āmīn!

Now, for the broader significance of this public radio moment:

  • A “normal Muslim” on American Media: No need to run through the litany of examples. If an Arab or Muslim is on TV or radio in the US, they're more likely than not burning a flag/effigy, yelling “death to” something or other, or generally acting in an anti-social manner. These nut cases have such a stranglehold on our public image that it's an absolute breath of fresh air when a Muslim is featured on a mainstream broadcast speaking in calm tones and sans fire and death. Kudos to the folks at Marketplace Money.
  • Resisting assimilation: Through her desire to both live in American society and live according to Islamic teachings, Sr. Emily echoes the vast majority of Muslim-Americans. Seeking general shariah-compliance in all you do, and specifically in regard to financial transactions, is far from the extremist position that many right-wing commentators here and abroad make it out to be. “Moderate Muslims,” as Madeleine Albright (of all people!) said at a CFR conference early last year, “do not believe moderately. They believe passionately about moderation.” The integrative, rather than assimilative path that many Muslim-Americans seem to be on certainly reflects Ms. Albright's sentiment.
  • A virtual absence of Islamic financial guidance: There are about six million Muslims in America. There are also around that many “financial experts” in this country. Yet, it seems as if not one of them caters to the halal investment crowd. While the average Muslim-American is, alhamdulilah, well off relative to the average American in general, there are still a great many Muslims in this country struggling to make ends meet and in need of financial guidance. Unfortunately, the vast majority of scholars knowledgeable in Islamic finance don't take a proactive approach to giving advice. What's needed these days is not a simple rendering of verdicts on this or that financial transaction, but holistic plans that offer a rundown of all the various shariah-compliant products available from traditional and Islamic institutions. Put simply, we need our scholars to come to us with options and ideas rather than wait for us to come to them for rulings.

Financial concerns are among the top stressors for any family. There is a vacant niche for scholars (who don't merely cater to the high net worth individuals) that are both cognizant of the global  financial market's products and knowledgeable in the nuances of Islamic finance. A podcast or weekly YouTube series is not that hard to set up and, for my money, would be a great benefit to all Americans.

allah ameen

About Youssef Chouhoud

Youssef is from Brooklyn, New York by way of Alexandria, Egypt. Currently, he is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying Political Science and International Relations. A student of Islam, history, and politics, his recent extended stay in Cairo placed him squarely at the nexus of these disciplines. Follow him on Twitter (@TheAlexandrian) as he tries to make sense of all that's happening in Tahrir and beyond.

24 comments

  1. Assalaamu Alaykum,

    That was pretty good; I’d actually never heard about those types of savings accounts before (the match accounts). Definite props to the sister for being able to handle 5 boys (with two sets of twins!). I’m a father of twins myself and although we are not really in dire straights financially alhamdulillah it is a bit of a strain having only one income (but very much worth it in terms of her being able to be with the kids all day). But you know what? It teaches you to live more simply and within your means. May Allah bless her and her husband with rewards in this life and the Hereafter.

    Islamic finance is one of the most difficult areas to find qualified advice in. I myself majored in finance before becoming Muslim and currently I work as an auditor (although I’m by no means an expert), and it’s hard to really imagine a product that is 100% compliant and can still produce similar returns to what we see in the marketplace with conventional products. And unfortunately, the market is flooded with so-called “sharia compliant” products that are merely ruses meant to trick the average Muslim consumer (even Taqi Usmani called 85% of sukuks available not sharia-compliant).

    Because of this, as well as the general ignorance of a lot of Muslims, most Muslims I know either own houses purchased with a bank loan (or rather the bank owns their house), or they are thinking of getting a bank loan. It’s very sad, especially when some scholars in the past have produced fataawa from overseas sanctioning this. I understand there are times of dire need where this might be a necessity (ie, you have 7 kids and nobody will rent to you), but most Muslims I know are not in this situation. It’s not enough to just say “renting is throwing your money away” to justify a mortgage (and Allah knows best the situation of the person). Actually owning a house is more expensive, albeit you may end up with an asset that is yours to keep after you pay off the loan in 30 years, although you still get to pay the government taxes on it each year and continue to maintain it, which may end up being more than the monthly rental cost of a similar place, wallahu ‘alim.

    I am no scholar, and wouldn’t even consider myself a student of knowledge, but I have no desire to own a house unless I can pay a large portion of that money myself at the outset, and perhaps borrow the rest from friends and family. Even then I probably wouldn’t do it if I couldn’t pay for the whole thing all at once with cash, because going into debt unnecessarily (ie, when there are other means available that will suffice) is highly discouraged in Islam. How scary is it that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) would not pray janaaza for the one who left debts behind, and even an unpaid debt can stop a shahid from entering the grave. SubhanAllah. Do we really want the dunya that badly?

    In terms of saving money though, no doubt this is needed unless you are a person like Abu Bakr who can give all of his wealth away and not be affected. Tangible assets like real estate (ie, buying something small like a plot of land with cash), gold/silver, etc or investing in other Muslim businesses (or starting your own) are the safest bet. The bond market is of course out of the picture, and the stock market is as well for the most part (due to the prevalence of interest dealings/financing amongst publicly-traded companies), so that means things like 401k’s are out of the picture for the most part. Personally, when it comes to “Islamic” mutual funds, I am going to stay away, because I do not buy into the idea that up to 33% of a business’s financing can come from interest (actually this is just good business sense in conventional terms).

    Now of course, some people do not have much knowledge of finance, so these things may be permissible for them if they do not understand their workings and are taking the advice of Islamic scholars who sanction them. I am not going to declare anything haraam or halaal, but I am merely stating my feelings on the matter in terms of how I understand it. It is Allah who will judge us based upon our intentions and understandings.

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    • W/Salam,

      Wow. That was quite thorough. I can tell you’ve thought about these issues a lot :)

      I’m generally in agreement with your sentiments. Just to touch on a few things you brought up:

      *The stigma against renting is, as you alluded to, in many instances unfounded. A family mmight be much better off in the short, medium, and long run renting instead of owning a home.

      *For most people, buying a house outright is near impossible. If you’re close though, it’s definitely preferable since a) it gives you much more bargaining power and b) you’re left with no debt. Here in Egypt, exchanging a giant bag of money when purchasing a property is actually the norm.

      *The issue of gold/silver is tricky. I’m actually planning to write a piece down the road examining the accumulation of precious metals from an Islamic, modern financial, and logical perspective. Care to collaborate? :)

      Thanks for the input!

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      • Salaam,

        The gold/silver issue sounds interesting… I would definitely like to dive further into the Islamic rulings about storing precious metals as savings. I’m not well versed in many Islamic economic rulings except for most of the basic tenants, but I’m always eager to learn more.

        It’s nice to hear that Egypt is mostly a cash based economy. Do you pay taxes on the house to the government?

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        • Yeah, here in Egypt, it’s straight cash, homie. (reference? reference? anyone?)

          As for taxes, there haven’t been any in the past, but a new law may initiate modest property fees on real estate worth more than 500,000 LE.

          Will be in touch iA re: the gold article…but probably not too soon. :)

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      • Assalam O Alaikum,

        Jazak Allah Khair for the article, this is something that is very important!

        “*The issue of gold/silver is tricky. I’m actually planning to write a piece down the road examining the accumulation of precious metals from an Islamic, modern financial, and logical perspective. Care to collaborate? :)”

        As someone who regularly invests in Gold, specially in this economy, I would be very interested in your reasoning behind calling the investment ‘tricky’.

        Looking forward to your piece on this subject.

        Jazak Allah Khair,

        Wassalam

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        • W/Salam,

          While I believe gold is a great way to diversify, I really support the skeptics against the kind of “sky is falling” accumulation that some are promoting. I mean, when Glen Beck is peddling a product this hard, my Spidey-sense starts flashing.

          I won’t go into my thoughts here for fear of a MAJOR tangent, but inshAllah will get to working on the article in the near future.

          JAK!

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  2. Jazakallah Khairun for the post!

    Those matched savings accounts sound very interesting. They seem to be a very individually empowering way of achieving and sponsoring broad, macro level social objectives. I think the NA muslim community needs to come up with some ideas on how to implement this to our benefit for initiatives like home ownership, college funds, islamic education, Hajj funds etc.

    I’m willing to work with whoever’s interested on developing this idea further. Reply to this comment if you’re interested and we can take this further.

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  3. Salaam,

    One idea I had was for communities to create their own sukuks (of course you would need qualified people overseeing this). Essentially a community could come together and investors would pool their cash to purchase something like an apartment building or office building, and then rent it out to tenants. Then they all share in the profits (or losses) accordingly. This is essentially what sukuks are, and they do exist in various forms across the Islamic world, but the advantages one has in creating something like this locally are:

    a) it’s an investment in the community and local economy

    b) you can be sure your money is being invested in a halal manner

    c) tangible assets are much less likely to suffer large value fluctuations unlike the stock market, and historically they provide a modest return (even though it might only average to a little better than inflation)

    Given that communities might have a hard time coming to collective decisions, it’s probably best for an investment firm to manage the process, receive the money and purchase the asset, and manage cash flow distribution (with a fee deducted for their services). This way they provide a business perspective to the community while maintaining independence.

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    • The efforts of Sh. Faraz et. al. are much appreciated, but what they do is not really what I had in mind. Their services cater to institutions and financial professionals. I’m looking for someone to help out the everyday guy/gal.

      Where’s the Muslim Dave Ramsey? The Muslim Suze Orman? Heck, I’d even take the Muslim Jim Cramer!

      Just someone who can guide the regular Ahmed through the murky waters of shariah-compliant finance.

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      • Actually although we do over services to the institutions and sector professional, we have offered and continued to offer educational and training activities *that specifically target non-specialists*. Making such information available to our brothers and sisters in this way is one of the main reasons that we founded the group. We certainly need to be better about expanding our offerings and promoting them. May Allah improve us and reward you for the encouragement!

        In the meanwhile, I can make some concrete suggestions:

        1) Consider identifying a cadre of promising certified financial planners, budding financial media broadcasters, etc and encourage them to train with us in an intensive program so that they can start provide these services to the community.

        2) Straightway associates are actually working on a primer that will be quite similar–bi idhni llah–to the one described in the end of your article. May Allah accept it from us as deed done for Allah alone. Please remember us in your du`a.

        Wa s-salam

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        • Jazzak Allahu Khayr for the info Sh. Taha!

          I realize that you and the other shuyokh must have your hands full, so we really appreciate you keeping us non-specialists on your minds :)

          Your point about fostering young talent is well taken and is something that I hope we’ll be able to follow through on as a community, inshAllah.

          Really great to hear about the primer SE is putting together. Do keep us updated!

          Finally, I’d humbly suggest that Straightway think about a podcast offering of its own. It’d be a great way to both market your services and provide some much needed knowledge to the community at large. I really believe such a series would be of great benefit. Just a thought :)

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  4. My undergrad was in Economics, and my brain is constantly analyzing news stories I hear on the radio with an Economic lense. I sometimes wish I got a PhD in this stuff

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  5. Assalam Alaikum All,

    We are having our third event in the six city Islamic Finance National tour, and up till now, Alhmadulillah, we have gotten great feedback about the program and all the different products available to Muslims through these companies.

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  6. Chechnya is CALLING

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  7. Salamu 3alikum brother sisters… wherever U are… http://www.kavkazcenter.com
    for the latest news from CHECYNYA

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  8. This is interesting, and there should more emphasize on this by American Muslim organizations. AltMuslim had a piece on this issue and the difficultly of adapting Islamic finance.

    See:
    http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/b/3818

    Also, someone mentioned that the Deoband Scholar, Taqi Usmani, said that 85% of suuk bonds are non-compliant. To all respect to Sh. Usmani, he is also on the boards on major Islamic units and banks, so conceivably some his bonds would also be non-compliant? Or are his rulings the only correct ones on this economic unit?

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    • Salaam,

      Here’s an article describing the non-Shari’a nature of most sukuks, which features some quotes by Taqi Usmani:

      http://www.arabianbusiness.com/504577-most-sukuk-not-islamic-say-scholars

      It appears that some Shari’a boards overlooked non-compliant clauses in the contracts in order to foster the adoption of sukuks by the financial markets, and now they are taking another look at them. I don’t know if this applies to any of Taqi Usmani’s institutions and whether or not he considers all products he oversees to be totally Shari’a compliant.

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  9. Interesting video entitled,”Perspectives of Moral Political Economy.” By Muhammad Rafeeq of Global Vision 2000.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buAZblIg1aM&feature=player_embedded

    (info that accompanies the video)
    Muhammad Rafeeq Banking Consultant and Internet radio broadcaster

    A Banking Management consultant who has experience in the City going back over 20 years. He began his City career in the discount houses, who traditionally facilitated the issuance of the British national debt through UK Treasury bills and UK gilts. Since 1998 he has specialised in consulting to banks as a financial risk consultant and he is well versant with the original Capital Accord regimes. He was also a contributor to the UK’s first regulated Islamic Investment fund, the Al Safa Fund under the auspices of the SFA.

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