Shariah experts push for scholar certificates

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SUKUK WATCH: Shariah-compliant bonds returned 10 percent this year, according to the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai US Dollar Sukuk Index. (Getty Images)

SUKUK WATCH: Shariah-compliant bonds returned 10 percent this year, according to the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai US Dollar Sukuk Index. (Getty Images)

Leading Islamic finance scholars are preparing the first global certification for Shariah experts, seeking to bolster the industry’s reputation and make it easier for banks to find qualified advisers.

The International Shariah Research Academy for Islamic Finance in Kuala Lumpur will pick a board of regulators by year- end to issue permits for scholars qualified to sit on Shariah boards, said Aznan Hasan, the president of the oversight committee. The scholars decide whether financial products meet the religion’s precepts, including a ban on interest payments.

“We are worried that people who aren’t qualified to be Shariah scholars may enter and become members of the advisory boards as the market flourishes,” Hasan said in an Aug. 30 interview in Kuala Lumpur. “Banks try to search for competent advisers, sometimes they get the right person, sometimes they get the wrong person.”

Attempts to set up an organization with a code of ethics to certify Islamic scholars have been frustrated by differing interpretations of Shariah law across the Muslim world, Madzlan Mohamad Hussain, a partner at Zaid Ibrahim & Co., Malaysia’s largest law firm, said in an interview on Aug. 30. Scholars are now required to have recognized university degrees before they can act as advisers to banks and companies.

The council of scholars at the academy includes Sheikh Nizam Yaquby of Bahrain, Mohammad Daud Bakar of Malaysia and Abdul Sattar Abu Ghuddah of Syria, who were all ranked among the top-10 experts in a 2008 report by Chicago-based Failaka Advisors LLC, an advisory company that monitors and publishes data on Islamic funds.

Yaquby serves on the Islamic boards of 52 institutions including New York-based Citigroup Inc. and London-based HSBC Holdings Plc. Bakar advises firms such as Paris-based BNP Paribas SA, according to the data.

“The whole idea is to further strengthen confidence by making Shariah scholars truly professional,” Madzlan said, adding that the majority of experts also have full-time careers. “The plan will materialize because there’s a need for it.”

A shortage of scholars versed in Shariah law means they tend to sit on a number of advisory boards simultaneously, which increases the risk of conflicts of interest, according to the Bahrain-based Accounting & Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions, also known as AAOIFI.

“We desperately need an institution that could certify and standardize different Islamic products in the market,” Kaleem Iqbal, a senior executive vice president at Al Baraka Islamic, a unit of Bahrain-based Albaraka Banking Group, said in an interview yesterday from Islamabad. “The banking community will certainly welcome a common platform with a global mandate.”

Shariah-compliant bonds returned 10 percent this year, according to the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai US Dollar Sukuk Index, while debt in developing markets gained 12.5 percent, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global Diversified Index shows. The Islamic notes rose 1.3 percent in August after a 2.6 percent increase a month earlier.

The spread between the average yield for emerging-market sukuk and the London interbank offered rate narrowed 16 basis points, or 0.16 percentage point, to 385 last month, according to the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai US Dollar Sukuk Index.

Global sales of sukuk dropped 13 percent to $10.1 billion so far this year, compared with the same period in 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The yield on Malaysia’s 3.928 percent government Islamic note was little changed at 2.72 percent today and dropped 21 basis points from the end of July, according to prices from Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc. It reached a record-low of 2.63 percent on Aug. 24.

The Islamic finance industry, with $1 trillion in assets, is facing a challenge to develop global standards to attract funds from the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

AAOIFI, whose standards have been adopted in countries including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, is proposing rules for scholars to reduce the risk of conflicts of interest, Mohamad Nedal Alchaar, the secretary-general of the organization, said in an interview on Aug. 5 in Kuala Lumpur.

The guidelines by AAOIFI may address whether Shariah scholars can own shares in the institutions they serve and how many advisory boards they can join, he said.

A centralized regulator for scholars will help increase investment because banks would save time in choosing experts to ensure products meet religious principles, said the academy’s Hasan, who also serves on the Shariah board of Malaysia’s central bank. The institution doesn’t plan to restrict scholars on the number of advisory panels they can join, he said.

“Global regulation is beneficial, be that through a test of fit and proper criteria as to what makes one qualify as a scholar,” Omar Shaikh, a board member of the Glasgow-based Islamic Finance Council U.K., said in an e-mail yesterday. “The challenge will be on the operational execution of this and the acceptance, use by global regulatory bodies.” (Bloomberg)--

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