Finance & Banking

THE 3 SUCCESSFUL SHARI’A ADVISORS DR. EHSAANULLAH AGHA

“Booming Islamic bond market embroiled in a debate over
religious compliance” this was the headline of World-Wide
Religious News on January 11, 2008. Financial Times further
reported that in 2007, Sheikh Muhammad Taqī ʿUsmānī,
chairman of AAOIFI Sharīʿah board sent shockwaves through
the Islamic financial world with a statement that threatened
to bring the fast-growing sukuk market to a standstill. He
estimated that 85 per cent of sukuk (based on mushārakah
and mudhārabah) have been sold with repurchase agreements
and believed that the promise to pay back the capital runs
counter to Islamic law. This event exemplifies the critical
and strategic role of Shari’a scholars in the Islamic finance
industry

In fact, the role of Shari’a advisors resembles the function
of a thermostat in the sense that they regulate the overall
ecosystem of Islamic finance with their acute Shari’a
opinions and recommendations. Unlike a thermometer
that quickly reacts to the temperature around it, the highly
effective Shari’a advisors critically analyse an existing
phenomenon and adjust it according to the future direction
of the industry. Their guidance navigates the industry as a
compass in a rapidly globalising, often polarising world facing
regulatory, commercial and social challenges. For the sake of
understanding the skills required for this type of leadership
and Shari’a intelligence, the author interviewed famous
Shari’a advisors including Sheikh Taqī ʿUsmanī and Dr. Nizām
Yʿaqubī. To further substantiate the findings, a few leading
practitioners comprising of Islamic bankers, regulators
and standard setters were also interviewed. The findings
indicate that there are three common skills of successful
Shari’a advisors. For the purpose of this research, a skill is
defined as “the ability acquired through rigorous training,
diverse knowledge and deliberate experience to effectively
and efficiently perform a complex activity or job function
assigned to a Shari’a advisor/consultant”.

  1. Interdisciplinary Knowledge

Islamic finance is a multifaceted field, which entails integration
of insights from a number of disciplines. The interviewed
experts unanimously agreed that a successful Shari’a advisor
should be equipped with interdisciplinary knowledge and
skills. This is due to the fact that the Shari’a advisory
profession deals with problems requiring analysis and
synthesis across Islamic studies, economics, finance, law,
accounting, social and environmental spheres.
It is observed that the top-tier Shari’a minds who are welltrained in various disciplines are excellent in articulating
Shari’a rules, critical thinking, conflict and cognitive bias
management and creative solution. This is evidenced in
their thoughtful Shari’a analysis of sophisticated financial
transactions and their ability to immediately construct
understanding of technical aspects embedded in a proposed
product1.

A research showed2 that a rigorous interdisciplinary
understanding develops three cognitive attributes; (1)
perspective-taking techniques (in case of Islamic finance,
the capacity of a Shari’a Scholar to understand multiple
viewpoints on a given topic in a board meeting), (2)
structural knowledge (comprehending factual information
of a financial product and procedural detail of its execution)
and (3) integration of conflicting insights from relevant
disciplines and skill. In this vein, Sheikh Taqī ‘Usmānī,
chairman of AAOIFI Sharīʿah board particularly accentuated
the importance of ‘discernment’ in critical analysis of a
financial contract in the right context keeping in view the
terms and conditions applied. This skill is developed by a
specialisation in Islamic financial jurisprudence coupled with
interdisciplinary learning from banking, finance, economics,
law, corporate governance, management science and
IT. Consequently, the combined knowledge will enable
the scholars to understand the dynamics of the business
model, the requirement of the client they are serving, and
the operative legal and regulatory framework. The multilayer lens will also allow them to timely recognise the social,
economic and environmental implications of their fatwa and
Shari’a resolutions. A Shari’a advisor who can think like an
economist, analyse like a financial analyst and argue like a
lawyer will certainly make an effective and efficient Shari’a
decision.

  1. Business Communication Proficiency
    According to a 2016 LinkedIn survey, oral and written
    communication proficiency consistently topped the most
    sought-after soft skills among employers3. In fact, highpowered business executives sometimes hire consultants to
    coach them in sharpening their communication skills4. For
    that very reason, the skill of effective communication was
    also emphasised by the interviewed experts as the second
    most useful soft skill for a successful Shari’a advisor.

In the context of a Shari’a advisory business, an effective
communication skill can be described as a two-fold process;
first, comprehending the purpose and behaviour of a
financial product/query as presented to a Shari’a advisor,
and second, eloquently articulating the Shari’a principles
and rulings pertaining to the enquired case in an engaging
and deliberated way without jeopardising the sprite of
Islamic law. In addition to the Arabic language as a tool for
mastering the sources of Shari’a, a scholar is also required to be fluent in international business languages such as English,
French etc. A Shari’a advisor who is skilled in intercultural
communication will not only be able to work productively
in the multi-cultural industry of Islamic finance, but can also
appreciate differing values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours,
to anticipate, act, and react in appropriate ways to produce
the most effective results.5

A CEO of a global Islamic finance consultancy firm stated
that the lack of effective communication and cultural gap, do
not only impair the outcome of a Shari’a decision but creates
a perception that undermines the credibility of the scholars.
At the same time, Shari’a scholars shall also remain vigilant
of the “eloquence bias” where the advisory seeker might
misframe a case with his persuasive speaking or writing
talent. Since a Shari’a opinion relies on the information
presented, The Prophet (peace be upon him), categorically
warned about the hazard of eloquence bias as he stated
“may be some one amongst you can present his case in a
more eloquent and convincing manner than the other, and
I give my judgment in his favour according to what I hear.
Beware! If ever I give (by error) somebody something of his
brother’s right, then he should not take it as I have only given
him a piece of fire” (Mishkat Hadith No. 638. Vol. 3).

  1. Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
    With the rise of fintech in the fourth industrial revolution;
    automation, blockchain, artificial intelligence and robot
    technology are disrupting demand and the nature of existing
    jobs and skills in the financial industry. According to the
    World Economic Forum Report (2018) on the future of jobs,
    various functions in the financial services sector are set to be
    significantly replaced by machine labour in the near future.
    To be relevant in the era of disruptive technologies, the
    scholars should lead with an agile and nimble mindset – a
    mentality that believes in adaptability to change, learning
    through failures, and encouraging feedback – to bring in
    consistent improvement, and coaching the young Shari’a
    scholars. An agile Shari’a advisor can easily combine velocity
    and adaptability with stability and efficiency

Dr. Daud Baker, chairman of Sharīʿah Advisory Council of
Bank Negara Malaysia stated “a scholar cannot work in selfimposed reality, which is different from what is happening on
the ground….in real practice, a Shari’a scholar requires acute
intelligence, sensitive antenna and nimbleness of footing”6.
To develop this type of personality, Dr. Nizām Yʿaqubī and
other experts suggested the habit of continuing professional
development (CPD). As a career-long obligation for practicing
professionals, CPD stands for an ongoing self-made process
for professional skills development through formal training
or informal learning at the job. It leads to increased public
confidence in Shari’a scholars so they can deliver high quality
of Shari’a advisory services that safeguard the public interest
(maṣlaḥah) and meet the expectations of their clients and the
requirements of Islamic financial institutions.

It is narrated that the famous Ḥanafī jurist Imām Muhammad
used to visit the markets in order to understand the current
commercial trends. This reflects the fact that a Shari’a ruling
given by a scholar in a certain case, might change when the
presumed relevant conditions change with the passage time. As an established principle in Islamic jurisprudence, “evolution of Shari’a rulings (based upon a custom and ijtihad) due to changing time is not to be denied”7. In this
connection Ibn Al-Qayyim rightly stated “pronouncement on issues changes with
time, place, conditions, and results. Ignorance of this causes an injustice to Shari’a,
and has thus creates difficulties, hardships, and requirements to which there is no
path”8. There are various cases in the Islamic finance industry where the Shari’a
ruling has been changed from permissibility to prohibition and vice versa as a result
of changes occurred in the subject matter. This is why successful Shari’a advisors
are consistently involved in a self-designed CPD to make themselves relevant and
abreast of the changing trends and directions in the industry.

Conclusion
Ibn Rushd, the famous Muslim jurist and Andalusian philosopher described a
qualified scholar who is equipped with skills of a cobbler and not just by memorising
views of different scholars. As much as a person cannot become a cobbler by
owning a large number of shoes neither the one who only makes a specific pair of
shoes. Rather, he is skilled enough to make shoes according to the size and choice
of the customers. As a matter of fact, the leading Shari’a advisors are not heavily
paid for the amount of knowledge they possess, but for the value they create from
their knowledge and expertise for the benefit of the organisations, society and
humanity as a whole. It is equally important for the young generation of Shari’a
advisors to remain productive, agile, skilled and resourceful in the era of disruptive
technologies by being mindful of the Qurānic principle “as for the foam (on the
water), it passes away (as) scum, and as for what benefits mankind, remains in the
earth” (13:17).

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