One of the central differences between the Islamic and conventional approaches to finance is that our own cults – which may well see a revision before the end of this crisis – ascribe supernatural powers to money. Cult specialists are at great pains to understand and control how it works, but admit that it does so in magical ways that go beyond the effects of human commerce (for the markets, too, have magical attributes, including innate goodness). Whatever we want from money, we suspect, as devotees, that in the end it will always behave as it sees fit. Our awe of it is a bit like a rapt meditation on the way the shower of gold behaves – shimmering and falling – when it cascades over Danaë in her cloister in Argos. In the story, it’s merely the form chosen by Zeus for her seduction, but in our meditation, there is no Olympian in disguise and no intention to seduce, just the metal shimmering and falling, in consummate self-expression, as deity and dogma. Islamic approaches – there are quite a few – are much closer to Nonconformist and Anglican traditions, where the divinity stands to the side of money, reminding the faithful that he is one thing and mammon another. Money, in this view, is an object of caution rather than superstition – and, in spite of its dangers, a useful tool for anyone who wants to build a respectable world, with God’s instructions pinned to the wall above the workbench.
Maybe this is why sharia-compliant products have been gaining popularity among British Muslims, even if they differ only slightly from conventional ones. Take the home-ownership scheme offered by HSBC’s sharia-compliant range, Amanah (amanah means ‘trust’ in the moral and legal sense). Muslims are forbidden to pay or receive interest and troubled by conventional lending, because it appears to put the burden of risk on the borrower not the lender: in the Islamic view, no transaction is ethical unless risk is fairly distributed between the parties. HSBC Amanah’s scheme is based on an Islamic contract known as ‘diminishing musharaka’ and it’s approved, like all HSBC Amanah’s services, by a board of sharia scholars. A would-be home-owner must put up 40 per cent of the cost price (much less before the credit crunch); the property is registered in a trust (amanah) as a jointly owned asset, with the bank’s majority ownership diminishing over an agreed period, as regular payments are made; the customer promises to buy the bank’s share, and the bank promises to sell it to the client. The property is envisaged as a set of units and the customer’s payments as twofold: one part is rental, for the right to live in it, another is a form of unit-acquisition. The trust keeps a tally of the bank’s diminishing ownership and the growing share to the customer. At term, the trust is dissolved and the home passes to the customer.