“Rock star” sharia scholars present legal risks for Islamic finance
Decades of parsing turgid legal documents have not dampened the enthusiasm of octogenarian Islamic scholar Sheikh Hussein Hamed Hassan. He gets agitated as he searches for a paper among piles of documents strewn across his posh Dubai office.
Wearing a dark grey suit with no tie, the Egyptian-born academic talks to a visitor for almost two hours about Islamic banking, which he has been instrumental in developing over half a century of writing and lecturing.
“Listen to me. You have to understand the basics of sharia, what’s allowed and not allowed in Islam. If you get it, then you’ll write it. And the whole world will understand,” he says.
Sheikh Hussein is one of the world’s most sought-after scholars in applying sharia or Islamic law to finance, chairing no fewer than 22 of the boards which rule on whether products and practices in the industry obey religious principles. Such scholars command great influence but their opinions, lacking definitive legal sanction, are often challenged, creating an uncertain regulatory environment. And some scholars sit on scores of boards, leaving them open to charges of conflict of interest and making it hard for them to keep up with all areas of their work.
“The big problem is that there just aren’t enough of them,” said one Dubai-based banker in the industry, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It’s a bit like being a rock star. They are disproportionately recognized, with people saying: ‘I want that name in Malaysia, I want that name in Bahrain.’”