FaithWorld

In Kabul’s only synagogue, Afghan merchants open up shop

(An Afghan woman clad in burqa and her daughter walks past a restaurant built inside part of the only synagogue building in Kabul, June 1, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

A lattice of corrugated iron Star of Davids marks Afghanistan’s only working synagogue, a white-washed, two-storey building tucked into a sidestreet in the centre of Kabul. Kebabs, carpets and flowers are served and sold on the ground floor of the synagogue, which has been transformed into businesses over the last 18 months by the country’s sole remaining Jew, who lives upstairs in a small pink room.

Cafe manager Sayed Ahmad is unfazed by his small cafe’s history, where Kabul’s hundreds-strong Jewish community once gathered for prayers. Most fled to Israel and the United States amid the Soviet invasion of 1979. “Some of my customers know this is the synagogue and know about the Jew upstairs, but they don’t care and neither do I,” Ahmad told Reuters in his cafe, where bearded men on purple cushions puff on water pipes and eat traditional Afghan food.

The firebrand anti-Semitism found in some other Muslim countries, often fuelled by anti-Israeli sentiment, seems noticeably absent among ordinary Afghans. “I pray my way and he prays his way. I see him as a friend, someone to spend time with,” Ahmad said of his landlord, sitting beside large black and silver wall-hangings depicting Mecca.

Zebulon Simentov, who chose to stay behind when his wife and children emigrated to Israel, has been known to conduct services in the upstairs of the synagogue for visiting Jews even though he is not a rabbi.

Oy Gevalt! Yiddish cell phone launches in Israel

("Kosher" cellular phones, imported and distributed by Israeli Accel Telecom, are displayed at the company's offices in Tel Aviv May 2, 2011/Nir Elias)

Israel’s “kosher” cellular phone market has a new model, a device with a Yiddish interface to help devout Jews combine tradition with modern technology.

Hundreds of thousands of mobile phones, popularly dubbed kosher because they block access to services frowned upon by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, have been operating in the Jewish state for years. Last month, Israel’s second largest mobile provider, Partner introduced what it hailed as the world’s first Yiddish cell phone, manufactured by Alcatel-Lucent.

International investors fear anti-market regime in Egypt

cairo bank

(People queue to make withdrawals outside Cairo Bank in downtown Cairo February 6, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

International investors fear protests against Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak could spill over to other Arab countries, leading to regimes more hostile to western investment practices in the region and the introduction of more Islamic economic rules. They also express concern about the future role of businesses run by Coptic Christians in Egypt.

“Egypt has long been one of the most tolerant countries toward multiple faiths (in the Muslim world),” said Donald Elefson, co-lead portfolio manager at Harding Loevner Funds, with $210 million under management. “The Coptic Christians are still very powerful, though they are a minority, and there are many large-scale businesses that are owned by Coptic families. The only risk for the business environment would be if Egypt becomes a sharia state.”

Russian firm plans halal reindeer meat exports to Qatar

reindeer (Photo: A Nenets tribesman and his  herd of reindeers on the Yamal peninsula, north of the polar circle, August 4, 2009/Denis Sinyakov)

When rival energy producers Russia and Qatar talk business, it’s no longer only about natural gas — they’re talking reindeer meat, which Russia has promised to export and butcher according to Muslim dietary law. The prospect of Russia exporting halal reindeer meat products to the desert kingdom first came up last month when the governor of Russia’s Arctic Yamal Nenets region, where most of Russia’s gas is produced, was in Qatar for investment talks.

“We told the Qatari leadership that we don’t only have oil and gas. We also have reindeer. And then a Sheikh asked, ‘Is reindeer halal? Can Muslims eat it?’ It turns out they can,” Yamal’s governor Dmitry Kobylkin told Reuters in an interview. “They were so surprised to learn there exists another kind of meat that they haven’t tried and that it can be halal. Gold mining is interesting for them, gas, infrastructure, and now investment in halal reindeer meat processing,” Kobylkin said.

After consulting with the imam of the Salekhard Mosque in Yamal’s capital, the state-owned Yamal Reindeer Cmpany that will produce the meat  decided it should  also market halal canned reindeer within Russia.

Mecca hopes to revive pilgrim tourism during haj

mecca (Photo: Muslims shop outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, September 15, 2009/Fahad Shadeed)

Rashed Abdullah displays Oriental perfumes on a glass table to late-night shoppers in his small shop in Mecca ready for what he hopes will be a sales bonanza during this month’s haj pilgrimage. He is confident of attracting customers after fears of a swine flu outbreak kept many away last year.

“This year will be the best. There is really strong demand,” he said, standing behind an incense collection in one of dozens souvenir shops around the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Business has picked up in Islam’s holiest city since Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month which fell in August and September when many visit Mecca. In 2009, the number of pilgrims fell to about 2.5 million but a record 4 million are expected next week when the haj begins.

Short of talent, Islamic finance taps women scholars

malaysia islamic finance (Photo: Islamic Financial Centre booth at Malaysia’s Central Bank – High Level Conference 2009 in Kuala Lumpur February 10, 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)

When Malaysian Aida Othman signed up for the new law programme at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, she did not expect to become one the few women with their hands on the levers of the world’s $1 trillion Islamic finance sector.

Rising global demand for scholars who can advise firms on compliance with Islamic legal principles called sharia is behind the quiet and almost accidental way in which women are growing into a small but powerful force in a male-dominated business.

“There are not many women involved my job,” Aida, who manages the sharia advisory practice at Malaysia’s biggest law firm, told Reuters. “I’m glad to be able to show to young graduates and young scholars in my field if you’re interested enough there is a way into sharia advisory,” the 41-year-old, who went on to study at Cambridge and Harvard, said.

Mideast banks, funds seek to tap Muslim women’s wealth

women banking (Photos: One of Dubai Islamic Bank’s women-only branches in Deira, October 26, 2010./Jumana El-Heloueh)

Emirati housewife Sarah Alzarouni brushed past a group of women clad in floor-length black robes, some with only their eyes showing, to enter through the frosted doors of one of Dubai Islamic Bank’s women-only branches. Clutching a Louis Vuitton bag to match her designer head scarf, Alzarouni greeted the female tellers and bank manager with three kisses on the cheek and sat down to do business.

“I am much more comfortable working with ladies than in a mixed environment,” Alzarouni, 27, said. “When I come here, I feel like one of them. They understand my needs and I can move freely, not having to always think where I am and whether my (scarf) has moved. As a Muslim, it is really important for me to deal with an Islamic bank. “

Many affluent Muslim women share Alzarouni’s sentiments and they are increasingly turning to Islamic banks to manage their money. These women are looking beyond basic banking services to sophisticated products to grow their wealth while complying with Islamic principals that include a ban on interest.

Islamic finance relies on too few of its scholars

saudi traderThe Islamic finance industry is not short of qualified sharia scholars to meet growing demand, but it relies too heavily on a handful of them, limiting growth potential and raising regulatory concerns, experts say.

Islamic finance experts have previously said the nearly $1 trillion industry is struggling to find scholars with the business acumen, technology and language skills necessary to help the sector evolve. (Photo: A trader at the Saudi Investment Bank in Riyadh, March 18, 2008/Fahad Shadeed)

But consultancy Funds@Work found that more than 300 scholars sit on the sharia boards of Islamic institutions. However, it said that just 20 of these scholars appear on 54 percent of such boards.

Taiwan Buddhist charity Tzu Chi sets up shop in atheist China

charity 1China’s ruling Communist Party has a testy and often bitter relationship with religion.  During the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, temples and churches were shut, statues smashed, scriptures burned, and monks and nuns forced to return to secular life, often after receiving a good beating or even jail. (Photo: Suzhou, June 10, 2005/Thierry Roge)

While the officially atheist Communist Party hardly pushes religion these days, its attitude has softened considerably, though rights groups frequently complain of sometimes harsh restrictions on Christians and Muslims especially.

On Friday, the Taiwanese Buddhist charity the Tzu Chi Foundation opened its Chinese chapter, in the historic eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, perhaps better known in the outside world for its stunning gardens. Officials say Tzu Chi is the first overseas non-governmental organisation to receive the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ blessing to operate in China. Normally they have to register with the Commerce Ministry as businesses.

In Islamic Iran, unofficial prayer sellers’ trade is booming

prayerIn Islamic Iran where clerics rule, unofficial “prayer sellers,” who promise to intercede with the divine to solve all manner of life’s problems, are seeing their business boom.  Backstreet spiritual guides like YaAli are tolerated by the authorities and increasingly sought after by Iranians seeking help from on high.

“People from all walks of life — mostly young women — come here asking for prayers that can solve their problems,” says YaAli sitting on a chair in a crumbly old alley in Tehran.  “There are lots of methods depending on the problems. Some prayers (written on a piece of paper) should be burned and some should be put in a bowl of water. You should follow the instructions.”

Iran’s clerics believe in the power of prayer but they advise people against using prayers that lack a religious basis. One customer said she believed a lack of government support for women was one reason so many turn to the “prayer sellers.”