Fatwa shopping? Not for Barclays

February 17, 2010

The limited number of Sharia scholars has meant the same
group of men are on various advisory boards which has led to criticism
that people can go “fatwa shopping” and that scholars are in it for the money.

Not so, says Harris Irfan, head of Islamic products at
Barclays Capital.

“We’re not out fatwa shopping,” he said at the Reuters
Islamic Banking and Finance Summit. “We want to work with the
scholar who’s willing to say ‘no’ (to non-Sharia products)”

A study last year by Funds at Work, a consultant for the
fund industry, looked at scholars’ engagement by financial firms
in the Gulf Arab region. It found the top 10 scholars hold about
46 percent of all available positions in the region.

Internationally, excluding the Gulf, the top 10 scholars –
out of 70 active outside the region — hold 58 percent of board
positions.

Scholars can earn up to $150,000 per project and it can take
four to six months for a Sharia-compliant project to be
developed. For the scholar, that can mean between four to six
weeks of work on a project.

It may look cushy but often these same scholars will work
for nothing to help develop standards for the industry.

And, with an average 20 advisory board positions — which
could require at least two meetings a year, typically requiring
travel — the work stacks up.

“At their age, that’s quite impressive,” Irfan says of the
scholars’ stamina.

He said conflicting rulings can come from different scholars
– reinforcing the ‘fatwa shopping’ accusation — when
institutions are not upfront with the scholar about all the
details.

“(One influential scholar) calls himself The Doctor,” Irfan
said. “He’ll say ‘if you come to the doctor with an ailment and
only tell me one part, I can’t treat you. You have to tell me
everything’ and he’s right.”

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