Islamic finance might be on a dizzying growth trajectory but Sharia scholars qualified to make rulings on complex banking and investment products remain a scarce commodity.
Often referred to as the industry's gatekeepers, scholars must give their approval before Islamic banks can launch savings schemes, offer financing and make many other business decisions.
They evaluate the compliance of all sorts of investment products including Islamic bonds and mortgages, and hold vast sway over an industry now estimated to be worth more than US$1 trillion (Dh3.67tn).
Yet observers say a shortage of qualified scholars is squeezing further growth in the industry.
According to a study in January by Funds@Work, an investment industry consultancy based in Germany, only 20 scholars occupy 54 per cent of all Sharia board seats at Islamic financial institutions globally. The top 100 scholars occupy almost all of them.
"As far as scholars go, there is definitely a lack of qualified people available," says Dr Mohammad Omar Farooq, the head of the Centre for Islamic Finance at the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance (BIBF).
"One of the biggest challenges we face is that there's no structured programme to qualify them that is recognised by the industry."
But institutions such as the BIBF and the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance in Malaysia are trying to correct that problem with a variety of new courses and degrees.
The BIBF is preparing to launch a programme for young scholars in which they take an advanced course in Islamic commercial jurisprudence followed by a period of service under the tutelage of an experienced scholar.
"There need to be programmes that are suitable and effective for the industry, and train the future generation of scholars," Dr Farooq says.
Juhaina Kasimali, the head of Islamic finance at Zawya, a regional financial information provider, says the trouble is not so much the lack of suitable scholars, but more that banks do not realise there is a growing pool of available talent.
"We've been able to identify over 300 scholars," Ms Kasimali says. "… There is a bottleneck, but that's why we want to focus on transparency and on how many scholars are really out there."
Even with more information about the entire pool of scholars, many observers say it is not clear whether banks and investment companies would choose less-experienced people.
While the top scholars are stretched thin, having one on the board, such as Sheikh Nizam Mohammed Yacoubi who sits on 85 boards, or Sheikh Dr Mohammad Ali Elgari who sits on 71, is widely seen as desirable.
"There are lot of people who are available but are not necessarily in the top rank, … [and] the demand might not be as high," Dr Farooq says. "Many banks feel that a bigger name they can display on their list of scholars somehow enhances their credibility."
With prominent scholars in demand, prices for their services can be steep. Mr Yacoubi says that in 2007 international banks paid scholars between $20,000 and $50,000 a year to sit on their Sharia boards. Industry insiders say fees vary widely depending on the experience of the scholar and the type of service offered.
"They're doing well by scholar standards," says Atif Khan, the managing director of the Ethica Institute of Islamic Finance, a school that offers Sharia training in Dubai.
"There may be three or five scholars who are millionaires but how many HSBC or Morgan Stanley bankers are millionaires? Probably every single one of them."
Efforts to strengthen the pool of qualified scholars come as educational programmes for Islamic banking professionals mushroom.
Zawya recently teamed up with Ethica to offer training in Islamic banking, joining a growing list of institutions across the globe beefing up educational standards in the sector. Ethica offers a Certified Islamic Finance Executive qualification for bankers and other financial professionals.
"The basic thing we need to focus on is the need for education," Mr Khan says. "A lot of the problems we see in the industry are symptoms of the root problem of the lack of standardised, fatwa-based education."
(The National/11 Apr 2011)
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