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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Islamic laws of finance a cushion in hard times

The recession gripping the nation has taken less of a toll on American Muslims who follow age-old Islamic laws against paying – or charging – interest.
They've also been shielded by socially responsible retirement plans because Shariah– Islamic law – forbids investments in banks and mortgages as well as tobacco, alcohol, gambling, pornography or weapons.
"If everybody was Shariah-compliant, there would be no recession," said Farouk Fakira, a Yemeni immigrant who moderated a discussion on Islamic finance at Sacramento's Masjid Annur last week.
Fakira, 57, rents a home – like hundreds of other local Muslims – because "interest is pretty much forbidden. If you're making money off of money, the only person who benefits is you."
Shariah – 1,400 years of Islamic legal knowledge based on the words of the Prophet Muhammad – guides Muslims in daily life, said Imam Muhammed Abdul Azeez of Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims, or SALAM.
Shariah prohibits usury, which often took advantage of a desperate person who needed to feed or protect his family, Azeez said. "There's an element of exploitation here."
The bottom line for many Muslims is, "if I don't have the money to buy something, that means I can't afford it," said Deya Dean Elghassein, who's Palestinian American.
His family helped him buy his home in Folsom with cash. "I do use credit cards, but they have to be paid off in full at the end of the month," he said. He wouldn't invest in Costco because it sells pork and alcohol, but he and others shop there "out of necessity."
About 20 percent of the Sacramento area's 50,000 American Muslims closely follow Islamic rules of finance – especially the prohibition against interest – said Irfan Haq, an economist who's president of the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations , an umbrella organization representing 10 mosques.
"Muslims in general have been much less affected by the recession because they're very cautious and conservative in matters of finance and take a longer-term view of life," Haq said. "They want to invest their funds in a way that pleases God so they can sleep peacefully – they care about the afterlife."
Along with avoiding interest, another tenet of Islamic finance is not to invest in enterprises that violate Shariah: alcohol, gambling, banking and weapons. Azeez counsels his Muslim flock not to buy businesses that sell alcohol because "you cannot be in the business of spreading sin: Drunk driving kills."
Mohammed Memon, a Pakistani American project manager for Oracle in Rocklin, has a 401(k) through Amana Mutual Funds – a Shariah-compliant fund based in Bellingham, Wash.
"They're relatively better than other funds; I'm down 15 to 20 percent while many of my friends are down over 50 percent," said Memon, 38.
Amana's income and growth funds avoid bonds and interest-paying securities.
"We screen about 5,500 stocks a month for our 75,000 shareholders, and 2,200 to 2,400 pass," said portfolio manager Nick Kaiser. "The growth fund's biggest holding is Apple Computer. We buy technology, health care stocks and stocks with low debt. The income fund focuses on drug companies, energy stocks, mining."
Shariah also prohibits gharar – the Arabic word for uncertainty or risk – and maysir – gambling – which includes real estate speculation.
Metwalli Amer, founder of SALAM, said he knows Muslims who speculated in real estate and lost their shirts.
Amer, 75, said Islamic finance is about living within your means and helping the needy. "If Muslims had followed that, we'd be much better off," said Amer, an Egyptian immigrant.
But he said the majority of Muslims he knows "became greedy."
Islam doesn't prohibit wealth as long as you give back, he said. "The Quran promotes going into business and trading ventures that share the profits and loss."
Amer said one Sacramento Muslim who was able to become a millionaire while adhering to Islamic financial principles is Kais Menoufy.
(The Sacramento Bee)

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