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Friday, 7 September 2012

Canada: Learning Islamic finance

There’s an in-demand MBA course at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management that essentially teaches back-to-basics banking for Canadian businesses. 

Students who enroll learn the merits of being conservative with investments, ways in which their businesses can participate in this sector and will discover the theory that pushes people to save and spend wisely – a concept that has been around for centuries.

Islamic Finance is one of the quickest growing segments of the financial-services industry. Walid Hejazi, professor of International Competitiveness at Rotman, and academic director and developer of the course, says the class introduces new business perspectives to students. “It’s a tremendously misunderstood approach in Canada that has nothing to do with religion,” he says.

“Islamic finance, like conventional finance, is simply an approach to solving the economic problems we currently have. The course appeals to a wide spectrum of students, and my classroom is diverse,” says Hejazi. “The focus of the course is to provide insight into foreign investment and business opportunity in Canada. I’ve taught Christian, Jewish, Muslim students and more.”

The course – aimed at professionals who work in finance, such as controllers, accountants, investors, financial analysts, entrepreneurs and lawyers – doesn’t delve into the beliefs that Muslims hold. Instead, it focuses on attracting foreign investment, conducting business overseas and meeting the growing demand for sharia-compliant investment products in Canada (Islamic law prohibits usury). This is the only MBA course of its kind currently offered in the country, and Hejazi says he believes it offers students a leg up when sharia-compliant finance departments start getting the recognition in Canada that they have in other countries.

That’s one of the reasons Abbas Irtzia signed up for the course last winter. “I felt that getting an understanding of Islamic finance principles would give me an edge if ever I got into business dealings with parties from that region,” says the recent graduate, who is an associate at a boutique private-equity firm in Toronto. “I was very curious. Even though I lived all my life in a country that has a fair number of Islamic financial institutions, I never dug too deep to understand how exactly Islamic finance differed from conventional finance. The course was my chance to learn more about an area that has a certain sense of mystique surrounding it,” he says.

Jesse Rosensweet also took IF last winter and, after earning an A in the class, says he’d like to be involved in the development of sharia-compliant offerings to Canadian consumers and investors, whether working on regulatory issues or from the finance side. The recent MBA grad, who’s articling in corporate law at Toronto’s Aird & Berlis LLP, says Islamic finance has been on his radar for a few years. “This sector is in its infancy in Canada, so the course seemed like a great opportunity to learn about something that will continue developing in the years to come. The GTA represents the biggest potential market in Canada. Hopefully, developments in banking and securities regulation will enable financial institutions to begin offering sharia-compliant products in parallel to the conventional ones,” he says.

Irtzia, who also earned top marks in IF, agrees that it’s only a matter of time before Islamic finance is part of mainstream banking, whether it’s billed as “Islamic” finance or ethical or conservative banking. “With the growing popularity of sharia-complaint products all over the world, I think everyone attending an MBA program in Canada should give this area careful thought, as there could be many opportunities in the Canadian context going forward. I know at least one Canadian bank is already looking toward tapping into this area.”
As for professor Hejazi, he likens the misconceptions about non-Muslims being attracted to the benefits of Islamic finance products, like sharia-compliant mortgages, to enjoying a halal burger. “You don’t have to be Muslim to have one,” he says.
(The Star.Com / 06 Sept 2012)

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