A Financial Model Fit for Islam

Sohel Ahmed reads an article in a Herndon class for Muslim social service workers.
Sohel Ahmed reads an article in a Herndon class for Muslim social service workers. (By Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006

The business class had just finished its evening prayer break, and everyone's shoes were back on.

"Okay, now let's talk about program development," Iqbal Unus told the 12 Muslim students taking his spring Non-Profit Management course at the Islam-oriented Fairfax Institute in Herndon.

Unus, a former nuclear scientist from Pakistan, took the class of social service workers through a series of business-building principles, including the importance of consulting, planning and using effective communication.

And he explained the most essential reason why they, as Muslims looking to grow their organizations, should master these ideas: because it honors God to do business by his teaching.

"It's a religious obligation, not just a business obligation" he said, as suras , or sections of the Koran, and hadith , or sayings of the prophet Muhammad, flashed on the projection screen.

Management and investing courses at the three-year-old institute are an example of what scholars say is a new phase for the U.S. Muslim immigrant community, which once consisted mostly of engineers, academics, doctors and other professionals. As the community grows larger and more heavily populated by business people, it is creating its own financial culture.

The trend is part of an effort to build an indigenous "American Islam," said Yvonne Haddad, who studies Islam in the West and teaches the history of the faith at Georgetown University. Muslim immigrants, who began coming to the United States in large numbers in the 1960s and '70s, "are trying to engage in the economic sphere . . . and this is an effort to help them feel comfortable engaging in business."

The market for faith-based business philosophy in general has grown in the past decade, with such books as "Jesus, CEO" and "Moses and Management" and multimedia programs such as "Lead Like Jesus," which, according to the company that produces them, have been seen by a half-million people.

But Islam has its own detailed system of business ethics, including a ban on interest-bearing loans and stocks and aversions to debt, hording and overvaluing. And it is becoming more of an issue as Muslims' affluence and interest in business grows -- something visible in classes such as the Fairfax Institute's and in the appearance of Islam-friendly mutual funds and establishment of Islamic finance programs at universities such as Rice in Houston and James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va.

"In Islam, business is like everything else -- it is an act of worship. If I treat customers fairly, I've engaged in an act of worship," said Rafik Beekun, a management professor at the University of Nevada at Reno who specializes in Islamic finance and business ethics. Although Muslim-owned businesses and social service organizations are now asking for his guidance, it wasn't always that way, he said.

"Fifteen years ago, when I started talking to Muslim organizations like mosques about the need to be more efficient and effective, people would laugh at me," he said, because they considered it a non-issue. Today, he said, the interest in Islamic-style business is evident.

According to a 2002 Cornell University study, the U.S. Muslim population is about 7 million, with an annual growth rate of 6 percent. In the Washington area, that has meant a crop of new social service agencies, mosques and businesses to serve the community, Unus said. "There is much more of a focus on strategic planning now," he said, including writing vision statements.

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