The slide show and the pitch were fairly standard in many ways, including the admonishment that "ensuring that you'll have enough income for the kind of retirement you've always dreamed of will take some forethought and effort."
But the setting, the Islamic Society of Annapolis, and the products that Bashar Qasem and three colleagues were there to discuss represent growing area for investment: mutual funds created to attract Muslims concerned about keeping with Islamic law. That means steering clear of companies whose products are off-limits -- no pork producers, for example, or liquor manufacturers or casinos -- as well as those whose reliance on borrowing puts them at odds with Islam.
Qasem, who was born in Kuwait and grew up in Jordan, learned firsthand how hard it can be to make those choices. He came to the United States at age 23 as a computer engineer. While he was working in software development and systems integration in the early 1990s, he began investing his money, working with a financial adviser. "In the countries in the Middle East, something like this wasn't really available," he said, referring to the highly regulated U.S. financial markets and their protections for investors.
What he couldn't find was much guidance for investing in accordance with his religious beliefs. Qasem eventually traveled around the world to consult with Islamic scholars, and he later trained and became licensed to work in the investment industry. "I became very, very interested given the potential of this market," he said.
Now he is president of Azzad Asset Management Inc., based in Falls Church, which offers two funds: the Azzad/Dow Jones Ethical Market Fund and the Azzad Ethical Income Fund, founded in December 2000. Another, larger fund, the Dow Jones Islamic Index Fund, a family of funds, operated by Allied Asset Advisors Inc. of Burr Ridge, Ill., was founded months before in June 2000. The oldest Islamic investment company appears to be the Amana Mutual Funds Trust of Bellingham, Wash. Amana established its first investment fund in 1986 and added another in 1994.
All three endeavors have targeted American Muslims as customers. According to a Cornell University study, there are 7 million American Muslims, with an annual population growth rate of 6 percent. And American Muslims are an affluent target group -- 26 percent of their households earning more than $100,000 a year.
"The main motivation is to provide Muslims with an investment alternative that doesn't end up compromising their faith," said Youshaa Patel, vice president of marketing for the Dow Jones Islamic fund. Like the Azzad/Dow Jones Ethical Management Fund, the Dow Jones Islamic fund takes companies that are part of the Dow Jones indexes and puts them through a filter to remove companies whose lines of business would violate sharia, or Islamic law. The Amana funds aren't pegged to the Dow Jones indexes but use a similar filter, overseen by the Leesburg-based Fiqh Council of North America, to determine which stocks are in keeping with Islamic beliefs.
In doing so, the funds are like dozens of other "socially responsible" investment funds -- mutual funds designed to help investors make money without compromising their principles. One feature of the Islamic funds is that they set limits on the amount of debt a company held by the funds can have because of the Koran's injunction against interest.
"The odd thing about this criteria is that what also ends up happening is the investments become more stable," Patel said. He noted that companies such as WorldCom Inc. had been removed from the index when their debt levels became troubling.
Although socially responsible funds have long been a part of the investment landscape, "they're a relatively small part of the market overall," said Emily Hall, a senior mutual fund analyst for the Chicago-based investment-research company Morningstar Inc. Socially responsible funds -- which include funds designed for religious groups and funds that screen investments based on environmental stewardship or filter companies that use animals for testing -- hold $12.79 billion in assets. That is only about 3.5 percent of the $3.67 trillion fund universe. In contrast, Hall said, huge individual funds such as Fidelity Magellan and the Vanguard 500 each hold more than $60 billion in assets.
The Amana funds have combined assets of $37.1 million, according to Brian Ingram of Saturna Capital Corp., which is the investment adviser to and administrator of the funds. The Dow Jones Islamic Index Funds have about $17.71 million in assets, and Azzad has about $500,000 in assets. Their investments aren't exotic. For instance, the Azzad/Dow Jones Ethical Market Fund's top three holdings are the oil companies Exxon Mobil Corp. and ChevronTexaco Corp. and consumer products manufacturer Procter & Gamble Co.
Like other funds in a down market, the Islamic funds have been struggling. In 2002 the Amana Growth Fund was down 25.17 percent -- a performance that gave it a ranking of 3,626 among 5,691 large growth funds -- and the Dow Jones Islamic Index K was down 25.05 percent, according to Morningstar. The Azzad/Dow Jones Ethical Market Fund was down 18.75 percent in 2002, according to the fund.
Azzad launched an aggressive marketing campaign about three months ago, said Qasem, providing broad financial planning advice to potential customers. It is that marketing campaign that brought Qasem and his colleagues to the Annapolis Islamic Center last Friday. They are touring the region's Islamic centers and mosques, offering advice about financial planning as well as talking about shareholder advocacy to change corporate values. Or as the slide on display in the front of the room urged: "Use the fund's investment portfolio to bring your Islamic values into corporate America and help build a better world."