The Muhammad Ali of Islamic finance

By Mohammad Raafi Hossain, a social entrepreneurship and ethical expert.

The ‘Greatest’, Muhammad Ali, had a far-reaching impact on society beyond just the boxing ring. And as I continue to reflect on his life, I really feel there are a number of lessons that can be drawn from it as follows, even for the emerging Islamic finance industry:

1. You don’t have to be the strongest to be the greatest
Muhammad Ali was not the strongest nor the biggest heavyweight of his time. But what made him a three-time heavyweight champion of the world was his speed, agility and ingenuity in the boxing ring. He simply used his agility to outfox and outlast his more powerful opponents.

The Islamic finance industry is certainly nowhere near being the Goliath of the finance world, and as such, it can draw parallels from Ali’s agile boxing tactics. On top of that, in today’s financial landscape world, it’s a very fortuitous time to be quick and agile. With the sudden rise of the disruptive force of fintech, it’s time Islamic banks and financial services companies look to beat their more heavyweight counterparts to the punch by quickly shifting their investment priorities to the right places: youth and technology.

2. Be ‘Islamic’, but be inclusive
Muhammad Ali was a master of championing the tenets of his Islamic faith without preaching his Islamic faith. Ali emphasized his faith’s unrelenting commitment to compassion, inclusiveness and communal obligation. And not only did Ali emphasize these core tenets, he embodied them. These are the three qualities that are most sorely lacking in the conventional finance-driven economic framework that we all find ourselves trapped in today — and a system that has led to a world that is the most unequal in terms of wealth, ever.

It’s time for the leaders of the Islamic finance industry to not only market these characteristics, but to make it a part of the core values of every decision and transaction within their institution.

3. Don’t sell out: Fight the good fight
It’s easy to sell out for short-term profits and pats on the back from fellow industry colleagues. Indeed, Islamic finance has the fortune of riding the brute force of economic growth of a number of emerging markets around the world, thus showing off attractive year over year returns.
Similarly, it would have been easy for Ali, with a record of 29–0 at the time, to draft dodge just like many celebrities and politicians during his time. But Ali stood firm, was willing to accept the consequences (and did) and not relent from his obligation to stay true to his conviction.

Islamic finance really needs a leader who is willing to go the extra mile to educate shareholders and customers about their obligation to uphold the core values of Islamic finance as an ethical alternative to the harmful status quo; about the obligation to bank to those who are underbanked or unbanked; about the obligation to build the foundation for a new risk-sharing, not risk-averse, financial system where investors are rewarded for increasing economic output, not simply for having the most wealth.

Given today’s global climate, we need people like Muhammad Ali in many different sectors. Who will be the Muhammad Ali of Islamic finance, fight the good fight and take the industry (and its consumers) to new heights?

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