Islamic finance may face its biggest shake-up in years as a top standard-setting body seeks to reform the way the industry does business, including the role of highly paid scholars in enforcing religious principles.
Khaled Al Fakih, the new secretary-general of the Bahrain-based Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI), outlined plans for a sweeping review of its guidelines in an interview with Reuters.
Some of AAOIFI's reforms may prove controversial by challenging entrenched interests in the fast-growing business. Islamic financial assets hit $1.3 trillion globally last year, a 150 percent rise in the past five years as the industry expanded beyond core markets in the Middle East and Malaysia, financial lobby group TheCityUK estimates.
"We would like to see insightful debate...that can help us develop standards that can benefit the industry," Fakih said by email from Bahrain, ahead of AAOIFI's annual meeting there on May 7 and 8.
His organisation plans to start consultations on reforming the operations of sharia boards, the groups of Islamic scholars which rule on whether financial institutions' activities and products are religiously acceptable, by the middle of this year.
A final draft of the reforms is not expected to be ready before the end of next year at the earliest.
AAOIFI will also work on a new framework for disclosing financial data, and will look at revising standards for takaful (Islamic insurance), investment accounts and other products.
Fakih, a Lebanese-born commercial banker who took over at AAOIFI in February, said basic elements of Islamic finance such as murabaha, mudaraba and ijara - structures designed to permit investment while obeying religious bans on paying interest and pure monetary speculation - would be reviewed next year.
For many in the industry, AAOIFI's review cannot come too soon. Although far smaller than conventional banking, which has tens of trillions of dollars of assets, Islamic finance has grown much more quickly in the last few years, so its flaws could start to affect banking systems and economies.
Much of its growth has occurred because it can count on the support of large pools of sharia-compliant funds in the booming Gulf and southeast Asia, which have not pulled back during the global financial crisis as Western funds have.