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Book Review: 'Heaven's Bankers: Inside the Hidden World of Islamic Finance', By Harris Irfan

12/11/2014 10:43 GMT | Updated 11/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Given that transparency is the one thing most people want from financial institutions in the post recession era, a book whose title evokes secrecy may be somewhat of a repellent. And yet Harris Irfan's work is perhaps the most accessible insight into a maligned and mysterious industry.

Detractors of Islamic finance see it as nothing more than a utopian dream with some prevaricating the idea that it provides a revenue stream to fund terrorism. Supporters on the other hand believe it could be a potential saviour against the high priests of neo-liberal thinking and their disciples who almost brought down the world's financial system.

Irfan does well to steer clear of these extreme divides to provide a neutral and riveting account from the perspective of someone who worked alongside all the major players in Islamic finance over the past two decades. In doing so his work is enlightening for the masses many of whom have yet to come to terms with how Islamic finance is distinct from conventional banking.

But as Irfan shows this is not just the lay man's dilemma.

This battle for compliance is a constant theme of Heaven's Bankers but my no means exclusive to either the doers or thinkers.

Deals in Islamic finance are not supposed to guarantee repayment to any one party and a sharing of the risk is imperative to its character. The question of how to find the balance and curry favour with western investors and institutions is still very much alive. For example should the entrance of Goldman Sach's (the very symbol of the ills and evils of Western investment banks) be seen as a dilution of a pure concept or is it an opportunity and confirmation of the success of Islamic finance?

Given the highly technical nature of the subject Irfan does well to explain the necessary concepts without getting pre-occupied by the sometimes head spinning financial schemes. The main thrust of the narrative plays out throughout the sentiments and actions of the major thinkers and doers; men and women who were there from the start. There are religious scholars, academics, experienced bankers and young western upstarts wanting fortune and a hand in altering the financial landscape.

The Samadites, who sounds like some ancient biblical sect, are a major component of this. Consisting of two CEOs of Islamic institutions and five of the world's leading Islamic bankers and lawyers as well as their staff, they form the congregation of the Masjid al-Samad in Dubai.

Known in the Arabic as the House of Wisdom, the gathering is a contemporary equivalent of the famous institute at Baghdad that housed the cream of the crop during the 'golden age' of the Muslims.

But if these guys are the doers then those looking in from a distance are by no means inferior and often intellectual giants in their own right. Take the esteemed Mufti Taqi Usmani. His opinions have had major implications on sentiment within the sector. The Pakistani scholar is described as the Moody's of Islamic finance. His announcement that most Sukuk's (Islamic Bonds) were actually not that Islamic caused consternation throughout the industry.

The author's exploration of the psychological phenomenons and human traits of those working and defining Islamic finance gives a nice sub-plot. Irfan himself is not immune from the diagnosis as he touches upon his own demons, leading to him being diagnosed with cognitive dissonance.

Islamic finance remains an untamed beast with no clear definition. A simple way of looking at the Islamic finance model is in relation to its more widespread mainstream equivalent. Essentially Islamic finance is an equity based model where as mainstream finance is reliant on debt.

There is little doubt that the more the industry grows the more it does so by an increasing compromise of it's once core principles.

Much less than beings of heavenly disposition Irfan's cast come across as mere mortals as he says "not totally convinced or sure of their offerings and often working against the grain of consumer and commercial demand."

Despite its tentative position Islamic finance may well have a huge part to play in the future of global finance. As mentioned by one of Irfan's main characters when asset managers look to the real economy and equity triumphs over debt Islamic finance will come back.

If this is the case then Heaven's Bankers may be more than just a good read and will become a major primary source for historians and financiers in researching and understanding this fascinating area.