Filling a Niche for Islamic Banking

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- When Fabiola Nava Carrera told her friends that she was going to pursue a master of business administration degree in Islamic finance at a Malaysian university, they were taken aback.

"I was very interested in going there to see what was going on, because I knew nothing about Asian and Islamic culture," said Ms. Carrera, a 27-year-old Mexican who had previously worked in international trade. "But my friends in Mexico couldn't believe that I wanted to go to Malaysia, because they thought that it would be too dangerous or that the culture would be too different."

Ms. Carrera went anyway. Last year, she was one of four students, three of whom were non-Muslim, who graduated from the inaugural class of the Universiti Tun Abdul Razak's Global Islamic Finance M.B.A. program in Kuala Lumpur.

Islamic finance differs from conventional banking systems in that usury and speculation are prohibited. Transactions have to comply with Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Koran, and are based on principles of risk and profit sharing.

Islamic finance is booming. According to figures from Hong Leong Islamic Bank, a financial institution in Kuala Lumpur, Islamic finance activity has been growing 14 percent per year, with Islamic finance assets exceeding $1.1 trillion in cumulative value in 2011.

Such growth has pushed more educational institutions into creating degree programs in Islamic finance. In 2005, the International Islamic University Malaysia created an Islamic banking institute that offers students Master of Science and doctoral degrees in the subject. In recent years, at least half a dozen business schools in Britain, including the University of East London and Bangor University in Wales, have set up M.B.A. programs in Islamic finance.

Ms. Carrera's alma mater, also known as Unirazak, is a rare business school located in an Islamic banking hub -- according to the school, about a quarter of financial activity in Malaysia is compliant with Islamic law and customs -- and yet foreigner-friendly.

"Malaysia is the third largest Islamic market after Saudi Arabia and Iran," said Geoffrey Alan Williams, Unirazak's deputy vice chancellor, whose jacket lapel sported a pin of the E.U. flag intertwined with the Malaysian flag. "So if you want to be in Islamic banking, you have to come here, unless you want to be in Tehran."

Unirazak's participation in the International Business School Alliance, a network of seven schools, also helps. The alliance, which Unirazak joined in 2011, allows students in member institutions to spend time in two schools and graduate with two M.B.A.'s. After one year in school, two thirds of which were spent in Bremen University of Applied Sciences in Germany and a third at Unirazak, Ms. Carrera graduated with an M.B.A. in logistics and supply chain management from the European school and an M.B.A. in Islamic finance from the Malaysian institution.

The other universities in the alliance are the University of Valencia in Spain, the University of Hertfordshire in Britain, Novancia Business School in Paris, the Institute of Business Studies in Moscow and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Each alliance member specializes in a particular area of finance and only students enrolled in their university's specialty program can attend classes at sister schools. While Unirazak also offers more conventional M.B.A. programs, students there do not have access to I.B.S.A. resources.

"Our partners were initially quite skeptical because they thought" an Islamic finance program would be risky, said Barjoyai Bardai, the program's director. "But global Islamic finance is trendy and will make an impact. A year on, I think we all feel we made the right choice."

Unirazak has had to engage a wide range of faculty members to teach the course, with a specialized lecturer for each module. Apart from trained accountants like Dr. Barjoyai, the school has brought in a Shariah scholar from Egypt.

Most students, even practicing Muslims, are unfamiliar with the basic concepts of Islamic finance.

So classes are especially vigorous, since the school needs to impart very specialized knowledge in a limited time.

For a typical module in Islamic products and services, for example, students will have 14 four-hour lectures. The classes are aimed at both familiarizing them with the history of Islamic banking products, and encouraging them to think about developing more contemporary services. Apart from lectures, students are also expected to work on their own project papers.

"It would have been easier to get an M.B.A. in something else," said Azrina Muhammad Aznan, a 28-year-old Malaysian enrolled in the program. "Other students have time to go to parties, but I have to sit down and do work."

"If you are trained in Islamic banking, you should also be able to do conventional banking," said Raja Teh Maimunah, the chief executive officer at Hong Leong Islamic Bank, who recently gave a talk to Islamic finance students at Unirazak.

The global Islamic finance master's degree at Unirazak costs students more than 61,460 Malaysian ringgit, or nearly $20,000. At 29,020 ringgit, the master's degree in leadership that Unirazak also offers costs less than half as much.

Dr. Williams, the university administrator, said the reason for the discrepancy was the standardization of prices for all programs under the I.B.S.A. aegis.

Because Islamic finance master's degree programs were developed quite recently, it is difficult to assess how successful their graduates are.

"It must be relatively new, because I don't see many of them," said Ms. Maimunah, the banker. "I can see the benefits of regular conventional bankers going through certification programs that help them understand Islamic jurisprudence. I don't know whether someone with an Islamic M.B.A. can give me something different."

She cited programs like those offered by the International Center for Education in Islamic Finance, or Inceif, an organization established by the Malaysian central bank, as ones that were particularly valued in the industry.

Noting that Unirazak collaborates regularly with Inceif, Dr. Williams insisted that such programs were complementary with his school's degrees.

"The whole industry is exploding in size, so we're not fighting with other people," he said, adding that Unirazak was preparing to roll out graduate degrees in Islamic branding and halal management in 2014. "There is so much demand, we just need to find out the right type of courses."

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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