In a rapidly evolving world where the concept of sustainability has gained paramount importance, the intersection of Islamic finance (IF) and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles has emerged as a topic of great significance. I recently had the privilege of attending a thought-provoking session at the Global Ethical Finance Initiative (GEFI) SDG Hive, where experts like Dr. Hayat Sindi, Tan Sri Azman Mokthar, and Dr. Akram Laldin discussed the integration of IF with SDGs. Here, I’d like to reflect on the key takeaways from this enlightening session titled – “How Islamic finance and its approach can be integrated with the wider ESG movement; what can each discipline learn from the other?”
Understanding Halal and Tayyib: Tan Sri Azman set the stage by elucidating the Islamic concepts of “halal” (permissible) and “tayyib” (pure and wholesome). While “halal” addresses what is allowed, “tayyib” goes further by encompassing the idea of doing no harm. This holistic perspective, deeply rooted in Islamic values, resonates with the principles of responsible and impact investing. It emphasizes the importance of not just complying with religious guidelines but also considering the broader societal and environmental impact of financial decisions.
The Historical Evolution of Islamic Finance: A historical overview by Tan Sri Azman revealed that Islamic finance traces its roots back to the 13th century but gained prominence in the 20th century, particularly in post-colonial economies like Malaysia. Malaysia’s journey from a halal-based economy to one with trillions of Islamic assets underscores the substantial growth in this sector. However, it also raises questions about whether this growth adequately addresses issues of substance, sustainability, and inclusivity.
Shariah Principles and Innovation: Dr. Akram elaborated on the core principles of Shariah in financial transactions, emphasizing that innovations are allowed as long as they do not contradict the Quran and Sunnah. This flexibility allows for creative financial solutions. However, the focus shouldn’t merely be on whether a transaction is “halal.” We must delve deeper and assess its environmental and social impact.
ESG and Shariah Compliance: Dr. Akram highlighted the commonalities between ESG criteria and Shariah principles, noting that both aim to promote ethical and responsible behaviour. While ESG criteria are generally considered compliant with Islamic finance, the challenge lies in implementing them consistently across different jurisdictions. Achieving standardization in this regard remains an ongoing effort.
Language and Inclusivity: A crucial point raised during the Q&A session was about language and inclusivity. Ms Modupe Ladipo noted that using Arabic terminology often excludes people and suggested the use of more inclusive language. Dr. Akram’s response emphasized the adaptability of Islamic finance terminologies to local contexts. Rachel A. Aron stressed the importance of outreach programs to promote understanding, understanding the existing framework, and engaging the regulators in those countries was important.
Shared Values and Positive Impact: The discussion also touched on shared values and positive impact. It was intriguing to learn how different faiths are shifting their perspectives on financial matters, moving from a focus on avoiding harm to actively seeking positive impacts. This shift is reflected in various initiatives, including investment in small businesses and the issuance of ESG-compliant bonds by churches.
Project Tayyib: Omar Shaikh highlighted that Project Tayyib was set to launch at COP28. The goal is to launch the first Islamic asset management kitemark, which asset managers can aim for and achieve provided they adhere to ESG investment best practises while remaining Shariah compliant and would cover four asset classes.
Responsible Banking: Andy Homer of Gatehouse Bank spoke about its Woodland account. He explained that for every such account opened, the bank plants a tree in the customer’s name. I found this really interesting especially when he said customers often drove to different locations within the UK to visit their trees.
The SDG Hive session on Islamic Finance and ESG provided valuable insights into the evolving landscape of responsible and sustainable finance. It reinforced for me the tremendous opportunity at the intersection of faith and finance. It underscored the need for Islamic finance to go beyond mere compliance and focus on the broader impact of financial decisions. Additionally, the session highlighted the potential for collaboration and the need for faith voices to be present in sustainability conversations. It is evident that the convergence of Islamic finance and ESG principles holds great promise for creating a more inclusive, sustainable, and ethically responsible financial ecosystem.