Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Financial Model Fit for IslamStudents Look to Weave Strict Codes Into Business Life
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006;

The business class had just finished its evening prayer break, and everyone's shoes were back on.
"Okay, now let's talk about program development," Iqbal Unus told the 12 Muslim students taking his spring Non-Profit Management course at the Islam-oriented Fairfax Institute in Herndon.
Unus, a former nuclear scientist from Pakistan, took the class of social service workers through a series of business-building principles, including the importance of consulting, planning and using effective communication.
And he explained the most essential reason why they, as Muslims looking to grow their organizations, should master these ideas: because it honors God to do business by his teaching.
"It's a religious obligation, not just a business obligation" he said, as suras , or sections of the Koran, and hadith , or sayings of the prophet Muhammad, flashed on the projection screen.
Management and investing courses at the three-year-old institute are an example of what scholars say is a new phase for the U.S. Muslim immigrant community, which once consisted mostly of engineers, academics, doctors and other professionals. As the community grows larger and more heavily populated by business people, it is creating its own financial culture.
The trend is part of an effort to build an indigenous "American Islam," said Yvonne Haddad, who studies Islam in the West and teaches the history of the faith at Georgetown University. Muslim immigrants, who began coming to the United States in large numbers in the 1960s and '70s, "are trying to engage in the economic sphere . . . and this is an effort to help them feel comfortable engaging in business."
The market for faith-based business philosophy in general has grown in the past decade, with such books as "Jesus, CEO" and "Moses and Management" and multimedia programs such as "Lead Like Jesus," which, according to the company that produces them, have been seen by a half-million people.
But Islam has its own detailed system of business ethics, including a ban on interest-bearing loans and stocks and aversions to debt, hording and overvaluing. And it is becoming more of an issue as Muslims' affluence and interest in business grows -- something visible in classes such as the Fairfax Institute's and in the appearance of Islam-friendly mutual funds and establishment of Islamic finance programs at universities such as Rice in Houston and James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va.
"In Islam, business is like everything else -- it is an act of worship. If I treat customers fairly, I've engaged in an act of worship," said Rafik Beekun, a management professor at the University of Nevada at Reno who specializes in Islamic finance and business ethics. Although Muslim-owned businesses and social service organizations are now asking for his guidance, it wasn't always that way, he said.
"Fifteen years ago, when I started talking to Muslim organizations like mosques about the need to be more efficient and effective, people would laugh at me," he said, because they considered it a non-issue. Today, he said, the interest in Islamic-style business is evident.
According to a 2002 Cornell University study, the U.S. Muslim population is about 7 million, with an annual growth rate of 6 percent. In the Washington area, that has meant a crop of new social service agencies, mosques and businesses to serve the community, Unus said. "There is much more of a focus on strategic planning now," he said, including writing vision statements.
Ambreen Ahmed, who works with domestic violence victims at a Fairfax social service agency, wore a green lace head covering to Unus's continuing education class on a recent Wednesday night. She has been with the 6 1/2 -year-old agency almost since it opened and said she is taking the class because she wants to learn how to strengthen connections with other agencies.
She said she appreciated how Unus wove in management principles with the Koran.
Sura 31:20, which says, "Allah has subjected to your use all things in the heaven and on earth," reflects the importance of using resources wisely, the teacher said. A hadith cautions a farmer not to be stuck "at the last hour" with a baby tree to plant, which means being decisive in planning for a business's future, even if things seem uncertain, Unus told the class.
"It just clicks more if he brings references from the Koran and the life of the prophet," she said.
Morsy Ibrahim said he has been trying to weave his faith and finance in the United States. After emigrating from Egypt as an electronics engineer, he said, he came up against employers who had trouble honoring his requirement to pray five times a day and not work with businesses that sell alcohol or promote gambling -- which ruled out, for example, a job fixing gaming equipment. He considered going into real estate but couldn't find a bank that would accommodate the Koran's ban on charging interest.
Since 1990, he has been owner of the Warrior Emporium in Baltimore, where he sells push-up bars, yoga mats and swords, among other equipment.
"Everything I do in business, I have to go back to my religion," he said. That means he doesn't charge extra for customers paying on layaway and closes for three hours on Friday, Muslims' holy day.
Although Muslim-owned businesses in the United States are growing and becoming more sophisticated, there is a lot of room for development, said Javaid Karim, project manager for the nonprofit Muslim Yellow Pages, which began in 1992 and lists thousands of businesses.
Some of the Muslims he has contacted about advertising in the directory "don't understand marketing," he said. "Sometimes I scratch my head at the business principles."
In Unus's class, students were talking about the Islamic concept of ihsan , or excellence. In the secular business world, he told them, there are quality teams, standards -- things that fit squarely with their faith if they can simply unite their Muslim selves with their work selves.
"Doing things in a better way is a very Islamic concept," he said. "Always trying to be better is part of the Muslim psyche."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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