Jason Byassee: The (Muslim) way out of the financial crisis

Traditional Islamic lending and investing has held up well despite the current financial meltdown. Do Christians have a wise word on finance for such a time as this?

Some years ago I was pastoring a small, rural church as it moved toward building a parsonage. It seemed like the right thing to do, but once we got to looking at the figures we all blanched. We were only 80 people, and only a handful of those big givers. How were we going to pony up another quarter of a million dollars when we were struggling to meet the budget week to week?

I happened upon an article on traditional Muslim finance, and mentioned to some folks that Islam forbade lending money at interest. Why shouldn’t we call a Muslim mortgage company? I joked. They chuckled. Then one brave soul said, “Well, why not?” We didn’t—and due to rural church members’ thriftiness that parsonage was paid off in just a few years. But most Americans who are not of the Depression era aren’t that thrifty, or that resourceful, and so we have a massive housing crisis and a full-scale financial meltdown. Robert Gibson names well some of the impact of the crisis on Christian institutions here, and Richard Mouw points to the wisdom individual Christians working in finance may have for us here.

But this crisis has not affected those who borrow via the Muslim Cooperative featured here as badly as it has the rest of us. Participating homebuyers put 30% down. Imagine how burdensome that would have sounded in days of no-money-down loans. Right now it sounds golden. The Coop shares in the risk and the profit with the homeowner. And if the buyer is struggling to pay, Islamic law requires the lender to work to help make payments affordable. In short, the sort of fiscal discipline and communitarian spirit we need in the US lending sector generally has been there in Islamic lending all along.

Further, Islamic investing services have not taken the hit their counterparts on Wall Street have. Islam forbids profiting from others’ debts. So they held no stocks in financial services companies like Citigroup or WaMu, whose stock value has vanished. Islam also prohibits selling assets one doesn’t own, so these companies didn’t participate in the mania over credit default swaps. Naturally they didn’t suffer when this $30 trillion ponzi scheme came crashing down.

This profitability, or at least reduced susceptibility to the current crisis, is not the point of this approach. Fidelity to Islam is. Within those parameters investors want as much return as they can get. It just so happens in this case fidelity has gone hand in hand with prudence and wisdom.

As I read about these companies I feel a sense of shame as a Christian. What do we have to offer in this economic climate that’s any different than that of the people in New York or Washington who got us into the mess in the first place? Christians once forbade lending money at interest—with not entirely salutary results. Jews provided that lucrative service and became subject of Christian caricatures and slander. Market capitalism could not have developed that way (and, indeed, Islamic lending probably indirectly depends on the very market practices they ostensibly eschew). But surely we Christians should have something to say to the lending crisis. Perhaps my rural parishioners’ restraint and discipline is a start. What do we say next?

Jason Byassee is an executive director for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.