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The Challenge of Islamic Finance

HONG KONG – With Britain now in talks to sell part of the government’s 82% stake in the Royal Bank of Scotland to Abu Dhabi sovereign-wealth funds, the Islamic world’s growing financial clout is once again on display. That clout also poses a systemic challenge to the dominant way that finance is now practiced around the world.

From humble beginnings in the 1990’s, Islamic finance has become a trillion-dollar industry. The market consensus is that Islamic finance has a bright future, owing to favorable demographics and rising incomes in Muslim communities.

Despite skepticism regarding accommodation between Islamic and global finance, leading banks are buying Islamic bonds and forming subsidiaries specifically to conduct Islamic finance. Special laws have been enacted in non-Muslim financial centers – London, Singapore, and Hong Kong – to facilitate the operation of Islamic banks and associated financial institutions.

How should these developments be viewed from the perspective of Western finance and mainstream economic analysis? Does Islamic finance really constitute a viable alternative financial system?