Could you provide a brief journey of how you arrived where you are today?
I cannot tell you that I intended to work in Islamic finance, nor can I tell you that my path has been entirely linear. I did begin the study of law with the intent — albeit somewhat vaguely — of finding a way to apply Islamic principles to practical realities — particularly for American Muslims. I have always had an interest in all things Islamic, particularly Islamic law and jurisprudence, so when I had the rare opportunity while still a law student to undertake an internship at a prominent US law firm in Saudi Arabia, I quickly seized the opportunity. Since then, for the past many years, I have regularly worked on transactions involving Islamic finance, Islamic law or the Muslim world in some fashion.
What does your role involve?
I must, first and foremost, service my client’s needs, and I am fortunate to have forward-thinking clients who have given me tasks that are far from mundane — and I use that term relatively to Islamic finance. Together with our team, I have structured and documented some novel and important financial products and transactions. In addition, working in the US market, I have to educate my clients’ counterparties and a variety of institutions on Islamic finance and sometimes, even Islam in general.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
We are fortunate to represent an up-and-coming American Muslim financial institution in the development of the first standardized Islamic commercial real estate finance product. To bring this product to market, we worked for well over a year on the product documentation itself, having to properly consider a variety of different legal, Shariah and business-related factors. We had to design and document what are, to our knowledge, the first-ever warehouse and table funding facilities along Islamic lines as a component of this product. We’re particularly proud of this initiative because it’s the first of its kind in the US and is a milestone in the success of the American Muslim community.
What are the strengths of your business?
Our understanding of the relevant areas of law — both local and Islamic — at a fundamental level, which gives us an ability to implement Islamic principles to the maximum extent possible with the assistance of Shariah scholars. By understanding the rationale and underpinnings of these laws, we can better blend and integrate the two. I think that gives us an ability to be creative and inventive, rather than merely implement — and that’s a rarity in the US legal market.
What are the factors contributing to the success of your company?
A client’s in-house lawyer pulled us aside after closing an Islamic transaction last year and told us that during negotiations, he really couldn’t tell the difference between his team and the lawyers. We honestly didn’t even realize that — it was something flowing naturally from our personalities and how we deliver our service. We really do take a stake in the health and success of our clients. As a smaller firm with about 150 lawyers, there is a ‘personability’ to our services that I think is quite important but often forgotten.
What are the obstacles faced in running your business today?
We’re young as a team and people are still getting to know who we are, but our lawyers have several decades of experience in numerous realms of transactional law. Our youth and introduction to Islamic finance give us a fresh, independent approach to structuring and documentation which seems to me to have translated into enthusiasm, dedication and passion for the industry.
Where do you see the Islamic finance industry, maybe in the next five years?
I think that we will see Islamic finance applied to new spaces, and in the spaces it has inhabited for longer, I think we will see growth in the complexity and hopefully, efficiency of structures and mechanisms and in Shariah compliance.
I am looking forward — in fact, we already see — an integration of Islamic finance from abroad and from within the American Muslim population. I think there is some wonderful potential in creating transactions and vehicles together.
Name one thing you would like to see change in the world of Islamic finance?
It’s not so much a change as a continuation and an increased effort towards the ethic and spirituality underlying Islamic financial theories that I hope and expect, God willing, to see. I think ultimately, the success of Islamic finance — both qualitatively and quantitatively speaking — depends on this.
In my mind, this is the common denominator for all the relevant factors essential for this industry’s furtherance. So, whether we speak of transparency, proper governance, increased Shariah compliance, addressing consumer demand, the propriety of that demand or innovation, it all comes down to our continued and increased struggle, especially individually, to honor the intent of Islamic finance.
Murtha Cullina LLP represents clients across a broad spectrum of industry groups and provides specialty legal services to the agricultural, cable television, energy, telecommunications, healthcare, long-term care, motor vehicle, real estate and housing, and retail and hospitality industries. Visit www.murthalaw.com