Story of Azzad
Azzad was started by a young computer engineer from Jordan, Bashar Qasem, who came to the United States at the age of 23. He was disappointed with the lack of financial solutions and investment options that aligned with his Islamic faith, so he decided to do something about it. He traveled across the globe to consult with scholars and earned licenses to teach and consult on compliance with Islamic finance. He later trained and became licensed to work in the investment industry. Qasem took this knowledge and started Azzad Asset Management in 1997. Azzad launched its first halal mutual fund, the Azzad Ethical Fund (ticker: ADJEX) in 2000. Combining his knowledge of Islamic principles with his computer engineering background, Qasem and a colleague created a computer program—the Investment Screening/Filtering Application (ISFA)—to apply Islamic ethical restrictions to the universe of potential fund investments. That proprietary screening tool is still used today to filter out Islamically unethical investments.
Islamic wealth management
In addition to mutual funds, Qasem began to offer a complete financial planning package to Azzad clients, including zakah (Islamically required charitable giving) and purification calculations to make sure that investment earnings were shared with the needy and that any unethical gains were given away.
With financial planning firmly in place, Qasem doggedly pursued a growth strategy for the asset management side of the business, choosing to move beyond simply providing in-house money management for his clients and instead offering them the expertise of “best of breed” money managers. This took a lot of hard work. At first, the big names in the industry balked at working with a small firm like Azzad and applying its ethical ISFA screens to their investment process. But Qasem wouldn’t give up. He wanted his clients to be able to take advantage of the unique talents of world class managers without sacrificing their values. Eventually, those firms were won over by Qasem’s diligence and Azzad’s dedication to its values.
America’s first halal fixed-income mutual fund
The tradition of innovation continued with Azzad’s launch of the Azzad Wise Capital Fund (ticker: WISEX) in 2010. A unique product devised to respect the Islamic prohibition of giving and taking interest from lending, the Azzad Wise Capital Fund enjoys the distinction of being the first halal fixed-income mutual fund in the United States.
For most people, the phrase “fixed income” is synonymous with interest-bearing investments. But more generally, “fixed income” can refer to any investment that pays periodic, often predetermined, installments over time. The Azzad Wise Capital Fund takes that broader definition of fixed income and brings it to life in accordance with Islamic principles. The fund invests in a variety of sukuk (Islamic bonds) and Islamic bank deposits involved in overseas development projects. The Azzad Wise Capital Fund offers investors a strategy that aims for capital preservation and a competitive, though not guaranteed, rate of return from its asset-backed holdings. Simply put, it’s a financial product made in America, from overseas parts, compliant with Islamic principles. Although it doesn’t deal with debt instruments created from interest-based lending, the Azzad Wise Capital Fund does share in the profits from its ventures. And it has proven to be an ideal investment product for conservative, income-oriented investors of all backgrounds, regardless of religion. Today, financial advisors and individual shareholders of various backgrounds own the fund in order to gain exposure to the emerging markets of Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Gulf, as well as access to an alternative asset class that performs differently than many conventional stocks and bonds.
But it doesn’t stop there. Qasem and his colleagues have innovated a suite of custom financial planning products for clients, formulated in conjunction with experts in law, finance, and tax policy. For example, Azzad introduced an Islamically acceptable endowment (waqf) for mosques and community centers designed to help grow the assets of American Muslim institutions in a tax-efficient vehicle. Azzad has also built an estate planning package to help preserve family wealth for future generations in a sustainable, authentic, and Islamically acceptable manner. Qasem and his team do these things with an eye toward building Islamic institutions in a uniquely American context. The future looks bright.