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Pope Francis and Islamic finance

Next week, Pope Francis is expected to arrive in Washington, D.C., to kick off his first visit to the United States, giving an anticipated 18 speeches. Although we don’t yet know the content of those talks, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if, when talking about social justice from his own faith perspective, he describes the basics of Islamic finance.

With his focus on justice and human dignity, Pope Francis has beautifully articulated the values of his faith as well as the aims and purposes of Islamic finance — namely social justice, ethical trade, and ultimately the glorification of God through service to creation.

Pope Francis has made poverty and economic justice central themes of his papacy. More courageous in this than many people in positions of influence, the pope has railed against economic injustice, even linking environmentalism to this issue. In his recent encyclical on the environment, he said: “[W]e have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” That letter also drew inspiration from a Muslim thinker, a nod to the common teachings between the two faiths.

And the commonality becomes much more evident when we look at the pope’s background and the lessons he likely drew from the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s.

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the pontiff is originally from Argentina, a country that suffered the consequences of indebtedness, namely unending debt service and economic stagnation. This no doubt made a lasting impact on the soon-to-be bishop. And after his installation as pope in 2013, Francis told journalists that he chose his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, electing to focus on poverty during his papacy. Commenting on social justice issues, he has warned against government corruption, economic imbalance, and the exploitation of the poor, and said that usury “harms the inviolable dignity of the human person.”

That last point, the notion of usury, or interest, strikes a special chord with Muslims.

Prohibited in the Qur’an as well as the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), dealing in usury, or riba in Arabic, is understood to be a grave sin. Although we live in a time when virtue and sin have been established as matters of individual discretion, many Muslims still adhere to the notion of communitarian values, in addition to personal piety. Usury is often considered an economic sin, one that can potentially harm the greatest numbers in society.

Pope Francis has resurrected this Islamic teaching, which, of course, is fundamental to Christianity. Let’s remember that Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) evicted money changers from the temple in Jerusalem for engaging in a type of usury. At the time, Jewish pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem were required to pay a temple tax and preferred to use a particular half-shekel coin since it was the only silver coin that did not feature the image of a pagan Roman emperor. The money changers in the temple made a business of receiving silver coins of greater value and giving silver half shekels in return. Both parties had agreed to the exchange, but the money changers took more silver from the pilgrims than they gave. Islamic finance practitioners know this prohibited transaction as riba al-fadl, an immediate exchange of unequal quantities of the same commodity.

And although he may not use that terminology, the spirit of this lesson — that individuals and society at large are harmed when one person is unjustly enriched at the expense of another — is alive and well in the teachings of Pope Francis. Those teachings have the potential to change the hearts of those who have yet to fully embrace the notion of being “our brother’s keeper.”

And they are also the cornerstone of the economic and social justice ethos that makes up Islamic finance. As we await his remarks to Americans next week, people of all faiths should thank Pope Francis for not only instructing us in the basics of economic justice, but also for encouraging us to become better people.

Joshua Brockwell is the Director of Investment Communications at Azzad Asset Management. He can be contacted at joshua@azzad.net.

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