Rationale of Bank interest and Riba
S J Tubrazy
At present, bank transactions involving interest come under the purview of loan transactions. Thus bank interest is Riba. That modern banks have no precedent in Islamic history is no ground for treating bank interest differently from Riba for two reasons. First, notwithstanding their complex nature, banks still personify groups of individuals‑their shareholders. Hence, the prohibition of Riba applicable to individuals automatically carries over to banks. Second, again notwithstanding the complexities of modern transactions, they are still combinations of primary transactions‑such as lending, trading, leasing, partnership, etc.‑for which the basic principles have been laid down. Any change in the nomenclature of interest to `markup’ or ‘profit’ is inconsequential from the point of view of Riba as long as the basic transaction between banks and their customers remains a loan transaction.
Riba arises in loans, and profits in trading. A loan transaction represents the case of temporary exchange‑give and take back‑ of property rights of the thing at hand for the pendency of the transaction. Trading, oil the other hand, is a case of irrevocable exchange of property rights between two parties: ownership of the object of sale goes from the seller to the buyer and that of the thing paid toward price from the buyer to the seller. Alternatively, one may view the loan transaction as a homogeneous exchange and trading as a heterogeneous exchange. Thus, Riba and profits relate to two different situations with their own legal implications. Accordingly any comparison between the two is unwarranted. This point also applies to profits versus interest comparisons. Economists have viewed profits as reward for risk‑taking. This interpretation is only partly true. Primarily, profits arise in trading in which two parties are involved in the process of reciprocal and irrevocable exchange of then property rights. On the other hand, lending involves transfer of some of the rights related to that property only for the pendency of loan‑a limited period. The claim to a reward from another party through loan transactions, albeit Riba, is not recognized in Shariah.
Bank interest does fall under the definition of Riba. Banks have normally two tier transactions. On the one hand, they accept money from the savers and pay them return on their savings. On the other hand, they lend money to the entrepreneurs who pay return to the banks at a rate higher than the one paid by the banks to the savers. Let us take the second tier first. The money provided by the banks to the entrepreneur is undoubtedly a loan. Any increase on the principal amount paid by entrepreneur to the bank must and does fall under the category of Riba al‑Nasi’ah about the prohibition of which none has any reservation. It is besides the point whether the entrepreneur employs and invests that money in a business, commerce, trade or industrial enterprise. As long as the repayment of the principal amount is guaranteed whether because of the collateral or otherwise it will remain a loan (Qarz) and shall be subject to the principles of Shariah regulating loan (Qarz). Moreover, the concern of the banks is never to ensure the success of the enterprise or to participate in the risk at any stage in any way. There is no moral or legal justification to demand any increase over this amount. As to the money of the savers with the bank it is normally claimed to be an Amanat (Trust). Had it been really a trust it should have been regulated and managed under the law of Trust. For all practical, legal and theoretical purposes it has never been considered to be an Arnanat or Trust. It is always and has always been treated to be a loan and meets all the required ingredients of a loan (Qarz) under the Shariah; its repayment is guaranteed and the bank has full freedom to use, spend and invest it in any manner which the bank decides; the saver cannot even take it back at will without meeting certain conditions. In some cases a saver can take it back only in instalments and in other cases he has to give prior notice to the bank of his intention to withdraw his ‘Arnanat’ from the bank. Now, if it is a loan, no increase can be admissible thereon under the definition of Riba.