Friday, 22 October 2010

Of mothers, spouses and Singapore’s sharia

Last week, I attended an Association of Muslim Professionals seminar on the subject of Islamic Estate Planning. Sitting in a room filled with Muslims theoretically at the 'cutting edge' of Islamic thought has somewhat of a nineteenth century feel – it was as if I was an anti-imperialist activist at a session addressed by the likes of Indian Muslim Modernists like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan or Dr. Allama Mohammad Iqbal.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's study about the causes of the 1857 uprising against colonial rule

Modern Singapore is a far cry from British India. But some positive vestiges remain – the English language and Common Law.
The seminar was interesting in many ways. Without exception, each individual speaker, including a scholar associated with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), extolled the virtues of individual financial planning. Each stated it is perfectly Islamic to make post-death arrangements to secure the future of loved ones, even if the plan contravenes the binding inheritance principles of Singapore's Application of Muslim Law Act (AMLA).
The audience was told about the flexibility that Islam provides believers. Listeners received an introduction to various Sharia compliant financial instruments available to Muslims to dispose of an estate.   
In other words, I learnt how best to circumvent the inheritance restrictions laid down by AMLA.
The entire event has me confused. If it is perfectly Islamic for an individual to wish to deliver his estate to his spouse, parents or others who he financially supports then what is the purpose of making the law of Faraid legally binding? Why not make things easier for ordinary Muslims by empowering them to write a Will under normal civil law?
In the current set-up, any Muslim wishing to bequeath his estate based on his freewill must enter into all sorts of extraneous paperwork associated with gifts (hibah), trusts or other sharia compliant instruments recognized by Singapore's sharia law.
I am a believer in Islamic scholarship.
Surely, there is a place in the world for Sharia compliant financial products. During my professional career I have worked to develop Islamic products. However, for sharia compliant products to be successful they must be simple, cost efficient and true to the spirit of Islam. Not merely intelligent ways to dodge usury recognized by prevalent legal codes.
Islamic finance has come a long way during the last few decades. Plain vanilla banking products like loans, credit cards and mortgages are available in Sharia compliant form in standardized form, thus making them competitive with their interest based counterparts.
Unfortunately, that is not yet the case with Islamic estate planning.* Ordinary Singaporean Muslims cannot order their personal financial affairs to their own liking due to legal restrictions enforced by AMLA.
It is all well and good to outline options available to academically inclined or wealthy Muslims. Nevertheless, for ordinary Muslims with a modest financial asset base, these choices are complicated and costly.
Pakistan's Founder, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah's left his entire estate to three educational institutions - an action not permissible under certain interpretations of Islamic law - via a simple Will

Muslims have been granted free will to make personal decisions on worldly matters, including matters of inheritance. In contemporary Singapore, individuals have even been granted the freedom to commit certain 'innocent' sins; sins which do not harm other members of society or the public good.
It is almost impossible to argue that securing the future of one's parents, spouse and family is a sin, under Islamic or secular law.
Undoubtedly, the decolonization of Singapore was a liberating experience. Yet, for some Singaporeans the enactment of AMLA in 1968 took away a few important financial freedoms previously available under colonial rule.
*I became aware of one Sharia specific legal provision pertaining to Muslim beneficiaries of insurance policies under Singapore's Insurance Act which is unusual and somewhat alarming. I hesitate to comment on the subject until I am certain of the correctness of my understanding. 

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