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The language of international Islamic finance is English


17 October 2015

On 14 October 2015 the magazine Islamic Finance News published my second monthly column.

It reminded readers that cross-border Islamic finance transactions are normally conducted in English, which is by far the most common language used in international business. In the interests of precision and brevity, practitioners often need to use words imported from Arabic, but regularly forget that post importation such words need to become standard English words, and should be spelt accordingly.

Letter from Amin - 14 October 2015

I want Islamic finance to be seen around the world as commonplace and normal, rather than rare, exotic or outlandish and believe all other Islamic finance practitioners also do.

To practice something, we have to be able to talk about it. Language, regardless of whether we use words or mathematical symbols, is the way people share ideas and together create a world none of us could have created by ourselves. It makes us human.

Most Islamic finance is practiced within national borders, in countries such as Malaysia, Bahrain or Pakistan, to name but three, and is conducted in national languages such as Bahasa Malaysia, Arabic and Urdu. However the language of international business, including international Islamic finance business, is English.

Accordingly, for Islamic finance to become commonplace and normal, we have to be able to talk about it using the English language, making use of only English words.

The wonderful thing about English is that it expands unashamedly, voraciously swallowing words from foreign languages, and making them into English words. To give just one example, when I was young it was common to talk about “tidal waves” even though the waves being spoken about were known not to be caused by tides but by undersea earthquakes. Japanese has a word for such waves; it calls them tsunamis.

At some stage in the last 50 years, English has absorbed the word tsunami. Now newspaper reporters and TV broadcasters will use the word tsunami without feeling any need to explain the word. Tsunami has now become an English language word.

The sentence “The tsunami came quickly” does not contain three English words and one Japanese word; all four words are English words. Some may find that statement strange, but only because the absorption of “tsunami” is so recent. Nobody describes the word “shampoo” as Indian, even though it came from there, because English absorbed it long before today’s generation was born.

Islamic finance can be talked about using only English’s existing wide vocabulary but it takes long circumlocutions (“purchase and resale transaction”) and even then risks imprecision since there is more to murabaha than just purchase and resale. For precision and conciseness, English needs to absorb more words from foreign languages. That is already happening. For example English bankers practicing Islamic finance regularly talk about commodity murabaha transactions.

In practice absorption will be limited to where English has real vocabulary gaps. Critically, the words must be written like any other words in the English language. That means no glottal stops (Shariah, not Shari’ah), no other accents, no Arabic "al-" prefixes (murabaha, not al-murabaha) etc. since one is writing English, not Arabic.

That is why my own writings are spelt the way they are.


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