Oct. 12, 2012 at 11:50 AM ET
A Gulf state-owned bank has rolled out a new MasterCard that not only complies with Islamic laws banning loans with interest but also includes an embedded compass pointing the way to Mecca.
The new card from Al Hillal bank in United Arab Emirates is the latest in a growing array of banking products aimed at the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims that comply with Shariah, or Islamic law.
“We continue to see a growing demand, especially in the Middle East, for Islamic banking in general, and more specifically in our case, for cards that are Shariah-compliant in accordance with the tenets of the Islamic faith,” MasterCard spokesman James Issokson said.
Shariah forbids “riba” or the charging of interest on loans because it could enable the rich to exploit the poor, encourages risk, and creates social and economic disharmony, according to Abed Awad, an expert on Islamic law who teaches at Rutgers and Pace universities.
Scholars say Muslims can pay interest when there are no other options to get the funds they need. Credit card operators get around the prohibition by charging users fees instead of interest rates.
In addition to the electronic compass that helps users orient themselves toward for prayers five times day, the new MasterCard offers other benefits. Card users are eligible for travel vouchers that can be used to pay for the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, which Muslims are required to do at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it.
A percentage of the money spent using the card is donated to local charities, said Issokson.
Islamic banking is a huge industry with more than 500 Shariah-compliant funds around the world holding $1.5 trillion in assets, a third of which were launched in the past seven years, according to the Gulf Daily News, a publication based in Bahrain. Some of the products are available in the United States, where there are about 2.5 million Muslims.
Michigan-based University Bank offers Shariah compliant home financing, deposit products and commercial financing through its University Islamic Financial Corp business. Guidance Residential, which is based in Reston, Va., offers residential mortgages in more than a dozen states, according to its website.
--Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter @jdberr