Day 17: Recovering Islamic Banker

One of the beauties of a liberal arts education is that it opens up a smorgasbord of possibilities, but this is also one of its curses. When I arrived at college, I decided that I wanted to major, or, in Harvard’s pretentious jargon, “concentrate” in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. As a relatively new convert to Islam, this seemed like a logical way to learn Arabic and deepen my understanding of my adopted faith. But I didn’t really focus on what comes next.

When friends asked me how I planned to earn a living with such an esoteric degree, I would mumble something nebulous about leveraging my position at the nexus of Islam and America. It turns out that the study of Sufism and Islamic philosophy does not map directly onto a career in international business, and it is certainly not where the money lies.

And thus we have arrived at one of the defining crises that has dogged me throughout my professional career. Earning “halal rizq,” in other words an Islamically sanctioned livelihood, turns out to be a challenge, especially for someone with a liberal arts background. When recruiters from Fortune 500 companies would come to the Harvard campus, my “haram” antennae would go into overdrive. Wall Street was a hotbed of interest, consulting might force me to advise ethically suspect companies, advertising pandered to our lower selves.

And then I discovered Islamic finance. This nascent industry, I believed, would allow me to have my biryani and eat it too. In simplistic terms, Islamic finance revolves around creating financial instruments that allow companies and governments to raise capital without relying on interest. In its consumer-facing incarnation, it would, for example, allow Muslims to take out halal mortgages or invest in the stock market in an Islamically acceptable way. During my senior year, I began working for HIFIP, the Harvard Islamic Finance Information Program. It organized an annual conference that brought together all the biggest players in the industry. The halal rizq conundrum had finally been solved!

At first my vision seemed to be working. Shortly after graduation, my dad connected me with a former partner at his law firm who was now the CEO of RockCo, the asset management wing of the Rockefeller empire. The company had recently acquired a Rockefeller-like Saudi client who was eager to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in sharia-compliant American equities. The RockCo CEO was on the board of the client’s holding company and had to travel to Jeddah for the annual shareholder meeting in early 2002, just months after 9/11. RockCo knew a lot about managing family fortunes but next to nothing about sharia compliance. Enter Harvard-trained Islamic finance guru Hamzah (or actually Mahboob at the time). In retrospect, I recognize that I was really hired because the CEO was nervous about traveling to Saudi in such a politically charged moment. Having me tag along as a cultural attaché might give him some Muslim street cred and save him from any costly cultural gaffes.

Nevertheless, my career in Islamic finance was born. After my RockCo contract was finished, I signed on with Oasis Asset Management, a sharia-compliant equities company based in Cape Town, South Africa. Upon arriving in this hauntingly beautiful city, I spent long hours building automated excel sheets that pulled in Bloomberg data to screen companies for debt-to-equity ratios and the like.

But soon my plan started to unravel. The CEO of Oasis wanted me to shave my beard, saying it was unprofessional and smelled of fundamentalism. On most days, the office musalla or prayer space would be populated by a handful of observant Muslims. But when a big-bearded and well-heeled client was in the building, the call to prayer would be blasted over the loudspeaker, and the senior management would fill the front row. All this smacked of hypocrisy to my sanctimonious mind. I was a man of letters caught in an ethically suspect world of numbers, and thus, just six months into my career as an Islamic banker, I changed course and decided to become an educator.

I learned some important lessons during this period. In between RockCo and Oasis, I scored an interview with the head of private equity at ADIA, the sovereign wealth fund in charge of investing Abu Dhabi’s oil revenues. After determining within minutes that I lacked the requisite experience, he suggested that I spend five years on Wall Street to really learn the industry. He explained that Islamic finance was an immature field and could not provide sufficient training. While my usury phobia prevented me from taking his advice literally, his counsel later informed my decision to earn my chops as an educator by spending the first seven years of my career at a top-flight private school before transferring to a less mature Islamic one.

Many idealistic 20-somethings confront this same tension between following their ethical compass and pursuing financial success. Over time, I have come to see this as a false dichotomy, however. For many years, I feared that pursuing worldly success would irreparably harm my seeking of eternal felicity. I closed many doors before they were even opened. While I do not regret any of the professional decisions I have made, each had a particular time and place. I now feel ready to try my hand in the more cutthroat world of capitalism and consulting. While halal rizq will always be my priority, I now understand that the breadth of my liberal arts education prepared me perfectly to achieve this goal.

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