DUBAI It's not unusual to hear people ask why Islamic finance does not embrace women.
Given the global finance industry is dominated by men isn't it even more difficult for Muslim women to make their mark on the $1 trillion Islamic finance industry?
Well, only up to a point. Recent Western debate about the role of women in Islam may have centered on the veil, but from its early years, Islam was receptive to women in business and finance. And today, Malaysia is an example of how making money has little to do with gender in Islam.
Not only does Malaysia boast a female central bank governor devoted to helping Islamic finance grow, but Malaysia's Islamic institutions also boast women executives in top positions.
More surprising perhaps, Malaysia is also home to several woman scholars of Islamic law, or sharia, who provide companies with the approval they need to brand their business as compliant with Muslim principles that include a ban on interest.
But with its population of 28 million, Malaysia is just a drop in the Islamic finance lake. In the Gulf Arab region, the birthplace of Islam and the other main hub for Islamic finance, women are sorely underrepresented.
Islamic finance is growing rapidly in the Gulf Arab region, despite the global financial crisis, yet there is no woman chief executive at any Gulf-based Islamic financial institution.
Furthermore, there are no female Islamic scholars in the Middle East advising financial firms on sharia-compliance.
That is no surprise as both chief executives and Islamic scholars in the Middle East have traditionally been men, but it makes poor business sense given the enormous wealth and spending power Gulf-based women are sitting on.
Estimates on the value of assets in women's hands in the Middle East vary widely, but the numbers are significant. A 2008 study from the Middle East Economic Digest forecast that Gulf women would control as much as $385 billion by the end of 2011.
"Times are changing. I'm fond of business and my husband supports that," said one Emirati client at a women only branch of a Dubai-based Islamic bank.
That correlates with a 2007 study from a branch of the World Bank which estimated that a third of women-owned business in the United Arab Emirates generated over $100,000 a year, compared to 12 percent of American women-owned companies.
In Saudi Arabia, 93 percent of Arab women hold a secondary school certificate or university degree, compared to 60 percent of employed men, according to a study by Al Masah Capital.
National Commercial Bank in Saudi Arabia has opened 46 women-only branches since it launched its first branch in 1980. SABB, formerly known as Saudi British Bank, boasts that women make up 17 percent of its total staff.
Mona al-Munajjed, a senior advisor with Booz & Company's Ideation Center, said the number of Saudi women working in the banking sector rose from 972 in 2000 to 3,700 in 2008, an increase of 280 percent.
Opposition to a larger female role in business comes from conservative clerics who fear that it would erode traditional family structures, though there is no religious injunction against women acting as Islamic jurists in the finance industry.
The 13th century Islamic jurist Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah said in one of his works that the Prophet Mohammad's wife Ayesha was considered one of the most prominent jurists among his companions.
Many of Ayesha's rulings on sharia have been incorporated into modern Islamic finance, said Sheikh Muddassir Siddiqui, an Islamic scholar and partner at law firm Denton, Wilde Sapte.
"There is no sharia restriction why women cannot play and occupy important roles in the development of Islamic finance at all levels," he said.
Experts say now is the time for Arab women to get training as Islamic scholars, given the anticipated shortage of qualified scholars that could hinder the growth of the Islamic finance industry.
There are 132 scholars, all men, currently active in the Gulf Cooperation Council, an economic bloc comprising six Gulf Arab countries, according to German consulting firm Funds at Work. Even among that group, the same top 10 scholars comprise almost half of all sharia board positions and their expertise is stretched thin.
Experts say these top 10 scholars are largely the first generation of scholars who helped establish the religious foundations of the Islamic finance industry. But it is the next generation that will shape the future of the industry.
Sheikha Halima Krausen, a noted Islamic scholar who focuses on counseling and family matters, said the option of training in Islamic finance wasn't readily available when she started her Islamic studies 50 years ago, but women today should take advantage of increased opportunities.
"If you look in the practice of the early (Muslim) generations, women enjoyed domestic life but also participated actively in business," said Krausen, a German convert to Islam.
A case in point: Prophet Mohammad's first wife Khadija was a successful businesswoman in her day. And she happened to be his boss before she became his wife.
(Editing by Lin Noueihed)