Wed, Apr 11, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Cryptocurrency traders use old gold to draw Muslim investors

By Andrew Torchia and Bernardo Vizcaino  /  Reuters, DUBAI and SYDNEY

In Dubai’s decades-old Gold Souk, customers from around the world haggle over bangles and necklaces. Elsewhere in the emirate, the region’s top center for gold trade, bullion is playing a new role in financial engineering.

OneGram, a local start-up founded last year, is issuing a gold-backed cryptocurrency — part of efforts to convince Muslims that investing in cryptocurrencies complies with their faith.

The global surge of interest in bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptocurrencies extends into the Gulf and Southeast Asia, the main centers of Islamic finance.

However, because they are products of financial engineering and objects of speculation, cryptocurrencies sit uneasily with Islam. Shariah principles, in addition to banning interest payments, emphasize real economic activity based on physical assets and frown on pure monetary speculation.

That has triggered debate among Islamic scholars over whether cryptocurrencies are religiously permissible. Cryptocurrency companies are seeking to sway the debate by launching instruments based on physical assets and certified as valid by Islamic advisers.

Each OneGram cryptocurrency unit is backed by at least 1g of physical gold stored in a vault. The idea is to limit speculation.

“Gold was among the first forms of money in Islamic societies so this is appropriate,” said Ibrahim Mohammed, the Briton who founded the firm with other investors last year. “We are trying to prove rules and regulations from Shariah are fully compatible with digital blockchain technology.”

Tens of millions of dollars worth of the currency have been issued so far. About 60 percent of the planned number of coins remains to be sold; OneGram hopes to issue them all before listing them on exchanges at the end of next month.

OneGram obtained a ruling that its cryptocurrency conforms with Islamic principles from Dubai-based Al Maali Consulting Group.

It is one of dozens of advisory firms around the world that offer their opinion on whether financial instruments meet Shariah standards.

In Malaysia, HelloGold Foundation launched an initial offer of its gold-backed cryptocurrency in October last year, receiving approval from Islamic scholars at Kuala Lumpur-based Amanie Advisors.

HelloGold chief marketing officer Manuel Ho said its coin was Islamic as transactions occurred within a defined period, making them less volatile and addressing the issue of ambiguity of pricing.

Among other experiments, United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Halal Chain conducted an initial coin offer in December last year, which is linked to data on Islamically permissible goods.

SHARIAH COMMITTEES

Only about 20 to 30 percent of banking in the Gulf and Southeast Asia follows Islamic principles; many Muslims use conventional finance if it offers higher returns or more convenience.

However, the issue of religious permissibility is influential and could determine whether Muslim funds and institutions, which are formally committed to Shariah principles, deal in cryptocurrencies.

“One of the biggest difficulties is that there is so much to talk about and so little certainty in the way crypto will be playing out,” said Ziyaad Mahomed of HSBC Amanah in Malaysia.

He chairs its Shariah committee, which oversees Islamic transactions.

National Shariah authorities have not ruled on whether cryptocurrencies are permissible, and while several global bodies recommend standards for Islamic finance, none has the authority to impose them.

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