By Andrew Torchia and Bernardo Vizcaino
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
A local start-up company founded last year, OneGram, 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.
But because they are products of financial engineering and objects of speculation, cryptocurrencies sit uneasily with Islam. Sharia 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 advisors.
Each OneGram cryptocurrency unit is backed by at least a gram 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 sharia 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 around end-May.
OneGram obtained a ruling that its cryptocurrency conforms with Islamic principles from Dubai-based Al Maali Consulting.
It is one of dozens of advisory firms around the world that offer their opinion on whether financial instruments meet sharia standards.
In Malaysia, HelloGold launched an initial offer of its gold-backed cryptocurrency in October, receiving approval from Islamic scholars at Kuala Lumpur-based Amanie Advisors.
Manuel Ho, HelloGold’s chief marketing officer, 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-based Halal Chain conducted an initial coin offer in December which is linked to data on Islamically permissible goods.
Only around 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.
But the issue of religious permissibility is influential and could determine whether Islamic funds and institutions, which are formally committed to sharia 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 sharia committee, which oversees Islamic transactions.
Keep reading …