Islamic Finance

Lease as a mode of financing

Like murabahah, lease is not originally a mode of financing. It is simply a transaction meant to transfer the usufruct of a property from one person to another for an agreed period against an agreed consideration. However, certain financial institutions have adopted leasing as a mode of financing instead of long term lending on the basis of interest. This kind of lease is generally known as the 'financial lease' as distinguished from the 'operating lease' and many basic features of actual leasing transaction have been dispensed with therein.

When interest-free financial institutions were established in the near past, they found that leasing is a recognized mode of finance throughout the world. On the other hand, they realized that leasing is a lawful transaction according to Shari‘ah and it can be used as an interest-free mode of financing. Therefore, leasing has been adopted by the Islamic financial institutions, but very few of them paid attention to the fact that the 'financial lease' has a number of characteristics more similar to interest than to the actual lease transaction. That is why they started using the same model agreements of leasing as were in vogue among the conventional financial institutions without any modification, while a number of their provisions were not in conformity with Shari‘ah.

As mentioned earlier, leasing is not a mode of financing in its origin. However, the transaction may be used for financing, subject to certain conditions. It is not sufficient for this purpose to substitute the name of 'interest' by the name of 'rent' and replace the name of 'mortgage' by the name of 'leased asset'. There must be a substantial difference between leasing and an interest-bearing loan. That will be possible only by following all the Islamic rules of leasing, some of which have been mentioned in the first part of this chapter.

To be more specific, some basic differences between the contemporary financial leasing and the actual leasing allowed by the Shari‘ah are indicated below.

The commencement of lease

1. Unlike the contract of sale, the agreement of Ijarah can be effected for a future date.1 Thus, while a forward sale is not allowed in Shari‘ah, an 'Ijarah' for a future date is allowed, on the condition that the rent will be payable only after the leased asset is delivered to the lessee.

In most cases of the 'financial lease' the lessor i.e. the financial institution purchases the asset through the lessee himself. The lessee purchases the asset on behalf of the lessor who pays its price to the supplier, either directly or through the lessee. In some lease agreements, the lease commences on the very day on which the price is paid by the lessor, irrespective of whether the lessee has effected payment to the supplier and taken delivery of the asset or not. It may mean that lessee's liability for the rent starts before the lessee takes delivery of the asset. This is not allowed in Shari‘ah, because it amounts to charging rent on the money given to the customer which is nothing but interest, pure and simple.

The correct way, according to Shari‘ah, is that the rent be charged after the lessee has taken delivery of the asset, and not from the day the price has been paid. If the supplier has delayed the delivery after receiving the full price, the lessee should not be liable for the rent of the period of delay.

Different relations of the parties

It should be clearly understood that when the lessee himself has been entrusted with the purchase of the asset intended to be leased, there are two separate relations between the institution and the client which come into operation one after the other. In the first instance, the client is an agent of the institution to purchase the asset on latter's behalf. At this stage, the relation between the parties is nothing more than the relation of a principal and his agent. The relation of lessor and lessee has not yet come into operation.

The second stage begins from the date when the client takes delivery from the supplier. At this stage, the relation of lessor and lessee comes to play its role. These two capacities of the parties should not be mixed up or confused with each other. During the first stage, the client cannot be held liable for the obligations of a lessee. In this period, he is responsible to carry out the functions of an agent only. But when the asset is delivered to him, he is liable to discharge his obligations as a lessee.

However, there is a point of difference between murabahah and leasing. In murabahah, as mentioned earlier, actual sale should take place after the client takes delivery from the supplier, and the previous agreement of murabahah is not enough for effecting the actual sale. Therefore, after taking possession of the asset as an agent, he is bound to give intimation to the institution, and make an offer for the purchase from him. The sale takes place after the institution accepts the offer.

The procedure in leasing is different, and a little shorter. Here the parties need not effect the lease contract after taking delivery. If the institution, while appointing the client its agent, has agreed to lease the asset with effect from the date of delivery, the lease will automatically start on that date without any additional procedure. There are two reasons for this difference between murabahah and leasing:

Firstly, it is a necessary condition for a valid sale that it should be effected instantly. Thus, a sale attributed to a future date is invalid in Shari‘ah. But leasing can be attributed to a future date. Therefore, the previous agreement is not sufficient in the case of murabahah, while it is quite enough in the case of leasing.

Secondly, the basic principle of Shari‘ah is that one cannot claim a profit or a fee for a property the risk of which was never borne by him. Applying this principle to murabahah, the seller cannot claim a profit over a property which never remained under his risk for a moment. Therefore, if the previous agreement is held to be sufficient for effecting a sale between the client and the institution, the asset shall be transferred to the client simultaneously when he takes its possession, and the asset shall not come into the risk of the seller even for a moment. That is why the simultaneous transfer is not possible in murabahah, and there should be a fresh offer and acceptance after the delivery.

In leasing, however, the asset remains under the risk and ownership of the lessor throughout the leasing period, because the ownership has not been transferred. Therefore, if the lease period begins right from the time when the client has taken delivery, it does not violate the principle mentioned above.

Expenses consequent to ownership

As the lessor is the owner of the asset, and he has purchased it from the supplier through his agent, he is liable to pay all the expenses incurred in the process of its purchase and its import to the country of the lessor. Consequently, he is liable to pay the freight and the customs duty etc. He can, of course, include all these expenses in his cost and can take them into consideration while fixing the rentals, but as a matter of principle, he is liable to bear all these expenses as the owner of the asset. Any agreement to the contrary, as is found in the traditional financial leases, is not in conformity with Shari‘ah.

Liability of the parties in case of loss to the asset

As mentioned in the basic principles of leasing, the lessee is responsible for any loss caused to the asset by his misuse or negligence. He can also be made liable to the wear and tear which normally occurs during its use. But he cannot be made liable to a loss caused by the factors beyond his control. The agreements of the traditional 'financial lease' generally do not differentiate between the two situations. In a lease based on the Islamic principles, both the situations should be dealt with separately.

Variable Rentals in Long Term Leases

In the long term lease agreements it is mostly not in the benefit of the lessor to fix one amount of rent for the whole period of lease, because the market conditions change from time to time.

In this case the lessor has two options:

(a) He can contract lease with a condition that the rent shall be increased according to a specified proportion (e.g. 5%) after a specified period (like one year).

(b) He can contract lease for a shorter period after which the parties can renew the lease at new terms and by mutual consent, with full liberty to each one of them to refuse the renewal, in which case the lessee is bound to vacate the leased property and return it back to the lessor.

These two options are available to the lessor according to the classical rules of Islamic Fiqh. However, some contemporary scholars have allowed, in long-term leases, to tie up the rental amount with a variable benchmark which is so well-known and well-defined that it does not leave room for any dispute. For example, it is permissible according to them to provide in the lease contract that in case of any increase in the taxes imposed by the government on the lessor, the rent will be increased to the extent of same amount. Similarly it is allowed by them that the annual increase in the rent is tied up with the rate of inflation. Therefore if there is an increase of 5% in the rate of inflation, it will result in an increase of 5% in the rent as well. Based on the same principle, some Islamic banks use the rate of interest as a benchmark to determine the rental amounts. They want to earn the same profit through leasing as is earned by the conventional banks through advancing loans on the basis of interest. Therefore, they want to tie up the rentals with the rate of interest and instead of fixing a definite amount of rental, they calculate the cost of purchasing the lease assets and want to earn through rentals an amount equal to the rate of interest. Therefore, the agreement provides that the rental will be equal to the rate of interest or to the rate of interest plus something. Since the rate of interest is variable, it cannot be determined for the whole lease period. Therefore, these contracts use the interest rate of a particular country (like LIBOR) as a benchmark for determining the periodical increase in the rent.