Blockchain technology, like classical bookkeeping, is generally culturally and morally neutral. Smart contracts, a la Ethereum, are technical expressions of contract conditions, which can refer to pretty much any body of law or custom.
A new initiative is setting out to develop Sharia compliant contracts on top of Ethereum. The general idea appears to be to encode Islamic principles in the logic of the programs, to ensure that proper rules are followed. These rules are supposed to prohibit charging interest, gambling, and speculation, among other behavior.
The compliant contracts will presumably structure transactions and trades in ways that do not cross the line. Furthermore, the public nature of the contracts and the distributed ledger will make the compliance (or any slippage) visible to anyone—a significant motive for good behavior.
I’m no expert on these topics, but I gather that there are centuries of practice that defines ways to get business done without straying from Sharia. This framework will encode these practices in formal logic and executable code.
That’s pretty neat.
One advantage of using this kind of executable contract is that there are likely to be cases where a transaction needs to be very carefully structured to achieve the goal that might have been achieved by, say, an interest bearing loan, without violating Islamic principles. The digital technology will make it possible to create, validate, and execute even complicated transactions easily and quickly. There should be no performance penalty for complying with Islamic principles, even if there should be extra hoops to jump through behind the scenes.
Of course, there are some interesting challenges.
It’s one thing for programmers to create a logical framework, but its quite another thing to show that it truly, accurately, and completely complies with any given legal principles, Islamic or other. A significant part of this work will surely be careful review and documentation of the logical framework’s compliance. Just what needs to be proven about the logic of the contract, and just what kind of proofs would be adequate? That will be an interesting body of literature, indeed.
Overall, this could be a ground-breaking effort. To date, much of the work on smart contracts has been from a non-Islamic perspective (and sometimes without any legal framework at all). It will be interesting to see how the deep historical principles of Islam are expressed in this a-cultural medium, and it may inspire other religious and ethical frameworks. I am not aware of any other similar efforts.
(For one example, how about encoding the various Creative Commons licenses into standard smart contracts? Perhaps that has already been done.)
This project also makes me think.
I wonder if it will be possible to automatically translate between different executable contracts. Can I have a button to “make this ‘smart contract’ be Sharia compliant”? Perhaps tools could have a high level specification of what is intended, and then options for creating concrete contracts within one or more legal frameworks. That would be kind of cool.
One huge caution I would have for this project is to look carefully at the blockchain software and protocol. While any given executable contract might be Sharia compliant, if the transactions are executed and recorded on an open system, the other data there is almost certainly not Sharia compliant. The ethical records will be in the same data blocks with everything else: on-line gambling, speculative bets, interest payments, and so on. And the transactions will be processed by software that also processes all these other activities.
The question will be whether this approach is acceptable or not. Is it OK to handle, at least indirectly, all these other transactions? Or should the software only be used for compliant transactions?
This concern could be mitigated by a private blockchain that only handles Sharia compliant transactions. (Perhaps Ripple might be a better match than Ethereum, since it already is designed after a Halawa network, and let’s you control who you trust.)
I would also urge that the consensus mechanism be examined carefully. Nakamotoan consensus depends on mining that has an incentive system that may or may not be consistent with Sharia. The Nakamoto block reward strongly resembles a lottery or slot machine, which seems problematic to me.
Ethereum may be moving to a proof-of-stake method, and there are other possibilities. These alternative ‘math problems’ might have significantly different ethical implications.
This project is quite interesting, and will bear watching as it develops. I’d like to see blockchain technology put to socially positive use.
- SettleMint, SettleMint to create Sharia compliant financial products for the Islamic Development Bank member countries. 2017. https://www.settlemint.com/project/2017/10/15/settlemint-to-create-sharia-compliant-financial-products-for-the-isdb-member-countries/
- Sujha Sundararajan, Islamic Development Bank to Research Sharia-Compliant Blockchain Products. Coindesk.October 20 2017, https://www.coindesk.com/islamic-development-bank-research-sharia-compliant-blockchain-products/
- Bernardo Vizcaino, Saudi Arabia’s IDB plans blockchain-based financial inclusion product, in Reuters – Fintech. 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-islamic-finance-fintech/saudi-arabias-idb-plans-blockchain-based-financial-inclusion-product-idUSKBN1CP08W?il=0