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Islamic finance accelerates into motor policies

Muslim insurance could prove popular with other drivers too, says Chiara Cavaglieri

First it was Islamic current accounts, then mortgages and investment funds, and now we have a motor insurance product that conforms to Islamic law, or sharia.

This move will be welcomed by many of the two million British Muslims looking to buy insurance cover aligned with their faith. But it could also prove popular for non-Muslims who find the notion of an ethical or co-operative insurance product appealing.

Unlike conventional insurance, where risk is transferred from the policyholder to the insurance company, halal [permissable] insurance, or takaful ("guaranteeing each other"), requires all participants to share risk equally. Instead of premiums, participants pay contributions which, as with ordinary insurance, are calculated on the presumed risk of the individual and how likely they are to claim. These contributions are then pooled in a takaful fund which is invested in strictly halal activities. There is also a Shariah Supervisory Committee, made up of sharia scholars, to oversee all activities and to ensure that the whole process is consistent with Islamic principles.

Interestingly, once the fund has been used to pay for any valid claims, any surplus money is redistributed to participants at the end of the year in the form of discounted premiums, which come in addition to any no-claims bonuses.

"What is unique is the ethical nature of what we do," says Bradley Brandon-Cross, the chief executive of Salaam Halal Insurance. "It's a transparent process and the opportunity to get something back is attractive to customers, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike."

But there is no guarantee that there will be any surplus money to share out. Motor insurance firms have been making underwriting losses in recent years: there was a recorded deficit of £267m in 2007 and £204m in 2006.

At Salaam Halal, if claims outweigh contributions, shareholders advance the money to pay for any excess claims. Shareholders then recover that cash in times of profit. This could mean that even in years in which there are surplus funds, there will be little or no money left to share out among participants after the retrieval of shareholders' contributions.

Sharia prohibits usury – the receiving of interest – as well as the undertaking of haram activities (those that are forbidden to Muslims, such as gambling and dealing in alcohol or arms). This leaves many financial products, including conventional insurance, in opposition to sharia, and so many Muslims have few options when shopping for products that conform to their faith. Standard insurance falls down because it involves the taking of a financial risk that the policyholder will make a loss if a claim does not occur, which to many Muslim scholars constitutes a gamble.

Insurance is just the latest of Islamic financial products to become available in the UK. In comparison with mortgages, the insurance sector has been slow on the uptake. Islamic mortgages have grown from having a 0.3 per cent market share in 2003, to 0.8 per cent in 2009 with a value of £429m, according to the research company Datamonitor.

Salaam Halal's motor insurance has just become available through price- comparison site Moneysupermarket. com and the indications are that it's both popular and competitive. "There has been a lot of interest," says Kaye Pimblett, motor insurance manager at the site. "During its first seven days on Moneysupermarket.com, Salaam Hall returned more than 37,000 quotes. And when they returned a quote, they appeared in the top three positions on over a third of occasions," she adds. Already, the insurer has plans to take its co-operative model of doing business into the home insurance sector.

Lloyds Banking, which has pioneered Islamic finance products in the UK, is not surprised at the popularity of any sharia-compliant launch. "Although as a market, UK Islamic finance is in its infancy, it's still set to become big business," says Emile Abu-Shakra, a spokesman for the bank. "We offer Islamic current and business accounts, mortgages and investment funds."

Mr Abu-Shakra adds: "We piloted these in just five branches in 2005 but that quickly expanded to all 2,000 the following year."