Difference Between Commercial Banking and Islamic Banking

by Ali Ismail


When we talk about banking, we are discussing the products and services offered by the financial industry including lending money, facilitating payments, and managing accounts. Banking services are available to individuals, companies, and governments. There are some key differences between commercial banking and Islamic banking.

Banks and financial institutions play an important role in the economy. Not only do they facilitate financial transactions, but they also act as intermediaries between businesses, between borrowers and savers, and between lenders and businesses.

Banks facilitate transactions and manage credit and debit accounts. The role in the economy goes beyond managing money. They are also responsible for ensuring the financial systems remain stable, and they are therefore subject to regulation and oversight by central banks.

The regulation of banks ensures that there is ongoing prudent financial management, and risk mitigation in addition to compliance with legal standards.


Commercial banking is a traditional form of banking used across the globe, especially in Western economies. In its very basic form, commercial banking relates to the services and activities that banks can provide to individuals, entrepreneurs, businesses and governmental organisations.

Commercial banks undertake various activities, including:
  • Payments: commercial banks facilitate incoming and outgoing payments, transfers, cheques.
  • Debit and credit cards: commercial banks provide customers with debit and credit cards
  • Trading: banks also facilitate national and international trade by enabling international payments and foreign exchange transactions.
  • Investment services: commercial banks offer brokerage services and accounts, advisory services, and information about investment options.
  • Corporate banking: commercial banks offer the corporate world specialised corporate services to encourage and facilitate corporate trade and transactions.

One of the main underlying principles of commercial banking is the payment and receipt of interest. A commercial bank makes money by earning interest on loans and financial instruments that it provides to businesses, individuals, and large corporations.

Commercial banks also make money from the fees they charge for their products. For example, when offering loans and mortgages, the bank will usually charge a fee for this service.

Commercial banking rests on the following main principles:
  • Profitability - as with any commercial business, the banks main focus is on profitability.
  • Liquidity - liquidity refers to the ability of assets to be quickly converted into cash/ money.
  • Solvency - commercial banks need to be solvent at all times. What this means is that they have financial sufficiency and capability. This level of solvency enables banks to remain in competitive markets with enough capital.

Islamic banking is very different to traditional commercial banking. Islamic banking is based on Islamic finance principles and guidelines. These guidelines follow Islamic Sharia law. Sharia law prohibits the receipt or payment of interest, as this is considered to be deeply unethical and exploitative.

Sharia compliant banking, underpinned by Islamic finance principles, does not charge or pay any form of interest. This does raise the question of how do Islamic banks make a profit if they do not charge interest to the customer.

The answer to this lies in the structure and the practices within Islamic finance institutions. Instead of making profit through interest, Islamic banks profit through equity sharing and partnership arrangements. These arrangements ensure that the profits and losses are shared between the parties.

Let's have a look at the way Islamic banks operate and how they make a profit:
  • Profit and loss sharing - Islamic banks rely on Sharia concepts such as musharaka (cost-plus financing) and mudaraba (partnership based financing). The former requires both the customer and the bank to contribute capital and share in any profits arising from the investment. Mudaraba is a slightly different arrangement where the bank provides the capital and the individual manages the running of the business. Both these arrangements facilitate profit sharing in an equitable way.
  • Asset-backed finance - Islamic banks rely on asset-based finance arrangements. Often, this means that the bank or financial institution will purchase an asset at the request of the customer and then sell it back to them. The sale back is at a higher price which is usually paid back in instalments.
  • Investments - Islamic banks are permitted to engage in investment activities. However, the difference between Islamic banks and conventional banks is that Islamic banks retain control over the industries they invest in. They do not invest in industries that are deemed to be impermissible in Islam (ie, gambling, porn, alcohol). Additionally, any investment activity is not interest based and is not speculative or uncertain. This means the level of risk is often lower than the investment activities of commercial banks.


As already mentioned above, the main principles relating to Islamic banking are derived from Sharia law. Sharia law guides Islamic finance and differentiates it from conventional commercial banking.

The key principles of Islamic banking are:
  • No interest - there is a strict prohibition on interest (riba). This means that any deposit or payment does not accrue or attract interest in any form.
  • Profits and losses - Islamic finance centres on the notion of equitable relationships and non-exploitative relationships. This means that there has to be equitable sharing of profits and losses between the parties.
  • No uncertainty - excessive uncertainty is not permissible in Islamic banking. This means that any investor, entrepreneur, business, or leader looking to engage in activities needs to ensure that the trade or investment is not uncertain or ambiguous. Financial transactions should be transparent and solution based.
  • Ethical and social responsibility - Islamic finance is underpinned by the key concepts of ethical behaviour and social responsibility. There is an onus on those with control to ensure that the parties engage in activity that does not adversely affect others and that benefits society as a whole.
  • No speculation - it is important for Islamic banking to ensure that financial activities are based on real economic transactions, not hypothetical or speculative activities.
  • No excessive debt - again, to ensure there is equity and transparency, Islamic finance requires that excessive debt is avoided. Islam promotes responsible borrowing and lending practices.


The main difference between commercial banking and Islamic banking are the main principles which guide the banking activities. As already discussed, Islamic banking does not rely on interest payments or interest based activities.

Whilst commercial banks rely on interest as a fundamental component when it comes to lending and borrowing, Islamic banks are more focused on a profit-loss sharing arrangement.

Whilst both commercial and Islamic banks offer a variety of financial products and services, Islamic banks have to ensure they are compliant with Sharia rules about financial activities. Islamic banks provide similar services to commercial banks (loans, mortgages, savings accounts etc) but the key difference is that they offer Sharia compliant alternatives to their clients.

Islamic banks actively avoid financial deals and transactions that are deemed to be risky and speculative such as derivatives and trading securities. The ethical and social responsibility element of finance is not something that features as heavily in commercial banking as it does in Islamic banking.

Commercial banks aim to generate and maximise profits through interest that is earned on lending and other banking services. For Islamic banks, interest is prohibited, so they look to Sharia compliant ways of generating profits.

It is important to remember that both Islamic and commercial banking aim to offer financial services to meet their clients needs. Islamic banking is favoured by Muslims because the principles of Islamic finance mean they remain compliant with their religious obligations. However, Islamic finance has a much wider appeal to customers across the Muslim and non-Muslim world.


In the United Kingdom, the regulatory framework is managed by the Financial Conduct Authority.

As part of its supervisory and regulatory role, the Financial Conduct Authority aims to protect the customers of financial institutions that offer any form of financial product or service. The Financial Conduct Authority also ensures that it promotes healthy competition between financial service providers.


Risk management and mitigation are essential tasks for banks. Not only does risk management ensure that banks have a risk management strategy in place, but it also ensures banks remain compliant with the relevant regulatory regime in place.

Commercial banks assess risks on an ongoing basis to ensure that they can maintain their financial stability. Risk management also prevents unexpected losses that could occur and help the bank prepare for long-term viability and market fluctuations. Ultimately, commercial banking is arguably more volatile that Islamic banking as it places itself in a more fluctuating, interest and economy based market.

Islamic banking mitigates risk by avoiding interest based transactions, and discouraging speculative behaviour. The risk and reward is shared between the parties, this leads to shared responsibilities when it comes to risk.


Risk management in Islamic banking is different from the risk management in conventional commercial banks.

Islamic finance promotes the forecasting of financial risks and ensures the necessary risk mitigation strategies are in place from the outset. Under Sharia rules and guidelines, Islamic banks manage risk via practices which actively mitigate risk. These practices include ensuring that is an equitable profit and loss sharing arrangements. Islamic finance also requires that parties to a transaction share the risk, so one party is not left dealing with huge losses.

Through intense screening and due diligence, Islamic banks assess feasibility in a more rigorous way than commercial banks. This helps them identify potential issues before they arise and mitigate risks early on.

Islamic banks will usually have Sharia compliant scholars and boards working with the bank and ensuring it is compliant and regulated. These boards provide Islamic guidance on complex transactions and reduce the risk exposure. Many Islamic banks will also ensure they have contingency funds and reserves to deal with unexpected events and losses.

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