Is Bitcoin Halal: Sharia Rules and Interpretation

by Shazia Hussain

Cryptocurrency is a form of virtual currency that is based on blockchain technology. Cryptocurrency is a digital asset, and the vast majority of cryptocurrencies are based on decentralised networks. This means that the currencies exist outside of centralised structures such as governments and banks.

The blockchain technology makes it virtually impossible for the system to be duplicated, hacked, or cheated, and acts as a centralised ledger of the currency. Digital assets such as bitcoin are still relatively new assets on the global financial markets. Many Muslims are seeking clarity as to whether cryptocurrency is deemed to be halal and Sharia compliant from an Islamic perspective.

The mathematical value calculation of cryptocurrency coins is based on the algorithm of the blockchain itself. Blockchain technology is seen as being an efficient, safe, and undeletable system. This lends credence and transparency to the cryptocurrency market. The question of whether bitcoin and other digital assets are halal is one that has been discussed and debated in recent years.

The former Sharia adviser to Blossom Finance, Mufti Muhammad Abu-Bakr, compiled a report in 2019 that stated that cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin, should be deemed to be halal and permissible under Sharia law. Mufti Abu-Bakr's decision was made on the basis that all traditional (and permissible) currencies tend to have a speculative element and cryptocurrencies should therefore be permissible in Islam. Since his report, Muslims have considered investing, trading, and exploring bitcoin as a new way of transacting with others.

In 2018, scholars from the Sharia Review Bureau in Bahrain stated that investment in cryptocurrency and coins such as Ethereum and bitcoins were permissible under Sharia law and halal. Their view was that bitcoin could be considered property (maal), and did not contain any form of interest.

Similarly, the Fiqh Council of North America has unanimously decided that bitcoin is permissible. Furthermore, the Sharia Advisory Council branch of Malaysia's security commission has advised that trading and investing in cryptocurrencies is permissible. This means that digital currencies can also be used to make zakat payments.

The Shacklewell Lane Mosque in London was one of the first mosques in the UK to accept cryptocurrency donations from Muslims. Most scholarly interpretations of digital currencies in the last few years have determined that cryptocurrencies are in fact halal.

Whilst many scholars have researched and reviewed the digital currency market, it is important for investors to undertake their own research before investing. In order to consider whether bitcoin is halal, we need to delve into the history of money from an Islamic perspective so that we can revisit the centuries-old Sharia rules relating to finance and investment.

This article will examine the historical perspective and apply the current interpretations in relation to bitcoin.

All cryptocurrency coins are virtual coins that exist in the crypto market, they do not have any physical form. The actual proof of legal ownership of the digital money is recorded on blockchain technology. The blockchain acts as a public record that records the digital growth of the coin, and the value of each coin.

Cryptocurrency works by recording transactions on a ledger and creating blocks. The ledger is available 24/7 and cannot be changed or overwritten. It is virtually impossible to counterfeit crypto, and all the computers that store blockchain technology have to 'agree' to comply with the accurate version of the ledger. When anyone purchases digital currency such as bitcoin they then own a private key that provides them with a code that authorises cryptocurrency transactions.

In the UK there are now cryptocurrency ATMs in London and further down south in areas including Plymouth and Penzance.

Bitcoin was first created as a digital currency after the 2008 global market crash caused by the banks. At the time, there was a lot of interest in and demand for a decentralised system of money that was not controlled by banks and governments.Key features of bitcoin include the following:
  • It is decentralised - there is no central power controlling it, instead is it based on sophisticated computer programmes
  • It is transparent - everyone on the ledger can see the transactions undertaken
  • It is non-repudiable - a buyer cannot claim they did not receive their coin if they did receive it
  • It is easy and simple to set up
  • The value of bitcoin is based on demand
  • It is a trustable coin
  • Anonymity - all bitcoin transactions are stored on a public ledger so there is very little secrecy
Bitcoins are traded through bitcoin exchanges. To send bitcoin to another investor you will need to use your private key to effectively 'sign off' on the transaction. Once the transaction is verified it cannot be reversed or revoked.

The history of money from an Islamic perspective can be traced back to the beginning of Islam. Islamically and under Sharia law, money is used for exchange rather than speculation or exploitation. This is one of the reasons that riba (interest) is strictly forbidden in Islam as it is seen as making a profit on money. The Islamic perspective of money and business rests on principles of social justice and non-exploitation.

Sharia laws relating to money state that to be used as a means of exchange the money should be safe, stable, and effective. The reason some Muslims are conflicted about the legitimacy of bitcoin and whether it is Sharia law compliant is that when the Quran was written there will obviously have been no mention of digital currencies as technology was not in the advanced stage it is today. This has meant that the permissibility of cryptocurrency has been open to judgement and interpretation by scholars.

The question about whether bitcoin is deemed to be halal Islamically has been raised again and again as Muslims across the globe consider whether to invest in cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is based on supply and demand in the way normal currencies often are, and the coins themselves hold value based on the market.

Bitcoin heralded the birth of the free, transparent, global financial market. It is not surprising, therefore, that Muslims began to interact with this market. Islamic finance rules provide boundaries and regulations relating to financial dealings. Whilst cryptocurrency is still a prominent area of news and research for Islamic finance scholars and experts, what is clear is that the majority of scholars and Imams have interpreted that cryptocurrencies do not breach any of the Sharia rules relating to Islamic finance.

The main features of Islamic finance that need to be considered when it comes to bitcoin are:
  1. Interest (riba) - interest is prohibited in Islam
  2. Speculation (maysir) - speculative investment is deemed to be akin to gambling and is not permissible
  3. Profit-loss sharing - parties to a transaction must share the risks and rewards according to Islamic finance
  4. No excessive risk (gharar) - Islamic finance dictates that transactions that are uncertain or carry excessive risk are not permissible.
  5. Application of trade and commerce (al bai')
Examining the Islamic finance principles mentioned above, it is clear that there is room for digital assets within an Islamic finance portfolio. Bitcoin does not have an interest element, nor does it provide one party with excessive profits or losses, or excessive risk.

As the world of cryptocurrencies continues to evolve, so does the demand for Sharia compliant coins. Recently, the Caizcoin was developed in Germany and marketed as the first fully Sharia compliant digital coin. It is likely that there will be further developments of digital currencies that meet all the requirements of Islamic finance principles.

Although already deemed Sharia compliant by Imams and scholars throughout the world, the Islamic cryptocurrency finance market is evolving to ensure that Muslims are catered for when it comes to investing in cryptocurrency. In January 2021, CoinMENA, the Middle Eastern digital assets exchange was given the go ahead from the Central Bank of Bahrain to become a certified sharia compliant exchange.

Muslims are becoming increasingly involved with the emerging digital currency fintech market, especially younger Muslims who are moving away from traditional forms of investment and entrepreneurship.

Discussions around bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency will continue in the years to come. Although many Muslim scholars have determined that investing in cryptocurrencies is halal, there will be some Muslims who will want to adopt a wait and see policy. As long as the bitcoin investment does not include haram activities then bitcoin itself does not contravene any Islamic finance principles that regulate investment, money management and currencies. What seems clear is that conceptually, bitcoin and cryptocurrency as a whole do not appear to be impermissible according to Sharia law rules. The growth of the Islamic cryptocurrency exchanges and coins does mean that there is more clarity and regulation than ever before for Muslims looking to invest in digital currencies.

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