University: University of Cambridge
Undergraduate degree: Law
The term ‘Islamic finance’ refers to a system of banking that is consistent with sharia law. In particular, interest is prohibited, as is investing in businesses considered unlawful, such as those which trade in pork or alcohol. Although Islamic finance was initially important predominantly to commercial firms with interests in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East, it is now a practice area in every major international firm. Banks, financial institutions, sovereigns and corporates worldwide still take a great interest in traditional Islamic finance markets such as Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but there are also significant Islamic financial centres in London, Hong Kong and Singapore. This, combined with the growth of Islamic finance throughout Asia and Africa, is leading to an increased need for lawyers who understand Islamic finance.
The son of a Kashmiri immigrant to the United Kingdom, Mohammed Saqub was raised among humble surroundings in Birmingham. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do after sixth form, but at the back of his mind was the idea that he’d like to go to Cambridge. Law was really an afterthought: “I went to university without any real experience; all I knew about the law was from movies like My Cousin Vinny and The Firm.” But it proved no barrier and Mohammed was the first of his family to graduate from university.
After completing his law degree, he returned home to Birmingham, “partly because that’s where I’m from, and partly to continue to help care for my brother”. Looking back, Mohammed realises that although he had been his brother’s carer from a young age, it was when he returned from university to care for him during this second phase that he really began to find himself. “I considered myself fortunate that I was in a position to care, as it gave me purpose – having purpose has been at the centre of my approach to law. On returning to Birmingham, I was unemployed and found myself at the job centre – I didn’t really know what else to do. I knew I had to apply for vacation placements, but I was behind the curve. I went to a few interviews and, looking back, my answers were so off the mark, I had next to no commercial understanding.” Not allowing that to hold him back though, Mohammed took a year out to get some work experience “so I could learn to be more polished – something they didn’t really teach me at school.”
Taking control of a law career
Mohammed’s newly gained office experience proved invaluable. He went to the College (now University) of Law and applied for a training contract and was offered a place at Davies & Partners with admission for the same year. “That was how I started my legal career, with that training contract – and I remember using LawCareers.Net for all my many applications.”
Once the training contract was completed, Mohammed went to work for Gowling. “I really enjoyed the experience, but I found it very difficult being a full-time carer along with long office hours. My brother required support during the night and it really had an impact on how I functioned the following day.” The firm was very good about his personal circumstances and offered Mohammed the opportunity to take time out or work part time, but he chose instead to move to Shakespeare Martineau on a four-day basis with shorter working hours, so that he could continue to care for his brother. “To be honest, I found part-time working a bit of a struggle. Now that I am an employer myself, I recognise the struggle in others and relate to those on part-time working patterns with responsibilities outside work.”
“There are communities in the UK with no access to finance because they think they can’t for religious reasons – I was part of the story that made it possible for them to access finance"
Mohammed inevitably ended up working on his day off, but it gave him time to think about what it was that he wanted to do with his career. “I am Muslim and I had some difficulties being involved in certain transactions, for example, I was volunteered to work on a pub refinance transaction. I was really uncomfortable with this, but I never had the courage to say so.” As a “good Muslim boy” the penny dropped and Mohammed decided that he wanted to have more control over his work and his interest in Islamic finance blossomed. During the early years of his career, he researched what Islamic finance was really about. “I worked for a Birmingham firm in a Birmingham office – there was no Islamic finance knowledge, so I taught myself.” He listened to podcasts by Mohammed Amin, then head of Islamic finance at PWC and booked himself on a course that Amin was teaching. “I turned up and only understood the first 10 minutes. I was a simple property lawyer at the time and easily confused.” Taking the bull by the horns, Mohammed approached Amin and asked for some practical experience and before long he was being introduced to the sales director of the Islamic Bank of Britain. The bank recognised his ambition, even though he told them quite candidly that “I don’t know where I can add value, but you are doing a lot of property transactions and I am becoming a good property lawyer.” The bank took him on board and Mohammed was soon advising government agencies on Islamic finance, including the Land Registry. The registry had no Islamic finance experience and Mohammed was asked to write its Islamic finance practice guide.
With time, he became involved in more complicated forms of Islamic finance. Revenue began to flow and he found himself with more of a say in the practice and its business plan. Fast forward a decade, and Mohammed has a team of about 40, working on cross-discipline, varied and significant transactions
For Mohammed, it was grass roots, not capital markets, that really got him ticking: “There are communities in the UK with no access to finance because they think they can’t for religious reasons. I was part of the story that made it possible for them to access finance. We’ve now completed tens of thousands of transactions – from Joe Bloggs who wants to buy a property using an Islamic mortgage, to a developer who wants to use a sharia-compliant credit line. I saw my role and purpose to make Islamic finance less ‘exotic’ and to provide support from the grass roots up.”
Islamic finance – where next?
In the last year, both Mohammed’s practice and his thinking have developed. He is now extending his interest into Islamic economics, as “finance is only a small element of the whole philosophy of the economics of Islam”. Looking at the ‘Muslim pound’, Mohammed questions where Islamic finance’s place will be in post-Brexit Britain. “When Elizabeth I was side-lined in Catholic Europe, she built an alliance with the Shah of Iran, the Ottomans, the King of Morocco – she developed relationships with the Muslim world. Let’s look at this again!”
Mohammed has a young team and he takes mentoring seriously because he never had any formal mentoring himself. “My team joke with me because I make it sound too easy. But my advice is simple: you need a purpose, because through your purpose you find yourself. I began to understand myself better when I was a carer and I’ve tried ever since to ensure that I have a purpose linked to what I believe in.”
Mohammed’s advice to young and upcoming lawyers is clear and passionate: “If you feel you have a purpose, you will do well”. He encourages the next generation of lawyers to ask themselves why they want to work in law. Mohammed sees his religious upbringing as a significant driver in his desire to help communities. “Don’t just live for the weekend,” he advises. “It may take a while, but spend time each week thinking about your purpose and things will grow from there. Some people become lawyers for the status or the money, or maybe to use their brains and solve problems, but these skills will be so much more productive if you grasp your ‘why’!”