NSAC Feature: Professor Tunku Alina Alias, PhD

By Tiffany-Ashley Disney – This author had the opportunity to meet with with Professor Tunku Alina Alias, who teaches Islamic Finance Law at the University of Miami School of Law.  The following is summary of this meeting.

Tell me about your career: In 1992 my law partner and I co-founded a firm in Malaysia.  It’s a small medium firm, almost boutique and I practiced there until 2011. I then came to America in February of 2012.

Tell me about the class you teach: It’s my first time teaching. I like that the University gives me discretion as to what to teach. I only have five students, so I conduct it more like a tutorial. I give a lot of personal attention, and that means the students don’t get away with too much (chuckles). It’s more like a business class than a legal class. Islamic finance is very recent, very practical, and very organic. The law lags behind the practice, so I first give the students the context so they understand. The first half of the class is business, then the law comes in.

When did you get your PhD? I started my PhD in 2007 in Islamic Finance at International Centre for Education in Malaysia. The PhD was very “trendy” because all the banks in that city were getting into that business.

What led you to get your PhD in Islamic Finance? I am by ethnicity a Malay, and under the Malaysian Constitution, a Malay is defined as someone who is of the Muslim religion, practices the Malay culture, and speaks the Malay language.  I practiced Muslim religion quite faithfully to the best of my ability, but had a lot of questions. I was wondering how to dovetail my faith with my practice, especially with the financial institutions. I wasn’t satisfied with my knowledge, and I wasn’t happy drafting Islamic contracts on such limitations. I didn’t think too much of my religion prior to getting my PhD, but started questioning the rituals while getting my degree. Through Islamic Finance, I found freedom to think outside the box.

I don’t know what you know about Islamic Finance

– well I know you have to get your notes approved by the religious leaders –

Well, classically unless one were a qualified jurist, a Muslim is not permitted to interpret the laws. Only qualified people may make the rules, modifications of the law. But Islamic Finance has brought a new approach. You wouldn’t find the practices of today’s Islamic Finance in the 10th Century but it has developed out of necessity.  So I found the freedom to stretch my mental and spiritual wings, but it created a crisis for me because I was at the same time questioning everything. I came to a point that I realized nothing in Islamic law prevented me from practicing my profession as transactions between human beings are based on the principle of permissibility, subject to certain specific prohibitions ( eg no usury, no gambling etc) .

What was the experience like working while getting your PhD?  It was supposed to be seven years, but I finished it in four years in 2011, as I wanted to shorten the “pain”. I almost gave up towards the end, but my husband encouraged me, and said “I’ve done this PhD with you. You’re going to finish it.” I learned that I cannot do anything without a support system. You think part of being a lawyer is being superhuman and you can do everything for your client. But I couldn’t have done it without my husband, law partner, and staff. Don’t ever discount human relationships. This experience helped me to be more understanding today towards my students.

So your experience was not only an academic experience, but also a spiritual experience? Absolutely.

What led you to begin teaching? Throughout practice, young associates came to me, as mentees or trainees, maybe so I could torture them (chuckles). I was a teacher and I loved it. I had all this knowledge and I had to share it. I wanted to slow down and not practice anymore.

Tell me about your research: My love is philanthropy. I visited the University of Indiana Center for Philanthropy and brought back what I learned and incorporated it into my thesis on the Islamic trust or foundation (waqf). My research is continuing and has two aspects: 1. Historical information about waqf and 2. Development of waqf and how it impacts the modern world economically. There is just so much material.

What class would you like to teach? I love the current subject and will continue to teach it if given the opportunity. Other classes might be Philanthropy and Wealth Management.

What’s it like being a woman in your area of practice? From the Malaysian experience, there is no disadvantage, surprisingly. At least two generations before me had paved the way for my generation. It’s actually an advantage being a woman in negotiations and court. They look at a woman, and tend to underestimate one. It’s very convenient if they underestimate me because it throws my opponents off-balance. Clients and counsel have no problem with me being a woman.

What are some presentations you have done? Oh, I have traveled to participate in international conferences and workshops on waqf.. I’m presenting at this one upcoming conference in in Tokyo. I thought it was going to be just Islamic scholars, as the institution is an Islamic institution, but there are scholars from all over the world who are involved in this area of research.

A list of the Professor’s presentations are as follows:

  • Tax Laws Affecting Waqf in Malaysia: a Comparison with the United States & Turkey, presented at 6th UUM International Legal Conference, 2011, Bayview Beach Resort, Penang (Nov 19 – 20, 2011)
  • Writing a Qualitative Thesis for Waqf Reforms in Malaysia. A Journey, INCEIF Forum, Nov 2011
  • INCEIF’s 3rd Convocation, Graduates’ Representative Speech, Sasana Kijang, Kuala Lumpur, Oct 2011
  • Corporate Waqf, Presenter, INCEIF-Iqra Foundation, Sasana Kijang, Malaysian Central Bank, Oct 2011
  • Sustainability Model for a Venture-Capitalist Firm: Metrics for a Shari’ah-based Balanced Scorecard, Co-authored with Abduo Diaw, presented at Inaugural ISRA Colloquium, Innovation in Islamic Finance: Shari’ah Driven or Market Driven, June 2011
  • A Social Enterprise Model for Waqf Funds, Public Lecture, INCEIF Auditorium, Feb 2012
  • State of Waqf in Malaysia: Prospects and Challenges, Centre for Islamic Economics and Department of Economics, International Islamic University, November 2012
  • “Law on Waqf Asset Management – Malaysia Practices, Norms and the Road to Policy and Legal Reform” at GDRI Workshop Managing Waqf and Other Foundational Assets: From Practice to Norms , Centre National de la Researche Scientifique, Aix en Provence, France 6-7th July 2013
  • “Introduction of Family and Public Waqfs into the Malay States in the 19th and early 20th Centuries and External Influences on the Norms Affecting Waqfs in Malaysia up to 1957” at Middle East Studies Association of North America, MESA 2013 Roundtable Session R3451 – The Need to Compare: Going Beyond the Area Studies Approach to Waqf Endowments , New Orleans, Oct 10-13, 2013

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