Dr Amjad Saqib's interview with Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University at the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) Dhaka, Bangladesh 9-11th January
Background: The context for this
discussion is preparation for a consultation on faith
and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka,
Bangladesh, on January 10-11, 2011. The consultation
is an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue
(WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace,
and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support
from the Henry R. Luce Foundation. Its aim is to take
stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different
organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired
by religious faith, but more important, to explore
the policy implications that emerge from their interactions
with development organizations. The interview was
conducted by telephone between Michael Bodakowski
and Dr. Muhammad Amjad Saqib.
Interview Conducted on November 1, 2010
Dr. Saqib is Executive Director of Akhuwat. In this
interview he reflects on his role as the founder and
director of an interest free microfinance institution.
He talks about how his organization functions on a
technical as well as a social level. He discusses
his engagement with religious institutions and leaders,
and how this helps him to earn the trust of the communities
he works in, as well as to ensure the sustainability
of his organization. Dr. Saqib argues that faith is
an intrinsic part of development, and that to leave
out faith is excluding large parts of the population.
He urges international development actors to increase
their engagement with religious leaders to be able
to reach the most marginalized. He concludes with
observations about education in Pakistan and identifies
common ground between faith-based and other development
Tell us about your personal
story and path, and how you arrived to do the work
you are doing today?
Many years ago, when I was in the civil service of Pakistan,
I got an opportunity to work for a poverty alleviation
program. It was there that I learned much about microfinance.
During my stint in this program, besides many other experiences,
I also made two interesting observations. The first was
that people were reluctant to take loans with built-in
interest as it is forbidden in the religion. Let me add
here that every religion in the world is against usury
or charging interest on loans. Though people did not like
interest-based lending, yet they had no other option and
hence, they had to participate in this form of borrowing.
The second observation that disturbed me immensely was
the exorbitantly high rates of interest that were being
charged from the poor. If a rich person wanted to buy
a luxury item like BMW or a Mercedes, he could get a loan
at 12 percent or perhaps 15 percent. However, if a poor
person needed a loan, it was more than likely that he
would be given that at 30 to 40 percent rate of interest.
Even from a secular point of view, this becomes a question
of gross inequity. We have slogans all over the country
that suggest that we should help the poor and yet, we
are charging a 30 to 40 percent interest rate on loans
and making the poor even poorer. These two observations
prompted me to find a solution to the issue of high interest
on small loans and also encouraged me to critically examine
the social, moral, and cultural values of society that
allow such forms of usury.
On one particular day, a very poor woman came to me. She
said she was a widow and if she was given a loan for Rs.
10,000 (which is about $150), she would be able to keep
her livelihood; however, she insisted that the loan should
be interest free. So, I requested a friend of mine for
support. Together we generated a pool of money and were
able to loan her the money on those terms. She was so
touched by this gesture that she worked even harder. She
made good use of the funds and in a span of mere six months
she was able to improve the lives of her children and
other members of her family. She was able to marry one
of her daughters. She also repaid the borrowed amount.
That was the beginning of this organization, which was
Please tell us more about Akhuwat.
After the delivery of the first loan, we created a pool
of money through donations from known philanthropists,
friends, and well-to-do people. That pool of money was
our capital which, thankfully, came to us free of cost.
We started to distribute that money to the poor without
any loan fees and without charging interest. Our initial
loan was Rs. 10,000, and I am proud to tell you that by
December 2010 we had loaned close to Rs. 1 billion. Our
current pool of money that is around Rs. 250 million is
like a revolving fund. We loan money to the poor, we recover
our loan, and then we loan out the money again to another
person in need. Through circulating this amount of money
amongst the poor, we have been able to generate loans
near to Rs. 1 billion. Our recovery rate, at 99.7%, is
astonishingly high and speaks of the fact that the poor
are trustworthy people.
The entire program is founded on the concept of Akhuwat,
which in Arabic means brotherhood. We borrowed this concept
from the tradition of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon
him. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said that the best
way to end poverty is not through charity but through
sacrifice and adoption. He suggested that a wealthy person
should adopt a poor person and help that person. To be
more precise, a wealthy person should enter into a relationship
of brotherhood with a poor person and then help that person
through a bond of association instead of giving dissociated
This is the notion of brotherhood that links a wealthy
person to an underprivileged person and it is derived
from the teaching of the Quran. This is the philosophy
behind our organization. We believe that poverty cannot
be eliminated through charity; in fact, it requires a
bond of brotherhood between the haves and the have
nots. Let me explain through an example. The total population
of the world at present stands at six billion. Two billion
of these are below poverty line. If the top two billion
who are not poor adopt the bottom two billion who are
poor, i.e. one person adopting only one, then the bottom
two billion may be lifted from the quagmire of poverty.
It looks very idealistic but it is simple. Akhuwat's four
guiding principles are derived from this one basic concept.
The first principle of our organization is that we do
not charge interest on our loans. Interest is forbidden
in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and all major religions
of the world, and we think that interest is one of the
basic reasons for poverty and exploitation of the poor.
After we decided not to charge any interest, we suddenly
ran into the problem of sustainability. If we are not
charging interest, how are we going to cover operational
expenses? We brainstormed solutions and finally got an
idea. The idea was that we could work at local religious
centers such as mosques and churches and link our offices
to these instead of having an office in an expensive building.
That way, we could be in touch with people and the local
imams and priests that are providing services to the people
of Allah. This would also enable us to be in touch with
the community and not only help raise funds but also help
identify people in need and distress.
This innovation developed into the second principle that
guides our organization, i.e. we operate from local religious
centers. We researched the history of religious institutions
and found that they had been centers of community participation
in the past. They provided services to the poor and were
the platform for community action. In the city of Lahore
there are more than 17,000 mosques and a good number of
churches and unfortunately these are all underutilized,
only used during prayer time. During other periods of
time they are mostly empty. So we linked our office with
a mosque and started doing most of our activities in the
mosque. We received immediate support and trust of the
community and were able to also reduce our operating costs.
The third principle integral to our organization is volunteerism.
A civil society organization is different from a private
sector organization because it has in-built volunteerism.
If any civil society organization is devoid of the volunteer
spirit, it runs the risk of becoming a business. In Akhuwat,
we expect people to give their time and their abilities;
the spirit of the entire organization is based on volunteerism.
This is also derived from our faith, in which the principle
of volunteerism is the most important part of every tradition.
Every prophet is a volunteer, right from Abraham, Moses,
Jesus, and the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. The Prophets
always looked beyond themselves to help the community
socially, morally, economically, and politically. We wanted
to follow the footsteps of these great prophets and adopt
their methods of bringing change to the community through
The fourth principle for our organization is that we do
not want to make people dependent. We want the people
who borrow from us to stand on their own feet and one
day become donors themselves for others in need. We are
not charging any interest or profit, but we are supporting
people and hopefully instilling a value to help others
after their own needs are fulfilled.
All religions place emphasis on charity and also teach
that charity is not confined to the wealthy members of
society; everyone is responsible to give, based on his
or her resources. We believe that society flourishes,
progresses, and develops only when there are more givers
than takers. For the long-term sustainable development
of a society, we have to create a critical mass of people
who are willing to give to the poor and needy instead
In Pakistan 50 percent of the people are poor and the
other 50 percent are not poor. If the 50 percent that
are wealthy stand in solidarity with the 50 percent that
are poor they could improve social conditions for everyone.
You may consider this an idealistic vision of the world
but we have tried, tested, and achieved it. We have been
able to reach over 80,000 families, and we still continue
to progress and grow.
I believe these four principles are relevant not only
in Pakistan but in any society. Whether a person is secular
or follows a religion, these principles are important
and appealing to all. However, for us at Akhuwat, these
principles are linked to the faith. We promote this spirit
of brotherhood as taught by the Holy Prophet, peace be
upon him, to alleviate poverty. It is not charity but
rather adopting a family and helping it improve its life
through sharing instead of charity. We organize all of
our programs around this central tenet. Though the inspiration
is derived from the Islamic concept of brotherhood, the
message is for all humankind. We do not discriminate on
the basis of religion, race, caste, creed, tribe, or gender.
We are trying to support the people irrespective of any
divide or affiliation.
What does development mean for Akhuwat?
We believe deeply in participatory development. We believe
in inclusive development. In a religion-centered country
like Pakistan, if you do not involve the religious people including the mosques and the imams then a large part
of the population and society remains excluded. Religion
is also pro-development. Any development model that excludes
religious people, places, and spaces is insufficient to
cater to the needs of entire population. If we want to
include the poor living in rural areas and slums in the
development process, then we will have to involve faith,
religious actors, and religious places. We thus decided
to bring religious institutions to the development forefront
and make them partners in the development process.
This is our understanding of an inclusive and participatory
development model. It also needs mentioning that there
is no religious, gender, or age discrimination in our
organization. For example, Christians come to the mosque
and Muslims go to the church as well. This has promoted
interfaith harmony; for the first time Christians are
welcomed in mosques. Women are facilitated to come to
the mosques freely. In this way we have been able to help
different social and religious communities bind together
to respond to common concerns, issues, and challenges.
I would like to reiterate that religion should not be
excluded from the development paradigm. Development is
not just an economic change; it is social, moral, and
political. Religion primarily focuses on social and moral
development of the individual, which it aims to attain
through leading by example, equity, compassion, provision,
securing of human rights, and equitable distribution of
economic resources. Development process in a society therefore
needs to involve indigenous institutions and faith.
Can you expand on how Akhuwat gets funds
for its operational costs and guarantees repayment
of its loans?
We have our offices that are linked to a church or a mosque.
Some of our activities take place in the mosque or the
church and some of them take place in the office. This
is how we keep our operational costs low. The conventional
microfinance organizations spend about 30 percent of the
disbursed amount for operations. We have reduced our cost
to 10 percent of the disbursed amount. This is one third
of the operating cost of a traditional microfinance organization.
It is interesting to note that around sixty percent of
our costs are met by donations from our borrowers. We
inspire them to donate as much as they want in return
for the interest free loan. Without any compulsion or
coercion, they are giving donations to meet operational
costs; this makes us 60 percent self-sufficient. The way
the program is progressing, we believe that in few years,
the entire operational cost will be matched by donations
given by the borrowers, and we will be operationally self-sufficient.
Akhuwat is gradually becoming a cooperative movement.
There is no other organization where the beneficiaries
are the donors as well. There is a tremendous amount of
willingness among the borrowers to become donors of this
program. They are committed to making it better, through
supporting the program and ensuring that it is sustainable.
Akhuwat is providing them services that are aligned to
their faith. This has cultivated their ownership, and
ownership is critical for the success of a development
program. This voluntary donation is also indicative of
the fact that they are coming out of poverty. It proves
the success of interest-free credit methodology.
What is the nature of Akhuwat's relationship
with local churches and mosques? How are local faith
communities and religious leaders directly involved
in community development activities?
Initially there was some resistance from the religious
leaders, and some of the imams did not understand our
vision. Religious leaders, as we have noted, are generally
excluded from mainstream development. They thought we
were encroaching on their domain; they did not trust us
and they thought we had a hidden agenda. They did not
think that we could bridge these two worlds, the economic
and the spiritual; they doubted our intentions. We tried
to explain that religious places are also meant for the
social welfare of human beings, and we gave examples from
Islamic history and reminded them that the mosque was
once used to be the seat of governance. It was always
a part of the development process; we did not want to
take control of the mosque, but we were trying to utilize
the institution to help the community and promote peace
and equity. Once they understood, they responded positively.
They also realized that when we give loans through the
office of the mosque, the social status of the imam is
raised and he feels empowered. The entire process is about
engaging and empowerment. Through our program, we have
tried to take the mosque out of seclusion and brought
it into the development mainstream.
It was a difficult path and we struggled, but we have
managed to make progress. Now as a routine matter we also
involve the mosque to implement a social agenda. We teach
the people about the importance of educating women, about
human rights, environmental pollution, education and health
issues, etc. On the one hand it is about loans, entrepreneurial
training and capacity building, and on the other hand
it is about social development and guidance to enable
the community to progress. We have found a thriving institution
where many players can pursue common objectives in a fully
transparent and participative manner.
You mentioned that religious leaders are
excluded from mainstream development. Why is this
so and what are the main tensions? How can secular
organizations better work to bridge this gap and overcome
It is extremely important in a society like Pakistan,
which has a huge faith focus, that people realize that
you cannot have development without involving faith-based
institutions. Engaging the faith leaders is the most important
thing to do for the uplifting of the community; however,
it is only possible through dialogue and mutual understanding
and frequent interaction. The religious leaders live in
a domain of their own. They mostly do not trust the outside
world. The non-religious people and the secular agencies
also stay aloof and do not try to pursue a productive
dialogue with the religious leadership. How will the much
needed harmony in the society be achieved?
There are thousands of madrasas and each one has a mosque
attached to it. We need to enhance the options available
to these students and try to bring them into mainstream
society. We need to engage the madrasa leaders and the
students so that they are aware of the options that are
open to them. Without working with them, we cannot involve
or engage them in development activities. As I said, when
I first went to the religious leaders and told them about
the program they were distrustful; over time, our relationship
has changed and developed into mutual trust and accommodation.
Poverty in fact is poverty of opportunity. We told the
religious leaders that the purpose of our program was
to give poor people opportunity to access loans or financial
resources so that they could improve their lives. We also
told them that we are giving people loans according to
the tenets of Islamic faith, and this is also in accordance
with the teaching of all religions. We are not charging
interest and yet, we are managing to give the poor people
access to resources and opening doors to development.
Let me give you an example from Bangladesh. Similar to
Pakistan, faith is an integral part of the Bangladeshi
culture. The country became successful in the implementation
of its population control programs when it engaged the
faith leaders. Faith proved to be a key success factor.
The religious leaders are not against development, but
we need to engage them like other stakeholders, so that
they understand the process and can be included in it.
This is not an easy task. There are many barriers. Religious
leaders are often not as well educated in development
disciplines. Sometimes they do not speak the language
the people in development organizations speak. So inclusion
here entails a different strategy; we engage them in creative
ways so that we can talk about education, microfinance,
women's empowerment, and social and economic development
This inclusion is the only way to fight against illiteracy,
ignorance, discrimination, extremism, and terrorism. Religion
is a positive force. It does not teach war, violence,
or terrorism, and it certainly does not take away the
liberties of women and the poor. All religions came to
rescue the disadvantaged. If you see the history of Islam,
you will see that the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him,
stood for social justice. He stood for empowerment of
these who were extremely disadvantaged and marginalized.
Religion is the pinnacle of moral values and should work
in communion with development organizations to eliminate
injustice, war, hatred, and violence.
How would you advise secular organizations
to engage religious leaders on a practical level?
The best way to bring these issues to the forefront is
to present this alternate paradigm and communicate it
to the world. We should organize workshops, seminars,
and conferences; write case-studies and publish books;
and then bring people to a common platform where we can
discuss, dialogue, and deliberate together. We need to
create a critical mass of people who are willing to see
development in the faith perspective. Once we do this,
we should be able to tell the world that these two factions
of society are willing to work together to alleviate the
poverty of the two billion poor people in the world. There
is no room for skepticism and mistrust. Religious leadership
needs to be told that being secular does not mean being
Promoting faith-inspired organizations that are helping
the poor and introducing them to the international development
community is important. We need to promote those organizations
that are not restricting services to their own faith or
those that do not have a hidden agenda. For example, there
are missionary or church-based organizations in Pakistan,
and I am happy to see that these organizations are highly
respected and well regarded. They do not serve their own
community only. They serve the entire Pakistani community.
If we promote such organizations we can build the bridges
and set examples.
I saw that Akhuwat grants loans for education. What
are the education challenges facing Pakistan, and how
have you faced them?
Education in Pakistan is riddled with neglect and confusion.
There are three systems of education that are operating
in the country. There are English medium schools for the
privileged and the rich. Then there are government schools
where the language of instruction is Urdu and where the
poor people send their children to get education. Naturally,
these students are unable to compete with the graduates
from the English schools. The third system is the madrasa
system where the children of the poorest of the poor attend
school. These schools appeal to the poor families because
they provide food for the children, and parents are relieved
from the stress of feeding a child two meals a day. There
is also the added benefit that the child is receiving
a religious education.
Those who emerge from these three streams do not have
a fair understanding of the others. They live in different
worlds. They have different aspirations, different dreams.
So, how does one go about trying to make three types of
people converge together? How can you make these three
sections of society into a one cohesive nation? This is
the challenge that is facing the Pakistani education system.
We need to bring these three systems closer to each other.
Obviously it cannot be done in one day. But the state,
international community, and NGOs should try to encourage
reform in madrasa education. The government schools and
English medium schools need reform too. The curriculum
is outdated, teachers lack capacity and motivation, and
there is a scarcity of teaching and learning materials.
The goal should be to develop a single system of education
so that every Pakistani child should have the access to
reach his/her full potential through education. No doubt
it will be an arduous and painful process because change
is always painful. It will also take a long time as injustices
bred over centuries cannot be removed in a short span
We should encourage students from the private elite institutions
to visit the government schools and the madrasas and vice-versa
so that they become aware that there is also a world beyond
their own world. Students from each system who are confined
to their spheres must be made aware of each other. We
need to form relationships between the students and teachers
and the parents of these students so that we may bridge
this gap. We also need support and commitment from political
leadership to bring about reform to make a single inclusive
education system. It would require tremendous resources,
both human and financial. It will also need persistence
and perseverance. This is the real challenge.
What are the primary gender challenges today in Pakistan?
What are the faith dimensions of those challenges? How
does Akhuwat work to address gender inequities?
In our lending program, 33 percent of the loans go to
women. We have never refused a loan application on the
basis of gender. We are gender sensitive in terms of employees,
donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries. We believe that
men and women both should be able to have access to the
services we offer, and we derive this value from faith.
Islam does define roles for both genders, but it does
not discriminate on the basis of gender. However, gender
discrimination in Pakistani society cannot be denied,
especially in the rural areas. This has, however, nothing
to do with religion; it is an evil rooted in our tribal
and feudal culture.
For example, Islam prescribes clear rules about inheritance.
But in the villages women are unable to get their share
in the inheritance and other benefits because of the gender
limitations that are related to tribal culture. In rural
society it is very difficult for a woman to obtain divorce,
yet in the Islamic faith, there are rules safeguarding
womens right to divorce. Women in rural areas are marginalized
and discriminated against despite the fact that this is
contrary to religious teachings. Islam says that education
is the right of every person, male and female without
discrimination; however, in feudal societies like ours,
the women are not allowed to get education. The feudal
tradition is communicated to the women usually through
religious leaders, and feudal cultural restrictions are
thus misinterpreted as religious restrictions. We have
to see it in the right perspective. Religion does not
take rights away from women; the basis of gender discrimination
in Pakistan hinges on tribal tradition.
How did faith-inspired organizations respond
to recent humanitarian crises in Pakistan, including
internal displacement due to conflict, and the recent
flooding in the country?
We have been victims of great crises in the past few years.
Yet we have emerged stronger. You will appreciate how
resilient our society is and how well we are adjusting
to these challenges. The major support for the downtrodden
and the victims of the flood and the earthquake has come
from faith. People in Pakistan help their brothers and
sisters because they are inspired by faith, whether they
are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, or Hindus. The role of
faith-based organizations, though, was limited, yet the
inspiration mostly came from faith.
Looking specifically at the Pakistani
context, faith, in varying forms and manifestations,
plays a large role in most segments of society, and
provides inspiration to many working for social good.
That said, do you see a clear distinction between
organizations inspired by faith, and those that are
outwardly secular in name, or is a more nuanced understanding
necessary? I have heard comments suggesting the latter.
The end goal of each organization is the same. Faith-inspired
organizations and secular organizations both intend to
bring development to the people; in terms of objectives
there is very little difference. The difference is in
operational methodology. Faith-inspired organizations
try to engage religious ideals, religious leaders, religious
teachings, and ethics. Religious tradition is their legacy
and reward hereafter is their motivation. Whereas the
secular organizations leave out the religion and religious
institutions, and therefore they, despite their best intentions,
fail to engage a large majority of the society. To some
extent both are limiting their scope. This is not inclusive
development. This is against the principles of participation.
We need to transcend prejudices and rise above personal
likes and dislikes. Embracing adversaries is the real
spirit of religion. Forgiveness and friendship is the
hallmark of true faith.
As I said, I do believe that the ultimate goal of each
organization, whether faith-inspired or secular, is the
same, that is, to bring development to the poor. The need
here is to bridge the gap and build alliances. The problems
of the poor are multidimensional. These problems can only
be solved through creative and concerted efforts. I know
many people who work on both sides of this divide. To
me, this divide is arbitrary and artificial. I firmly
believe in the innate goodness of people. We all want
to eliminate poverty and build a society that provides
equal opportunities to the rich and the poor. Our world
is already suffering from too many divides; let's see
development as a joint endeavor of the people, by the
people and for the people. Let's not succumb to another
division and let's make this world a happy place to live
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