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We have had a couple of questions recently from users asking about personal finances from a Muslim viewpoint. Should these types of questions be on-topic? Are these types of questions different than other questions where a user is asking about personal values preferences?

Recently asked questions:

Please note that I'm not only asking specifically about whether these two questions are good questions or not, but whether any question about Muslim finances is on-topic.

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I understand the negative reaction to these questions, but I think that, in general, we should not disqualify personal finance questions from a Muslim viewpoint solely because it mentions Islam.

First, it is important to note that just because a question could be asked on another Stack Exchange site does not automatically disqualify it here. The fact that these could be asked on Islam.SE does not by itself require closure here.

Second, I think it is important to differentiate questions about Islam vs. questions about finance. Our site is supposed to be a site for personal finance experts, not for Islam experts. So when deciding whether a question is on- or off-topic, we should look at what kind of expertise is required for an answer.

Let's take the compound interest question, for example. Let's pretend that the question did not mention Islam, but instead said, "For personal reasons, I don't want to participate in collecting interest from other people. Is there an alternative investment I can make to take advantage of the power of compounding interest?" Phrased that way, I believe it would be clearly on-topic. As a result, I think that particular question should remain open under this criteria. No expertise in Islam is required to answer this question.

For the Sharia-based 401k question, the OP has a fundamental misunderstanding of what a 401(k) account is, and that makes answering this question as-is very problematic. However, if the question was changed to "I am a Muslim living in [country]; are there any tax-advantaged retirement accounts, similar to a 401(k), available to me?", I would say it should remain open.

I don't think we should allow questions where we as answerers are required to tell people what their religion allows. A question that only says "I am a member of [religion]; am I allowed to invest in this?" should be off-topic. However, a question that says, "As a member of [religion], I won't accept profit from [business practice]; what is available to me?" could remain open.

The mention of a religion or any personal value-based worldview should not automatically disqualify a question on our site.

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    Good points. I found the response to both of these questions to be a bit hostile. I think the first question was actually very useful and relevant to the intent of this site. I hope it doesn't get closed. – JohnFx Oct 31 '16 at 23:44
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    Is owning a small portion of a company that holds interest bearing assets acceptable under the criteria "I don't want to participate in collecting interest from other people"? Is collecting interest from a government acceptable? Are dividends acceptable? – quid Nov 1 '16 at 1:34
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    @quid I think all of that would be fair game in an answer, as would asking the OP for further details. My point is that an OP asking what is allowed (or even what should be allowed) in his own religion is off-topic, but if he tells us what his own values are, we can help him with his question. – Ben Miller - Reinstate Monica Nov 1 '16 at 1:44
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    And I think these are 9 parts religion/morality/ethics 1 part personal finance, with a lot of interpretation required. However, I think the 401k question is the better of the two, because he's so clearly wrong about what a 401k is that there was actually an opportunity ignore completely the religious/ethical aspect of the question to explain that a 401k isn't an investment. I think we're just too quick to vote to close. But I'm just one opinion. – quid Nov 1 '16 at 1:52
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    @quid I don't necessarily disagree with you. With the way the OP phrased the question, you could certainly make the argument that he was looking for an investment recommendation that fit his religion. I chose to ignore that piece of it, and answer the non-religious question of how a compounding investment is possible without interest payments. In this way, I see the two questions the same: both have a mistaken premise about an on-topic concept. When deciding whether or not to close, I like to look for a reason to keep questions open, rather than a reason to close. – Ben Miller - Reinstate Monica Nov 1 '16 at 2:09
  • I agree with your answer. Questions about investing subject to certain restrictions are definitely on-topic as long as the restriction is communicable enough that sensible answers can be given. Questions about Islamic banking/investment are among the least objectionable, because (as an answer on that question noted) there are a variety of established financial instruments to serve that market, so people can be easily directed towards those to research on their own. – BrenBarn Nov 1 '16 at 3:56
  • Not sure "I am a Muslim living in [country]; are there any tax-advantaged retirement accounts, similar to a 401(k), available to me?" to me is a very different question. The answer would be Roth-IRA. But that is not what the OP is looking at. Rewording this one is very tricky. The closest I would try "Is there any way I can invest / plan for retirement [via retirement plan / or any such arrangement] where the funds don't get any interest; but the assets appreciate in value. – Dheer Nov 1 '16 at 8:06
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To add to the given answers, and respond to some comments on the original sharia-investing question and this meta question:

From my perspective, what matters is what the central intent of the question is. If the question is "How can I invest in accordance with [insert religious/ethical/moral/whimsical restriction here]", it is on topic as long as the restriction can be communicated clearly enough that answers can address it. Even if the restriction is quite broad, if it is possible to give a good answer, we should leave the question open.

We have seen in the past that even seemingly broad questions like "How to invest ethically" can usefully be answered with pointers to "socially responsible investing" funds or the like. Of course, such answers necessarily come with the qualification (explicit or implicit) that the questioner must use them as a starting point for research to see how well the options mentioned (e.g., SRI funds) match what he or she has in mind.

(Incidentally, in this regard I think questions about Islamic banking/investment are some of the least objectionable, because there are many investment vehicles specifically designed to meet that criteria. It's much easier to answer a "broad" question about Islamic investment than to answer a "specific" question like "What investments will help save the Devil's Hole pupfish".)

To my mind, where questions would cross the line is if they are about the nature of the restriction itself, rather than about how to invest in accordance with it. For instance, a question like "Are REITs compatible with sharia investing" would probably not be on-topic. Such a question is not asking how to invest, it is asking about details of sharia.

More generally, this site is not just for open-and-shut factual questions like "What is the IRA contribution limit". A vast number of questions here require answers that are opinion-based, because, for many issues in personal finance, there is genuine debate and idifference of opinion. This is different from other StackExchange sites like StackOverflow, but that's not a bad thing. Rather than closing questions because they might be answered in a misleading way, we should try to develop a culture of careful answers -- that is, answers which, when necessary, rely on opinions, but distinguish those opinions from facts and, as much as possible, back them up with reputable sources to make clear that the opinions have some currency in the wider world beyond the mind of the individual answering.

Or, in short: a question may have zero right answers, one right answer, or many right answers. But every question has many wrong answers. We should only close questions that have zero right answers. We should keep questions that have many right answers, along with those that have one right answer. It doesn't matter how many possible wrong answers there are; that needs to be handled by downvoting (and if necessary deleting) incorrect answers, not by closing questions.

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Agree at broad level with Ben. Although the request is for generic discussion, if I take a look at the 2 specific questions, one was on topic, and if we see the up votes, they reflect overall 25 that is quite high for a question on this site.

This question to me is no different from asking "I want to invest only in Ethical companies". The definition of ethical is no tobacco, alcohol, etc. For some it could also be some other criteria of corporate governance. Of late there is also a trend of "wanting to invest in Green Companies". At times these are personal belief's at times it could be a strategy where by one thinks such companies would do better in long term.

The other question was clearly off-topic, as it was a basic mis-understanding of the retirement plan, specific to a country.

  • How is misunderstanding a retirement account more off-topic than asking for Sharia investments? – quid Nov 1 '16 at 16:34
  • Green companies, B-corporations, and ethical investing are just Shariah compliant investing rebranded for an islamophobic audience. The same companies offer Shariah indices in Canada, European markets and globally, while promoting rebranded versions for social justice proponents in the US. I think it is a fool's errand for this site to try to draw a distinction. – CQM Nov 1 '16 at 18:31
  • @CQM I don't fully agree with you. There are business in India, that have exited Non-Veg market [remember India is still largely Vegetarian]. The exit was not because of profits, profits are in excess of 40% in Non-Veg food market. The rational being that if an Organization is only serving to Veg clients, it would attract more customer and hence growth. If I believe in this, I would like to invest in such companies; irrespective of my religious beliefs. – Dheer Nov 3 '16 at 3:33
  • @Dheer thats fine, it would also likely be shariah compliant. do whatever you want in your portfolio. – CQM Nov 3 '16 at 7:24
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I think there is a distinction between "Muslim finances" and "Sharia-compliant investment". Not all people who describe themselves as Muslim accept the whole of Sharia law, any more than all who describe themselves as Jewish are orthodox or all who describe themselves as Christian are fundamentalists.

The basic criterion for a sharia-compliant financial product is that it has been approved by a accepted Islamic scholar as sharia-compliant. Such investment products are offered by mainstream financial institutions which are based outside of Islamic countries, and their use is not restricted to Muslims. See for example http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3035292.stm. As such, it seems just as valid to ask about them as about any other type of investment product.

On the other hand, relatively "open ended" opinion-based questions are a different matter. "What is the alternative to compound interest" for one particular individual who self-identifies as a Muslim is unknowable and unanswerable so far as SE is concerned, unless they explicitly mean only sharia-compliant alternatives. The range of opinions expressed in the "comments" section of the above link is a good example of this!

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I think they're off topic.

If someone came here to ask what someone could invest in if they believe in a cruelty free lifestyle we would all ask what exactly a cruelty free lifestyle means. If you want an investment recommendation based on Shaira law then you need to qualify what Sharia law is (or any other religious law or guideline), just as you would need to qualify "cruelty free."

The reason I think they're offtopic is because the answers are inherently opinion based recommendations even if the asker qualifies the religious or other restrictions. This isn't explaining the difference between a Roth and Traditional IRA, this is making an actual investment recommendation based on some personal restriction criteria; and depending on the wording of the question, interpreting the asker's religion for them. Additionally, it leads to inevitable and irrelevant arguments about what exactly cruelty free means, because you know, jets burn lots of fuel and contribute to global warming which is ruining the ecosystem in the polar ice caps etc... so I can't invest in a company if the CEO has ever seen a private jet. If you're going to impose ethical restrictions on your life it's up to you to find solutions you're comfortable with.

With that said, I'm sure other people are asking or thinking about these questions because they're good questions and lots of people are Muslim. I just think the answers are opinion based and we close loads of questions because the answers are or would be opinion based or product recommendations.

I didn't vote to close either because I don't think the intent of the question is bad. Both were asked by the same person, I think he's lost and wording his questions poorly because he doesn't know where to start. I think too frequently we expect question askers to know the rules of the site. I think if all it takes to make a question acceptable is a rewording then the question is good enough.

  • I agree that such questions admit of opinion-based answers, but that is true to some extent of many questions on this site, and I don't think the mere fact that religion is involved disqualifies any questions. If someone asks "How do I invest in emerging markets", it is certainly possible to get into all sorts of hairsplitting about what counts as an emerging market and how much of a given fund's assets are really in emerging markets, etc. But that doesn't mean no good answers can be given. – BrenBarn Nov 1 '16 at 3:59
  • There are lots of questions that have been closed as offtopic even after perfectly fine answers have been given, it doesn't make the question on-topic. And like I said, I didn't vote to close either of the named questions, primarily because I think the person is just looking for a little guidance to get started and I don't think it serves anyone to jump on new folks because of the specific wording of their question. – quid Nov 1 '16 at 4:19
  • In general, I would disagree with such closures. Obviously we should close completely off-topic questions, but if there is a way to give a personal-finance answer to a question, I think we should do so and keep the question open, rather than closing it. – BrenBarn Nov 1 '16 at 4:21
  • @BrenBarn I agree with you, that's why I didn't vote to close them. I think more people need to learn to avoid questions they don't want to answer rather than immediately vote to close. – quid Nov 1 '16 at 4:22
  • We have an odd system of voting. Technically, wrong answers are not supposed to be down voted. On meta, where positions are presented, we should be open to different ideas and agree or disagree. I upvoted this answer. I disagree, but it's well written and offers the other position. In my opinion, it should not be downvoted. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Nov 1 '16 at 18:21
  • @JoeTaxpayer It's sort of the irony of this particular discussion. – quid Nov 1 '16 at 18:36

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