Halal Money Matters

Episode 8: Five Pillars of Prosperity

Special guest and Amana Mutual Funds Trust chairman M. Yaqub Mirza joins podcast hosts Christopher Patton and Monem Salam to discuss the early days of the Amana Funds and his book, Five Pillars of Prosperity.

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Halal Money Matters Podcast

Episode 08 – Five Pillars of Prosperity

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: Welcome to Halal Money Matters, I’m Christopher Patton.

MONEM SALAM: And I’m Monem Salam.

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: We’re recording on Zoom again, but uh...

MONEM SALAM: Maybe not for long, though.


MONEM SALAM: Looking like vaccines are coming through.

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: Yeah. We will hopefully be able to talk in person again soon. We have another wonderful guest for this episode.

MONEM SALAM: Yeah, I’m really excited. I’ve known him for a long time, to be honest with you, ever since I was a sophomore in college. And so, it’s really nice to be able to do another type of a meeting with him where I’m not just you know... like... just learning from him, but really talking to him about what he’s been able to do in his life.

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: Yeah, Dr. Yaqub Mirza is with us today: entrepreneur, business leader, author, and kind of a pioneer in Islamic investing in the United States.

MONEM SALAM: So, what we’re going to do, Chris, is we’re going to talk a little bit about the history of the Amana Mutual Funds, the early days of both him and Nick Kaiser starting up the Funds. And then, another exciting part of it will be about his book that he came out with.

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: Yep, Five Pillars of Prosperity. I have read the book and I have had the pleasure of speaking with him before and I’m excited to do it again.

MONEM SALAM: Let’s do it.

[music interlude]

MONEM SALAM: We’re really happy to today to have Dr. Mirza on the podcast with us. Just on a personal level, you know, I really have a lot of respect for him. Actually, ever since I was in college and graduating and wanted to get into this field of investing in general but specifically Islamic investing, the first person I called for that advice was Dr. Mirza. So, I don’t know if you remember that or not, Dr. Mirza, but I remember that conversation very well. So, thank you for doing all that you do.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Thank you. Thank you.

MONEM SALAM: So, I wanted to start off and really talk a little bit about the evolution and history of the Amana Funds and really get into kind of the impetus for it, the initial discussions, and talking a little bit about where the guidelines were set up and those types of things. So, let’s just start off from maybe, you know... I’ll ask you a question and that is what was kind of the spark that made you think about launching the funds back in 1984. Or maybe it was prior to that, even.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah. Good question, Monem. Basically, when I came here in 1970 as a student, we did not have any good places to invest which were Sharia compliant or Islamically acceptable. And some of the people I knew, they were investing utility stocks, but they were just picking, you know, one utility versus the other. But there was no mutual fund that was available. So, I decided to form an investment club which had a national association in Michigan. And that investment group really worked pretty nicely. We didn’t have a lot of money, but it started giving me that idea that a pooled investment is the way to go. We came back to the United States in 1981 and we had a similar group if Plainfield, Indiana. And then, it occurred to me that if this can work at a local community level, why don’t we consider something which can be available to Muslims throughout the US and so, I started thinking about it. We went to one or two law firms in Indianapolis. They gave me $30,000 as an estimate. That was a lot of money for me in 1983. That was a lot of money for me in 1983. So, one of the attorneys mentioned to me, “Do you know Nick Kaiser?” I told him no. And he said, “Well, I think you should go and talk to him. He might have some ideas.” I thought, “Okay,” so I called Nick. I was young Yaqub at that time. I went to see him. And we talked. And after he listened to me, basically he said, “Well, right now I manage five funds. And I’m willing to take on a sixth one.” So, he was very kind, very gracious. He had one of his in-house attorneys work with me. They did all of the SEC work while we helped them to supply or give them the Islamic requirements. I was working at North American Islamic Trust at that time and so I reported that to the board, that this kind of conversation is happening. And then, they came over in one of the board meetings and met with the trustees, and thereafter we just worked and filed with the SEC. So, we did that and we started with the Amana Income Fund. Nick was very smart. He set it up as a series of funds. A trust with a series of funds which can be added later. So, we started with the Income Fund and then later, we added the Growth Fund.

MONEM SALAM: So, just out of curiosity... you mentioned talking about the Islamic guidelines. When you had your investment club, were you already kind of operating on and kind of working on perfecting those Islamic guidelines? Or was that something you only did once you started discussions with starting up the Amana Funds.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: We were using those Islamic guidelines and, of course, over time, with the help of Saturna, they have been further refined. But we were using it... the basic screens which you also use now, we were using. We would not invest in liquor, casinos, banks, any company dealing with a large amount of debt. So, these were the very first screens which we used. We did not have the financial screens at that time or had the ability to actively screen out stocks. So, that’s the way we started. And those screens were sort of handed over to Saturna, or at that time, Unified Management, and they started with those screens which have been improved on over a period of time.

MONEM SALAM: Thank you. And then, also, you said that the SEC was giving you a little bit of an issue, but it wasn’t really regarding the screens. It was more about what you did with the cash, right?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Well, before that, I think that some of the questions they asked... you know, this was the first Islamic fund and they had never seen anything like that before. It was something new. And they were just not sure, you know, how it was going to work. So, they had different questions that we answered. But one of the last questions was related to cash, which was obvious, because they felt like the return would be less than the other mutual funds, therefore we need to make a disclosure.

MONEM SALAM: And was it only a matter of disclosure or did you come up with another solution for the cash?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: At that time, it was basically disclosure. But, over time, we had different solutions. At that time, it was a matter of disclosure. As you know, you basically need to be very clear and respond to their concerns and say, “Well, you want a disclosure? Here it is.” And this was... so I met Nick way back at the beginning of 1984 while I was visiting with different law firms and what not. And then we moved, on May 1st, to Virginia and I continued working with Nick, doing all of the filings and whatever was required. 

MONEM SALAM: That’s great, and you know there are a lot of urban legends and one of the ones that I’ve heard is that... you know, at that time, I think there was a requirement for the Wall Street Journal, in order to list you, you had to have a certain amount of shareholders... do you know of this story? Have you ever heard this? I don’t know if it’s an urban legend or if it’s true or not.


MONEM SALAM: Can you talk a little bit about that? It was really interesting to me when I heard about it. 

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah, I’m not sure about the story but I know that we needed to have a thousand investors... and size also matters, for Wall Street to list us. So, for some time, we, you know, couldn’t get a quoted value or be listed in Wall Street or any of the major newspapers—the business section of the newspaper. Until we reached that threshold, we were not able to have that. And, we had to call Unified Management or Saturna to get the fair market value for that day. But over time, we passed that threshold and thank God we were able to get the quotation listed.

MONEM SALAM: So, the story that I heard, and this is from a shareholder, maybe about a decade ago. Maybe about a decade ago, maybe a little longer. As I was going through some of those accounts and talking to some older shareholders and stuff, I noticed their cash balances were very small. So, when I looked into it, all of them had started off with an investment of $25. I was like, “Hmm, that’s kind of interesting.” So, I just happened to know one of them who was an uncle. And so, what he told me was is that there was a significant amount of time that was spent calling your friends and family and other people in the Muslim community to say, “Can you please put in $25 so we can get to a thousand shareholders so that we can start getting listed in the Wall Street Journal?” So, that’s the story I heard. I didn’t know if that was true or not, but it was really interesting.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah, I think to some extent. But as you know, $250 was the minimum to open an account and $25 reminds me of a different story. In my office, at that time, we had thirty employees and at one of the staff meetings, I told them, “Please open your retirement account,” I believe it was with $25. And you know, just, and we’ll give you the money. And so our office gave that money to the employees and told them to fill in the application and open your accounts. And sure enough, all of them did that. I had forgotten the story but about three years ago when I was in Bellingham, Nick mentioned that to the crowd, that there was a time when Yaqub did that. And I said, “I remember, oh yeah, that’s true.”

MONEM SALAM: That’s good.

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: So, you mentioned that this... this is a new thing, at the time. So, how do you get word out? How do you let people know that this is an option now? 

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah, I was very much involved with the Muslim Student Association which then sort of transformed into the Islamic Society of North America in 1981-82. So, being active, I was participating in many of the seminars, conferences, and ISNA—Islamic Society of North America—also had a magazine, Islamic Horizons, which goes out to all of the members. That used to be a very popular magazine. Even now, it is quite popular. And we used to get our news through that magazine because, you know, the internet was not there, there was no Facebook, and therefore, you kind of looked forward to getting this monthly magazine to see what is happening in the Muslim community. So, that was pretty much the way of telling people that this option is available. And then, we wrote an article in Islamic Horizons very early. That was written, basically, so say hey there’s an alternative available to us. And maybe that explains, Chris, to the extent that the rate of growth in the early part of Amana was not that great, as compared to the last five, six years.

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: Hmm. When you’re talking about—moving forward a little bit—how does it feel to see people embracing the Funds now after working so hard to get the word out and build this in the early days?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: It’s great. You know. I’m very, very happy and thankful to all of you and to God. I take great pride, you know. I mentioned it in Malaysia when I was introducing Anwar Ibrahim that Saturna is one of my favorite companies. It sort of embodies a lot of values that I hold dearly. It’s basically a tight ship, control your expenses, don’t speculate, don’t borrow money, and you know, treat people like a family. I know Nick likes to call you Saturna’s crew. I call the Mar-Jac a team, of our people. So, I think, you know, really, Saturna is one of my favorite companies. And of course, the personal relationship I have with all of you adds to it.

MONEM SALAM: Yeah, so, you mentioned a little bit regarding Mar-Jac, and so... I mean what you created for the Amana Funds was more of community and social entrepreneurship for you, but your real kind of work is actually in private equity, right? And that’s where Mar-Jac comes from?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah, that is very true, but it has a social entrepreneurship angle to it because most of the profits we make are used for charitable purposes. So, as you know, recently we created the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World at Shenandoah University. So, three families who are investors in Mar-Jac Poultry of Mississippi have volunteered to fund the Center. And so, much of the profit which you make—sure, it is for profit—we do like money... but at the same time, we are committed to social entrepreneurship and, you know, doing charitable activities which are helpful to the community and for the betterment of the community. Like Amana, what the University of Islamic Finance has done is also helping the community. It’s basically a service which we, you know, provide to the community because... the way I see it, to help other community members to do this right is a mission in itself. And I take pride in saying that you are offering a service where people can invest Islamically and feel happy that they have done it the right way, providing an alternative, and helping people to do it in the proper way is a mission itself. Now, while Mar-Jac is only for profit—I admit that—but even then, we are providing a lot of chicken. And I know many people don’t care who buys from us, but 85% of our chicken is sold to general audience while 15% is sold as halal. But it is the right way to do it. It is more pure. It is more acceptable to USDA the way we process it and therefore we do it because we feel that whatever we do, we should do it right and we should do it according to our beliefs.

MONEM SALAM: So, the 85% are actually getting halal chicken and they don’t even know it’s halal? Right?


MONEM SALAM: That’s really good.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: In the south, in Mississippi, yeah.

MONEM SALAM: Yeah, it’s an amazing thing to be able to do... when you can weave the Islamic values in your business, your life, and people just think it’s the right thing to do and they don’t really know or might not even care about whether it’s Islamic or not. So, it’s an amazing thing to be able to do that. Also, one of the things that you’ve also done amongst all of the different charitable ventures and those types of things is you’ve actually also written a book. And I wanted to talk a little bit about kind of the...starting from that, what gave you idea? The book is called “Five Pillars of Prosperity,” and we’re going to get into that a little bit more, but I wanted to get kind of an idea of why you thought it was important to have something like this and what motivated you to do it.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah, thank you so much, Monem. It’s interesting that you ask this question. As you know, I used to give seminars and speak at different conferences, conventions, talking about investing and so on and so forth. And then I got more interested in a little bit of financial planning and a little bit of estate planning. So, I learned quite a bit of that which also led me to learn more about inheritance. I started learning about distribution of inheritance, wills, and trusts, and so on and so forth. Then, at IIIT (International Institute of Islamic Thought) we started the Fairfax Institute, which was basically teaching out of IIIT. And we offered different courses. One of the courses was on entrepreneurship in Islam. Faith-based investing. Faith-based financial management. And things of that sort. So, I then developed and put together some material for these courses. These courses were like, I believe five sessions over a two-month period.

MONEM SALAM: This is the International Institute of Islamic Thought, correct? That’s IIIT?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Correct, the International Institute of Islamic Thought. They are IIIT.

MONEM SALAM: Are those courses still available?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: I’m not sure if they are available at this point but they were repeated and they were available. This was 8 or 9 years ago. One of the sessions... you know... Salma Elkadi, she sent me an email. She said, “I really benefitted from your course, but why don’t you write a book?” And I kind of said to myself, “Gosh... I never thought of writing a book. It would take a lot of time. A lot of energy. And do I have that time to do this?” And then finally, I decided to put some of this material together. I wasn’t very sure whether this is worth publishing or not. And then, I approached three people. One was a professor, John Esposito. He is the Islamic scholar in Georgetown University. And I thought, you know, he’s a big known scholar. Let’s see what his view is. So, he read it and he said, “Can I give a copy to my wife? She’s a CFO in one of the Fortune 500 companies and she loved it.” And he said, “Yeah, this is very good material.” So, I asked if he’d be willing to be willing to write a blurb and he said yes, which he did which is on the cover. The second person was John Sununu, who was the Chief of Staff of President Bush, the father. And he’s a good friend. He and I served on a board together. So, I gave it to him, and he said, “Yaqub, it’s going to take me some time, but I’d be very happy to read it,” so he took the manuscript on one of his flights overseas and he came back, and he called me and said, “Yaqub, I’m going to be in D.C. on Wednesday, can you come and see me?” I said, “Sure,” so I went and saw him and had lunch with him, so he went through page by page and his remarks were, “Tell this to the administration. Tell this to Congress. Tell this to this department.” So, it was very fascinating. And I still have those handwritten marks in that folder with me. The third person was Gary Moore. He runs a financial seminary. He was in Wall Street. He is a pastor, a Southern Baptist pastor. But he believed in ethics in business very, very much. So, I read one of his books, “Faithful Finances 101,” in which he talks about some of these ethics and he actually says that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a lot in common when it comes to investing and so on and so forth. So, I had said it wouldn’t hurt... just let me ask him if he would be willing to read it. I sent him a copy. And he wrote back, he was very excited, he said, “We don’t have anything like this and maybe my Christian brothers would write something like that. This is wonderful and it’s great,” so after I got these three people encouraging me, I kind of felt that I had to get series. And I need to devote some time and try to pull it together. And then we sent it to White Cloud Press. They were the first press I approach, the first publishing house, and they accepted it. They said, “We would be happy to publish it.” So, that’s pretty much the story of how it started and how it ended.

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: Something I really like about the book is that it’s full of really tangible examples, tables and worksheets and things like that. Was it important to you to try to make it real for the readers and kind of empower them to be able to directly apply what you’re talking about to their lives?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah, definitely, Chris. You know, I felt that I could talk about my life, where I grew, what I did, and all of that. But people are not going to duplicate that, because that’s my life. But where I can help people would be to actually give them some examples, you know, how I saved $200 a month when I was in graduate school. How I tried to, you know, minimize expenses and you know, share with them practical examples, especially... the focus was the young couples and young adults because if they adopt some of those habits of saving money, then the rest of their life they will have a wonderful time. And as I’m sure you noticed, I emphasize delayed gratification and to save for the future. And that, to me, is very important because you can spend as much as you have, you can kick up your heels, you can enjoy what God has given us, but then for later years, for education, children’s education, their marriages, you won’t have money to retire on. So, the focus was to save—delayed gratification—and enjoy the bounties later when you really have time you can afford to enjoy them.

MONEM SALAM: Yeah, one of the things that was really good was if you look at the five pillars that you have: earning, saving, investing, spending, and giving... it kind of goes through the life cycle of a person. You know, maybe not in a timeline order but definitely on a circular basis. You’re giving throughout your life but then you’re really giving a lot when you pass away. Earning throughout your life as well. Those types of things. So, I really found that to be something that was... I think it applies to everybody.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah. I agree with you. They kind of go in a circle because you cannot do one without the other. You cannot save if you don’t earn. And if you don’t earn, then you can’t give out. Let me share with you a very interesting story. When I put it all together, I had four pillars. And I kept saying, “You know, if I can think of one more then it will rhyme with five pillars of Islam and there are lots of five pillars. If you Google “five pillars,” you will find “Five pillars of hip hop” and all kinds of things. So, when I was performing Umrah, I was at Mecca, and after the afternoon prayer, Asr prayer, I was walking back from Kaaba to the hotel, and it just dawned on me... the first pillar should be earnings. And the reason I did not think of it is because we often don’t talk about money. Most of our mosque or churches or synagogues, they never talk about money. You do, but other people, they don’t. The Imams just shy away from it; they think money is dirty. I don’t know where they get that impression. Suze Orman has said, you know, maybe it is from our childhood when a baby is crawling, or a kid is crawling, and you take a dime or a quarter and what do they do? The child puts it in their mouth. And the mama screams, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” but we get the impression that money is dirty. We take it out and throw it away. So, somehow that thing is, you know, going around. Everybody thinks that money is dirty. And then, as you know Monem, many of the people who tend to be... who feel they are more religious, they don’t want to talk about money. They think money is just something that shouldn’t be acquired, and we shouldn’t desire for it or pray for it or acquire it and it becomes taboo. Nobody ever wants to just talk about it.

MONEM SALAM: I was going to say that it’s interesting that the last one that you have is earning because that’s the one that I felt you delve into pretty detailed with the eight qualities that you mention as well. And I’ll just quickly go over those, but maybe you can talk about how you came up with these ideas: gratitude, strong work ethic, focus, persistence, passion, integrity, high standard, and service. So, you kind of break down each of these things, which to me, out of all of these things, kind of makes that the crux of the foundation of the five pillars. It’s the one that keeps all of the other ones standing as well.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: You are right. So, once I decided that I needed to write something on earnings, then I looked at all of the businesses we had, or we have. Some of these qualities which you read... this is what we practice in most of our businesses. And they have produced results. So, really, I think those are the things, which we practice in the business and then I tried to sum them up as qualities we should have when earning.

MONEM SALAM: You know, kind of looking at all five of them... maybe I’ll give you three different scenarios and you can help me figure out... in different stages of your life, maybe you need to focus on one out of five, or maybe not. I’ll let you decide. But, you know, I’ll give three. So, I’m just graduating from college: what should I be focusing on out of the five? Or maybe you’ll say, “No, you should focus on all five at the same time?” So, first one would be just graduating from college. The second one would be now I’m in my middle years. I have kids that are just about to get into college now. And I’ve done whatever the book had told me. And the last one is maybe I’m on the sunset part of my life, which is... I’ve retired. I’m giving back to the community now. So, why don’t you talk a little bit about... do you give different advice to different stages of people’s life, or is it all the same?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yeah, as a fresh graduate, get yourself settled. Get yourself established. And focus on saving. Whatever little you get, try to save some percentage of it. And then, give out. And as you move on with your life, you will have more money and you can focus on investing, planned spending and others.

MONEM SALAM: Thank you, and then what about toward the middle and the end. You’re basically saying the same thing, maybe focus less on the earnings part of it but more on the giving?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Yes, you can. And the main part, you’re pretty much established in your career. You already have a title. You are comfortable and you’re happy and you have a pretty defined earning stream. But then, you need to start thinking about children’s education so you would go into an ESA—Educating Savings Account—start thinking about, you know, children’s education then children’s marriages and your own retirement. You need to start thinking about, you know, hajj, and then, you know, of course, giving. So, those are some of the things. So, the priority might shift but the saving part will still have to be, you know, pretty much with you. So, I think savings, being modest, being humble about how you live... then as we progress in our age, my kind of feeling is once you pass 60, we should be more thinking about contributing to the endowments. We should be thinking about hereafter. We should be thinking about, you know, charity, Sadaqah Jariyah, what we’re going to take with us. And by that age, your kids are gone. They have an education. They have jobs. And you don’t have to, you know, give them much. And then, you know, start contributing to the endowments. This is in the book: the older people, 60 plus, they should contribute to the endowments. But the younger people, they should contribute to Islamic schools and the Islamic centers because they are now the main recipient of all of the services. 

MONEM SALAM: Yeah, and I mean, you know interestingly enough, and you’re a great example for people to follow, is that even throughout your life, as you’re getting older and as you mentioned, earning more and getting your titles, there’s always ways to be able to give back, even if it comes to Sadaqah Jariyah. You know, yes, the Amana Funds... that, I would consider Sadaqah Jariyah. Well into... let’s say a hundred years from now, when it’s still there, you’re still going to be getting rewards for it. And a lot of things—your donor advised fund—all of those things that you’ve done. I think you have a very large amount of good deeds for your Sadaqah Jariyah. I think that’s going to continue on. It’s really a blessing. So, thank you for doing all you do.

M. YAQUB MIRZA: Oh, you’re so welcome. Thank you so much. I just pray and I hope that God will accept these. Ourselves... as in the Mirza family, we have started a foundation, we are training our children. They are now the board members of the Mirza Family Foundation, and they want to create a legacy and we are training them to follow, so to speak, our footsteps and do better and hopefully continue these projects.

MONEM SALAM: Thank you for that. Chris, do you have anything else?

CHRISTOPHER PATTON: Yeah, we’re winding down here but I know there’s a very technical answer to this question but in terms of a feeling and an in terms of a worldview and an outlook, what does it mean to you to invest Islamically?

M. YAQUB MIRZA: You know, basically it comes from your upbringing and you want to do things in the right way. You know, if you have time, I can share with you... after getting my master’s degree, I was teaching in Karachi University and then, my brother graduated from the University of Alaska, getting his PhD, he came back and he encouraged me to come to the United States and get my PhD in Physics. So, I had the choice of coming through Tokyo in the Pacific route or going the Atlantic route. But I preferred that I take the Atlantic route. Why? Because I wanted to go to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. And, you know, people were saying, “Why don’t you go through Tokyo and you can attend the Expo 70?” It’s a big Expo... imagine a young man, 23 years old, how tempting that could be. Let’s go to Japan, everybody talks about it. Let’s go and visit. I said, “No, I’m going to perform Umrah,” and so I, you know, I went to Jeddah, and onto Medina, performed Umrah, then I came to the United States. So, there is this desire which comes from upbringing that you want to do things the right way. That then encompasses all aspects of your life, whether it is behavior, your family, friends, your attitude, your way of doing things. It’s sort of a moral code. It guides your way of living. If you try to do things right, following the principles which God has laid down, then there’s a blessing in what you do.

[music outro]


DISCLOSURES (read by Christopher Patton):

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