Sheikh Bilal Khan is a British-born English qualified lawyer, arbitrator/judge, Shariah Scholar and Islamic Finance expert. He is involved in many geo-strategic projects in different parts of the world including the United Kingdom, Europe, North America, Asia including Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Sheikh Bilal is additionally a special adviser to numerous presidents and prime ministers’ offices as well as serving on several multi-lateral, government, quasi-government and institutional boards in a special advisory capacity. His business management, strategic leadership and international legal expertise covers a wide range of industries, sectors and services and related corporate governance, laws and regulations.
1) How did you get started in your career?
My father was in the textile industry. When he first came to the UK from Pakistan as a very young boy, he came with nothing – literally nothing – so he was starting from absolute scratch. With little formal education, he along with my grandfather worked all hours at the mills. My grandfather and his brother served in the British navy for many years and that’s how they came to the UK. Sadly, my grandfather’s brother was killed at sea during the second world war. Anyway, in what little spare time my father had, he would always say to me that he was doing this hard work for two reasons. Firstly, to show me how important hard work is – that there is no substitute for grafting. But also to give me and my two siblings a better life. He wanted us to be educated and he created an educationally-conducive environment. He wanted me to be an Islamic scholar.
At the age of 11, I memorised by heart the entire holy book of Islam, the Holy Quran which is in Arabic which at the time I didn’t speak. Today this is still considered to be very young and amazingly, three decades later I can still remember the entirety of it. This skill of memorization has helped me throughout my life. It was the best experience I have ever had.
I pursued that line of Islamic religious education and went abroad to Pakistan to continue with it which meant I missed some of my schooling here, especially secondary school. Classical Islamic scholarly education does not take place in normal colleges or universities. There are certain authorities in the world – age-old traditions – and you have to go to them; some of them are in villages or in remote areas. They have a transmission of authority that dates back 14 centuries to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). You sit with them and learn directly from them, and it is done on the floor without any chairs and tables. It is a very different culture, especially for someone who is British born, who grew up with fish and chips and footie. It was an eye-opener for me and it made me a better person as I came to appreciate everything that I had, and not to take for granted things like clean running water. I spent eight years, a good part of my teens studying far away from my family. For me, that was a life-changing experience.
Thankfully I reached a very high level in terms of the attainment of religious education and training so I became recognised as an Islamic scholar. I came back to the UK when I was about 20 years old and embarked on my GCSE’s and then A Levels. Having enjoyed studying Islamic law, it was a natural fit to do English law.
I studied LL.B in Law at the University of Leeds, attaining an award for Student of the Year. There were so many great characters and good personalities. I have fond memories of my time at Leeds and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. I had quite an attachment to the University so it was hard to leave. I went on to further study and did an MA in Islamic Banking and Finance, the Corporate LPC and the MBA. I was really into my studies. I also taught year one and two students on the LL.B at Leeds Metropolitan University for two years. Being in touch with students and teaching was really enjoyable – until today I have kept that interest alive. I have always held some kind of visiting lectureship at universities in London.
As I was progressing through my early career, Islamic finance was becoming an increasingly popular area of practice globally. On the one hand I was a Shariah scholar, an Islamic lawyer and on the other hand, I was becoming an English lawyer. I did not realise that globally I was one of only a few who had dual expertise in this $3 trillion industry which made me much sought after. A religious scholar is someone who has to sign off on particular financial transactions and corporate deals, potentially worth billions, according to Islamic law. So I had this background in Islamic finance and I started picking up popularity with interviews in mainstream English and pan-Arab media. I was also being invited for public speaking engagements at international conferences. One of the top five law firms (known as ‘Magic Circle’ law firms) was keen to develop expertise in this area so I was asked to work for them. Whilst I was a trainee in the firm I was keen to stand out. I was doing the daily work that was given to me as a trainee but was also doing certain things that would be expected of partners, like bringing in clients and their business. I was also appointed as a special advisor to the Lord Mayor of the City of London at that time.
Prior to joining the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC), I served on numerous high-profile boards including being Vice Chairman of the Mosaic International Leadership Programme of the U.K. Prince’s Trust; as Senior Adviser to the British All-Party Parliamentary Groups, which are composed of Parliamentarians from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and other important positions.
I am currently serving in a number of important and senior roles as Partner & Global Head of Islamic Finance at the City of London law firm McCarthy Denning; Chief Islamic Finance Officer at the AIFC; Panel Member of Arbitrators at the AIFC International Arbitration Centre; Member of the AIFC Advisory Council on Islamic Finance; Secretary-General of the Malta Islamic Finance Association and Co-Chairman of Dome Advisory.
2) What is the highlight of your career?
Along with receiving numerous personal industry awards, one of the stand-out moments for me was when I was awarded the Freedom of the City of London and named an honorary Freeman. To be made a Freeman, when the list of previous recipients includes Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela and Sir Winston Churchill, was a huge honour. Of course, it was amazing to be interviewed for the ‘Secrets of Success’ documentary along with 20 other personalities of London such as Sir John Egan and Greg Dyke which is showing on British Airways Inflight. The list goes on including being made an arbitrator/judge among 10 leading British judges and Queens Counsel barristers as well as holding many other important posts. I was also chosen as a positive role model for race religion and faith as one of the top 8 people in the UK from a list of 25,000 people which was shown on national television.
3) How do you unwind?
I have a small family with my lovely wife Rabia and my gorgeous baby daughter Aishah who are my universe. I love spending time with them: enjoying their company and my wife’s amazing cooking and unwinding with my two-year-old daughter who never ceases to amaze me with odd words from English, Urdu, Punjabi, Arabic (and occasionally gibberish). I also enjoy catching up with my mum, my younger brother and my sister as family means everything to me.
I have a passion for poetry – something that has led me to memorise hundreds of the works of Allama Muhmamad Iqbal, the most celebrated poet of Pakistan and the wider Sub-Continent. That passion goes back to my childhood when, every evening, as soon as we got home from school, we would sit together and my father would test us on poetry – turning it into a game where whatever letter he ended a poem on, we had to reply with a poem starting with that letter. I enjoy studying world history and international relations as well.
I am also a keen Manchester United fan and obviously I support the Pakistani cricket team so watching sports is a nice way for me to relax and unwind.
4) What does an average workday look like to you?
The only constant in every day for me is family time in the evenings. There is no “average” workday as I have a portfolio career. My days can include everything from meetings and conference calls with stakeholders, clients, and third parties, to speaking at local and international events. I am lucky enough that my work spans across continents: in the UK I work with McCarthy Denning and Dome Advisory, in Europe I work with the Malta Islamic Finance Association, and my roles in the AIFC as an Arbitrator and as Chief Islamic Finance Officer involve engagements with Central Asia, South East Asia, and the Middle East. The nature of my work is a challenge, but its variety is also exciting and dynamic and I believe it ensures I always give my best every day.
5) What has been the greatest hurdle for you to overcome in your career?
There are two major hurdles that I have had to overcome in my career.
The first is the challenge that comes everyday of living as a visibly Muslim, Asian man in a post 9/11 and post 7/7 world. I have had to become accustomed to being treated with suspicion by some and having to work twice as hard to expel pre-conceived ideas people might have about me because of the way I look or because of my name. My work involves a great deal of travel, so it’s an extra challenge that I can have trouble at airports because I share a name with someone on a list.
The second challenge for me has been the tragedy of my father’s death. As I’ve already outlined, he was a major figure in my life – both of my parents were – and I owe them so very much. My father was a man filled with such passion, and such conviction that his children would succeed and build better lives. Losing him when I did – just as I reached the prime of my career – was particularly painful because it meant he didn’t get to see all of his hopes and work pay off. My father, for example, never got to see my career achievements as well as not being there when I was getting married and of course not having a grandfather for my daughter Aishah.
In some ways, I suppose, neither of these challenges really constitute hurdles – they aren’t things you can get over or around. Both are things you come to live with, but also that you learn a lot from. From my father’s passing, in particular, I took even stronger lessons in the importance of treasuring family, and of defining success in my own terms.
6) What is the best thing about your job?
One of the best things about the work I do is that it allows me to meet people from every walk of life. I am a strong believer in the importance of difference – the differences and diversity between everyone is what make a society special and what allows the best exchanges of thoughts and ideas.
I also love that my job allows me to help other people, particularly acting as (or at least hoping to act as) a role model for young British Muslims. I want to be able to prove to the next generation that you can be religious and succeed. But I also want to, in everything that I do, dispel myths and demystify the image of practising Muslims in society. This is particularly pertinent in the post 9/11 and 7/7 context where Muslims and people of my skin colour are often accused of not integrating and contributing to society. In conducting myself according to my principles, and pushing myself for excellence in my fields, I seek to change this narrative by example. I can’t control how people perceive me, what stereotypes spring into their minds, but I hope that I can do something to positively challenge those notions. And doing so isn’t just important for me, it’s important for the next generation. Like my father’s hard work was dedicated to ensuring his children would have a better life, I want to work to ensure that the next generation don’t have to face the same challenges I did.
7) What are your plans for the future?
For me, success revolves around achieving what I stand for – both internally and externally within society. The question I ask myself internally is whether I am at peace, whether I am happy. And that isn’t something defined solely by money or position. Externally, for me, success is about making a difference in the lives of other people, helping to fulfill the needs of other people. Attaining this sort of success is what defines my plans for the future, and what has defined my path thus far.
This is a very exciting time for me. I am exploring new opportunities working in Kazakhstan within the AIFC and joining the team at McCarthy Denning in the City of London. These new avenues are definitely a big part of my plans for the future at the moment. But my plans will also, always, revolve around my family and helping our wider communities because for me, that is where I would find success. For me, part of that is about being a great role model for our youth – particularly those from BME backgrounds including British Pakistanis. I think too many people approach life as if it’s a hierarchy of hurdles to jump and to climb up a rigidly defined ladder with a set time to be put in at each stage. I am trying to defy those odds. If you have the aptitude and the right attitude, I don’t believe there’s a reason why you can’t reach that high altitude. In essence, this message is what the Pakistani poet Iqbal says in one of his couplets: “O eagle, don’t fear the stormy winds blowing from the opposite direction; they are blowing to make you fly even higher”. In a nutshell, I like to be focused on my work and also the charitable and social side of things including most importantly valuable family time and taking good care of my health.