Muslim Home Buyers Forbidden by Their Religion to Pay Interest Turn to Christian Charity

Mohamed Nurhussien faced the usual challenges of a low-income worker trying to buy a home, with one big difference: As a Muslim he was forbidden by his religion to pay interest.

The 54-year-old Eritrean immigrant with five children thought his only option was to save enough money to purchase a home outright, with cash earned from his job at a security company.

Then he heard about Habitat for Humanity. For some Muslim immigrants like Nurhussien, the Christian homebuilding charity that offers zero-interest loans has become a real godsend.

"The way Habitat deals fits exactly to our requirements," said Nurhussien, who bought a home earlier this year from the northern Virginia chapter of the group. "It's not free. It is no interest. It's good for me and whoever has the same belief."

In northern Virginia, a majority of 12 families who bought condominiums at the local Habitat's latest development, including Nurhussien, are Muslim. In Nashville, local Habitat executive director Chris McCarthy said the city's large population of Muslim Kurdish immigrants has embraced the nonprofit. Over 10 percent of the group's mortgage holders are Kurdish.

And Muslim leaders are responding by offering labor to build homes, financial support and more to Habitat. Since 1976, the nonprofit has offered homes based on people's need, their ability to pay and their willingness to help build the houses and attend classes on topics such as budgeting.

Habitat homes also help fill a void in the U.S., where Islamic loans for strict Muslims are not widely available, said Samuel Hayes, professor emeritus of finance at the Harvard Business School and an expert on Islamic finance.

Intermediaries often buy homes, then sell them to Muslim families with a markup that reflects a reasonable rate of return for the money that sellers have tied up in the property, Hayes said.

"It's comparable to a mortgage with the interest rate built in," he said.

The difference may seem minor, but to many Muslims, it is an important distinction because they believe God knows the difference, he said.

Even when Islamic loans are available, not all Muslims consider it a true solution.

"Always people have doubts," Imam Johari Abdul-Malik said.

"Some say, 'It just still looks like interest to me,'" he added.

The director of outreach at the Dal Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., first realized how many Muslims in his area were buying Habitat homes when a Presbyterian minister friend invited him to a fundraising breakfast for the nonprofit last year.

"So many people in the promotional film that were building homes were Muslim," Abdul-Malik said. "I said, 'Wait a minute. Something's wrong with this picture. Churches are stepping in and building Habitat homes for Muslims. We're not going to stand by and not help build homes for others.'

"It really put a bee in my kufi."

So Abdul-Malik began organizing meetings with Habitat representatives in local mosques and community centers. He wants Muslims to do more than just volunteer to build homes. The idea is to increase Muslim presence in Habitat leadership.

He foresees Muslims speaking out to support Habitat when it faces opposition to a new development. He also hopes Muslim contractors will donate in-kind services. And this year he's bringing a group of his own to the fundraising breakfast.

Local Habitat affiliates throughout the country are independent but work within a common framework. Race and religion are not considered when offering the homes, which sell for an average of $60,000, so no figures are available on how many Muslim families live in the houses. But some affiliates across the country reach out to Muslim groups while others do not.

Habitat of Northern Virginia has built 50 homes in 15 years and has a goal of building the next 50 in five years, said its executive director, Karen Cleveland. She said she is pleased with the growing Muslim involvement in the nonprofit and heartened by the response to the meetings Abdul-Malik organized.

"We had never had any mosques or Muslim community centers sponsor a house before," she said, but now Abdul-Malik is organizing a coalition to do just that.

Habitat Nashville has built or rehabilitated more than 350 homes since 1985, and this year, the group plans build 42 new and rehabilitate five, said McCarthy. She said she's proud of the diversity of local Habitat neighborhoods and that little racial or religious tension is apparent among Habitat families. Most Muslim families even happily accept the Bible that U.S. Habitat groups traditionally give to new homeowners along with the keys.

Avdal Wasman fled from Iraq in 1997 as a refugee and bought a Habitat home in Nashville in 2003. He first heard of the group from a friend, but Wasman said his wife told him it was too good to be true.

He was scared to sign a contract because several people had warned him to be cautious about signing any documents in the United States. But today, Wasman is a member of his community's homeowners association and one of Habitat's biggest boosters.

Wasman downplays any special value of Habitat to Muslims, saying the nonprofit helps all sorts of people. But he does acknowledge that the no-interest loans are a "good point for Muslim people."

Nurhussien said in Habitat "you see the spirit of one caring for the other and people working for the benefit of humankind."

"Regardless of whether the organization started as a Christian, Muslim or Jewish organization, it doesn't matter."