Muslims on Wall Street: Bridging Two Traditions

Posted on April 16, 2012


Kevin Roose, New York TImes

NAIEL IQBAL’S co-workers couldn’t figure him out.

He’d just started at a Midtown Manhattan hedge fund — the kind of elite enclave where overachievers in button-downs go to make a few hundred grand before heading off to Harvard Business School. But Mr. Iqbal, 27, a graduate of the Wharton School, wasn’t acting like a typical finance guy. He didn’t introduce himself around the office. Nor did he grab lunch with the other traders.

In fact, he didn’t eat at all. Or drink. Not coffee, not soda, not even a sip of water from a Nalgene bottle on his desk. All day, he just sat there, staring into his Bloomberg terminal. Was he sick? Nervous? A modern Bartleby?

None of the above: It was Ramadan, and Mr. Iqbal, a Muslim, was exhausted from fasting daily till sundown.

“I’m actually a huge foodie,” he recalls with a laugh. “When Ramadan ended, I was, like: ‘Guys, let’s go to this restaurant! Let’s go to that one!’ Nobody had seen that side of me.”

Mr. Iqbal — who doesn’t drink or smoke — is among a growing number of young Muslims who are disrupting Wall Street’s old-boy culture. Seen from a certain angle, the Street can still look like a monolith — a cohort of white males with Ivy League degrees and Roman numerals attached to their names. (This is especially true the higher you look; there are, for example, no black, female or openly gay chief executives at the nation’s largest banks.)

But as the Street adapts to greater regulation, lower profits and tighter costs, it is also experiencing change within its ranks. Among entry-level financiers, especially, a years-long recruiting effort at major banks has resulted in a diverse group of aspiring Masters of the Universe.

Young Muslims, one of the newest groups to make inroads in American finance, can face steep barriers to entry. Some obstacles are remnants of a less tolerant era. But prominent, too, are the limitations of Islam itself — a faith whose tenets, Muslim workers say, often seem at odds with Wall Street’s sometimes bacchanalian culture.

“I’m always the one drinking Diet Coke at happy hour,” Mr. Iqbal said.

Granted, for the many Muslims in New York and elsewhere who have made peace with a more secular culture, working on Wall Street may not pose any problem. And Muslims, of course, aren’t the only ones whose values can clash with the ways of Wall Street. Orthodox Jews, conservative Christians and other faithful working in finance have all, at one point, had to square their beliefs and practices with an environment in which money, not God, is king.

But for observant Muslims hoping to keep the values and practices of Islamic law, known as Sharia, intact even as they climb the ladder, the calculus can be messy.

For Aisha Jukaku, a former health care analyst at Goldman Sachs, getting started in finance carried additional challenges. Ms. Jukaku has worn a head scarf, or hijab, since she was 11. Like many conservative Muslim women, she avoids physical contact with men outside her family. (She makes exceptions for handshakes extended to her in a business setting that would be awkward to decline.)

“It’s not something I want to do,” she says of shaking hands with men. “But that’s the common American way of doing business.” [Please click here to read the whole article.]