Sheikh Bilal Khan

We recently met with Shariah lawyer and Leeds Law alum, Sheikh Bilal Khan (2004), to discuss his time at Leeds, his notoriety in global Islamic finance, and his work with the Prince of Wales.

Tell us about your background before joining the University of Leeds.

I come from a small family, comprising of three siblings – I am the eldest. My father was in the textile industry, to which he committed the best part of four decades. When my father first came to this country he did not have £5 in his pocket so he had to start from absolute scratch. My parents had very little formal education but my father wanted me to be educated and he created an educationally-conducive environment. He wanted me to be an Islamic scholar which is the equivalent of being a priest or a rabbi. At the age of 11, I memorised by heart the entire holy book of Islam, the Holy Quran which is in Arabic. Today this is still considered to be very young and amazingly, three decades later I can still remember the entirety of it. It was the best experience I have ever had. I pursued that line of Islamic religious education and went abroad to continue with it which meant I missed some of my schooling here, especially secondary school. 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 and in mountain areas. They have a transmission of authority that dates back 14 centuries to the Prophet Muhammad. 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 in those rural parts. 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 19 or 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.

What memories do you have from your time studying law at the University?

It was amazing as I had a great time. I used to get on the bus in Bradford where I was living and come to Leeds every day. I really enjoyed all of the subjects, such as contract law, law of tort, public law and property law, and all of the tutors were very good. I remember my first encounter with Professor David Ormerod. I came in late one day, straight off the 88 bus and my glasses were all fogged up. I had lost all sense of time and walked in halfway through the seminar. I think it was a Monday and Professor Ormerod was asking questions and no one wanted to answer, everyone had their heads down. I heard a question so started answering as I was trying to find a seat, referencing quotes and page numbers – I had a photographic memory. He was really impressed and forgot to even ask why I was late. At the end, he asked me to wait around and we ended up having a long chat about my life experiences. I had great memories of my time and I also remember Professor Anna Lawson who was an amazing tutor. I was impressed with her style of teaching and her personality, as she would give special time and attention to each student. There were so many great characters and good personalities. I have fond memories of my time at Leeds and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.

What did you do after leaving the University?

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 Y1 and Y2 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. I currently support a postgraduate LL.M and an LPC. It is really rewarding.

How did you come to work for Linklaters?

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 (which became in excess of 50 conferences per year). Linklaters 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. On one occasion I recall organising a networking reception and I invited the ambassadors of 56 countries.

What achievements are you most proud of?

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 Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill, was a huge honour.

Recently I have been recognised in a list of the leading 100 Islamic scholars in the Islamic finance world – it’s called Shariah100 and it has been officially launched this year and I have been ranked 7th in a list of amazing scholars from across the globe. So that means a lot to me. I was also chosen as a positive role model for race religion and faith as one of the top 8 in the UK from a list of 25,000 people which was shown on national television.

How did you become involved in the documentary ‘Secrets of Success’?

As well as being Senior Advisor to various All Party Parliamentary Groups and on the Advisory Board of the Middle East Association (created by the UK Foreign Office), I had been the advisor of the former Lord Mayor of the City of London, Dame Fiona Woolf. She was the second ever female Lord Mayor and was also the President of the Law Society. Working with her in her year of Mayoralty gave me a lot of exposure, as we travelled a lot and met royal dignitaries and influential figures around the world. That type of exposure, along with the public speaking and the media work I had been involved in must have helped. I was contacted by the show and asked to be one of the 20 featured personalities in order to share my story (https://youtu.be/LhLyFMXRmns). It was a great experience and in fact, it is now showing on all British Airways flights so look out for it (tinyurl.com/htqc7gg).

Tell us about your work with the Prince’s Trust.

I was involved with the Prince’s Trust through a scheme called Mosaic which offers accredited mentoring programmes in schools; creating opportunities for 9 to 30-year-olds who are growing up in the country’s most deprived communities. I was the Vice Chairman of their International Leadership Programme (ILP) and oversaw the committee that included the likes of the Emirates Airline Foundation Chairman and the CEO of Shell Qatar. The ILP brought together young leaders from all over the world that came together every two years for a summit. The Prince of Wales also attended as it was under his patronage and he would deliver inspirational speeches. I got to travel with him and we went to Jordan, Qatar and other such places where we met members of the royal families and other dignitaries.

What are your plans for the future?

I have a small family with my lovely wife Rabia and my gorgeous baby daughter Aishah who are my universe. My plans will, of course, revolve around them. I always say to people that our goals should not just be economic goals but we should aim to keep improving as a people and help our wider communities, whether that is by supporting the youth or helping the less privileged or disadvantaged. I currently serve as a judge on both the Government’s Sirius Programme which chooses young entrepreneurs from around the globe and for the Asian Apprenticeship Awards. I want to continue to do all of this as well as continuing the work I do in the area of business consultancy. I am the founding partner and co-chairman of a global consultancy firm – Dome Advisory which is a unique Islamic finance advisory firm that offers a full range of services including legal documentation, structuring advice and expertise in dispute resolution for all types of Islamic finance global matters. We work with a lot of governments, central banks, regulators, private sector companies and other key industry players. You can read more on the website www.domeadvisory.com. In a nutshell, I like to be focused on business and also the charitable and social side of things including valuable family time.