Both Islamic and Christian Scriptures strictly forbid anyone charging interest. Why do Muslims obey devoutly, but Christians disobey flagrantly?
Spoiler. Westerners were offered a deal they couldn’t refuse. Scrap that particular prohibition on financial exploitation — and we’ll give you riches beyond your wildest dreams. “Ban, what ban? Gimme the goodies!”
I’ll start with Christian Scripture. There are several clear references in the Old Testament. You shall help your neighbour who’s in need of funds without using it to score free booty — without demanding interest. It was part of the work ethic — do something useful and loving for your money — that carried over into the New Testament.
Much later, economists declared that siphoning off a cut for yourself when your neighbour is in need is actually a productive activity — but we’ll get to that shortly.
There were a couple of other reference in the New Testament that seem superficially to contradict the original prohibition. A Jesus parable cited in Mark and Luke berated a slave who had been entrusted with money for not using it productively. Apparently he didn’t even save the money so his master could at least get interest. Some interpreters say — “Hey, look, Christ approved of interest”.
Actually, if you look at the whole parable, it was more about using what you hold in trust in a responsible manner. The slave was being admonished for frittering it all away rather than using it — rather than making use of the opportunities available to him in order to do his master some good. It was not an approval of what options Roman society had made available — no more an approval of interest than it was an approval of Roman slavery. That just wasn’t the point Christ was making on that occasion. It was a lesson in taking responsibility.
Here’s the real issue. Western society, even when it was still Christian, decided that little moral law about interest was just too inconvenient. Before such time, throughout the ages, people understood that if you want to invest in something, you have to save your money. It was called self-discipline.
When money got invented and certain people started to hoard it, it became possible for some to get what they wanted right away, without having to save and wait. Bad enough. But then the hoarders discovered that they could hoard even more money if they could persuade others not to wait either — for a price called interest. The consumer society was born. But it’s worse than that.
The hoarders discovered that the more capital they accumulated, the more stuff they could sell, then even more capital, then even more growth, and up and up. All they had to do was get people hooked on an orgy of escalating consumption — get them to pile debt upon debt — while the hoarders accumulated interest upon interest. The perfect crime.
“But the Bible says interest is sinful.” “You want the goodies or not?” “Ok, yes, yes, fuck the Bible!” The history of modern western humanity in a nutshell.
However, it had to be legitimized first. Enter the economists. Interest is just the price tag for the convenience of not waiting. Just another price. And it makes the economy more efficient — by rationing out waiting according to who wants it enough to pay for it. And a more efficient economy is necessary if you want that orgy of escalating consumption to soar even higher. And of course everyone wants that above all else in our culture of consumption junkies. We’re all hooked, big time. Thank you, economists.
But let’s go back to the original thought. Interest is bad because it’s exploiting your neighbour rather than loving them. Now we think that if we can get them to the point of begging to be exploited because we dangle goodies in front of then — well that’s ok then.
Muslims don’t think so. They stick to their Scripture. Interest is sinful, and so is mindless consumption. However, there are critics who think that’s fake. Muslims still do banking, still raise capital and still make a return in that capital. Isn’t that interest?
Actually, not really. Interest is simply making money off money. If an investor joins a project, puts up money, and puts some skin in the game — prepared to participate in either the profits or the losses — that’s a partnership. And that’s what Muslim banks manage.
That’s not to say nobody cheats. Some so-called partnerships are thinly veiled interest investments. But that’s the point. It’s cheating. The principle — that interest is sinful — still stands in Islam. But not in Christianity. We’ve sold it for a promise of affluence. Such a shame — not only that the affluence itself is sinful — but that we choose to ignore the rules in order to chase it.