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An Upside-Down History of the World [Japanese]
[Chapter 3] The Origins of Monotheism

Part 1: A Human Hypothesis
42 The Islamic World’s Ḥiyal

Shakespeare. When Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice in the sixteenth century, there were no upright, Christian-run financial institutions. The act of money lending was considered a misdeed.

illustrator/Masato Kumagai

In Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice,” the notorious Jewish moneylender, Shylock, shocks as he demands as collateral a “pound of flesh” from the “breast” (heart) of the Christian merchant Antonio who has approached him for a loan. But back to reality for a moment.

You’d think incurring a loan from such a seemingly devious character would be, at the very least, risky.

Why wouldn’t Antonio skip the infamously crooked moneylender Shylock and head for a reputable financier or, probably more to his liking, a financial institution run by a Christian moneylender?

Perhaps it’s just Shakespeare’s dramatic mind at work. Well, not exactly.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote the work, there were no upright, Christian-run financial institutions. In fact, finance was considered the work of the wicked. Financiers were the dregs of society. There was no such thing as an ethical financial institution. The act of dealing with money itself wasn’t just. It was a sin.

This is how the stateless Jew, Shylock, excluded from all “upright” work by Christians, is able to conduct his business.

You might wonder why financiers equated to sinners, but the answer is simple: God forbids profiting from interest. Christianity’s Old Testament (Judaism’s Tanah) explains:

You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit.

(Lev. 25:37, New Revised Standard Version)

If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things… [who] takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

(Ezek. 18:13, ibid.)

In the New Testament, too, we see similar teachings. Through the “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25), Jesus (God) condemns “bankers” who attempt to earn interest from their customers. But the teachings continue in Luke:

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

(Luke 6: 35)

Though the word “interest” isn’t explicitly mentioned, the text strongly warns against any profiting from it.

Islam and the Evil of Interest

Allah in Islam’s Koran has a similar message:

Those that live on usury shall rise up before God like men whom Satan has demented by his touch; for they claim that trading is no different from usury. But God has permitted trading and made usury unlawful. He that has received an admonition from his Lord and mended his ways may keep his previous gains; God will be his judge. Those that turn back shall be the inmates of the Fire, wherein they shall abide for ever.

(Koran 2:275) (N.J. Dawood, trans., The Koran [New York: Penguin Classics, 2003]. PDF e-book.)

In Judaism, Christendom, and Islam, profiting (earning interest) from money lending is the work of villains.

The reason? Even today, most often, when people lend money to their parents and siblings, they don’t charge interest. In the same way, those who put their faith in the same God as oneself are, before God, one’s brothers and sisters. Collecting interest from a brother or sister becomes an expression of the vice of greed.

This also means that, as long as the person from whom one is collecting interest is not one’s own “sibling,” earning interest is, in some contexts, acceptable. This is why the Jewish Shylock has no qualms in engaging in financial dealings with the Christian Antonio—just look in the Old Testament to find the escape clause:

On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess. If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur guilt.

(Deut., 23: 20-21)