The concept of “usury” has a long historical life, throughout most of which it has been understood to refer to the practice of charging financial interest in excess of the principle amount of a loan, although in some instances and more especially in more recent times, it has been interpreted as interest above the legal or socially acceptable rate.
Accepting this broad definition for the moment, the practice of usury can be traced back approximately four thousand years (Jain, 1929), and during its subsequent history it has been repeatedly condemned, prohibited, scorned and restricted, mainly on moral, ethical, religious and legal grounds. Among its most visible and vocal critics have been the religious institutions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
To this list may be added ancient Western philosophers and politicians, as well as various modern socio-economic reformers. It is the objective of this paper to outline briefly the history of this critique of usury, to examine reasons for its repeated denouncement and, finally, to intuitively assess the relevance of these arguments to today’s predominantly interest-based global economy.
The scope will not extend to a full exploration of some of the proposed modern alternatives to usury, except to describe the growing practice of Islamic banking as an example.