Viewing the Early Muslim State Through Its Coinage

by Ali Minai

ScreenHunter_2012 Jun. 06 07.56The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries CE were arguably among the most cataclysmic and consequential events in world history, creating a completely new and long-lasting civilization from India and Central Asia to the Western edge of North Africa. And, while this civilization has ramified and fragmented considerably over the subsequent thirteen centuries, its imprint still shapes the history of these regions today to a decisive degree. An especially important manifestation of this influence is the widespread sentiment among the Muslims of this region for some sort of “return” to that idealized earlier period of glory and purity – a sentiment that has fueled revivalist movements ranging from political ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood to violent ones like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, this revivalist impulse goes far beyond these visible movements, and pervades Muslim societies from South Asia to Morocco, entering every aspect of social, cultural and political life in myriad ways. In a sense, this can be seen as the natural impulse of people attempting to repossess their past after a period of colonization, but what makes such a desire compellingly possible is the fact that so little is truly known about the early period of Islam.

Ernest Renan famously said that Islam – unlike other great world religions – was “born in the full light of history”. However, this view has been challenged vigorously in the last century by Western scholars seeking to apply modern historical methods to the origins of Islam. To be sure, some of this “near-revisionism” is motivated by skepticism about the religion itself, but the problem is real enough. Most Muslims have implicit faith in the received reports and traditions about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but the fact is that the first biographical reports of the Prophet – by Ibn Ishāq and Mālik b. Anas – were not written down until more than a century after his death, and the earliest comprehensive histories of Islam – by Ibn Sa'd, Al-Wāqidī, Al-Tabarī, al-Balādhurī, et al. – date from the late 8th to early 9th century. A century or two may not seem long in the context of history, but the rise of Islam was so rapid that its truly formative period was basically over by the mid-8th century when the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad caliphate, replacing that most Arab of dynasties with one rooted in a more cosmopolitan ethos. Also, because of the way it had acquired power, the Abbasid dynasty had a strong incentive to promote a specific version of early Islamic history and doctrine. Thus, it is especially important to look at contemporary evidence to obtain an accurate picture of Islam's earliest period.

In searching for the roots of Islamic society in the period between the Prophet's death c. 632 CE and the fall of the Umayyads in 750 CE, historians have very few truly contemporary sources to rely on. Remarkably, one of these sources is the Qur'an – the Islamic scripture – some partially preserved copies of which have recently been dated to within the Prophet's lifetime or soon after. The fact that these original copies of the Qur'an are virtually identical to the text used today supports the Muslim belief of scriptural integrity, and enhances confidence that the theological content of the original Islam can reasonably be obtained from the Qur'an itself. However, this still leaves large parts of cultural, political and socioeconomic history uncertain. The contemporary sources that provide information about these are: 1) Direct or incidental statements by contemporary non-Muslim writers referring to Muslims; 2) A growing (and as yet mostly un-studied) corpus of papyrus texts describing administrative and financial transactions; 3) a few rock inscriptions; 4) The ruined palaces and other archeological sites from the Umayyad period; 5) The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, constructed by the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān c. 691 CE; and 6) An immense and varied body of coins. The rest of this article looks at the last of these, and considers what this coinage may tell us about the policies and attitudes of the early Islamic state.


Money in the form of coins is such a fundamental part of human society that it is easy to lose sight of how relatively recent an invention it is. For about half of the five thousand year period that may be considered “recorded history”, there was no known use of coinage. To be sure, metals such as gold and silver were considered valuable, and were probably used in barter arrangements or the payment of tax and tribute. However, according to both Herodotus and archaeological evidence, the first known coinage was introduced in the kingdom of Lydia in modern-day Turkey in the 6th or 7th century BCE – possibly by King Croesus (595-546 BCE), whose name became a symbol of wealth. The Lydian coins were made from a mixture of gold and silver called electrum, and though made into pieces with various denominations, they were actually used by weight – a practice that continued for centuries thereafter until the advent of precisely controlled mechanized minting. Once invented, coinage spread rapidly to other Greek states, and to the Persians, whose emperor Cyrus the Great defeated and killed Croesus in 546. Something similar to coinage also arose in India around the same time in the form of punch-marked pieces of silver called puranas or karshapanas. These were to become more widespread and elaborate during the great Mauryan Empire in the period after c. 320 BCE (Figure 1). By then, the Greeks – including the Greek states Alexander left behind in Western India, Iran and the Middle East – were issuing much more sophisticated coins with recognizable portraits and elaborate inscriptions. In particular, the Greeks introduced a silver coin whose name was to become ubiquitous throughout the region from India to Spain – the drachma. Variants of this name – drachm, dram, dirham, dam, damma – have been used for coinage by states ranging from the Parthian and Sassanian empires in Iran to the modern states of Morocco, Armenia and, until recently, Greece!

Figure 1: Punch-marked silver coins of the Mauryan Emperor, Samprati (r. 224-215 BCE). Author's Collection.

For more than seven centuries after Arab armies burst forth from Arabia to conquer an empire spanning three continents, the coinage of most of the Muslim world was to consist of three types of coins: The gold dīnār, named after the Byzantine Denarius Aureus; the silver dirham, and the lowly copper or bronze fals. But this system took some time to emerge. What happened during the transitional period offers interesting insights into the early Muslim state and poses several tricky questions. In particular, the coins of Islam's earliest period represent possibly the most concrete basis of archaeological and historical reconstruction for a period where evidence of other kinds is remarkably thin.

Like much of the early history of Islam, the origin of Islamic coinage is shrouded in mystery, but it is possible to reach a few broad conclusions based on the available corpus of coins. This article looks at the Islamic coinage of the period from the beginnings of Islam to about 700 CE, when the Umayyad dynasty was well-established at the top of the Muslim state. One goal in doing this is to obtain insight into the policies and attitudes of the society that produced this coinage, and possibly to infer the motivations of its leaders.

From a numismatic viewpoint, this duration can be divided into six distinct periods, with transitions often corresponding to major historic events. As with any division of historical time, this periodization is somewhat arbitrary, but useful nevertheless.

I. The Early Period: From Inception to 651 CE

The Arabs at the advent of Islam in c. 610 CE appear to have had no coinage of their own, and presumably used Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanian coinage. Rather conveniently, the Byzantines minted gold and copper coins while the Sassanians minted mainly silver. One can speculate that a trade-based economy such as that of Western Arabia's oasis towns might have used currencies from both sources in a standard gold-silver-copper configuration.

The Arab conquests began in the earnest around 634 CE, two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sassanian Empire fell after losses at Qadisiyya in 636 and Nahavand in 642, leaving the Arabs in almost complete control of the empire. Syria, Palestine and Egypt had also all been wrested away from the Byzantine Empire by 642, though the empire endured to the north of Syria in most of Anatolia and into Europe. Thus, within a remarkably short period of eight years, the Muslim state had come to hold sway over a vast region that had previously encompassed most of two great empires, with major cities, active commerce and highly productive agricultural lands in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. Yet, through most of this period, the Caliphate based in Medina still did not issue any coinage, and continued to use Byzantine and Persian coins as before. The coinage in use seems to have been the Byzantine gold solidus and copper follis, and the Sassanian silver drahm. The latter typically weighed about 4 grams and had a design that had largely been unchanged for 400 years, with the portrait of the Shahanshāh (emperor) on the obverse side and a Zoroastrian sacred fire altar with two attendants on the reverse side, which also carried the date and mint name (see Figure 2).

After the loss of his capital at Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad) in 636 CE, the last Sassanian emperor, Yazdegerd III (r. 632 – 651 CE), fled with his court, first to eastern parts of Iran in the Kerman region, and then eventually into Central Asia, where he was assassinated in 651 CE. Throughout this period, silver drahms were minted in his name in areas still under his nominal control. Presumably, these coins also found their way into the rest of the region and comprised the primary silver coinage of the early Islamic Caliphate. The Arabs called this coin the dirham, and the word remained in use for centuries thereafter.

Fig2_1 Fig2_2

Figure 2: Top: Silver drahm of the first Sassanian emperor, Ardeshir I (r. 222-242 CE). Bottom: Silver drahm of the last Sassanian emperor, Yezdegerd III (r. 632-651 CE). The coins show how the same general pattern was followed in coins throughout the Sassanian period, with the emperor's profile on the obverse and a fire altar on the reverse. For most of this period, the fire-altar was flanked by two attendants, which is the design that the Muslim state inherited and used. Author's Collection.

The copper coinage of the early period is rather confusing and poorly understood. Stefan Heidemann (2010) has indicated that the Arabs continued to import standard Byzantine copper coins in large quantities for use in the conquered areas, probably with the acquiescence of the Byzantine state which still regarded these regions as part of its jurisdiction and the Arab conquerors as temporary occupiers. However, the Arabs also appear to have started minting their own copper coinage around 636 CE (Heidemann, 2010), comprising imitations of the Byzantine coins with the Emperor's portrait and Greek inscriptions.

A remarkable fact about the coins used in the Islamic Caliphate until about 651 CE is that they bore no Islamic text or symbolism at all. Instead, they had the portraits of the Byzantine and Sassanian emperors and explicitly religious Zoroastrian and Christian symbols – the fire altar and the cross! Thus, paradoxically, the coins used during Islam's most sacred period violate what came to be regarded as one its strictest edicts – the proscription of figural images and un-Islamic symbols. These coins depicting non-Muslim emperors and symbols must have filled the bayt-al-māl (treasury) of the most doctrinally iconoclastic state in history, and the earliest believers whose faith taught them to abhor such images must freely have used these coins in ordinary commerce. Or perhaps these were pragmatic people, and not quite as rigid and doctrinaire in these matters as later generations would make them appear.

II. The Islamic Imprint: 651 CE – 660 CE

Interestingly, the first coins with an explicitly Islamic imprimatur appeared around 651 CE – exactly the time when Yazdegerd III was assassinated. It is impossible to know why this was the case, but informed speculation is possible. At this point in history, coins were the most visible symbol of sovereignty and derived their value both from the metal they contained and the certification of the ruler in whose name they were issued. To be acceptable, a coin needed the backing of a recognized authority, much as currency today needs the backing of a central bank. It was as though, up until Yazdegerd's death, the Muslim state had been content to “borrow” the sovereignty of the defeated Persian emperor for the credibility of its silver coinage. This may have been a purely political choice, given that almost the entire population of the conquered regions was still non-Muslim and probably more emotionally attached to their former ruler. However, once he was dead, an urgent need was felt to replace his authority with the visible symbol of a new one: Islam.

Figure 3: A silver dirham that is generally considered to be the “first” Islamic coin. Probably issued during the period of the third “rightly-guided” caliph, ʻUthmān b. ‘Affān (r. 644-656 CE). The coin uses the same dies as contemporary Sassanian coins, with “bismillah” added in Arabic in the obverse margin. Author's Collection.

The solution that was adopted at this point was also rather instructive. Instead of moving to a radically different coinage, Sassanian silver dirhams were “Islamized” by adding a small piece of Arabic text in the margin on the obverse side, leaving the emperor's portrait, the fire altars and the Pahlavi inscriptions (including the emperor's name) in place! The text added varied, but the classic Muslim invocation “bismillāh” (In the name of Allah) was the most common (see Figure 3). Others included “jayyid” (good/valid) and “lillāh-il-hamd” (praise is for Allah alone), as well as a few rarer inscriptions. Apparently, local governors had wide latitude in which of these they wished to put on their coins. One other interesting device was also adopted for these coins. Sassanian coins carried the date of their minting by stating the regnal year of the emperor whose portrait they bore. The last coins issued by Yazdegerd thus carried the date “Year 20”, indicating their issuance in the 20th year after his enthronement in 632 CE. For the subsequent coins issued with the Arabic inscriptions, this date was “frozen” at this value, so that coins issued in the period 651 to 660 CE often carried the nominal date “Year 20”, making it very difficult to date the coins more precisely. This may have been done simply out of convenience, so that the dies used to make the final coins of the Sassanian era could be reused with the added Arabic inscription.

After 650 CE, there is evidence of a drop-off in imported Byzantine copper coins – presumably as the Byzantine state came to terms with the permanence of the Arab conquest – and the establishment of Arab mints in Syria. However, these mints continued to produce coins using the Byzantine template, with the image of the Emperor, occasionally with the added Arabic words “tayyib” (pure) or “jā'iz” (authorized), or the word “KALON” (good) in Greek (Heidemann, 2010). In later copper coinage from about 670 CE onwards, the cross is often replaced with a non-Christian shape such as a staff or a globe, though coins with the cross continued to be minted even into the 690s (see Figure 4).


Figure 4: Umayyad copper fals minted in Emises/Hims (modern Homs) c. 685 -697 CE. Note the stylized portrait of the Emperor with crosses on the crown and on the globe he is holding. The Arabic word “tayyib” and the Greek work “KALON” (both meaning “good”) indicate the validity of the coin. Author's Collection.

III. Early Umayyad Period: 660 CE – 680 CE

Islamic coinage for the period between 660 CE and 700 CE provides a series of interesting details with potential insights into the social and political events of this critical period – and possibly even into the evolution of Islamic doctrine. However, in the absence of strictly contemporary writings or records, it is difficult to interpret these details with certainty.

The year 660 is of special significance in Islamic history. It represents the transition of the Caliphate from the first four “rāshidūn” (rightly-guided) caliphs to the first ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, Muʻāwiya b. Abī Sufiyān, who moved the capital to his power base in Damascus. The 21 years of his rule saw the consolidation of the Muslim state, and the establishment of a more typical administrative structure derived from the Sassanian and Byzantine models. This may be the reason that changes with more overtly political significance begin appearing in coins minted during this period.

One notable change in the silver coinage was that dirhams bearing the portrait of the defeated Yazdegerd III were replaced by those bearing the portrait of Khusrau II (r. 590-628 CE) – known as Parvīz – the last truly powerful Sassianan emperor. The tradition of marking the coins as Islamic by adding an Arabic inscription in the obverse margin was continued. The reason for the change of portraits is not known with certainty, but informed speculation suggests that, even three decades after his death, Khusrau Parvīz commanded greater awe among the former Sassanian populace than the hapless Yazdegerd, and the use of Khusrau's portrait may indicate that the new Umayyad rulers felt a greater need for pro-active methods to win the loyalty of their subjects in Iraq and Persia. Coins with the portrait of Yazdegerd did continue to be minted, though the dates based on Yazdegerd's accession began to be updated as well. Eventually, this led to a coin dated “Year 1 of Yazīd” (Mochiri, 1982) – the first coin dated with reference to a Muslim ruler, Yazīd b. Muʻāwiya.

Another interesting change that occurred in this period was that the name of the Sasanian emperor on the coins was often replaced by the name of the Arab governor under whose authority the coin was being issued, but in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) script rather than Arabic (Foss, 2002). Thus, one has the paradoxical situation of coins with Zoroastrian religious symbology, the face of a dead Sassanian emperor labeled by the name of a Muslim governor in Pahlavi script, and an Arabic religious inscription in the margin! This chimeric design remained the standard silver coinage of the Muslim state for almost four decades. A similar pattern is apparent in the copper coinage, where the portrait of the Byzantine emperor (and sometimes several emperors or an emperor and his queen) coexisted with Greek and Arabic inscriptions, occasionally accompanied by the Christian symbol of the cross (Figure 4).

Fig5Figure 5: Silver dirham c. 673 CE issued in the name of the Caliph Muʻāwiya b. Abi Sufyan. The coin depicts Sassanian Emperor Khusrau II, with the Pahlavi inscription “maawia amīr-i wurrishnikān” in front of the emperor's face. The Arabic inscription in the obverse margin reads “bismillāh” (in the name of Allah). Author's Collection.

A very important milestone in this period was the issuing of coins explicitly in the name of the Caliph himself, with the inscription “maawia amīr-i wurrishnikān” – Muʻāwiya, Commander of the Believers (Foss, 2002). The term for “believers” comes from the Pehlavi verb, “wurrōyistan“, which means “to believe”. These silver dirhams, minted around 673-674 CE (52-54 AH), represent the first instance when the all-important title was used on a coin (Figure 5), and it is truly remarkable that the title appeared in Pahlavi rather than Arabic form (amīr- al-mu'minīn). The Arabic form does, however, appear around the same time in several rock inscriptions.

IV: The Second Fitnah: 680 CE – 692 CE

The death of Muʻāwiya in 680 CE precipitated a twelve-year period of exceptional turbulence and trauma for the Muslim community. This is termed the Second Fitnah (civil strife) of the three such episodes of civil war recognized in early Islamic history (the first followed the assassination of the third Caliph, ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān, and the third was the Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty). While the history of this period was only written down later from oral reports, coins provide direct, if often cryptic, contemporary documentation of the events. As such, the numismatic record of this period is of incalculable historical value.

The Second Fitnah arose from the refusal of large sections of the Muslim community to recognize the successors of Muʻāwiya – notably his son, Yazīd I – as Caliph. Of these rebellions, the one that lasted the longest and became most problematic for the Umayyads was the declaration of a rival caliphate in Hejaz by ‘Abdullāh b. al-Zubayr – usually known as Ibn Zubayr. Initial Umayyad attempts to quell this rebellion failed. Eventually, Ibn Zubayr controlled almost half of the territory of the Muslim state, including the Arabian peninsula and parts of Iraq and Persia. He became the second individual to issue coins declaring himself “Commander of the Believers” (see Figure 6). Ibn Zubayr, who ruled from Mecca, was ultimately defeated in 692 CE by an Umayyad army under Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, but only after a siege that resulted in the virtual destruction of the Ka'ba in Mecca and the Great Mosque in Medina.

Fig6Figure 6: Silver dirham issued by Ibn Zubayr c. 682 in Istakhr (Iran). The Pahlavi inscription in front of the face of Emperor Khusrau II reads “apdwla-i zubiran amīr-i -wurrishnikān” (ʻAbdullah bin Zubayr, Commander of the Believers). The Arabic inscription in the obverse margin reads “bismillāh” (in the name of Allah). Author's collection.

The period of the Second Fitnah was also marked by the ascendancy of several ultra-fundamentalist – or khārijī – Muslim groups. One group called the Azraqites, led by Qatarī b. al-Fujāʻa, issued coins with the declaration “lā ḥukmu illā lillāh (There is no dominion except for Allah) c. 694 CE, while another led by ‘Atiya b. Aswad inscribed the somewhat less categorical phrase bismillāh walī-al-amr” (in the name of Allah, Master of affairs) on his coins issued around 691 CE. The Islamic phraseology of these coins indicates the presence of the same literalist and inflexible attitude that imbues the extremists jihadi groups of today, who are the doctrinal descendants of these early khārijī rebels.

Three very important milestones occurred on coins in this period:

Fig7Figure 7: Silver dirham of ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdullah, issued c. 685 CE (66 AH), and bearing the Arabic inscription “bismillah / Muhammad rasūlallāh” (In the name of Allah / Muhammad [is] Allah's messenger). Author's Collection.

V. Umayyad Consolidation: 692 CE – 696 CE

The Umayyad rearguard against Ibn Zubayr's revolt was led by Marwān b. al-Hakam, a cousin of both ‘Uthmān and Muʻāwiya. In 685 CE, his son, ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān, was declared the Umayyad caliph in Damascus, truly inaugurating the so-called Marwanid period of the Umayyad dynasty. After defeating Ibn Zubayr in Mecca (c. 692 CE) as well as the various khārijī rebel “caliphs” in Iraq and Persia, ‘Abd al-Malik consolidated Umayyad authority and, some have suggested, laid the practical groundwork for much of what has since been recognized as the Islamic ethos. In terms of coinage, ‘Abd al-Malik's reign saw a remarkable set of experiments, culminating in a standardization that became the model for Islamic coinage for centuries thereafter.

Perhaps the boldest and most important innovation in coinage by ‘Abd al-Malik was the attempt to introduce explicitly Muslim figural elements. Until this point, the human figures in the coinage had been those of Sassanian and Byzantine emperors, though clearly the implication was to have these figures confer authority upon the Muslim ruler. Around 691-92 CE, ‘Abd al-Malik introduced a gold coin where the three imperial figures were given decidedly Arab costume (rather than Byzantine), and the complete shahāda – “la ilāha illallāh waḥdahū / muhammad rasūlallāh” (there is no god but Allah, the One, [and] Muhammad [is] Allah's messenger) was inscribed on the coin. This is generally regarded as the first official instance of the complete shahāda in any Islamic artifact, followed soon by its inscription in the Dome of the Rock c. 692 CE. Around the same period, ‘Abd al-Malik's brother, Bishr b. Marwān, who was governor of Basra, issued Sassanian-style silver dirhams with a three figure motif replacing the fire-altar and attendants, and the same complete shahada as the gold coins.

There has been much debate about whom the three figures might represent, with the general assumption that the central figure in both the gold and silver coinage is probably meant to be the caliph himself. It is interesting that, in the silver coinage, this figure has his hands raised to his ears, which is interpreted as an oratorical position, i.e., the caliph is depicted giving a sermon – or perhaps praying. The surrounding figures may represent governors or sons. In any case, there is little doubt that these coins represented a significant step towards the Umayyads taking complete ownership of their coinage.

Another remarkable series of coins minted in this period were the so-called “Mihrab and Anaza” silver dirhams (Treadwell, 2005), where the Sassanian emperor's portrait was surrounded by the shahāda and modified to suggest that it represented an image of the caliph (e.g., holding a sword). On the reverse side of these coins, the Sassanian fire altar was replaced by an arch with a spear standing upright in it. Most notably, the inscriptions on either side of the arch read “amīr al-mu'minīn” (Commander of the Believers) and “khalīfatullāh” (Deputy of Allah) – though the latter has also been read as “khalaftullah” (I act in the name of Allah). The spear is flanked by the words “naṣr Allāh” (succor from Allah).

This approach culminated in the issuance around 694 CE of a famous series of gold and copper coins known as the Standing Caliph series. These coins depicted a standing figure, clad in Arab robes and head-dress, and holding what looks like a sword (though some have termed it a staff). There is near-consensus that this figure is meant to represent the caliph himself, much as Sassanian and Byzantine coins had depicted emperors. Notably, some scholars such as Foss (2001) and Hoyland (2007) have suggested that in some cases, the figure depicts the Prophet himself, but this is unlikely (Schulze and Schulze, 2010). The gold coin also carried the complete shahāda and, for the first time, an explicit declaration in Arabic of the year the coin was minted. Both these features were to become permanent in subsequent gold and silver coinage. The copper coinage with the standing caliph motif was more varied (see Figure 8).

Fig8_1 Fig8_2
Figure 8: Two types of Umayyad copper coins with the Standing Caliph motif. The coin on the left has the complete shahada and the name of the caliph with the title “amīr al-mu'minīn“, whereas the one on the right only has “Muḥammad rasulallāh” and the name of the mint, “īliya / filisṭīn” (Jerusalem, Palestine). The inscription and the distinctive posture of the figure has led some to suggest that the latter coin might depict the Prophet Muhammad himself, but this is extremely unlikely. Author's Collection.

The Standing Caliph series lasted only for a few years (Bates, 1987), and it is hypothesized that it failed because of objections to its figural content from the Muslim community. If so, this indicates that, by this point, some degree of iconoclastic feeling had pervaded the Muslim polity. Another indication of such sentiment comes from the response to a set of coins issued by Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, the governor of Basra around 694 CE. These Sassanian-style coins had the emperor's portrait, surrounded by the complete shahāda in one of two different styles (see Figure 9 for one style). Notably, the name of the governor on these coins was inscribed in Arabic rather than Pahlavi. Apparently, the more pious members of the community raised some sort of objection on these coins as well – perhaps to the conjunction of the shahāda and the emperor's portrait – and the coins stopped being minted.


Figure 9: Silver dirham issued by Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf c. 694 CE, with the full shahada and the governor's name in Arabic. Author's Collection.

VI. The Reform Coinage: 696 CE onwards

Finally, in 696-97 CE, ‘Abd al-Malik implemented a sweeping reform of all coinage, moving away from all figural depictions and non-Arabic scripts, and switching to purely aniconic designs with Arabic inscriptions. First, a gold dinar was issued in 696 CE. On the obverse, it had the central inscription “lā ilāha illallāh waḥdahū lā sharīkalah” (there is no god but Allah, the One, He has no associates), and along the circumference the inscription “Muḥammad rasūlallāh arsalahū bi-l-hudā wa dīn al-ḥaqq liyudhhiru ‘ala al-dīni kullihī” (Muhammad [is] the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of Truth that He might proclaim it over all religions). The part after Muḥammad rasūlallah quotes from the Qur'an 61:9. The reverse had a central field inscribed with part of chapter 112 from the Qur'an – “Allāhu aḥad Allāhu al-ṣamad lam yalid wa-lam yūlad” (Allah is one. Allah is eternal. He did not beget and was not begotten), with the inscription around the circumference explicitly stating the mint and year of minting in Hijri calendar.

The silver coinage, issued a year later, followed exactly the same pattern, with two minor changes. In the quote from Qur'an 61:9 on the obverse, a part omitted in the gold coins was included, so that the inscription read “Muḥammad rasūlallāh arsalahū bi-l-hudā wa dīn al-ḥaqq liyudhhiru ‘ala al-dīni kullihī wa-law karih-al-mushrikūn” (Muḥammad [is] the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of truth that He might proclaim it over all religions even if the associators are averse). On the reverse, the central inscription now quoted the complete text of chapter 112: Allāhu aḥad Allāhu al-ṣamad lam yalid wa-lam yūlad wa-lam yakun lahū kufuwan aḥad” (Allah is one. Allah is eternal. He did not beget and was not begotten. And there is none like unto Him). An early example is shown in Figure 10.


Figure 10: Umayyad post-reform silver dirham following the standard pattern, except the inclusion of the mint name, Marw, in Pahlavi script at the bottom of the central field on the obverse. Author's Collection.

Once implemented, the pattern of the gold and silver coinage was followed without any change until the end of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 CE, and continued with minor changes in the first two centuries of the Abbasid dynasty (Figure 11). Indeed, broadly similar designs with textual and stylistic variations were to be used for gold and silver coins through most of the Islamic world for many centuries thereafter, and with rare exceptions, the use of figural motifs in coinage was abandoned completely until modern times.


Figure 11: Gold dinar issued by the Abbasid Caliph Harūn al-Rashīd. Note the continuity of the general pattern from the Umayyad reform coinage (Figure 10). Author's collection.

Interestingly, the early use of the shahāda and Qur'anic texts on fundamentally commercial artifacts such as coins indicates that currently held popular ideas about the use and handling of such texts are a recent invention. Today, many Muslims have come to regard even the damaging of paper with Qur'anic text or the handling of such texts by non-Muslims as disrespectful, or even blasphemous. But such texts were used on coins from Spain to India for a thousand years. These coins were mishandled, hammered, gouged, cut and re-melted. They were used by people of all creeds, and even copied (poorly) by many Christian states for use as their currency (see Figure 12). They found their way to all parts of the known world, so that some of the biggest hordes of early Islamic coins have been discovered in places such as Sweden. All these things show that early Muslims had a much more relaxed attitude towards the sanctity and appropriate use of religious texts than many imagine today.

Figure 12: A gold Bezant of the Crusader State of Jerusalem, c. 12th-13th cent. CE. The coin imitates Fatimid dinars, including the inscriptions of the shahāda and other religious declarations. Author's collection.


Coins are remarkably informative archaeological artifacts, referring explicitly to persons, dates and places, and often providing additional information through their inscriptions, their physical attributes, and the location of their discovery. However, this richness also makes it difficult to interpret their information precisely – especially in the absence of other sources. The numismatic corpus from the early Islamic period is especially difficult in this sense. Looking back at it with modern eyes – and with the cultural and religious history of the last thirteen centuries in mind – several questions arise naturally: Why did it take so long for the Arab conquerors to settle on an “Islamic” design for coinage? Why did they rely on chimeric designs with obviously “un-Islamic” symbology and attributes for an extended period? Why were sacred inscriptions so often in Pehlavi rather than Arabic? What motivated the choice of designs and inscriptions as the coinage evolved? What sort of state was it that produced this evolving coinage?

Some of these questions have been addressed indirectly in the discussion above, but this section will consider them more explicitly to explore what the coinage in question might say about the social, cultural economic, political and religious milieu that produced it.

Two issues, in particular, deserve special attention:

  • The use of chimeric coins over an extended period lasting at least until 692 CE.
  • The sudden proliferation of overtly Islamic statements on coins and in other texts after about 690 CE, leading to the issuing of reformed coinage in 696 CE.

Both provide uniquely significant insight into the likely nature, orientation and evolution of the early Muslim state.

The Use of Chimeric Coinage

To the person unfamiliar with early Islamic coinage, its most striking and surprising feature is the use of Byzantine and Sassanian designs, including the portraits of emperors and depictions of non-Muslim religious symbols. This remarkable fact has elicited much interest, and some highly questionable revisionist theories about the origins of Islam (see Grodzky (2014) for a good summary). However, much more plausible and historically justifiable explanations can be found based on existing evidence and minimal speculation.

Most people – especially Muslims – have been conditioned to believe that Islam is an exclusivist, iconoclastic faith that forbids images and execrates the symbols of other faiths. Yet, in the very period idealized today by Muslims everywhere – including the time of the Prophet himself – Muslims seem to have used Byzantine and Sassanian coinage without objection. Even more astonishingly, when Islamic features did begin to appear on coins, the most significant features of the non-Islamic design – emperors' portraits, fire altars and crosses, Pahlavi and Greek scripts – were still retained. Indeed, the first dated expressions of the Muslim creed (the shahāda and the formal affirmation of the Prophet Muhammad's status), as well as the first reference to a named caliph as “Commander of the Believers” on a coin, all occur in Pahlavi, not Arabic! From the date of its first major conquests, the Muslim state took more than 60 years to arrive at a coinage design that reflected what would today be recognized as a strictly Islamic form.

One common misunderstanding must be dispelled at this point. The chimeric coins of early Islam were not existing Byzantine or Persian coins stamped over with Arabic inscriptions. The coins with the mixture of symbologies and inscriptions were minted explicitly by the Muslim state – often using new dies prepared wholly within the period of Muslim rule. Thus, it is not the case that Muslim administrators could not have initiated a more overtly “Islamic” coinage at a much earlier date. Rather, they chose not to do so – or at least saw no need for it – and it is interesting to ask why that might have been the case.

To answer this question, one must consider the early Islamic state in the context of its time rather than through the lens of subsequent centuries. In retrospect, the Arab conquests look like the beginning of an entirely new civilizational turn in the areas ruled by the Persian and Byzantine empires, but things probably looked very different to those who actually accomplished the conquests, and the choices they made – including those about coinage – were necessarily driven by their conceptions in real time.

In view of what followed, perhaps the most easily overlooked aspect of the Arab conquest is its relatively mundane nature. To be sure, the Arabs were extremely unlikely conquerors, but conquest itself was a commonplace affair for most of the region in question. The two great empires – and their predecessor empires – had been over-running each other's territories regularly for almost a thousand years before the Arabs appeared. This was especially true in the areas comprising modern Syria and Iraq. Each of these conquests involved the transfer of sovereignty over large populations from one ruler and one religion to another. And though the conquerors often indulged in massacre, enslavement, and desecration of sacred places, most of the populace was allowed to go about its affairs without the imposition of grand societal transformations. The authority of the conquerors was generally maintained through a relatively small occupying force and a local bureaucracy co-opted by force. The Arabs were no exception. Indeed, they needed this model more than prior conquerors because of their smaller numbers and a lack of governing experience or infrastructure.

As documented, among others, by Hodgson and Hoyland using Muslim sources such as al-Tabari and al-Balādhuri, the early Arab conquerors had little interest in creating a new civilization, or in converting the conquered populations to Islam. Rather, they saw these populations mainly as a source of labor, goods, and revenue, which was consistent with the practices of the time. The Arab soldiery – which included Christians as well as Muslims – lived in separate garrison towns and had limited contact with the local populace. People of all faiths in the conquered regions – including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and later Hindus – were recognized as “People of the Book” so that they could be subject to the poll tax (jizya), which formed a critical part of the Muslim state's tax base. Indeed, when the locals did begin to convert under social and financial pressures, it became something of a fiscal crisis for the Muslim state, prompting drastic changes in tax law to ensure that conversion could occur without loss of revenue. Even so, non-Arab converts typically needed to find an Arab Muslim patron before they could fully join the Muslim community. It took well over three centuries for most of the Middle East and Persia to become Muslim majority regions. All these things indicate that the original Muslim state's conception of itself was very different than that promoted by later revisionist thinking, and was more along the lines of traditional control over conquered peoples rather than the creation of a radically new egalitarian polity. This is reflected in the fact that the poll tax was often imposed on all adults in the conquered lands, implying that they were considered a single class regardless of their religious affiliation. A polity rooted in an Islamic identity only emerged as non-Arab Muslims acquired greater power and sought to erase the memory of their subservient status.

Given this situation, it was natural that the decisions of the early Muslim state would be concerned more with maintaining control rather than a zeal for “Islamization”. This was especially important because the Arab forces comprised a tiny, relatively isolated minority in the lands they had conquered. Continuity would clearly have been more useful in this context than wholesale disruption of societal patterns, and the decision to keep using existing coinage with minor changes may have been driven by this consideration. The still largely Zoroastrian or Christian populations were more likely to feel secure with fire altars, crosses and familiar images of their old rulers on the coins they used every day (Donner, 1986). And yet, like all conquerors, the Arabs must also have felt the need to stamp their authority in some way, especially as the conquest took hold. One way they did so was by introducing explicitly Islamic inscriptions on coins. But here too, it must have been important to make sure that the message got through. Thus, in Persia which had no familiarity with Arabic, the Muslim state used Pehlavi to make its religious statements, but felt freer to use Arabic in Syria and Egypt, where the language may have had somewhat greater penetration already.

Another important likely factor was the necessarily asymmetric relationship between the Muslim state and its two predecessor empires. Unlike the Sassanian Empire, which was overthrown completely and its last ruler killed in exile, the Byzantine Empire remained a strong force even after losing Syria, and held on to its legendary capital, Constantinople. Thus, Zoroastrian symbols and the Pehalvi language represented no real threat to the conquerors, whereas Christianity and Roman civilization remained potent adversaries. This may explain why removing the Christian cross from coins was given a much higher priority than removing the Zoroastrian fire altar – though the cross continued to appear sporadically until 692 CE.

The long-lasting use of chimeric coins, and especially ‘Abd al-Malik's initial experiments with putting his own image on coins, also suggests that early Islam was far less dogmatic about figural representations than is seen later in history. At the same time, it is also clear from the failure of Abd al-Malik's figural coinage that, by the mid-690s, Muslim opinion-makers had come to frown upon the practice of depiction. Hodgson (1975) has called the choice of a non-figural coin design “a stroke of genius” that symbolized the Muslim faith in compelling fashion.

The Proliferation of Official Religious Statements Post-690 CE

Prior to the accession of ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān to the caliphate in 685 CE, there is very little overt assertion of religious doctrine in the historic record, but this changes rather abruptly after about 690 CE – on coins as well as in written texts and architectural decoration. This has led several revisionist historians to suggest that the currently accepted religion of Islam was largely created during the period of ‘Abd al-Malik and his successors, building upon a more rudimentary earlier cult. Another implication derived from the evidence is that the Muslim state prior to 690 CE was relatively weak and not based explicitly on a religious vision. However, as Hodgson, Donner, Hoyland and others have argued persuasively, there is little reason to accept the first assertion, and the second one must be understood in proper historical context. An increasing amount of evidence from early papyrus inscriptions indicates that the Muslim state was administratively quite sophisticated as early as the period of the second Caliph, ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb (583-644 CE), and certainly by the caliphate of Muʻāwiya b. Abi Sufyān (660-680 CE). Numerous rock and papyrus inscriptions from the pre-690 CE period also show that Islamic religious sentiment and Qur'anic expression at the personal level had become well-established among Muslims by that time. Why, then, the sudden emergence of official religious statements?

The answer may lie in political calculation.

Hoyland – following Crone and others – has speculated that, until the eruption of the second fitnah, the expanding Arabs saw themselves as an army of “believers” (mu'minīn) rather than an army of Muslims (muslimīn) alone. Thus, the amīr al-mu'minīn (Commander of the Believers) saw himself as a leader of Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the practice of Islam per se was regarded as a private matter within this larger milieu – hence the lack of official religious proclamations by the state. There is indeed indirect evidence that the Prophet Muhammad initially saw Christians and Jews as members of his larger community – a principle embodied in the “Compact of Medīna” signed after the Prophet's migration to that city. It is also true that the conquering Arab armies included Christian Arabs in addition to Muslims, and that these people were treated as equal members of the community, in contrast to the conquered peoples. However, it is far from clear if this situation held as late as 690 CE, by which time large populations of Christians and Jews in Iraq, Syria and Egypt were paying the poll-tax (jizya) as protected minorities. So why did the official usage of Islamic expressions by the state only begin after 690? To answer this question, it is useful to look at the situation at the time from the Umayyad perspective. ‘Abd al-Malik was facing two major challenges: The civil strife of the Second Fitnah, and the perpetual conflict with the Byzantines. Both were likely factors in the decision to adopt a more overtly Islamic official discourse.

On the home front, opposition came from three directions: The ultra-orthodox regime of Ibn Zubayr; the various puritanical khārijī groups; and the supporters of the fourth Caliph, ‘Ali, who would later become the Shī'a branch of Islam. The notable thing is that all three opponents based their claims on religious rectitude, asserting that they – and not the Umayyads in Damascus – were the true practitioners of Islam in its purest form. In the case of the Shī'a, this assertion was accompanied by belief in a divinely sanctioned leadership role for the Prophet's family. Of the three opposition movements, the Shī'a revolt was ultimately to prove the most effective and lead to the end of the Umayyad dynasty, but during ‘Abd al-Malik's time, it was the least powerful of the three. The other two acquired real, if transient, power, and proclaimed it explicitly through strong religious statements. As discussed earlier, Muslim coinage prior to 685 is either devoid of any Islamic inscription, or carries minimal ones such as “bismillah” or the designation of the Caliph as “Commander of the Believers”. The first explicit statement of “Muhammad is Allah's messenger” appears in 685 CE on coins issued by ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdullāh in Bishapur (in southern Iran), and the full creed (shahāda) appears first in 691 CE on a coin minted by ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abdullāh in Sistan (Eastern Iran). Notably, both were regional governors appointed by Ibn Zubayr's ultra-orthodox regime in Medina, not by the Umayyad caliph in Damascus (Johns, 2003). The khārijī groups also put vociferous religious inscriptions such as “lā ḥukmu illā lillāh” (there is no dominion except for Allah) on coins – and presumably using them in their discourse. The Umayyads spent the period from 683 to 692 CE fighting these movements, and gradually defeated them all. It is precisely towards the end of this period that the highly specific religious statements introduced by their more puritanical foes began appearing on official Umayyad coinage, and the walls of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem were adorned with passages from the Qur'an. And, to cap it all, once the rebel groups had been vanquished, the Umayyads introduced a reformed coinage with the full shahāda and two long quotes from the Qur'an. This pattern suggests strongly that the move towards the official use of religious statements reflected a political decision to co-opt the narrative of the rebels to dissipate the widespread sympathy they enjoyed in a populace already growing more puritanical under their influence. A somewhat parallel phenomenon can be seen today, where the emergence of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS has had the effect of increasing religious fervor even among Muslims who do not support these groups politically, in turn forcing governments to adopt more puritanical postures on issues such as blasphemy and shari'a law.

The struggle against puritanical Islam, however, is only a part of the explanation for the adoption of overtly religious discourse by the state after 690 CE. Some of the “credit” must go also to the state's emerging relationship with the Byzantine Empire. Initially, the Muslim state had been monetarily dependent on the Byzantines, and the latter seem to have regarded the Muslims as temporary occupiers of their lands in the Levant. However, as Arab hold over Syria and Egypt became more complete, the two states adopted a posture of mutual hostility, symbolized most clearly by the repeated military expeditions sent by the Umayyads against Constantinople – all of them fruitless. And, given that the Byzantine Empire presented itself as the guardian of Christian supremacy, it was natural that the Arabs responded by adopting a similar position in the name of Islam. Thus, when ‘Abd al-Malik did finally introduce a reformed Islamic coinage, the Qur'anic texts placed on them appeared to be directed squarely at Christian beliefs. The focus of Chapter 112 (Al-Ikhlāṣ) is on the oneness of Allah, and on the key statement, “He did not beget and was not begotten” – a direct challenge to the divinity of Jesus. The challenge is even clearer in the choice of Qur'an 61:9 – “Muḥammad is the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of truth that he might proclaim it over all religions even if the associators are averse.” There can be little doubt that the term “associators” here referred to the dominant faith in the Levant and its “association” of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit with the Divine. Indeed, this text, among others, was also inscribed on the walls of Abd al-Malik's new Dome of the Rock. Thus, the post-fitna period beginning in 692 CE can be seen as the beginning of a transformation in the Muslim state, taking it from yet another occupier to a new civilizational force with Islamic orthodoxy at its core. The aggressive statement of Qur'an 61:9 on coins was a fittingly supremacist declaration of Islam's new intentions, and the basis of solidarity against the Christian empire.

The picture of the early Muslim state that emerges from this is one highlighting the practical aspects of its evolution rather than the ideological form imputed to it by later generations. Once can imagine a young, energetic and rapidly expanding state run by people with little experience of statecraft relying on their instinctive administrative genius – which was considerable in some cases – and on the principles of their new faith. It is natural that they would be less pre-occupied with doctrinal issues such as the prohibition of images or explicit statements of creed, and more with the practical considerations of governing diverse populations, collecting taxes, and keeping the soldiery in shape. Indeed, history suggests that, ultimately, it was this focus on the “worldly” affairs of state that elicited the puritanical revolts of Ibn Zubayr, the Kharijites, and even some Shī'a groups. This, in turn, forced the state to adopt a posture of more overt religiosity, essentially using a “protector of the faith” argument to solidify its political control – especially in opposition to the overtly Christian Byzantine state. It is not surprising, then, that the intellectual basis as well as the bureaucratic framework of Islamic law begins to flourish in this period, though it did not find full fruition until after the fall of the Umayyads. In a real sense, the idea of a state based on “Islamic laws” rather than “Islamic rule” was a creation of ‘Abd al-Malik and his successors – including the Abbasids – and driven by the agenda of their puritanical opponents.

This viewpoint has interesting implications. Among other things, it suggests that the second fitnah was a critical event in Islamic history, and changed its course for all future time. Many of the features that orthodox Muslims associate today with the notion of an “Islamic state” arose at this time, and probably for purely political reasons. This also means that, rather than separating the period of the first four “rightly-guided” caliphs from the rest, it is more useful to see the reign of Mu'awiya as a continuation of this period, with the real break coming after his death.

An important consequence of the Islamization instituted by ‘Abd al-Malik would have been to finally turn Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims irrevocably into outsiders, reversing the early practice of regarding Arab Christians and Jews as part of the community of “believers” and reserving outsider status only for conquered people. After ‘Abd al-Malik's consolidation of the state, Islam became the core of its identity. Even so, the state did not force non-Muslims to convert – indeed, actively discouraged them in many cases – and allowed them to maintain their communities, albeit in a subservient status. This was the model that Muslim rulers from Spain to India were to follow for the next thousand years, and even follow today in certain ways. It is a self-consciously supremacist and exclusionary model – very much of its time and clearly unsuited to the 21st century – but it is nothing like the fantasy that excites groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The society it created was – like all others in its time – manifestly illiberal, but it was also intellectually vigorous, multi-faceted, diverse, creative and dynamic. It produced writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, historians, and, yes, warriors and tyrants. It was full of argument and passion, but also capable of thoughtful analysis. In a word, it was complex, not the stark, simplistic, static and joyless caricature that today's revivalists seem to have in mind.

Above all, the varied coinage of the early Islamic period presents a very human picture of the evolving Muslim state, laying bare the challenges it faced, hinting at motivations, suggesting calculations and choices made. It shows energetic leaders coping with problems far exceeding their control, and finding strategies to muddle through. The fact that some of these pragmatic strategies have since ossified into religious orthodoxy is a large part of the problems the world faces today. Muslim societies in particular should look more deeply into their history and learn to appreciate its complexities rather than seeking simple answers in the mythology of received “truths”. It's worth remembering that societies that forget their past truly have no future!


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