These two dinar coins sum up one of the greatest political and religious upheavals ever – the permanent transformation of the Middle East in the years following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. For Muslims, the clock of history was reset when Prophet Muhammad and his followers moved from Mecca to Medina. That event, the Hijra, which took place in the year 622 by Christian reckoning, marked for Islam the beginning of year 1 in a new calendar. For his followers, the Prophet’s teachings had so transformed society that time had begun again. The next few objects will show something of what the world looked like at this pivotal moment. They were all made in the years around Muhammad’s death in the Hijra year 11, or AD 632, and they come from Syria, China, England, Peru and Korea. Everywhere they give insight into the interaction of power and faith.
In the fifty years after the death of the Prophet, Arabian armies shattered the political status quo across the Middle East, conquering Egypt and Syria, Iraq and Iran. The power of Islam had spread as far in a few decades as Christianity and Buddhism had in as many centuries. In Damascus in the mid 690s the inhabitants of the city must have had a strong sense that their world was being totally transformed. Still in appearance a Christian Roman metropolis, Damascus, conquered by Muslim armies in 635, had become the capital of a new Islamic empire. The head of this burgeoning empire, the caliph, was remote in his palace, and the Islamic armies were segregated in their barracks, but the people in the bazaars and streets of Damascus were about to have their new reality brought home to them in something they handled every day – money.
In the early 690s Damascus merchants might not have understood that their world had changed permanently. Despite decades of Islamic rule they were still using the coins of their former rulers, the Christian Byzantine emperors, and those coins were full of Christian symbolism. It was quite reasonable to think that, sooner or later, the emperor would return to defeat his enemies, as he had several times before. But he did not. Damascus has remained a Muslim city to this day, and perhaps the most visible sign that this new Islamic regime was going to last was the change in the coinage.
The man who issued the two coins I want to discuss was Abd al-Malik, who ruled as the ninth caliph, or leader of the faithful, in succession to the Prophet Muhammad. Both coins were issued in Damascus within twelve months, across the Hijri years 76 and 77 – that is, AD 696–7. They are both of gold and are the same size, the size of a British penny though a little bit heavier. But they are utterly different in design. One coin shows the caliph; the other has no image at all. The change reveals how, in these critical early years, Islam was defining itself not just as a religious but also as a political system.
On the front of the first coin, where a Byzantine coin would have had the emperor, is a full-length figure of the caliph Abd al-Malik. It’s the earliest known depiction of a Muslim. And on the back, where the Byzantines would have put a cross, there is a column with a sphere at the top.
Abd al-Malik is shown full-figure, standing and bearded, wearing Arab robes and a Bedouin scarf headdress, with his hand resting on a sword at his waist. It’s a fascinating image – a unique source for our knowledge of the dress and the regalia of the early caliphs. His pose is menacing, and he looks as though he’s about to draw his sword. The lines below his waist are almost certainly meant to represent a whip. It is an image to inspire fear and respect, an image that makes it clear that the eastern Mediterranean now has a new faith and a formidable new ruler.
A letter from one of his governors echoes the image’s implicit message:
It is Abd al-Malik, the commander of believers, a man with no weaknesses, from whom rebels can expect no indulgence! On the one who defies him falls his whip!
He cuts an impressive figure – although a less reverential source tells us that he had such appalling halitosis that he was nicknamed ‘the fly-killer’. But, bad breath or not, Abd al-Malik was the most important Muslim leader since Muhammad himself, because he transformed what might have been merely a string of ephemeral conquests into a state that would survive in one form or another until the end of the First World War.
Abd al-Malik was a new breed of Islamic leader. He had no personal memory of Muhammad, and he shrewdly saw how best to exploit the traditions of earlier empires – especially Rome and Byzantium – in order to establish his own, as Professor Hugh Kennedy, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, explains:
In the years that followed the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, the caliphs were essentially the political and religious leaders of the Muslim community. All Arab Muslims in the first century of Islam realized that this was a new state – that what went on before wasn’t really relevant. These caliphs were not the successors of the Byzantine emperors or of the Sasanian king of kings. They might look to these people for solutions to administrative problems – how you collect money and indeed what sort of money you make – but they wouldn’t see themselves performing the same sort of role. This was a new dispensation.
One of the administrative solutions that Abd al-Malik borrowed from the Byzantine emperors was how to manage the currency. Until now, the new Islamic empire had used hand-me-down coins from the pre-conquest era, or imported gold coins, especially those from Byzantium. But Abd al-Malik quickly saw that there would be economic instability if the quantity and the quality of the money supply was not controlled. He understood that coins are literally the stamp of authority, announcing the dominant power in the society using them – and he knew that that power was now his. In the pre-modern world, coinage was usually the only mass-produced item in daily use, and it was therefore a supremely significant element in the visual culture of a society.
So Abd al-Malik himself was stamped on this first overtly Islamic coinage. The leader of the faithful had ousted and replaced the emperors of Byzantium. But something quite unexpected happened to those coins with Abd al-Malik standing on them. After a few years they simply vanished. During the Hijri year 77 (AD 697), the standing caliph coin was suddenly replaced with a design that could hardly be more different. There is no caliph, no figure, only words. It is a defining moment for Islamic public art. From now on no human image would be used in such a public arena for well over a thousand years.
The later coin is exactly the same size and weight as the earlier one, and it’s also made of solid gold. But this coin says that it was made in the year 77, just one year later than the earlier one, and now there is nothing to see but text. On the front it reads: ‘There is no god except God alone, he has no partner; Muhammad is the Messenger of God whom he sent with guidance and the religion of truth that he may make it victorious over every other religion.’ This is an adaptation of a text from the Qur’an. On the back of the coin is another Qur’anic text: ‘God is One, God is the Eternal. He begets not, neither is He begotten.’
The inscriptions on this coin raise two interesting points. First, this is almost the oldest Qur’anic text to have survived anywhere. Before Muhammad, Arabic was barely a written language at all, but now there was a vital need to record God’s words accurately, and so the first developed Arabic script – the ‘kufic’ script – was created. It is the script which appears on our coin. But this coin also tells us something else. If coins declare the dominant power in a society, it is clear that the dominant power in this empire is now not the emperor but the word of God. Portraiture or figurative art has no place in the official documents of such a state. The tradition of placing the ruler’s likeness on the coin, familiar across the Middle East since the days of Alexander nearly 1,000 years before, had been decisively abandoned, and the text-only coin remained the norm in all Islamic states until the First World War. Arabic, the language of God, inscribed on an Islamic coinage, became a fundamental tool for the integration and survival of the first Islamic state.
Abd al-Malik, Khallifat Allah, Deputy of God, Ninth Caliph and Ruler of the Faithful, died in AD 705. But the message proclaimed on his coins of a universal empire of faith still has a powerful resonance.
Today there is no caliph. The title was long claimed by the Turkish sultans, but the office itself was abolished in 1924. A universally accepted caliph has historically been a rare thing, but the dream of a single Islamic empire – a caliphate – remains potent in the modern Islamic world. I asked the social anthropologist Professor Madawi al-Rasheed to comment:
Muslims today, at least some sections of the Muslim community worldwide, aspire to this ideal of the caliphate as the embodiment of the Muslim community. It is related to the spread of the internet, of new communication technology that allows Muslims from different backgrounds to imagine some kind of relationship with other Muslims, regardless of their culture, language or ethnic group. So it can be found among second-generation Muslims in Britain, let’s say, those who have lost the cultural background of their parents and have developed linkages with other Muslims of their age who may have come from different parts of the Muslim world. It aspires towards a globalized identity, an identity where you have bonds based on belief rather than ethnic background or even nationality.
The yearning for one Islamic community, inspired and guided by the word of God alone – that dream, first clearly articulated in physical form on the coin struck in Damascus more than 1,300 years ago, is still very much alive.
Source: Gold Coins of Abd al-Malik; A History of the World in 100 objects
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