A prophetless coinage

I stubbed this post quite soon after starting at the Barber Institute with no intent more serious than to post a picture of a marvellous coin and enthuse about it. And I hope you can see why!

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his two sons, struck in Constantinople between 638 and 641, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2912

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his two sons, struck in Constantinople between 638 and 641, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2912

This is, as the caption says, a solidus of Heraclius with his two sons, whom we usually know as Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas but whose given names were both Constantine, and the former of whom subsequently reigned briefly as Constantine III (641). There is lots to say about this coin type, which was novel in many ways: there is for example no legend identifying the emperors, only a monogram of Heraclius’s name on the reverse to the left of the cross, which will be important in a moment; it is making a strong point because the Church opposed the legitimacy of Heraclonas, who was Heraclius’s son by Empress Martina who was also Heraclius’s niece; and one could go on. But I mainly wanted to post it because they look so much like a poster for a superhero movie; one can almost see the cloaks billowing in the studio wind. (My original title for the post was Emperors Assemble…) I am not the only person who’s put these online, but who cares? But then very recently, while looking up stuff for a different project, I found a web-page discussing an Arabic imitation of this coin type which had a couple of things badly wrong with it, and a bigger point emerged.

Gold dinar struck in Syria between 639 and 705, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B30.

Gold dinar struck by an unknown authority in Syria between, well, who knows? 639 and 705 would be probably-safe outside guesses. Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B30.

You can immediately see both the similarities and differences. The Latin legend is replaced by Arabic, and the Arabic reads, for those who can, ‘bism Allah la ilaha illa Allah wahdahu Muhammad rasul Allah’ [Edit: corrected, it turns out I cannot], ‘In the name of God, there is no god but God, Muhammad is the prophet of God’. The monogram goes, being replaced perhaps by the beginning of the Bism Allah in Latin letters. All crosses are replaced by pellets, so that the three figures now look oddly as if they’re holding walking canes and the cross-on-steps becomes a pole-on-steps. But it’s plainly the same type underneath it, I’m sure you’ll agree.

All of this is something that can be seen on copper coins of similar types which are presumed to come from the same period, normally guessed at between the 670s and 695 or so, in which latter year Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have begun a reform of the disparate coinages of his realm which would unite them into one system of coins with no pictures, only script, running over Arabia and Persia alike. Before then, however, and in some places also after then, coins like this that echoed, imitated and adapted previous types, both Byzantine and Persian, had been the working currency. Few of those were gold, however, and few of these ones are known; the web article I linked to above says that all the known ones are in the British Museum. Well, one of them is in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts—in fact, it and I have both spent much of the week in the School of Chemistry with an XRF machine, but let that pass—and that is the first mistake I wanted to correct.

The second, though, is that the article suggests, following a Flickr site called Taboo Numismatics to which it links, that the Arab-Byzantine type (as these adaptive coinages are canonically called) actually depicts the Prophet Muhammad. Now, one can see the argument: there is a bearded figure on it and the reverse legend names the Prophet, albeit in terms that might equally just be a profession of faith. Still, the name is there and the picture is there, and the fact that they’re not on the same face is a problem but one that also exists for the Heraclius coin.

There is also the problem that Islam is supposed to abhor images of people, of course, and as we know of recent years to be especially keen that the Prophet not be depicted. This has not always been so, however, and indeed the point of the first site that I linked to is explicitly that, that many medieval images of Muhammad from Islamic contexts are known. There are also coins for which this case would be much stronger, which take a new image of a standing figure in a headdress, carrying a broad sword, and place the legend ‘Muhammad rasul Allah’ around him. The type also exists naming ‘Abd al-Malik, and the ‘Muhammad’ version of it seems only to have been struck in Palestine, but we don’t know how they relate; it’s usual to assume that ‘Abd al-Malik introduced the design and that for some reason Palestine only struck it anonymously, but it seems equally possible to me that Palestine did actually strike a coin showing the Prophet and that ‘Abd al-Malik borrowed the design for his halfway-house pre-reform coinage. The Barber does have some of these coins, but I’m chary of putting images of them on the web right now: you can see one that was sold in 2013 here, and here’s one of the ‘Abd al-Malik ones.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

If there is to be a search for early Islamic coins showing Muhammad, therefore, it’s with the ‘Standing Caliph’ types of Palestine that it must start. The Three Standing Figures gold dinars won’t really work for it. Yes, there is the legend, but there are also many points against. In the first place, the portraiture is so exact a copy of the coins of Heraclius, right down to the barbs of the moustache, that it is clear that one of those coins was before the engraver. They would, indeed, have been fairly frequent among gold coins in the area and so the resemblance would have been noticeable more widely. What message could this be meant to send if that coin were showing Muhammad? That he had somehow been Heraclius? It seems unlikely. But even then, there are three figures: who are the others? The site I started with makes a spirited attempt to explain them as Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, at Heraclius’s right and Aisha, Muhammad’s wife, at his left, but this also won’t really work; that site has the advantage (for these purposes) of a fairly poor image that allows him to maintain that the right-most figure is veiled, but our own won’t easily allow that. It seems very much simpler to say: they’re not supposed to be anyone, but they are supposed to look like what the figures on those gold coins the people of the area knew looked like, with suitable adaptations to point out that something new was in fact going on. There is gold of the Standing Caliph type, too, naming ‘Abd al-Malik, so this presumably didn’t last very long, but in any case. I’m pretty sure that what I’ve just put online is not a picture of Muhammad!

The most accessible study of the Arab-Byzantine coinage is Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of he Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008), which does discuss the Muhammad problem. Note that Tony Goodwin, “The Arab-Byzantine coinage of jund Filastin – a potential historical source” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 28 (Leeds 2004), pp. 1-12, also argues that the Standing Caliph coinage of Palestine is earlier than ‘Abd al-Malik’s. To Tony Goodwin also goes the honour of publishing the Barber’s dinar, along with some others from this part of the collection, as “Some Interesting Arab-Byzantine Coins from the Barber Institute Collection” in Numismatic Circular Vol. 111 no. 4 (London 2003), pp. 196-198. It remains for me and my collaborators to get any more of them out there…

9 responses to “A prophetless coinage

  1. Indeed, iran has only recently bowed to pressure from Sunnis to remove figurines of Muhammed (bin Abdullah wa Aminah) from distribution.

  2. Pingback: Crusaders and money, seen in a different way | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Hi:

    You have the Arabic shahada in the margin as:
    bism allah la illah allah wahda-hu mohammed rasul allah.

    instead of:
    bism Allah la ilaha illa Allah wahdahu Muhammad rasul Allah

    What you’ve put translates as “In the name of Allah there is no god Allah…” instead of “In the name of Allah there is no god BUT Allah…”.

    Apologies for being a nuisance, but the difference in meaning is significant and I thought you’d rather know than not!

  4. Suppose someone did find an early coin from, say, Syria, and that a persuasive case could be made that it carried what was intended as a representation of The Prophet. Would anyone dare publish it?

    • Well, the people with whom I started probably would! And they’re a lot easier for dangerous people to find than the latest Numismatic Chronicle (I say having spent a frustating afternoon trying to get hold of a copy within the university precincts of London, to no avail). But more seriously, it is a discussion that both Foss and Goodwin as cited are setting out both sides of. Of course they conclude that we can’t know for sure, and maybe this is one topic where a numismatist will leave something uncertain where they would normally advance on conjecture. But I’m not sure a touchy imam would wait for the conclusion!

      • Iran’s clerics have no personal objection in principle, but as a concession to innovations in thought coming out of places like Saudi Arabia, they’ve halted the production of Muhammed figurines for the time being.

  5. For the historical side of things, you’d do much better to read my article “Byzantine Coinage and Its Imitations, Arab Coinage and Its Imitations: Arab-Byzantine Coinage,” Aram 6 (1994), 381-403, and its predecessors. It’s on my academia.edu site. Questions and observations about it are welcome.

    Michael L. Bates

    • I do need to read that! I’m fairly sure I already have it downloaded. But meanwhile your comment sounds ominously like a gentle correction. Am I in actual error somewhere? I’d much rather know about that straight away than at the end of a reading list that’s still several projects away…

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