Islamic Curator’s News (Summer 2004)

by Michael Bates

The Islamic coinage of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, and their contemporaries, came to the fore this year at a conference on June 25, shortly after taking occupation of our new Fulton Street building. Seven speakers and some twenty other participants considered various aspects of the coinage of the Muslim world from Spain to Afghanistan and from AD 700 to about 950. The meeting was co-sponsored and supported by the Middle East Medievalists group.

The meeting began with a survey lecture by ANS Curator of Islamic Coins Michael L. Bates, who has been working on a narrative history of the caliphal era for some three decades. In his attempt to summarize the broad conclusions of his work, he organized his presentation around two axes.


Damascus dirham of 79 (AD 699) (ANS 1987.141.2), gift of Roger Kuntz).

First, chronologically, the two and a half centuries after the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik’s introduction of purely inscriptional Islamic coinage in AD 697 saw the evolution and definition of a standard Muslim coin type and inscriptions that endured long after the definitive fall of the caliphate as a political entity in 1258. Elements introduced by Abd al-Malik are still present on the coinage of some Muslim countries today. The new Islamic type of 697 established the basic design format of classical Islamic coins, with several horizontal lines of inscription surrounded by circular inscriptions on both sides. The only non-verbal elements were divisions or borders between and outside the inscriptions. The coins were anonymous, being struck, as stated on the coin, bism Allah, “in the name of God,” not by mere human authority. The important inscriptions, put together from phrases in the Qur’an, proclaimed the unity of God and the supremacy of Muhammad as His last messenger, and a long reverse inscription countered the Christian doctrine of God as Father and as Son. This last reverse inscription was replaced by the Abbasids immediately on their overthrow of the Umayyad caliphate in 750 by three words restating the position of Muhammad as messenger of God. In 763, for the first time, an official of the caliphate, al-Mahdi the son of the caliph al-Mansur, placed his title on the silver dirhams minted under his authority. This innovation accompanied, and proclaimed, the adoption in that year by al-Mahdi and his father of official honorifics, to wit, “the Mahdi” or expected lawgiver at the end of time, and al-Mansur, “the victor,” who, in many eschatological narratives, was to precede the Mahdi. They were the first caliph and successor to use such titles, which were standard henceforth for all caliphs.


Rayy dirham of 145 (AD 763) (ANS 1958.222.10, purchase).

Al-Mahdi’s name appeared, however, only on dirhams issued under his authority as governor of Khurasan, the East, and later on dirhams of Armenia and Arran when he was given those provinces. The innovation opened the way for many others to put their names on dirhams and on some gold dinars, but in every case, those named were governors with administrative authority over the places where the coins were struck, even if they also had high offices in the central administration. Even the caliphs themselves were named only in some provinces at some times and not elsewhere, suggesting perhaps in these cases direct administration of the province through a subordinate agent of the caliph rather than assignment of the province to a magnate of the family or state. In many cases, a hierarchy of officials are named on a single issue, each with his proper nomenclature, leading to exceedingly long and crowded inscriptions in an extremely mannered cramped epigraphy.

The caliph al-Ma’mun and his wazir al-Fadl b. Sahl began to bring an end to the resulting diversity and ugliness of Abbasid coinage while al-Amin was still caliph in Baghdad and al-Ma’mun was only in control of the eastern part of the caliphate assigned to him by his father. Although their changes were introduced piecemeal, the result, by 822 in Baghdad, was a caliphal coinage that was completely uniform. Dinars and dirhams previously had essentially the same inscriptions, but with minor textual differences and in a different arrangement. Henceforth both currencies had identical inscriptions, except for the denomination. Different mints previously had different policies as to the names and nomenclature of officials; this diversity was eliminated on the new coins because they were anonymous, returning to the example of Abd al-Malik. All mints now had the same inscriptions in the same arrangement. In fact, a variety of evidence indicates that the dies for the few mints that remained in operation were made in Baghdad and distributed to outlying mints, from Egypt to Samarqand; this system seems to have remained in function for more than a century.


Dinar of Madinat al-Salam (Baghdad), 222 (AD 837) (ANS 1971.49.158, gift of E.P. Newman).

Anonymity did not last long. The next caliph, al-Ma’mun’s brother al-Mu`tasim billah, put his title on the coins, but with the difference that the form and position of the name were now standardized, in the last line of the reverse central field inscriptions. Al-Mutasim’s son al-Mutawakkil added the name of his chosen successor as the last line of the obverse central field. Over the course of the next century, all successors-apparent were named on the coins, always in the same location, as well as a very few wazirs, some provincial governors of note, and at the end of the era, three warlords who achieved dictatorial power. Thus was created the standard Sunni Abbasid coin type that was used everywhere in the caliphate until it was destroyed by the Mongols. The military men, like the Samanids, Buyids, Ghaznavids or Seljuqs, were named on the coins as subordinates of the caliphate, even though their power was real and absolute, that of the caliphs merely nominal; and the religious inscriptions of the coins of these different realms were virtually always identical and in the same arrangement. All these amirs, sultans, and shahanshahs respected the caliphs’ right of sikka, the right to be acknowledged as sovereign on the coinage; not to do so would have indicated religious as well as political rebellion, as it did in the case of the Fatimid caliphs and the Zaydi imams.

Second, geographically, Bates emphasized the importance of regional, provincial, and municipal variations within the canon of the standard type, and sometimes outside it. Importantly, until al-Ma’mun’s reforms, there were regional and local variations in the mass of the mithqal, the standard weight for the gold dinar in the west and the old Sasanian-type silver dirham in the eastern caliphate; and different ways of relating the weight of the new silver dirhams to the standard mithqal of each region. It appears that part of al-Ma’mun’s changes was the establishment of a uniform mithqal for the weight of the dinar, and a standard ratio of 7/10 for the weight of the dirham in relation to the mithqal—a relationship that became canonical as a part of Islamic religious law. There were also variations in fineness standard from province to province, yet to be fully elucidated.

The copper fals coinage of the caliphate was always non-standard and local or regional, with many officials’ names not found on the precious metal issues. In the middle of the ninth century, copper minting, except in certain peripheral areas, largely ceased in the caliphate, a phenomenon yet to be explained satisfactorily. There were provinces and regions where older coinages continued on for decades, such as the Bukhar-Khuda coinage of Bukhara; the Tabaristan dirhams of Sasanian type; the Aghlabid dinars and dirhams that continued the coin types of the first Abbasid era, ignoring al-Ma’mun’s reforms, and passed some of the features of those issues on to the Fatimids in the tenth century; and the coinage of the Umayyad amirs of Spain that preserved the original dirham type of Abd al-Malik until the end of the ninth century. The glass balance weights and heavy weights of Egypt are an essential part of the monetary history of the caliphates.

This wide-ranging introductory lecture was followed by five presentations on narrower topics. Roger L. Martinez, a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Texas, Austin, gave a paper entitled “In the Name of God: Authority and Accommodation in the Early Medieval Iberian Islamic Coinage,” which used two Arab-Latin coins of Spain to illustrate Arab policy toward the Christian inhabitants in the years of the conquest of the peninsula from AD 711 to 716.

Dr. Nitzan Amitai-Preiss from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, spoke on “The Governorships of Ibrahim b. Salih,” who governed Egypt twice, under al-Mahdi and again under Harun, and at other times governed parts of Syria. The coins with his name seem to come only from Egypt, and have no indication of date, leaving their attribution to Ibrahim’s first or second term uncertain. In the discussion, it was suggested that their fabric might solve the puzzle, since the coppers of Egypt were reduced in size and weight after the introduction of gold coinage there in al-Rashid’s first year.

Peter Lampinen, a familiar figure at the ANS Islamic conferences and other meetings of the same kind, reported on caliphate coins from Caesarea in Palestine, under the title “The Islamic Renewal: Caesarea Maritima in Abbasid and Fatimid Times.” In recent seasons, the excavation of the settlement areas of the earlier Islamic era has begun, augmenting the finds of interesting coins of the caliphates.

Dr. Deborah Tor, an alumna of the 1999 ANS Graduate Seminar, recently a Junior Fellow at Harvard, and now about to take up a Lectureship at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, called her paper “Action in Andaraba, c. 900; Or, What Coins from the Andaraba Mint Reveal about the Real State of the Samanid Polity,” which examined the frequent changes in the hierarchy of rulers on Andaraba dirhams around the turn of the tenth century. Andaraba is a town in north-central Afghanistan, not far from the rich silver mines of Panjhir, “the mountain of silver.” The coins reflect the power struggle between the Banijurids of Balkh, who were the nominal local lords of Andarab, the Samanids in distant Nishapur, and the Abbasid caliphate far away in Baghdad, providing information not found in any other historical source.

Teresa Bernheimer of Oxford, who held a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, in the past semester, spoke on “The Coinage of ‘Abdallah b. Mu’awiya, 127-130: Some Reconsiderations.” Abd Allah b. Mu’awiya’s coinage was last treated in a magisterial ANS Graduate Seminar paper by Carl Wurtzel, published in ANS Museum Notes 1978. Since then, a new dirham issue of Jayy, 127, has appeared, exemplified by Klat 268b, with a longer quotation of the Qu’ranic verse, “say, I ask of you no wage for it except loyalty to the kinfolk,” that is standard on issues of the adherents of the Prophet’s family as the rightful imams, adding the words “and whoever distributes good will be rewarded for it with good.” This is evidently the earliest of Abd Allah b. Mu’awiya’s issues, and indicates more clearly his ideological appeal.

The final plenary lecture by Professor Stuart Sears, organizer of the conference, discussed “The Politics of Money: the Caliph Abd al-Malik b. Marwan’s Inscription of Qur’anic Verse.” Abd al-Malik used excerpts from the Qur’an on the new Islamic coinage, on the Dome of the Rock, and elsewhere in new ways, emphasizing aspects of Islam that had previously been left in the background. He was the first to state the Prophethood of Muhammad on coins, and to use verses proclaiming the primacy of Islam as a new religion superior to and supreme over all others. He also chose quotations directly challenging the legitimacy of the remnant of the Roman Empire in Constatinople.

About twenty persons took part in the conference, and at the end of the afternoon the group adjourned to the South Street Seaport for pitchers of beer al fresco.