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Taboo Numismatics Part I: A very early Islamic portrait of the Prophet Muhammad? | by Ted Kandell
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Taboo Numismatics Part I: A very early Islamic portrait of the Prophet Muhammad?

Gold Dinars (from the Latin Denarius) of the Ummayad Caliph Abd al-Malik, 693 CE (AH 77).


Who are the three figures on the obverse of the first coin?

They are usually described as "unidentified".

Are they the Prophet Muhammad, with his companion and later first Caliph Abu-Bakr on the left, and his wife and Abu-Bakr's daughter Aisha on the right?

This would make sense from an Umayyad perspective. They could not be the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib and his wife and Muhammad's daughter Fatima az-Zahra, The Calpih Ali was the opponent of the Umayyads in the First Islamic Civil War. The standard Byzantine protocol for representing three figures on a coin is that the most significant is larger and stands in the center, flanked by the next most important personage on his rght [the left for the viewer], and the other on his left.

Notice that all three are grasping swords, including the woman - a unique pose for a woman, but one that is in total accord with what we know of the historical role of Aisha in the Battle of the Camel. It seems that this female figure is veiled as well, another strong clue as to her identity, since it was required at this stage that the wives of the Prophet Muhammad absolutely be veiled. There is no other example in history of a woman being depicted on any Islamic coin. This coin is absolutely unique, and only one single example survives. It is currently housed in the British Museum.


Is this coin a true portrait, based on the recollections of the surviving Companions of the Prophet? [The period of as-Salaf us-Salih.] This coin was minted in the year AH 77, 67 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, well within the lifetimes of those who knew him.


In 689 CE, as a result of a military defeat by the Byzantine armies of Justinian II, the Caliph Abd al-Malik was forced to pay tribute to the Byzantine Empire. In 693 CE, the Emperor Justinian II refused tribute from the Caliphate in coins that did not have images on them. The newly issued Byzantine gold solidi depicting Christ as Lord and Savior were of course unacceptable to Muslms. This "Affair of the Coins" set the stage for a symbolic confrontation.


The second coin is is said to depict the Caiph Abd al-Malik. This is an example of what is known as the "Praying Caliph" type of Arab-Byzantine coin. The detail of the portraiture in this coin is remarkable, for any period. The figure portrayed holds both hands out in front of him, which is the initial gesture of Islamic prayer. The legend around the figure on the obverse of the second coin is the Islamic profession of faith: There is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God. It is clear that at this point, a figural representation on a coin was not regarded as being against Islamic orthodox belief.


The column on the reverse of both coins is meant to be a rejoinder to the traditional Byzantine depiciton of the cross potent (with bars on the ends) upon a base of four steps. It is a symbol of the unity of God, a fundamental tenet of Islam, as opposed to the Christian Trinity.


The third coin was the model for all subsequent Islamic coins: Text only, with the profession of faith on the obverse. When this coin was issued, in 695 CE, on the advice of a council of Islamic religious experts, the Caliph Abd al-Malik withdrew the previous issues from circulation upon pain of death. Why the extreme severity of the change of policy?


A Bibliography of Recent Work on Arab-Byzantine Coinage

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Uploaded on February 6, 2006