Friday, December 31, 2010

A Piece of History - I

History - ostensibly a simple reportage of fact - is the source of endless mystery, fascination and dispute. It shapes both individuals and societies in ways that are often beyond understanding, and ignorance of history, in one way or another, lies at the root of most problems that beset humankind. For the amateur student of history, the most accessible artifacts of vanished ages are coins - pieces of gold, silver, copper or bronze that have travelled across centuries bearing pictures of bygone kings and queens, inscriptions in dead languages, and marks of ancient events. Fascinated by the possibility of exploring history in this way, I have been collecting ancient coins for several years, focusing mainly on South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. In other words, coins from lands that were variously ruled by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Indians, Turks and Mongols, Many of the coins that I have collected come from very interesting periods, and I will occasionally use these coins as a pretext to write about the events from those times. This is the first of such posts.

The coin I will discuss today comes from the seventh century CE from a time of great conflict: The second fitnah of Islamic history. It is a beautiful silver coin in remarkably good condition, as shown below.

The obverse (left) shows a bust of the Sassanian king, Khusro II, known as Parviz (the Victorious), who ruled a large empire from the deserts of Sind to Egypt and Anatolia over a 38 year reign (590 - 628 CE) (click here and here for details). The reverse (right) shows a Zoroastrian fire altar flanked by highly stylized Magian priests. Both sides follow the standard pattern used for Sassanian coins for most of the empire's duration. In addition to the main figures, the coins are replete with astral and earthly symbols - crescents, stars, the winged crown, the border of pearls, etc., all of which had specific meaning in the Sassanian culture. Most interestingly, the coin carries inscriptions in two scripts - Pahlavi and Arabic. The Pahlavi inscription is found both in front of the king's face and behind his head, as well as on either side of the fire altar, while the Arabic inscription is a "bism illah" (in the name of Allah) in the margin on the obverse side. What could possibly have prompted such a strange assembly of items on this coin? The answer comes to us from history.

Among the most interesting, consequential and turbulent times in the history of Islam was the 118 year period between the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE and the accession of the first Abbasid ruler, Al-Saffah, in 750 CE. During this period, Islam underwent three civil wars, known as the fitnahs (times of tribulation). The first fitnah began with the rebellion against the Caliph 'Uthman and his assassination on July 17, 656, and ended with the armistice between the forces of 'Ali and Mu'awiya I at Siffin in July 657. The second fitnah began with the death of Mu'awiya I in 680 and ended with the Umayyad recapture of the Hijaz and Iraq in 692 under the leadership of 'Abd al-Malik b. Marwan and Hajjaj b. Yusuf. The third fitnah was the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyad caliphs in 745 CE, resulting in the accession of Al-Saffah as the first Abbasid caliph in 750 CE. The coin in question comes from the time of the second fitnah.

After the death of Mu'awiya I, many factions of Muslims refused to accept the succession of his son, Yazid I, as caliph. The most famous of these was the Prophet's grandson, Husayn ibn 'Ali, who was martyred by Umayyad forces at Karbala in October 680. However, a much more successful - and now mostly forgotten (in the popular mind) - revolt against the Umayyads was led from Mecca by 'Abdullah b. al-Zubayr (Ibn Zubayr), who was the son of a famous companion of the Prophet, Zubayr b. al-Awwam, and a well-respected figure. He declared himself caliph in 680 CE, and won the allegiance of the people in Iraq, the Arabian peninsula, Egypt and parts of Syria. In fact, he had the allegiance of a greater part of the empire than the nominal Umayyad caliph, Yazid I and his successor, Mu'awiya II. Umayyad forces under Marwan b. Al-Hakam eventually took back control of Syria, Iraq and Egypt, leaving Ibn Zubayr ruler in Hijaz even after Marwan was declared caliph in 684 CE. He died shortly thereafter, with the caliphate passing to his son, 'Abd-al Malik. Umayyad forces under Hajjaj laid siege to Mecca to defeat Ibn Zubayr, shelling the city using catapults and causing serious damage to the Ka'ba itself (which Hajjaj subsequently rebuilt). Finally, Ibn Zubayr was defeated and killed in 692 CE, making 'Abd al-Malik the sole (though hardly undisputed) caliph over all Muslim lands.

An important issue faced by Muslim rulers after they rapidly conquered Byzantine lands and completely destroyed the Sassanian empire was the issue of coinage. Through most of history, the right to issue legal tender has been seen as the primary symbol of a ruler's authority. However, the Muslim rulers had no experience with minting coins. Nor was there any established tradition or symbology related to this. As a result, they used Byzantine and Sassanian coins in the western and eastern parts of the empire, respectively. Both sets of coins needed some degree of "Islamization" to distinguish them from the Christian and Zoroastrian coinage. This was done largely by adding suitably pious Arabic inscriptions to the coins, resulting in coins termed "Arab-Byzantine" and "Arab-Sassanian". The coin at hand is an Arab-Sassanian coin.

Arab-Sassanian coins were produced both by Umayyads (through various governors in Iraq and Khurasan) and by Ibn Zubayr (see this excellent site for examples). My coin was issued in the name of Ibn Zubayr, minted in Istakhr in 63 AH. The mint is indicated by the Pahlavi signature ST:

on the right half of the reverse. Behind the bust of the king is the standard Pahlavi legend GDH afzwt (xhwarrah afzut - May his treasure grow) inherited from the coins of Khusro II,

while the legend facing the king says apdwla y zwbyran amyr y wirrwyshnikan ('Abdullah bin Zubayr, Commander of the Faithful). The date is read as 63 AH, though Album and Goodwin suggest that the correct reading should be 66 AH because Ibn Zubayr did not issue coins claiming to be "Amir-al Mo'mineen" (Commander of he Faithful) until after the death of Yazid I in 64 AH (Album and Goodwin, 2002).

The coin is interesting for several reasons. First, it is one of the earliest coins claiming anyone to be "Amir-al Mo'mineen", though there are earlier examples in the name of Mu'awiya I (see Morony, 1984 - pp 45-46) and Yazid I (Mochiri, 1982) . Even more interesting is the retention of almost all Sassanian imagery without change, including the (clearly un-Islamic) fire altar and the various astral symbols, and, of course, the picture of the king. Thus, somewhat surprisingly, the earliest coinage of Islam - issued by people who had lived in the Prophet's company - carried the symbols of a non-Islamic religion and the picture of an unbeliever king! A similar situation obtained with Arab-Byzantine coins. Clearly, the prohibition against graven images was not particularly strong in these early Islamic times, and no great threat was seen in the symbols of other religions - an instructive thought in our age of blasphemy laws and destroyed Buddhas. Similarly, these early Muslims felt no compunction in putting sacred Arabic text - in this instance, "bism illah", but in other cases "lillah" (for Allah), "bism illah rabbi" (in the name of Allah, my lord), "lillah al-hamd" (all praise is for Allah) - on such objects of common use as coins. Finally, Hajjaj b. Yusuf put "bism Allāh / lā-ilaha il- / Allāh waḥdahu Muḥammad / rasūl Allāh" (in the name of Allah; there is no God but Allah, the One; Muhammad is his messenger) on a coin. This, apparently, was a bit much for some of the more pious, who felt that such sacred inscriptions should not be put on base artifacts such as coins (see image), and the experiment was temporarily abandoned. However, when reformed Islamic coinage was issued in 84 AH, it included not only the shahadah, "lā-ilaha il-Allāh waḥdahu", but also an entire sura (chapter) from the Qur'an (al-ikhlas), as can be seen in images here. This then became the pattern of Umayyad and Abbasid coins for the next 500 years, and was adopted by many other Muslim dynasties as well. Coins with these Qur'anic inscriptions are still occasionally found in areas as far away as Scandanavia, testifying to the widespread trade links of the time.

It is also interesting to note that the king shown on the coin being discussed died more than half a century before the coin was minted, with two other kings (Kavadh II and Ardeshir III) between him and Yezdigerd III, whom the Muslim armies actually defeated. Initial Arab-Sassanian coins used Yazdigerd's image, but this was quickly replaced by the image of Khusro Perviz, widely regarded as the most magnificent, if also one of the most cruel, of the Sassanian kings. Hodgson (1977) has speculated that this indicated that Khusro, not Yezdigerd, was the dominant authority figure in the minds of the populace in these regions - still mostly Zoroastrian - and Muslim rulers were trying to exploit this feeling.

With time, the history of the second fitnah has faded from the minds of most, except for the martyrdom of Husayn b. 'Ali at Karbala. Most histories - especially in the Muslim world - have been written to show a continuous "Umayyad" caliphate following upon the four initial "rightly guided" caliphs. As Hodgson points out (Hodgson, 1977), this is wrong on several counts. The dynasty of caliphs established following the fitnah derived from Marwan, not Mu'awiya I, and is better labeled Marwanid. As for Umayyad caliphs, the first of these was 'Uthman b. 'Affan (the third rightly-guided caliph). And finally, there was an extended period (680-692) when the Muslim state was divided between two competing caliphs of commensurate strength and allegiance.

Another interesting aspect of this time was the ongoing revolt of the Kharijis - a group of fundamentalist Muslims who disagreed with the compromise at Siffin, and gradually developed into a set of interlinked fanatical groups. In many cases, these groups regarded the vast bulk of Muslims as misguided and therefore subject to execution. In this, they presaged today's jihadist groups who also feel no compunction about killing Muslims and non-Muslims with equal zeal. The Kharijis never won any major victories, but terrorized large parts of the empire for more than a century, and lingered on until much later in outer regions like Bahrain. In this, as in many other things, the history of these early Islamic times provides significant insight into the problems we face today, not least because those fostering the problems hark back to idealized versions of the history of those early times. Better understanding of this history can debunk many myths and lay bare the real complexity of the early Islamicate civilization.


S. Album and T. Goodwin, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean: The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period. Ashmolean Museum, 2002.

M.G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Vol. 1). The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

M.I. Mochiri, A Sassanian-Style Coin of Yazid b. Mu'awiya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1: 137-148, 1982.

M.G. Morony, Iraq After the Muslim Conquest. Princeton University Press, 1984.

For anyone wishing to learn more about the ancient coinage of the Middle East, Iran Central Asia and India, there is no better site than "The Coins and History of Asia" put together by Tom Mallon-McCorgray.


  1. Fantastic essay. I look forward to many more...

  2. Ali - Absolutely fantabulous and fascinating post. I'm really looking forward to the full series!

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