Gold coin of Abd al-Malik

Contributed by British Museum

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This coin represents a defining point in Islamic history: when images of leaders on coins were replaced by text from the Qu'ran. The first coins issued by Caliph Abd al-Malik showed the figure of a ruler. This followed earlier traditions when pictorial images appeared on coins. He later removed the ruler's image and used only texts from the Qu'ran. Replacing images of rulers with Qu'ranic verses emphasised that the Islamic Empire was ruled by God and not by mortal men.

Who was Caliph Abd al-Malik?

The ninth caliph, Abd al-Malik issued this coin. As caliph he was both the religious and political leader of the early Islamic Empire. He consolidated a string of conquests, which included half of the early Christian world and the former Persian Empire. This new Islamic Empire became a model for Islamic states for over 1000 years. One of his many reforms was the creation of a successful Islamic coinage. He is arguably the most important early Muslim leader after the Prophet Muhammad.

Caliph 'Abl al-Malik was rumoured to have terrible halitosis, earning him the nickname 'Fly Killer'

A script of elegance and symmetry

The gold dinar struck in the year 77 of the Islamic calendar, (AD 696-7) is significant for a number of reasons: it is the first issue of Islamic coinage without pictorial representation and represents a decisive break away from a coinage that hitherto had imitated the coins of the Sasanians and the Byzantines, whose territories had been incorporated into the new Muslim empire.

This dinar was struck by Abd al-Malik, fifth of the Umayyad caliphs (reigned AD 685-705) - the Umayyads being the first great dynasty of Islam (AD 661-750) whose capital was at Damascus in Syria. Abd al-Malik not only initiated the reform of the coinage but was also responsible for the construction of one of the most iconic buildings in the Islamic world, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, part of an ambitious plan to build up and consolidate the Muslim presence in Greater Syria. Quite apart from the significance of this coin for the monetary history of the Islamic world, the style of the coin also tells another important story.

The inscriptions proclaim the very essence of the faith of Islam and include the phrase: ‘there is no god but God, he has no associate, Muhammad is the prophet of God’, in addition to other verses from the Qur’an (Qur’an 9:33 and 112). Qur’anic texts also appear in the Dome of the Rock made of mosaic placed high up on the walls of the ambulatory and they are written in the style of script known as Kufic.

Arabic was an oral language only until the Revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in early seventh century Arabia. It developed as a script in order to set down the words of the Revelation to prevent them being lost. The alphabet adopted was one that was based on a style of Aramaic script used by the Nabateans whose capital was at Petra in Jordan. Early developments evolved into Kufic an exceptionally elegant script characterised by letters that are simple and angular in shape. What is crucial about Abd al-Malik’s dinar is that along with the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock, they both provide us with the concrete markers we need to understand the evolution of this remarkable script: the dinar is dated 77/696-7 and the Dome of the Rock was completed in 72/692. This tells us that by the late seventh century a script had evolved that was intended to reflect and honour the beauty and power of the Revelation. It was as effective written on a tiny coin as large scale on the walls of the Dome of the Rock.

Script became a defining feature of Islamic art developing, over the centuries, complex rules to create elegance and symmetry. Such is the flexibility of the Arabic script that even today, some 1400 years after the appearance of the Kufic script on Abd al-Malik’s dinar, it continues to provide inspiration for modern calligraphers.

Venetia Porter, curator, British Museum

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Comments

  • 7 comments
  • 1. At 15:40 on 7 June 2010, Brian wrote:

    The words that Muhammed said were a revelation were written down. It is rather tendentious to write of "the revelation to the prophet Muhammed" as if it were a fact.

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  • 2. At 20:10 on 7 June 2010, JamesDH49 wrote:

    On the first image, the two labels point to the wrong parts. What's said to be the central inscription is in fact the outer, and vice versa. Suggest you re-edit them,

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  • 3. At 18:30 on 9 June 2010, Meg Platis wrote:

    On the second image, the year 77 is explained parenthetically as 77 years after the death of the prophet (632 CE), but it is 77 years after the Hijra (622 CE), as the podcast correctly points out.

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  • 4. At 18:45 on 15 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Sir. I?ve no wish to insult you or malign your intelligence but, before deliberately or otherwise denigrating a great man?s achievements by overtly referring to his supposed halitosis do you not think it would be wiser to quote chapter and verse in support of your statement first? How are we, the sensitive ignorant, to know that you haven?t misunderstood, deliberately mistaken or accidently misquoted a metaphor intended as a compliment for yet another of the great man?s achievements or even for that matter a failed attempt with honourable intentions such as the eradication of flies for hygiene purposes. i.e. ?No sooner had the Caliph opened his mouth (to give the order) when all the flies had dropped dead? (ha ha)? Please quote chapter and verse a.s.a.p. lest, for amusement, some are mistakenly tempted into toying with ideas about you that your family, friends, or ?tribe? might not appreciate. - Or to put it more concisely: Why can?t you be a bit more sensitive to other peoples feelings, old chap?

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  • 5. At 17:09 on 31 July 2010, iraqi Dinar wrote:

    Iraqi Dinar is very real, but the pitch many Dinar dealers try to send your way is far from reality and designed to get you buy from them. Some of these dealers even go as far as to explain that they are trusted by the government and supply you with a document to reinforce this illusion.
    First, the US government requires a business (or anyone for that matter) to register with them when selling any kind of currency. Once you register, the US Government will send you a letter confirming your registration. IT DOES NOT mean that they trust or vouch for the company, only that they complied with the law.
    Read More:http://www.dinariraqi.net

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  • 6. At 10:01 on 24 September 2010

    Failed moderation

  • 7. At 10:27 on 2 October 2010, yuksel wrote:

    I agree with that, referring to Abdul Maliks halitosis is not a proper thing to do I think.I also checked some other objects from Christian history, and now I am curious about why you havent mentioned any of INTERESTING points about Christian culture or leaders which we know that they are true.
    Again when you open this page you see instantly the halitosis of Abdul Melik, it is not relevant to the topic also it is not a proper action a website like bbc.com.

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About this object

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Location

Made in Syria

Culture
Period

AD 696-7

Theme
Size
W:
1.9cm
Colour
Material

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