Arabisation of currency in Islamic history

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Making money was a major turning point in Islamic history as it not only helped in solidifying the social fabric of Muslim society but also served as a way to record important historical information.

Early Islamic conquests defeated the mighty armies of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires but following the campaigns, it was necessary to administer the conquered territories. The early Muslims did not have a sophisticated system like that of the two defeated empires. One of the most serious administrative problems that faced Muslims then was the monetary system. It remained an issue for the early believers for approximately 50 years until reforms under the authority of the Umayyad Caliph Abdel-Malik Ibn Marwan were introduced.

In the past, mintage was a concrete proof of the authority of the caliph or the sultan, in addition to being an official historical document that could not be libeled. The minting process assisted in eliciting truth about historical facts concerning names, titles and religious phrases, all of which were inscribed on the coins. Coin dies were used to stamp inscriptions on the gold dinars, silver dirhams and other copper-made coins. The coins were then considered a record for titles and epithets that shed light on a plethora of political incidents that could, at times, prove the loyalty of governors to the caliph, or to the central governments throughout Islamic history.

For this reason, minting money at the early stages of Islamic history in Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo served as official documents showing the political and economic unity of the Arab world at that time. Due to a particular interest of currency in Islamic law, the Islamic faith assisted in developing the mintage industry in the Arab world. According to Islamic legal codes, money is directly involved in different acts of worship such as alms-giving, charity, endowments and other aspects of Islam.

Mintage is also closely associated with Islamic art, a fact clearly manifested in the inscriptions stamped on the coins which provide reliable political, historical and religious information. In addition, it remains an important source to recognise the names of cities and where the coins were minted. The study of coin mintage also helps us better understand the economic conditions of the Arab world by determining the value and weight of the coins.

The place where coins were produced in the Arab region during the Middle Ages was called “a mint”, and came under the authority of the sultan. It issued gold, silver, copper and bronze coins.

The minted coins during the Islamic conquests era were predominantly Byzantine and Persian until they were Arabised by the Umayyad caliph Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan in 694 AD. He built new mints in the Levant, Iraq and Egypt. Since then, Arab currency became independent from the Byzantium and Persian monetary system. The Levant and Egypt helped accelerate the pace of monetary reform during Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan’s era.

The gold dinar issued by Abdel-Malik Ibn Marwan was considered a kind of religious and political revolution at the time. In doing so, the Caliph established the entity that would become an Islamic state. Ibn Marwan replaced the picture of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius with his own picture holding a sword, and on the other side of the coin, he had inscribed: “In the name of God, this Dinar was issued in the year…”

Removing Heraclius’ picture led to a serious conflict between the Byzantine Emperor and the Umayyad Caliphate. None of the caliphs before Abdel-Malik Ibn Marwan dared to use a picture other than the Byzantine Emperor. Emperor Justinian II was defending the right to have the Byzantine Emperor’s picture on the coins and was considering it a general rule and tradition that should be respected. He revoked the treaty between the Byzantines and Arabs, under which Arabs were paying annual royalty to the emperor using Byzantium dinars. After stamping Ibn Marwan’s picture on the coins, the Byzantine Emperor rejected it as he could not accept a currency with a picture of a Muslim Caliph.

It is worth mentioning that coins adorned with the picture of the Umayyad Caliph were considered a major step in the way of monetary reform in the Islamic state. Many have also described it as a national process that planted the early seeds of nationalism in the Arab world.

The process of reform took about four years, until it was finalised in the year 696 CE. Religious writings replaced pictures on both sides of the coin. For example, on one side there was “No God except Allah”, and on the other side was an excerpt from a Qur’anic verse:  “Allah is One. Allah, the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is born.” Replacing images of rulers with Qur’anic verses emphasised that the Islamic empire was ruled by God and not by mortal men. Ibn Marwan managed to totally Arabise the currency, thus establishing a new era of monetary stability in the Islamic state.

One reason behind the caliph’s wish to Arabise the currency was his desire to claim the right to mint currency after unifying the Islamic state. He terminated the dissident movements led by Abdullah Ibn Al-Zubeir in Mecca and Mos’ab Ibn Al-Zubeir in Iraq, after which mintage came under his sole supervision and authority. Another important reason was his aspiration to achieve economic stability and become independent from the Byzantium and Persian monetary systems.

Abdel-Malik Ibn Marwan ordered that the minting of money would solely be executed in the Levant and Egypt. No other place was allowed to perform this task. He gave orders that the mints in those areas should make the weight of the dinar exactly 4.25 gm.

The effects of the Caliph’s decision to Arabise currency was a major step in Islamic history, especially in terms of monetary reform within the Arab region, and also served as a way of solidifying society within Islamic territories where the currency was used.