Arab-Byzantine Coins

In AD 622 the Prophet Muhammad led a community from the city of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula to the city of Medina. This date has come to form the beginning of the Muslim calendar as it represents the first founding of a community based on belief in Muhammad’s teachings and the revelation of the Qur’an by the angel Gabriel. Within a generation, this community had expanded out of the Arabian peninsula and created an empire from the territory of the former Sasanian Persians and much of the Byzantine Empire. It would take until the 690s for this new community to formulate a distinctive system of government and state apparatus, borrowing heavily from Byzantine and Sasanian models but imbued also with a unique, Islamic identity.

In the interim, the leaders of the state, and local officials, experimented by modifying older systems. This phenomenon is clearly demonstrated by the coin above – a gold dinar minted by the Umayyad authorities prior to 693. It is based on a Byzantine model, but whereas the Byzantine solidus depicts a cross on steps on the reverse, on this example the bars of the cross have been removed to leave a pole, perhaps representing the unitary authority of the caliph, or leader of the Muslim community. The three figures on the obverse on the Byzantine prototype also held orbs with crosses on them and had crosses on their diadems, which have all been removed on this example. This phase of early Muslim numismatic experimentation was very brief and it is demonstrative of the strength of the Barber collection that this example was unknown in the literature on this coin type. Only eight similar examples of this coin design are known, and this specimen is unique.

By the 690s the government of the Islamic empire, the Umayyad Caliphate, introduced a reform of coinage, which, among other things, dramatically changed the appearance of Muslim coinage for centuries. Abandoning images completely, the coins following this reform, like the quarter-dinar of Umar II (minted AD 717/18) pictured below, carried only Arabic inscriptions including declarations of the unity of God and the status of Muhammad as the Prophet of God.