Numismatic witnesses about early Islam
Keywords:Numismatic evidence, Early Islam, Coins, Monotheism, Prophecy, Jāhiliyya
The history of the Arabs and Islam in the 7th century CE is fraught with methodological challenges. Arabic written sources about this epoch began to be composed towards the middle of the 8th century CE at the earliest, under the influence of the early-Abbasid understanding of history as a means of political, religious, and ethnic legitimation. Non-Arabic sources about the 7th century are scant and equally biased: They present us with ideologically filtered descriptions of the conquerors, almost never going into detail about their beliefs and internal history. The absence of documentary evidence has recently turned the Islamicists’ attention towards the numismatic and epigraphic sources. In this paper, I present aspects of the early-Islamic beliefs as reflected on coins struck during the period 650–700 CE. I argue that the early conquerors in Syria and Mesopotamia professed syncretic monotheism whose lineaments began to be defined during the second civil war (60–73/680–692). This war may be envisaged as a watershed between the newly instituted Islamic concepts, such as strict monotheism, the prophetic figure of Muḥammadun, and the caliph as God’s vicegerent on earth, on the one hand, and the prewar era, which the later literary sources would conceive of as Islamic, on the other hand. To offset this ideologically driven reconceptualization, they will depict the prewar beliefs of the conquerors as “pre-Islamic” polytheism (Jāhiliyya) going back to the period before the first revelation to Muḥammadun in 610 CE.