as-Sikka السكة
The Online Journal of The Islamic Coins Group 
as-Sikka is a peer reviewed publication
ISSN 1496-4414 

Winter 2000AD / 1421AH       Vol. 2.3


An Introduction to Early Muslim Drahms
Stuart D. Sears

Early Muslim drahms are one of the oldest treasures of Arab-Islamic civilization extant today. The coins go back to the seventh century when the Hellenistic and Old Persian world became Muslim and, to a large extent, Arabic. The coins evoke the memories of the Muslim conquests, the Rightly Guided and Umayyad caliphs, and the trade and commerce of the early medieval Middle East. At first sight, however, the coins look neither Muslim nor Arab. The obverses bear the image of a Sasanian king. The reverses have a Zoroastrian fire altar. Most of the coins' legends, moreover, are not in Arabic but Middle Persian, a precursor to Modern Persian. The coins would seem Sasanian, the pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty destroyed by the Muslims, but have terse Arabic marginal legends and sometimes the names of Muslim rulers in their name legends.

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Varied groups of Muslim Sasanian style drahms first attracted the attention of modern scholars at the beginning of the nineteenth century shortly after the decipherment of Pahlavi and the first publication of medieval texts describing them. Since then, scholars and hobbyists in the Middle East, Europe and the United States have collected and studied these coins with great interest. Historians have sought them out as documents of a crucial stage in the development of early Muslim government and society. Many see in them a romantic link to the past. The coins have generally been known as Arab-Sasanian dirhams but this terminology is awkward. The early Muslims more generally identified themselves as Muslims rather than Arabs. The Sasanians played no part in their striking. The coins, moreover, were struck at a different weight standard from the better known all-Arabic Reformed dirhams. The term "Muslim drahm," for this reason, is more accurate.

The Muslims struck the vast majority of these coins in Iraq and Iran in the decades after their conquests. They had no previous tradition striking money so they adapted the Sasanian drahm previously struck in these lands to suit their needs. The Muslim coins generally conform to the earlier Sasanian monetary system. Not only do they resemble Sasanian coins but were struck at nearly the same standards of weight and fineness. The legends and details in the iconography of the coins, nevertheless, mark the new monetary authority behind them. The coins bear an informal character due to the often independent policies and practices maintained at different mints and the frequent changes in the standard legends at a given mint. The legends and iconography, consequently, reveal far more information than previous Sasanian or later Muslim coins about the administrative organization of local and regional governments, the political and religious views of governors and rebels, and the monetary policies and practices of governments, merchants and others.

Various dynasts and governors in northern Iran and central Asia, in addition, struck a diverse assortment of provincial and regional Sasanian style coinages. The coinages copied the outlines of different Sasanian types but each usually rendered them in a unique and corrupt style. The Zoroastrian Dabuyids of Tabaristan struck half drahms beginning in the early eighth century loosely modeled after Khusro II's early coins. After their entry into the province, early 'Abbasid governors maintained this series with slight modifications for many years. Non-Muslim rulers - presumably Hunnic - struck imitations of Muslim coins at the end of the seventh century in eastern Khurasan and perhaps Transoxiana. The coins, nevertheless, bear Bactrian Greek legends and have a standard weight of slightly less than the weight of the previous Sasanian and the contemporary Muslim drahms. Mints in Sijistan and later in Bukhara struck very different series of drahms. The coins in these series were generally light and debased according to strictly local monetary policies and customs.

The legends on the Sasanian style drahms generally consist of the mint, date, name legend and marginal legend. Mint legends appear to the right of the reverse field. They document more than forty cities and towns including sites founded by the Muslims such as Basra and Kufa. The appearance and disappearance of the different mint legends often mark the rise and demise of various administrative centers. One can trace, for instance, the rise of Basra and Kufa two to three decades after the Muslim conquests along with the decline of previously important cities such as Ctesiphon.

Dates appear to the left of the reverse field. They not only identify when a coin was struck but offer fascinating insights into how early Muslims and their subjects conceived of time. At least three different calendars are attested. Aside from the Hijra calendar, two different Iranian calendars are known tied to the accession and death dates of the last Sasanian monarch. The Hijra calendar is not always preferred even five decades after the conquests. Sometimes, however, meaningless strokes appear instead of any date.

Name legends occur to the right of the obverse field, in front of the monarchs face. They generally give the name of a ruler but who this person was is never certain. The names of deceased Sasanian monarchs appear as well as caliphs, governor generals, local governors, rebels and obscure persons altogether unknown from literary sources. In a few cases, the name legend is omitted in favor of the general Muslim slogan "Muhammad is the prophet of God" or the Kharijite slogan, "There is no judgment except for God's."

Marginal legends are generally found in the obverse margin but sometimes also appear on the reverse. They present a wide range of administrative statements and political and religious declarations. Initially, they are quite terse as in the legends jayyid, "valid" or bism Allah, "in the name of God." Yet, as the Muslims and their officials became bolder and more innovative, the legends became longer, more diverse and more distinctly partisan. The governor Talha b. Abdallah adopted the legend Talha lillah, "Talha is unto God" while others made use of various professions of Muslim faith. Countermarks also appear demonstrating attempts by many different local authorities to regulate what could pass as good money in circulation.

The iconography of Muslim drahms is also significant. While the earliest issues carefully replicated the details of their Sasanian prototypes, later issues often modified or omitted these details and, in a few cases, devised new types altogether. In some cases, astral symbols such as suns and crescents are omitted or modified to more neutral forms such as fleurons. These changes may have responded to the religious sensibilities of some Muslims. In the far eastern province of Khurasan crosses sometimes replace the astral symbols perhaps marking the Christian faith of the workmen in the mint or the nobles of that city. The most dramatic innovations are found on some rare issues of Basra, Kufa and Damascus at the end of the seventh century. The issues of Basra and Kufa replace the fire altar and two attendants on the reverse with an imam flanked by two worshippers. Contemporary experimental issues in Damascus introduced a number of other obverse and reverse types such as one showing a standing caliph girded with a sword and another, a spear or staff inside a mihrab.

The ubiquitous all-Arabic Reformed dirhams introduced by Abd al-Malik at the very end of the seventh century have to a large extent obscured the importance of early Muslim drahms. Many people are often unable to conceive of early Muslim coinage and, by extension, early Muslim civilization looking any different than the later coins filled with Arabic legends but no pictures. In the late nineteen-seventies, a group of Muslim fundamentalists in Pakistan objected in court to a law requiring the issue and use of photo IDs claiming that the prophet Muhammad prohibited the use of images. An early Muslim drahm bearing the image of an Umayyad caliph finally helped convince that court that the prohibition was neither so wide nor so certain as claimed. Muslim drahms may not definitively settle questions like these but they offer tantalizing clues.

The American Numismatic Society will hold a conference entitled, "The Heritage of Sasanian Iran: Dinars, Drahms and Coppers of the Late Sasanian and early Muslim Periods" in New York from June 8th to June 9th, 2001. The conference will be held in honor of the late William B. Warden (1947-2000), a well known numismatist who greatly advance the study and appreciation of early Muslim drahms.

Collectors and scholars are invited to participate. The conference invites papers treating any aspect of the Late Sasanian and early Muslim coins of Iraq and Iran as artefacts of civilization and culture. The topics of papers may be numismatic, historical or art historical. They may examine problems in the reading and interpretation of the Pahlavi and Arabic legends or the iconography, the representation of sovereignty, Zoroastrianism and Islam, or the production, use and regulation of these coinages.

The conference will also feature a workshop where collectors and scholars of all levels may learn how to read or improve their abilities in reading the Pahlavi legends on these coins and a roundtable where collectors and scholars will be able to discuss issues of common interest and coins if any wish to bring them in.

Abstracts and / or queries about further information and registration should be sent by e-mail to Dr. Stuart D. Sears at or Dr. Michael L. Bates at or by mail to: Dr. Stuart D. Sears, The American University in Cairo, Department of Arabic Studies, Box 2511, Cairo, Egypt 11511. Communications by E-mail are preferred.

Stuart D. Sears received his Ph.D. in Islamic History from The University of Chicago in 1997. His thesis was "A Monetary and Numismatic History of Iraq and Iran, ca. CE 500-750." He has since taught as assistant professor in the Department of Arabic Studies at The American University in Cairo. In 1997, he received the Quadrennial Prize of the Société Royale de Numismatique de Belgique for his manuscript entitled, "A Numismatic and Monetary History of Sijistan." This is currently being revised for publication.

Selected Bibliography on silver coins of the early Muslim Period

Bates, Michael L. "History, Geography, and Numismatics in the First Century of Islamic Coinage," Revue Suisse de Numismatique 65 (1986), 231-62.

Bivar, A. D. H. "Fresh Evidence on the 'Sijistan Barbarous' Series of Arab-Sasanian Dirhams," Journal of the Numismatic Society of India I 30 (1968): 152-57.

Gaube, Heinz. Arabosasanidische Numismatik (Handbücher der mittelasiatischen Numismatik, Band II ). Brunswick, 1973.

Göbl, Dokumente zur Geschichte der Iranischen Hunnen in Baktrien und Indien (Wiesbaden, 1967).

Malek, H. M. "The Dabuyid Ispahbads of Tabaristan," American Journal of Numismatics second series: 5-6 (1993-94): 105-60.

Mochiri, Malek Iradj. "Garmkirman: a Sasanian and Early Islamic Mint in Kirman Province," The Numismatic Chronicle 145 (1985), 109-22.

Sears, Stuart D. "The Sasanian style Coins of 'Muhammad' and Some Related Coins," Yarmouk Numismatics (1995): 7-20.

Sears, Stuart D. "The Immobilized Sasanian Style Drachms of Sistan," Yarmouk Numismatics 10 (1998): 31-42; Reprinted, 11 (1999): 18-28.

Unvala, J. M. Coins of Tabaristan and Some Sassanian Coins from Susa. Paris: G. P. Maisonneuve, 1938.

Walker, John. A Catalogue of Arab-Sasanian Coins. London, 1941.

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