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Al-Amin's designated successor: the limitations of numismatic evidence.

Until recently, relatively little has been written on the relationship between numismatic inscriptions and Abbasid imperial policies.(1) The case I will analyze is a dirham minted in Damascus with the Muslim date 194 and inscribed with the laqab "al-Natiq bi-l-Haqq," referring to Musa, the young son of the Abbasid caliph al-Amin (A.H. 193-98). After an analysis of the general inscription on the coin, the political background to the issuing of the coin will be presented. The last section will return to the numismatic evidence and its relationship to the political events. Considering the importance of the issue of succession in early Abbasid history, this particular case will demonstrate the limitations of numismatic inscriptions for reconstructing certain kinds of political history.

A dirham with that combination of mint, date, and ruler was identified over a century ago by the German scholar Nutzel as part of the Berlin collection.(2) Recently a second specimen, a duplicate of the first, acquired in Syria and held in a private collection was brought to my attention.(3) The marginal inscriptions on both faces and the information on the obverse fit the standard pattern for early Abbasid dirhams and do not warrant comment.(4) The reverse field reads as follows: Muhammad rasul // Allah salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam // mimma amara bihi alamir al-Natiq bi-l-Haqq // Musa ibn amir al-mu minin.

The inscription in the reverse field can be broken down into three sections: the order to mint the coin, a laqab, and a statement about the biological relationship between the person named and a caliph. Before turning to the laqab, which is the key element, the other two sections must be touched upon. The formula to mint the coin - mimma amara bihi - is common on Umayyad and Abbasid dirhams and fulus and cannot be interpreted to mean that the person named was a legitimate successor to the caliph, since it was used by governors as well as caliphs and designated heirs. The phrase did imply that the issuer believed he had a legal right to issue the coin.

The phrase which identifies the individual as the son of a caliph - ibn amir al-mu minin - might, at first, appear to indicate the right of succession, but that is not necessarily the case, as can be demonstrated by the following two examples. The first is a dirham first minted at al-Muhammadiya in 171 during the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (170-93). The main inscription reads kharib [pure] // Muhammad rasul Allah // al-khalifa al-Rashid [the caliph Harun] // mimma amara bihi Muhammad // ibn amir al-mu minin // s[sad].(5) This Muhammad will be the future caliph al-Amin, but in the year 171 he was only one year old. More important, at that time he had not been named official successor to Harun nor given the laqab al-Amin. Therefore, the inscription on the al-Muhammadiya dirham of 171 does not indicate Muhammad's position as an officially designated successor to Harun, but only his blood ties.(6)

The second example is from the mint Arminiya and is dated 172. The inscription reads Muhammad rasul Allah // mimma amara bihi // Ubayd Allah // ibn amir al-mu minin // s. The reigning caliph is Harun al-Rashid, although he is not mentioned on the coin. Ubayd Allah, the individual whose name does appear, is neither a designated heir nor even a son of Harun. He was Harun's brother, who served as governor of Armenia from 172 to 175 when the coin was minted.(7) Thus the identification of an individual in a coin inscription by the phrase ibn amir al-mu minin does not indicate succession. Legitimate heirs were indicated on Abbasid coins in the following ways: by the phrase wali ahd al-muslimin, by the appearance of a laqab, or by both.(8)

Succession was a critical issue for most of early Islamic history to the reign of al-Ma mun. Virtually every Umayyad and Abbasid caliph tried to work out a system for a smooth transition by having the bay ah or oath of allegiance taken in the name of the individual or individuals whom he wished to succeed him as caliph. Thus, Marwan designated his two sons, Abd al-Malik and Abd al-Aziz, to be the next caliphs, in that order. The common practice was for a caliph to designate two successors through the bay ah.(9) Unfortunately, a second pattern emerged, which was that the first successor tried to have the order of succession changed so that he could appoint his own son as the next caliph. For example, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik wanted Abd al-Aziz to give up his legal right to succeed in favor of Abd al-Malik's son al-Walid. A possible crisis was averted because Abd al-Aziz died before Abd al-Malik, and the latter thus acquired the legal right to name as his successors, through the bay ah, his two sons, al-Walid (86-96) and Sulayman (96-99).

Attempts to persuade an individual named in an earlier bay ah to give up his legal right to succession were repeated by al-Walid, Yazid II (101-5), and Hisham (10525). A real crisis did develop when the Umayyad leadership rejected the actions of al-Walid II (125-26), who had nominated his two very young sons. The resulting chaos was an important factor in explaining the internal weakness of the Umayyads when they had to face a new Muslim force from the east, the Abbasids.

The Abbasid caliphs continued the practice of naming two successors in the bay ah, but as the Umayyads had done, the next caliph tried to get the heir designated by his predecessor, if there was one, to delay or resign.(10) In fact, Harun al-Rashid found himself imprisoned by his brother al-Hadi (169-70) who had hoped to remove Harun from the succession. Therefore, it is not surprising that one of Harun al-Rashid's greatest concerns was to ensure a smooth transition for his successors. Unfortunately, his goals were not met.


Reconstructing the exact chronological history of the events related to the naming of Harun's successors and the background to the subsequent civil war between the two brothers is virtually impossible, but an excellent study has been published by Tayeb El-Hibri.(11) The Arabic texts are not consistent. Many of the problems are caused by the accounts in al-Tabari, the most authoritative of all medieval Arab historians. A few examples will illustrate that point. Under the year 186, al-Tabari not only discusses Harun's actions at Mecca in reconfirming the order of succession for his two sons, Muhammad al-Amin and Abdallah al-Ma mun, but he states that another son, al-Qasim al-Mu tamin, was named as the third successor and given responsibility over certain provinces.(12) This last event could not have taken place at that time and probably dates from 189. Al-Tabari then records that the future al-Ma mun was to be permitted to remove al-Qasim from the line of succession and to replace him with one of his own children or whomever else he thought qualified.(13) No previous caliph ever gave his designated successors this power and it is hard to imagine that Harun initiated it. But by including this account under the reign of Harun al-Rashid, the historian al-Tabari laid the groundwork by which al-Ma mun's later removal of al-Qasim al-Mu tamin from the succession and his appointment of another brother, the future al-Mu tasim, are made legitimate.

Another example where caution should be used in relying on al-Tabari is found under the year 195. Al-Tabari states that al-Amin stopped the mentioning in the khut-bah of al-Ma mun's and al-Mu tamin's names as his successor and had his young son Musa, who had the laqab "al-Natiq bi-l-Haqq" named in their place. The implication of the language is that this policy began in 195, while every other source including al-Tabari himself makes it clear that the change in the khutbah took place in 194.(14)

Harun's son Muhammad, the future al-Amin, was born in Shawwal 170 and given the ism of Muhammad. Within a year coins began to appear with his ism on them, as noted above. Only in 175 did Muhammad receive his laqab, al-Amin, and his legal title, wali ahd al-muslimin. Coins reflecting his new status began to be minted after that date. Abdallah, al-Amin's half-brother, who was born six months earlier than Muhammad, was not given his laqab, al-Ma mun, nor designated in a bay ah as successor to al-Amin until 183. There is abundant numismatic evidence to support these data in the Arabic texts.(15) Many silver coins which include al-Ma mun's laqab and/or his title, wali ahd al-muslimin, have been published.(16) There are even a few specimens in which the actual order of succession is indicated, with al-Ma mun entitled wali wali ahd al-muslimin.(17) Thus, the appearance on the coinage of either the laqab or the phrase wali ahd al-muslimin was one vehicle by which some segments of the populace were informed who was to be the successor to the caliph. These data would have complemented information given in the khutbah, but would have been a more permanent record. It is possible that the information on the coins could have circulated beyond the mint city and the region in which it was located.

In 186 Harun al-Rashid went on the pilgrimage. While in Mecca he reconfirmed the arrangement by which al-Amin was to succeed him as caliph, followed by al-Ma mun. I accept the argument of the modern historian El-Hibri that Harun did not intend to divide the empire but only to guarantee a smooth succession, and that much of our confusion over what was actually promised to al-Ma mun at Mecca is a result of al-Ma mun's rewriting of history after his victory.(18) Three years after the events in Mecca, that is, in 189, Harun undertook an unusual, if not unique, action. He named a third successor.(19) The caliph had the bay ah retaken, adding to the order of succession the name of another son, al-Qasim, who was given the laqab al-Mu tamin. Al-Mu tamin, third in line to succeed Harun, was given responsibility for the northwest frontier zone, specially the Thughur, the Jazira, and the Awasim. To the best of my knowledge there are no coins inscribed with al-Qasim's ism or his laqab al-Mu tamin, or his right to the succession as wali ahd al-muslimin. Theoretically, it is possible that some will be discovered, but in light of the quantities of Abbasid specimens known, this is unlikely.(20) The absence of al-Mu tamin's name on the coins of the provinces he governed may be connected to a general numismatic policy which will be discussed below.

Harun al-Rashid may have undertaken the naming of al-Mu tamin in order to protect his territories against Byzantine incursion while he was busy elsewhere, as well as to ensure a smooth transition of power to his sons. However, I believe that by naming al-Qasim as third successor, Harun weakened al-Amin's political position. Based on all historical precedents, I would have predicted that even without Harun's actions, al-Amin would have tried to get his brother al-Ma mun to set aside his right to be al-Amin's successor and allow al-Amin to be succeeded by one of his own sons. If that failed, which I assume it would have, al-Amin as caliph would still have been in a position to have a new bay ah taken by al-Ma mun followed by a pledge to one of his own sons. By breaking with tradition and naming three successors, Harun reduced significantly the likelihood that one of al-Amin's sons would ever be caliph.

Events following the death of Harun al-Rashid in 193 moved fairly rapidly, although the exact order in which they took place is not clear.(21) What can be reconstructed is that in 194 al-Amin took a step which was used by al-Ma mun to justify his claim for greater independence and, ultimately, to challenge the legitimacy of al-Amin's caliphate. The specific act was the naming by al-Amin of his very young son, Musa, as second successor, that is, after al-Ma mun and replacing al-Qasim al-Mu tamin.(22) Following historical precedent, al-Amin gave his son Musa a laqab: al-Natiq bi-l-Haqq.(23) This probably took place in Rabi I 194.(24)

Many authors comment on how young Musa was at the time he was named successor in 194.(25) Typical are the comments of al-Mas udi, who wrote that "Musa was a child who still lisped as he spoke and could not tell good from evil. A child who still, day and night, sleeping or waking, sitting or standing, needed the care of his attendants. His education had been entrusted to Ali ibn Isa ibn Mahan. This is what a certain blind poet of Baghdad, known under the name of Ali ibn Abi Talib, says on the subject:

The deceptions of the vizier, The depravity of the Imam The advice of perfidious councilors, These have destroyed the Caliphate. What is this but the road of error? The roads of error are the worst. The behavior of the Caliph is peculiar, That of the vizier even stranger. But even more amazing is the oath We have sworn to a tiny child, A poor creature which cannot yet Wipe its nose or leave The shelter of its nurse's lap. Observe how a tyrant and a seducer Are conspiring together To rend the Book of Light? If it were not for the whims of fortune, What would these two ever have amounted to? But destiny lifts up mountains Upon which stand the base and lowly; She raises up from nothing.(26)

Since Musa himself was not capable of governing, al-Amin assigned Khuzaymah b. Khazim to the territories which were originally designated for al-Qasim, including Syria and the Thughur. Al-Amin then "invited" his brother and third designated heir, al-Qasim back to Baghdad.(27)

In 195 the break between the two brothers - al-Amin and al-Ma mun - became permanent. Al-Amin now dropped his brother's name from the khutbah as successor and indicated that the only binding bay ah was to be to his son, Musa al-Natiq bi-l-Haqq. He also ordered that the dinars and dirhams in Khurasan should have his name upon them and not that of al-Ma man.(28) Al-Amin also attempted to ensure the continuity of his direct descendants by having the bay ah taken to another, and still younger son, Abdallah, who was given the laqab "al-Qa im bi-l-Haqq."

The tragic story of the end of al-Amin's caliphate and his ultimate murder need not concern us. As for al-Amin's two sons, Musa and Abdallah, they were sent to Marw after their father's death. The future for al-Qasim, who had been removed by al-Amin, was no better. In Rabi I 198 he was again removed from the line of succession, but this time by the caliph al-Ma mun - and permanently.(29)


The only known medieval writer who mentions gold and silver coins in the name of Musa is the fifteenth-century historian al-Maqrizi, whose general interest in numismatic evidence may have led him to include the data. In what source or sources he found the information, or whether he examined actual specimens, is not known. He wrote that when al-Amin had proclaimed his son successor and had given him the laqab "al-Natiq bi-l-Haqq al-Muthaffar bi-llah" [sic], dinars and dirhams were minted in his name.(30) Although the text is not clear, al-Maqrizi also refers to commemorative pieces which would have weighed 10 mithqals, upon which was inscribed the following:

Every Glory and Honor For Musa al-Muthaffar Sovereignty is special which is mentioned In the Documented Book

What al-Maqrizi does not record is where these dinars, dirhams, and commemorative pieces were struck. The last may have been struck in the capital and functioned differently than coinage. The existing numismatic evidence is valid only for the Damascus mint, where Musa had been assigned the governorship. Based upon the data cited so far in this study, it is possible to conclude that the name of a member of the Abbasid family appeared only on the mints of those cities assigned to him as governor.

Unfortunately, the appearance of Abbasid names on regional coinage does not seem to fit such a neat pattern.(31) For example, there are relatively few specimens known from the area of Greater Syria for the years of Harun's and al-Amin's caliphates.(32) The most active mint was Damascus, whose dirhams for the years 185 through 189 had inscribed on them in Arabic "issued by order of al-Ma mun Abdallah ibn amir al-mu minin." The inclusion of his laqab, "al-Ma mun," was a public statement that he was to be a successor to the caliph. At the same time coins minted in al-Muhammadiya in the eastern Abbasid lands carried information related to al-Amin's position as heir to Harun.(33) According to all the Arab historians, al-Ma mun was assigned the eastern provinces and al-Amin the western. The numismatic evidence, assuming that there is a correlation between being named governor and the appearance of name on a particular mint, could be interpreted to mean that al-Ma mun governed in the west and al-Amin in the east, which is the reverse of the data found in the texts. Only with the publication of the catalogue of early Abbasid coin types and a systematic study of the mints in relation to their inscriptions will it be possible to determine the degree of correlation between the assigning of a mint city to a member of the Abbasid family who is an heir and the appearance of that person's name on the coinage of the same mint city.(34)

With the assigning of al-Qasim al-Mu tamin to Damascus, and elsewhere, in 189, it is not surprising that coins in the name of al-Ma mun from the Damascus mint were no longer issued. But there are no known coins in the name of al-Qasim al-Mu tamin from Damascus or any other mint. It is possible that Harun instituted a policy in the west where the names of successors were removed from the coinage, but that leaves the problem of his failure to do the same in the eastern lands. Thus, dirhams minted in Damascus for 190 and 191 include only the pious phrase Muhammad // rasul // Allah on their reverse and not the name of any governor.(35)

There are no known coins with the name of al-Amin's second designated successor, Abdallah al-Qa im bi-l-Haqq. Since he was not assigned a governorship even this justification for including his name on the coinage does not exist. Therefore, I doubt if any coins were minted indicating his role as a designated successor to al-Amin.

Considering the centrality of the issue of succession in the struggle between al-Amin and al-Ma mun, there is almost no existing coinage reflecting al-Amin's political program. One mint, Damascus, and one year, 194, is the only numismatic evidence which has come to light reflecting al-Amin's decision to name his sons as his successors. Even the mint at Baghdad was not used to inform those who could read coins that Musa had been proclaimed successor to al-Amin.

The study of the Damascus dirham of 194 illustrates the limitations of numismatic evidence for this era. The coins did not enhance our understanding of the power struggle between the brothers except to confirm that al-Amin named his son as a successor in violation of Harun's order of succession. The naming of Musa as heir was one critical step in setting the conditions for the ensuing civil war. Unfortunately, the coinage does not illuminate aspects of the issue of succession which could not be found in the medieval chronicles. The coinage does confirm that Musa was named governor, which is the possible key to the inclusion of his name on the Damascus mint. The occurrence of names other than the caliphal one on the coinage may be related to the assigning of governorships but only a systematic study of all the early Abbasid coinage will prove this point.

Al-Amin could have proclaimed the succession of his son on the coins of all the mints he controlled, including those struck in the imperial capital at Baghdad. His failure to do so indicates that inscriptions on coins from this era were expected to conform to certain patterns. The citing of an Abbasid family member's laqab or the title wali ahd al-muslimin indicated succession, but that did not happen in all cases or at all mints. Early Abbasid coinage had the potential to be a major vehicle for propagating official positions of a reigning caliph. Al-Amin could have used coin inscriptions as a means of circulating within the Abbasid Empire information related to the critical issue of succession. As demonstrated by this particular case, the Abbasid caliphs did not use the coinage for those purposes.


1 Exceptions include publications by George C. Miles, Norman Douglas Nicol, and Muhammad al-Ush, on identifying local governors from inscriptions on dirhams and fulus. See Norman Douglas Nicol, "Early Abbasid Administration in the Central and Eastern Provinces, 132-218 A.H. / 750-833 A.D." (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Washington, 1979); George C. Miles, The Numismatic History of Rayy, American Numismatic Society: Numismatic Studies, no. 2 (New York, 1938); Dr. Mohammad Abu-l-Faraj al-Ush, Arab Islamic Coins Preserved in the National Museum of Qatar (Doha: The Ministry of Information, 1984). Another major exception is Michael Bonner. "Al-Khalifa al-Mardi: The Accession of Harun al-Rashid," JAOS 108 (1988): 79-91. Following the examples of Samir Shamma and Dr. Nahid Abd al-Razzaq, my purpose is to relate numismatic inscriptions to specific historical events and policies. See Nahid Abd al-Razzaq, "Sina at al-maskukat fi madinat al-salam khilal asr al-khalifa Harun al-Rashid, 170-193H.," Dirasat Athariyya Islamiyya 21 (1980): 105-15; Samir Shamma, "Dirhaman alwayan lahuma tar rikh," Al-sharq al-Awsat [newspaper], August 19-20, 1985; id., "Midaliyya wala iyah ahd Muhammad al-Amin b. Harun al-Rashid," Yarmouk Numismatic Journal 1 (1989): 53-55; id., "Maskukat al-Sayyidah Zubaydah," Yarmouk Numismatic Journal 3 (1991): 13-34; id., "The Historical Significance of some rare Islamic Coins," presented at the International Numismatic Conference, Brussels, 1991 [forthcoming]. Numismatic evidence supplies critical data for David J. Wasserstein's The Caliphate in the West: An Islamic Institution in the Iberian Peninsula (Oxford, 1993).

2 Heinrich Nutzel. Katalog der orientalischen Munzen (Berlin, 1898), 1: no. 1262.

3 Fadi collection.

4 The obverse field reads "la ilah illa / Allah wahdahu /la sharik lahu" with the margin containing the mint/date formula. The reverse margins include the Qur anic verses 9:33 and 30:3-4.

5 Miles, NHR, no. 71c.

6 One scholar has interpreted these pieces in the name of the young Muhammad as proof of the influence and power of Muhammad al-Amin's mother, who was also Harun's wife. Mr. Samir Shamma presented this argument at the Eleventh International Numismatic Congress, Brussels, 1991. Shamma also illustrated a possible unique coin in her own name. See Shamma's forthcoming study of rare Islamic coins for the Eleventh International Numismatic Congress. See below for another example of the role of women and the issue of succession.

7 Nicol, 101.

8 The critical role of the laqab as identification of a sworn heir to a reigning caliph is discussed in greater detail in Jere L. Bacharach, "Laqab for a Future Caliph: The Case of the Abbasid al-Mahdi," JAOS 113 (1993): 271-74.

9 The Arab chronicles indicate other cases where a caliph named more than two successors. The best known example is that of Abd al-Malik, where tradition relates that he named the four sons who eventually succeeded him. Without systematically investigating the case, I am suspicious of its accuracy. Tabari, Ta rikh, 6:531, 533, and Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya wa-l-Nihaya, 9:175. These data were shared with me by Samir Shamma. Private correspondence, 26 January 1993.

10 The case of the Abbasid Isa b. Musa illustrates the point.

11 Tayeb El-Hibri, "Hamn al-Rashid and the Mecca Protocol of 802: A Plan for Division or Succession?" International Journal of Middle East Studies 24 (1992): 461-80.

12 Tabari, Ta rikh, 11:667.

13 Tabari, Ta rikh, 11:659.

14 Tabari, Ta rikh, 11:896.

15 The coins of al-Ma mun, including those minted before he became caliph, will be the subject of a forthcoming study by Samir Shamma.

16 Widad al-Qazzaz, "Al-darahim al-Abbasiyya fi Zaman al-Khalifah Harun al-Rashid," Sumer 21 (1965): 167-229, especially pp. 181 and 195.

17 For example, there are dirhams for al-Shash, 190 with the phrase wali wali ahd al-muslimin. Al-Qazzaz, 207.

18 El-Hibri, 46.

19 El-Hibri, 46 and 476, n. 2. M. Rekaya, "Al-Ma mun," Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., 5:331.

20 Private correspondence, Stephen Album, 2 April 1993.

21 El-Hibri, 476, n. 6.

22 The historian al-Mas udi relates that al-Amin was madly in love with Nazm, the mother of Musa, and that for her sake he wished to disinherit al-Ma mun, so as to leave the throne to the child. When Nazm died, presumably before 193, al-Amin was deeply moved and his mother, the famous Zubaida, comforted him. The very negative image of al-Amin created by the story makes it suspect. Al-Mas udi, Muruj al-Dhahab (Cairo, 1958), 3:400; tr. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, The Meadows of Gold: The Abbasids, (London, 1989), 140.

23 A1-Azdi. Ta rikh al-Mawsil (Cairo, 1967): 319.

24 Tabari, Ta rikh, 8:498; tr. Fishbein, 211.

25 The comments may be an author's way of criticizing Al-Amin's policies since Musa was not the first child to be named successor.

26 Mas udi, 3:405-6; Lunde and Stone, 146. Many authors comment on how young Musa was at the time. Tabari, Ta rikh, 11:896.

27 Tabari, Ta rikh, 8:374; Fishbein, 22.

28 Tabari, Ta rikh, 8:389; Fishbein, 46 and n. 200.

29 Tabari, Ta rikh, 8:522; Fishbein, 211.

30 No other source gives the laqab "al-Muthaffar bi-llah." Al-Maqrizi. Shudhur al-uqad (Cairo, 1990), 129.

31 Coinage from the Abbasid capital is of very limited value as a source of inscribed information on the succession to the caliphate. Nahidh Abdul-Razzaq, "The Abbasid Coinage at Madinat al-Salam from 146 to 218" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of London, 1978).

32 Much of the following data was supplied by Dr. Elizabeth Savage from her forthcoming study of early Abbasid coin types, which will appear under the names of Elizabeth Savage and the late Nicholas Lowick. (Private correspondence, 12 January 1993, 7 February 1993, and 5 July 1994.)

33 Miles, NHR, 58-87.

34 Dr. Michael Bates was the first to bring this idea to my attention. See Savage's forthcoming study for the data.

35 Private correspondence, Stephen Album, 23 May 1994.
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Author:Bacharach, Jere L.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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