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Laqab for a future caliph: the case of the Abbasid al-Mahdi.

Relatively little has been written on the relationship between numismatic inscriptions and Abbasid imperial policies, although important work has been done by George C. Miles, Norman Douglas Nicol, and Muhammad al-??Ush, among others, on identifying local governors from inscriptions on dirhams (silver coins) and fulus (copper coins).(1) Following the examples of Samir Shamma and Dr. Nahid Abd al-Razzaq, my purpose is to relate numismatic texts to specific historical events and policies.(2) The example I will focus on is a new style dirham from Rayy that is dated 145 A.H.

Theoretical caliphal prerogatives included the right of sikkah, by which I mean that the caliph, to the best of his ability, controlled the inscriptions on the gold and silver issues. Nicholas Lowick, the noted British numismatist, created a working table of sixty-eight reverse field varieties, excluding the names of governors and isolated letters, for Abbasid dirhams for the period 132 to 218.(3) As a result of Lowick's categories and Shamma's and Daftar's work, it is no longer clear that the caliph did, in fact, control the inscriptions on the silver issues minted in his name in the various provincial cities. In interpreting the inscriptions on the Rayy issue of 145, both possibilities, that is, central control or regional control, must be taken into account.

Abbasid dirhams for the reign of al-Safah (132-36) and for most of the reign of al-Mansur (136-58) continued a general pattern established after the reforms of the Umayyad caliph ??Abd al-Malik.(4) For my purposes, the important point is that the reverse field on the earliest Abbasid dirhams had only the formula: Muhammad//Rasul//Allah. Additional pious phrases were eventually added.(5)

The first significant break from the Umayyad tradition of anonymous gold and silver took place in 145 at the mint of Rayy (al-Rayy) in Iran where the reverse included a radically new inscription. It reads as follows: mimma amara bihi//al-Mahdi Muhammad//ibn amir almu??minin (by the order of al-Mahdi Muhammad son of the commander of the Believers). I will treat this inscription in three parts: first, the opening Arabic phrase, which indicates the order to mint; second, the appearance of an ism or surname in conjunction with the phrase ibn amir al-mu??minin; and, third, the use of a laqab or honorific title by a ruler or his successor. The most important development as it relates to political power in the Abbasid world is the appearance of the laqab.

The formula mimma amara bihi (by the order of) appears on many copper coins in both the margin and field from the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, including the revolutionary pieces associated with Abu Muslim and the origins of the Abbasid movement.(6) But, before the Rayy coins dated 145, the formula did not appear on the reverse of regular Abbasid dirhams. Thus, the placing of it on the field of a silver coin where it was most legible is significant. The question of who authorized the inscription will be dealt with below.

The second element on the Rayy dirhams of 145 is the phrase Muhammad ibn amir al-mu??minin. This has been interpreted to indicate the designation of Muhammad, the ism of the future al-Mahdi, as heir apparent. If this new-style coin had been first minted in 147, this explanation would have been unambiguous, for in that year the Caliph al-Mansur forced ??Isa b. Musa, his uncle and officially designated successor, to step aside and accept Muhammad al-Mahdi as heir apparent.(7) As the Arabic sources make clear, ??Isa b. Musa was reluctant but gave in to caliphal pressure and the bay??a or oath of allegiance was pledged to al-Mahdi.(8) Since dirhams with the new inscriptions and new style appeared two years earlier, that is in 145, another explanation is needed.

Before offering that explanation, two other examples of the use of the phrase ibn amir al-mu??minin on the fields of dirhams will be analyzed.(9) In both cases the member of the Abbasid family is designated only by his ism or surname and not by a laqab or honorific title. The first example is a dirham first minted at al-Muhammadiya in 171 during the reign of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. 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.(10) This Muhammad will be the future caliph al-Amin, but in the year 171 he was only a year old. Therefore, the inscription on the al-Muhammadiya dirham of 171 and its immediate successors did not indicate al-Amin's position as a successor to Harun, but only his blood ties.(11)

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 still Harun al-Rashid but ??Ubayd Allah 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.(12) In conclusion, the identification of an individual in the inscription by the phrase ibn amir al-mu??minin using only the ism did not indicate succession.

Returning to the inscription on the dirham of Rayy, the key is the appearance of a new titular element, the laqab, al-Mahdi. By 145 al-Mahdi was approximately twenty years old and had been serving as governor of the eastern provinces since 141. Khurasan was the base of Abbasid power and control of it was essential for the Abbasid family's success.(13)

In 145 the Caliph al-Mansur faced a significant challenge to his power and more important, to his legitimacy, by members of the ??Alid family.(14) Two brothers, Muhammad and Ibrahim, direct descendants of ??Ali through his son Hasan, led the revolt. The older brother, Muhammad, known as al-Nafs al-Zakiya, was the more serious threat. Based in Medina, in Rajab 145, Muhammad proclaimed himself the true successor to the caliphate and the legitimate leader of the community. With his supporters, he went on to take Mecca. By Ramadan 145, al-Mansur's forces had defeated and killed this ??Alid named Muhammad. While the military threat to the Abbasid al-Mansur by a movement based in the Hijaz was limited, the ideological challenge was more significant.(15)

A spirited exchange took place between Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiya and al-Mansur in which the Shi??ite claimed that since ??Ali was the wasi (designated heir) and imam, the right to leadership had come to him by direct descent. In response, the Abbasid caliph rejected claims through the female line, that is, through the Prophet's daughter Fatima. He also denied the Shi??ite claim to the Imamate on the grounds that if God had favored the Shi??ite family, they would have been successful earlier.(16)

There is textual evidence that al-Mansur was called al-Imam and that he referred to himself in a sermon as Khalifat Allah, the "messenger" of God. The implication of these titles is that al-Mansur expected that the duty of obedience was owed him as a religious as well as political leader.(17) Neither of these titles - al-Imam and Khalifat Allah - appeared on al-Mansur's coinage although the Umayyad ??Abd al-Malik had used the title Khalifat Allah on some Byzantine-style copper fulus and al-Mansur's great grandson al-Ma??mun would use both on some dirhams.

My interpretation is that one way al-Mansur met the Shi??ite religious challenge was by giving to his son Muhammad the laqab al-Mahdi. In theory, al-Mansur's son Muhammad could have taken the laqab al-Mahdi for himself, but this does not seem to have been the pattern of acquiring laqabs among the Abbasids. The numismatic is the only evidence I know which establishes the first year in which al-Mahdi used his laqab. I have not been able to establish from the chronicles in what year al-Mansur had his son Muhammad designated al-Mahdi. For example, under the year 141, Tabari states that al-Mansur sent Muhammad - at that time designated heir - to Khurasan with an army. Later, under the same year, Tabari refers to Muhammad as al-Mahdi. Since Tabari wrote long after al-Mahdi's death, he might have used the laqab for Muhammad al-Mahdi even before he officially received it.(18) It is important to note that numismatic evidence demonstrates that the laqab was used for the caliph's son Muhammad from 145. It does not prove it was not used before that date. My position is that the particular political and religious developments in 145 make this year the most logical one for an Abbasid designated heir to acquire the laqab al-Mahdi.

The messianic connotation of the title al-Mahdi is obvious. By placing the laqab on the field of the coins, al-Mansur was proclaiming that the Abbasid family and not the ??Alids were the legitimate religious and political successors to the Prophet. A second point is that the mints chosen for this innovation were in the historic center of Abbasid support, not Baghdad or Iraq. The minting of the new-style coins with the new laqab may have been intended to reinforce Abbasid support among important elements of Khurasanian society. But, even if al-Mansur did not order from Baghdad the mint at Rayy to institute the changes, it would have been in the interest of the future al-Mahdi, who was in Rayy, to do so. All the reasons offered above were valid for al-Mahdi to use the new laqab and to indicate his role as successor. Therefore, this particular case does not prove or disprove the degree of central control over the provincial mints since both father and son had parallel interests. In conclusion, it was imperial politics with religious overtones that brought about the coinage of 145.

I wish to express my appreciation to Stephen Album and Michael Bates for their comments on this paper.

(1) 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 Studies: Numismatic Studies No. 2 (New York, 1938); Mohammad Abu-l-Faraj al??Ush, Arab Islamic Coins Preserved in the National Museum of Qatar (Doha: The Ministry of Information, 1984). One major exception is Michael Bonner, "Al-Khalifa al-Mardi: The Accession of Harun al-Rashid," JAOS 108 [1988]: 79-91. (2) Nahid ??Abd al-Razzaq, "Sina??at al-maskukat fi madinat alsalam khalal ??asr al-khalifa Harun al-Rashid, 170-193 H," Dirasat Athariyya Islamiyya 2 (1980): 105-15; Samir Shamma, "Dirhaman ??Alawa??iyan lahuma Tarikh," Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, August 19-20, 1985 (newspaper); idem, "Midaliyya wila??iyah ??ahd Muhammad al-Amin b. Harun al-Rashid," Yarmouk Numismatic Journal I (1989): 53-55; idem, "Maskukat al-Sayyidah Zubaydah," Yarmouk Numismatic Journal III (1991): 13-34; idem, "The Historical Significance of Some Rare Islamic Coins," paper presented at the International Numismatic Conference, Brussels, 1991 (forthcoming). (3) Lowick made his preliminary tables available to a number of scholars including myself and Nicol (Nicol, p. 252). The work of N. Lowick is being revised for publication by Elizabeth Savage. (4) The obverse field on all the Abbasid issues under study include the following: la ilaha illa//Allah wahdahu//la sharika lahu (There is no god but//Allah alone//He has no partner). The margin contains the mint/date formula. (5) The field reads "Muhammad is the Messenger of God." The reverse margin carries part or all of Qur??an IX, 33: Muhammad Rasul Allah arsalahu bi-l-huda wa-din al-haqq li-yuzhirahu ??ala al-din kullihi wa-law kariha al-mushrikun (Muhammad is the messenger of Allah / He dispatched him with the guidance and the religion of truth, in order to make him prevail over all religion, even if the polytheists disapprove) and, with al-Ma??mun's coinage, an outer marginal inscription from Qur??an XXX, 4-5: lillah al-amri min qablu wa-min ba??du wa-yawma??idhin yafrah al-mu??minun bi-nasr Allah (to Allah is the power before and after and on that day the believers will rejoice in Allah's victory). (6) Miles, NHR, nos. 35ff., pp. 15ff. (7) Tabari, Ta??rikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk, ed. M. J. de Goeje (Leiden, 1879-98), III:331. (8) Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, tr. Hugh Kennedy (Albany, N.Y., 1990), XXIX:17-39; Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fiI-Ta??rikh (Beirut, 1965), V:577-81. Unfortunately the Arabic sources are not always clear or consistent on titles and succession. There is a sentence under the year 141 in Tabari stating that al-Mansur sent his son Muhammad, he being the designated heir at that time, to Khurasan, specifically to the city of Rayy. The phrase concerning succession might be a later addition since it is set apart and every other reference indicates that 147 was the critical year (Tabari, III:143). (9) The ism of the Abbasid caliphs appeared on earlier fulus including one from the reign of al-Mansur with the inscription al-amir Muhammad ibn amir al-mu??minin, that is, in the name of al-Mansur's son al-Mahdi, but under the latter's ism (Miles, NHR, nos. 44a, 44b). (10) Miles NHR, no. 71c. Michael Bates believes that the reading kharib should be reexamined and that it might be a personal name. (11) 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. Samir Shamma presented this argument at the XIth International Numismatic Congress, Brussels, 1991. Shamma also illustrated a possible unique coin in the lady's own name. See Shamma's forthcoming study of rare Islamic coins for the XIth International Numismatic Congress. (12) Nicol, 101. (13) In 144 al-Mahdi met with his father in Iraq, but was probably back in Rayy during 145. The Arabic chroniclers, including Tabari, are very vague about many of the events of these years. (14) Important ideas related to the early laqabs can be found in Bernard Lewis, "The Regnal Title of the First Caliphs," in Dr. Zakir Husain Presentation Volume (New Delhi, 1968), 13-22. Farouk Omar, "A Note on the Laqabs (i.e., Epithet) of the early ??Abbasid Caliphs," in ??Abbasiyyat: Studies in the History of the early ??Abbasids (Baghdad: Univ. of Baghdad, 1976), 141-47. (15) While it is theoretically possible that numismatic evidence reflecting Muhammad's aspirations and program will appear, it seems unlikely, since coins from the Hijaz region are unknown for the period. Dirhams reflecting Ibrahim's religious policies have been discovered: Nicholas Lowick, "Une monnaie ??Alide d'al-Basrah datee de 145 H," Revue numismatique (1979): 218-24, reprinted as article XVIII in Islamic Coins and Trade in the Medieval World (London: Variorum Reprints, 1979). A second example was presented by Samir Shamma at the XIth International Numismatic Congress, Brussels, 1991. (16) A discussion of this issue can be found in S. Husain M. Jafri, Origins and Early Development of Shi??a Islam (London: Longman, 1979), 274-80. (17) Jafri, 280. (18) Tabari, III:134-35.
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Author:Bacharach, Jere L.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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