Coins and Creeds: Early Islam in Context

Epigraphic Dinar from CBJ

Epigraphic Dinar from A.H. 78 (697/8 C.E.); image from the Central Jordanian Bank website []

A recent workshop on Islam and Late Antiquity organized by Tim Whitmarsh and Sajjad Rizvi at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, aired important questions about where the rise of Islam fits in to the picture of religious and political change at the end of antiquity.

Some of the most interesting discussions had to do with the meaning of the term ‘Islam’ itself.  Robert Hoyland gave a fascinating paper showing how the same terms were often used for military, legal, and religious relationships. Both Islam itself,which translates roughly as ‘loyal submission to a legitimate authority’ in pre-Islamic Arabic, and the term mu’minun (used in a military context for those who have made a pledge of allegiance, similar to the latin foederati who have made a military pact or foedus) are a case in point.

On the financial front, Simon Swain gave a mesmerizing account of the first century Greek theorist Bryson as the founder of Islamic economics, while Luke Treadwell  explained how during the 70s of the first Islamic century–the 690s C.E.–Abd-al-Malik attempted to merge the ruler iconographies of the Roman and Persian territories now under Islamic rule on his coins, and finally found a ‘third way’ by eliminating the ruler portrait altogether and giving centre stage to an inscription from the Qur’an. One the one hand, this was a practical solution to the problem of creating a hybrid coinage, yet it also embodied a profound conception of the caliph as a creature quite other than a Roman emperor or a Persian Shah.

Meanwhile, Walid Saleh and Nicolai Sinai gave livelyaccounts of the ancient and modern ‘politics of identity’ that colour our understanding of first/seventh-century historiography. The discussions that ensued were sometimes passionate, but always good-natured–a tribute to the brilliance of the speakers and the bonhomie of the organizers.

Finally, Tom Holland gets a shout-out for letting his recent book, In the Shadow of the Sword, serve as the occasion for a heady day of discussions.

Here is the day’s programme:

Tom Holland 2012-12-08 11.12.49

Tom Holland

Islam and Late Antiquity
10.30-6.00, December 8th 2012
Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Organisers: Tim Whitmarsh and Sajjad Rizvi

This colloquium explores the controversial issues raised by Tom Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword. Can the history of early Islam be written in the same terms as that of late antiquity? What are the challenges that early Islam poses to a secular historiography?

Tom Holland, “Where angels fear to tread: writing a popular history of the origins of early Islam”
Averil Cameron, “‘Islam in late antiquity – why and wherefore”
Simon Swain, “Islamic economics – the ancient perspective”
Luke Treadwell, “The material evidence for the origins of Islam”
Robert Hoyland, “Arab conquests or Muslim conquests? The identity and composition of the seventh-century conquerors of the Middle East”
Walid Saleh, “The Paltry Gains of Revisionism”
Nicolai Sinai, “Was the Qur’an codified under ‘Abd al-Malik?”


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