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© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Umayyad and Justinian coins


Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Syria and Byzantine Empire

Christianity, Islam

690s AD

These coins were the first to use this medium to proclaim the qur’anic revelation to a mass audience.

What does it look like?

There are two coins, one Islamic one, from the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE) and one Christian one, from the Byzantine Empire, in the reign of Justinian II (685-95 CE, after which, he was exiled but ruled again from 705-11 CE). The Islamic coins have texts from the Qur’an in Arabic on them, while the Byzantine coins have the image of the emperor on one side and a bust of Christ on the other.

After ‘Abd al-Malik, most Islamic coins just used Arabic texts and no images.

Who, what and where?

To begin with, Islamic coins used imagery from the Byzantine and Sassanid (Persian) Empires, in other words the enemies they had defeated. They wanted the coinage to retain its credibility with the population, by looking similar to what people were familiar with.

Then the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705 CE), adopted coinage without images but including just qur’anic texts. At the same time, the Byzantines put Christ on their coinage for the very first time. It is hardly likely that these two very different types of religious symbolism were adopted at almost exactly the same time by chance.

After ‘Abd al-Malik, most Islamic coins used just Arabic texts and no images.

Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?

In Britain, the 50 pence coin has been used on several occasions, to celebrate important, historic and current events, each being commemorated by a new reverse design, such as the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2016, and the London Olympics held in 2012.

Why is it significant to the study of religion?

‘Abd al-Malik’s coins were the first to use this medium to proclaim the qur’anic revelation to a mass audience. At the same time, the Byzantines departed from their tradition, by using the image of Christ on their coins.

Just a few years later, there was a reaction to the use of images of Christ, and for many decades afterwards, the use of any images in Christian contexts became highly controversial, (this is known as Iconoclasm), but by the middle of the ninth century, the images were restored, and ever since then Orthodox churches have been full of them.

Where is it from, where is it now?

The museum is free to visit and open regularly, with changing exhibitions and special events for all ages. Visit their website for more details.



British Museum

The Museum’s website has lots of information about money, from its early beginnings to the present day.


Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction

Adam J. Silverstein

2010, OUP