by Avirook Sen
Why does a cartoon in Denmark cause riots around the world? To answer that question adequately, we need to go back about 1,300 years in history. It is then, that we get an answer that is on the money.
The money we are talking about was minted in Damascus during the reign of the fifth Umayyad Caliph (ninth overall), Abd-al-Malik.
Abd-al-Malik’s rule (A.D. 685-705) saw both consolidation and expansion of Umayyad rule through a difficult period, and this was achieved with both political maneuvering and war. Iran and Iraq were reclaimed; swathes of north Africa were brought under the caliphate.
Abdl-al-Malik also built the Dome of the Rock after he took Jerusalem: a shrine so magnificent that when it took its place in the city’s skyline in 692, Muslims referred to the competing Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the “dungheap”. To top all of this was the recapture of Mecca.
But perhaps Abd-al-Malik’s most significant contribution to history is the marketing of the dream of one Islamic state under God.
This idea was written on something every citizen required: coins. During the first half of the caliph’s rule, the currency in use was very much like a standard Byzantine coin. Except that instead of a Byzantine king, it had an image of the caliph—a bearded man in Arab robes and headdress, ready to draw his sword, a whip around his waist. According to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which exhibits such a coin, it is the “earliest known depiction of a Muslim”.
But these coins soon disappered. In 697, they were replaced by new currency—the same weight, and presumably value, but without the image of the caliph. Embossed on either side of it is Quranic text. One side reads: ‘There is no God except God alone, he has no partner; Muhammad is the Messenger of God, whom he sent with guidance and the religion of truth that he may make it victorious over every other religion.”
Why did the caliph drop his own image? Abd-al-Malik was a pious man; some descriptions have him as close as it gets to God: he had “no weaknesses”. And while he ruled with severe authority (the whip around his waist wasn’t just an accessory), he was also a master politician. He knew that commerce didn’t just hold a state together it was also a great messenger. Each time a transaction was conducted in the caliphate, its coins served its parties a reminder: the rule of kings was over; they were now subjects in the kingdom of God, no less. A religious state, where, as MacGregor puts it in ‘A History of the world in 100 objects’: “portraiture or figurative art has no place in official documents”.
Abd-al-Malik’s coins unified an amorphous state and embossed, not just on its currency, but also its consciousness, the ambition such a state must have: that of one Islamic empire.
In the years after his death, the empire expanded to include Iberia in the west and modern day Pakistan in the east, conquered by the Umayyad general Muhammad bin Qasim in 712. The vision of a universal empire under one God that replaced Abd-al-Malik’s portrait on his coins was becoming a reality. The territory expanded, contracted, crumbled in the centuries that followed, but all Islamic States continued the tradition of text only coins till the first World War.
The image of Allah or the Prophet is anathema in Islam, but those of lower beings are considered heresy as well. However, the Umayyads did commit a lapse or two in this regard. The Mshatta Façade, built for a palace in Jordan by a successor of Abd-al-Malik, and now in a Berlin museum, has engravings of animals.
History also has instances where statecraft, rather than aesthetics or a love of art, motivated Muslim rulers not to ban images. The sultans who ruled Hindu India after Muhammad Ghori’s 1192 conquest did not reissue currency. They continued using earlier coins that featured various Hindu deities.
For them, this continuity would ensure stability in their territory. Their priority was to provide cheap basic necessities (grain, cloth) to their subjects; that these were bought with, say, coins that had a portrait of Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth), did not matter.
Aniconism, or the opposition to the use of idols or images, has never been an end in itself. It was, and remains, a tool that sends messages. Abd-al-Malik removed a portrait and printed a powerful dream in its place. His coins are long gone. But the dream hasn’t lost currency. That is why, 1,300 years later, there are riots over cartoons.