– THE SHADOW OF THE SCROLL –
when they displayed the coin in their ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition. Robert Hoyland, though, has recently put forward an intriguing alternative view. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian II (685–95, 705–11) reacted to the threat of Islam by asserting his own Christian credentials. He put an effigy of Christ on his coins – the first time in history anyone had done so.
Justinian’s Christ has flowing hair, a beard and no crown; Abd al-Malik’s figure is shown with flowing hair, a beard and no crown. Could the caliph have been responding to the emperor’s religious propaganda with an image not of himself but of the founder of his new religion? Could this be a portrait of the Prophet made almost within living memory of people who knew him? In his hand the figure carries what appears to be a scabbard with a sheathed sword. But Hoyland sees not a sword but a case with a scroll inside – the Qu’ran perhaps? His view is highly speculative (as he acknowledges) but if this is the Prophet then it tells us something about how this caliph wished him to be perceived. This is not Muhammad the spiritual leader or Muhammad the lawgiver: this is the Prophet armed, an embodiment of the victorious Arab general. The expression is implacably fierce and a whip hangs menacingly from his robes. Two generations after his death the caliphs were projecting their own self-image on to the Prophet and using his name – if perhaps not his direct image – to buttress their aggression.
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