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Interesting bilingual dirham of Mahmud of Ghazni


Parthicus

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Ghaznavids. AR dirham (3.0 g, 19 mm). Mahmudpur (Lahore) mint. Mahmud (998-1030 CE), dated AH 419 (1028 CE). Obverse: Inscriptions in Arabic. Center: The Shahida (Muslim profession of faith) "la ilah illa Allah/ Muhammad rasul Allah" (There is no god but God/ Muhammad is the messenger of God) and additional inscriptions citing the ruler Mahmud and the Abbasid caliph al-Qadir Billah; inscription around the edge giving the date and city of minting. Reverse: Inscription in Sanskrit. Center: "avyaktam eka muhammada avatara nrpati mahamuda" (The Unmanifested is one/ Muhammad is the avatar/ Mahmud the king). Album 1610. This coin: Stephen Album Internet-only Auction 19, lot 617 (March 20, 2023).

The Ghaznavids were a dynasty of Turkic origin, but heavily Persianized culturally. Mahmud's father, Sabuktigin, was the governor of Ghazni under the declining Persian-based Samanid dynasty. Sabuktigin died in 997, leaving his throne to his younger son Ismail. Mahmud revolted, and in 998 overthrew his brother and took over the Ghaznavid domains. He officially gave homage to the Samanid emir, but acted quite independently. Mahmud also sought, and eventually received, recognition from the Abbasid caliph as a defender of Sunni Islam. Mahmud spent much of his reign on campaign, conquering both Muslim and Hindu regions and greatly expanding the Ghaznavid territory, eventually controlling much of Persia (including most of the territory of his former Samanid overlords), Afghanistan, and portions of northern India. This map (borrowed from Wikipedia) shows the extent of Ghaznavid territory at the time of Mahmud's death:

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In addition to his military prowess, Mahmud was also a patron of learning and the arts, and Ghazni became a cultural center second only to Baghdad. The great Persian poet Ferdowsi presented his epic poem the Shanameh (Book of Kings) to Mahmud in 1010 CE. Although the Shahnameh is recognized as the greatest and most influential work of Persian literature, Mahmud was not so impressed, and instead of paying Ferdowsi the promised one gold dinar per couplet, instead only gave him a silver dirham per couplet. Despite this unfortunate incident, Mahmud is nonetheless considered a great patron of the arts.  

While Mahmud was important historically, what really drew me to this coin was the unusual bilingual inscription. The coin translates into Sanskrit not only the practical information of who struck it and when, but also tries to translate the key statement of Islamic faith into a form understandable to a Sanskrit-reading, and presumably Hindu, audience. I am absolutely not an expert in comparative religions, but based on my understanding, I would rate the success in transmitting Islamic ideas as mixed. The translation of God as avyaktam (Unmanifested) seems pretty reasonable to me. But calling Muhammad avatar probably introduces unwanted meanings. Avatar is usually translated as "Divine Manifestation", but that isn't quite what is meant by the Muslim notion of Muhammad as the rasul (Messenger) of God. Divine Manifestation, to my understanding, seems to imply that Muhammad carries some aspect or portion of the Divine Being within himself, which seems very contrary to the fierce monotheism of Islamic theology. Of course, I welcome input from any readers more theologically sophisticated. Regardless, there was at least an attempt to translate important religious ideas of the conquerors into a form that could be understood by the locals. This coin is listed as R (Rare) in Album's checklist. Please show whatever related coins you have.

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FYI, the reverse script is not Nagari, but Sharada:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharada_script

I never got around to transcribing the coin as it took me ages to even get a Unicode font for Sharada, but work has kept me away the past few months plus I caught COVID when I was traveling to London a few weeks ago...

 

https://images.vcoins.com/product_image/36/2/5/2piPMP8a5HkSYog46jDcLNx3Ge7bnF.jpg

 

Edited by quant.geek
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