By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek….
On August 31, 2015 the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “Daesh”, which claims to be a new Islamic Caliphate, released a video announcing its first precious metal currency of gold dinars and silver dirhams. The ambitious stated objective of this coinage is to end the “American petro-dollar system” and “cleanse the entire earth of corruption.”
The coin designs were released onto the internet in November 2014: one and five gold dinars; one, five, and 10 silver dirhams; and 10 and 20 copper fulus. Clearly the work of a talented graphic illustrator and calligrapher, the designs were initially regarded by many experts (including this writer) as pure fantasy. But the new video shows gold pieces, at least, in low-rate production with fairly modern equipment–including a strip rolling mill, a blanking press and a small hydraulic coining press with steel dies.
The hour-long video, narrated in English with Arabic subtitles and frequent chanted scriptural citations from the Qu’ran, is a professional production that employs a sophisticated documentary style. Much of the content is a propagandistic economic “history” of the modern world told from the point of view of a highly politicized Islamist ideology.
According to the video, the specifications of the coins are:
- Gold: 21 karat (.875 fine)
- 5 dinars – 21.25 grams. Map of the world
- 1 dinar – 4.25 grams. Seven stalks of wheat
- Silver: (not clear from the video whether this is pure or .900 fine coin silver)
- 1 dirham – 2 grams. Round shield and spear
- 5 dirhams – 10 grams. White minaret of Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
- 10 dirhams – 20 grams. Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
- 10 fulus – 10 grams. Crescent and stars
- 20 fulus – 20 grams. Three palm trees
The obverse text translates as The Islamic State: A Caliphate based on the doctrine of the Prophet.
Sharia law defines the dinar as a pure (24 karat) gold coin weighing “72 grains of barley” – about 4.44 grams. The dirham should be a coin of pure silver weighing about 3.1 grams. There is no explanation in the video for such inconsistencies, but pure gold and silver are too soft for coinage that must stand up to wear and tear from circulation. The Daesh coins, struck in low relief, would be particularly vulnerable to wear. Historically, coins of Islamic dynasties have varied widely in weight and purity. Presumably, when you declare yourself a Caliph, you can make your own rules.
The Daesh video is insistent about the “intrinsic value” of precious metal coinage; this is a matter of religious faith for them (as it seems to be for many American gold enthusiasts).
At current (7 September 2015) spot prices, the dinar would have a melt value of about US$134 and the dirham about US$0.90. Copper is not traded as a precious metal, but in the current market, the 10-fulus piece would be worth about US$0.06. Reportedly, a loaf of bread in Daesh-occupied Mosul costs about US$2.
The word “dinar” is an Arabic transliteration of the Latin word denarius, which in this case refers to the ancient roman gold denarius aureus, originally a coin of nearly pure gold weighing 7-8 grams (the weight standard varied over Rome’s long history).
Constantine I (ruled 306-337 CE) introduced a new gold coin, the 4.5 gram solidus, which retained its purity for hundreds of years and became the standard for international trade. Around 692 the fifth Islamic caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (ruled 685-705), issued his own gold coinage, because the Byzantine emperor had placed the image of Christ on his solidi (offending the Islamic prohibition of idolatry). Initially these gold dinars copied Byzantine prototypes, with a standing figure of the caliph replacing the standing figure of the Roman emperor. Then, in 697, Abd al-Malik introduced radically redesigned gold and silver coins with only Arabic inscriptions on both sides. This established the standard for Islamic coinage for centuries to come.
Back to the Gold Standard?
Where did Daesh get its bullion? Some speculate that the source is ancient coins and precious antiquities looted from archaeological sites.
More likely the gold comes from confiscation of jewelry. Families in Iraq and Syria often accumulate Ottoman and European gold coins, pierced for wear as ornaments and passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
Some gold and silver may come from ingots and sacks of bullion coins stored in bank vaults captured by Daesh.
I suspect that the facility shown in the video producing the coins is a small commercial jewelry factory, perhaps in Mosul, or the Daesh “capital” of Raqqa, equipped to make amulets, medallions and coin-like objects.
Precious metal coinage is impractical in a modern economy for many reasons. Any precious metal coins put into circulation will rapidly disappear into hoarding, especially amid the civil war and chronic insecurity prevailing in Iraq and Syria. What is not hoarded is likely to flow out into neighboring countries in exchange for imports of food, manufactured goods or illegal services, like trafficking people across borders. Daesh gold may enjoy a brief premium over bullion melt value due to the novelty and notoriety. In some jurisdictions, trading in such coins could be viewed as material support for terrorism. Enterprising Turkish and Lebanese counterfeiting gangs can be expected to produce convincing plated base metal replicas for sale to the gullible.
High value gold coinage (roughly equivalent in purchasing power to US$100 or €500 banknotes) may be suitable for purchasing houses, cars, land or slaves, but are impractical for everyday use, especially where shopkeepers may be unable to make change for that dinar. In the medieval world, daily transactions were often barter, and taxes were collected in agricultural commodities; a small volume of precious metal coinage sufficed for the ruling elite and merchant class. Today, several million people live under Daesh rule, and even a limited subsistence economy thrown back into the seventh century (CE) would require a massive tonnage of silver and copper coin to function. This is well beyond the capacity of a small town jewelry plant.
According to one report:
“[G]oldsmiths in Mosul imported machines from Italy in recent years, each one able to produce about 5,000 coins a day.”
We might note that attempts to promote “Islamic” precious metal coinage as a real alternative to banknotes in Malaysia and the Gulf States have been generally unsuccessful.
 “Daesh” is the Arabic acronym for the name of the group. They reportedly dislike it.
 A claim rejected by most Muslim religious authorities.
 On 7 September the video was removed from YouTube for “violating the terms of service”.
 In several modern languages (such as Italian, Spanish and Portuguese), the word for “money” is derived from denarius.
Cipolla, Carlo. Money Prices and Civilization in the Mediterranean World. Princeton (1956)
Plant, Richard. Arabic Coins and How to Read Them. 2nd edition. London. Spink (1980)
Sutherland, C.H.V. Gold, Its Beauty, Power and Allure. London (1959)