It has recently been suggested by some Muslim sources that Offa, a well-known Anglo-Saxon king, was a convert to Islam. This claim is obviously an attractive one for Muslims, as it would certainly be a great achievement to have a "Christian" king publically acknowledge Islam as the truth, especially so soon after the birth of Islam as we know it. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the basis for this claim and to consider what is known about Offa and his religious beliefs.
Firstly, a little background information which is not in contention. Offa (AD 757-796) was the king of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. He was one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kings and controlled the territory south of the River Humber, taking in most of England. It was he who ordered the building of the well-known earthwork known as "Offa's Dyke", which runs very roughly along what is now the Welsh border, as a boundary marker in his battles with the Welsh.
The only evidence presented in support of Offa's supposed conversion is a coin which is now on display in the British Museum. It is a copy of a gold dinar by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur, the original of which is dated to 157 AH (AD 774). Along with the Islamic Arabic inscriptions, there is on one side the Latin inscription "Offa Rex", (Offa reigns). It has been suggested by Dr A Zahoor that this is proof that Offa wanted to declare publically his Islam by making coins with the Muslim creed on them. He postulates that Offa may have learnt about Islam by visting Spain.
Unfortunately, the coin in question provides no evidence of Offa's supposed conversion. Perhaps the most obvious thing to point out is that the Latin inscription is upside-down with relation to the Arabic text. This can clearly be seen on the helpful images of the coins provided by Dr Zahoor. Further to this, although the Arabic text is generally a good reproduction, the word for "year" has been bungled, something that an Arabic speaker would never do. It is clear, then, that neither Offa, his coin-makers nor his officials could read Arabic. Seeing as the first Latin or English translations of the Qur'an were made after Offa's time, it seems certain that he did not understand what he was printing. If his coins had been in order to declare his faith in Allah to the people of his realm, he would surely have written the Muslim creed in a language which his subjects could have understood.
If Offa's purpose was not to declare Islam, what was it? Copying the coins of other kingdoms is a well-known practice and was done for several reasons, not necessarily forgery. For purposes of international trade, it was necessary for coins to be accepted in the country to which they were going. Copying the established currency of that country would be a logical way to ensure that coins were accepted in trade.
Even the very fact that the coin is gold has bearing on the issue. The vast majority of the Arab coins found in England are silver and thought to have been brought over by the Vikings. This is because silver was the currency of the Baltic lands; Arab fur traders would pay for their goods in silver, the accepted currency of the Baltics. There was no gold coinage in England before Offa, nor in Western Europe before Charlemagne. It is therefore quite expected that Offa would make his first gold coinage in order to be accepted by Arabs, in the style of their own dinars. J. Allan states that Offa, desiring to have a gold coinage and `following the universal practice in such cases, copied the coinage that had suggested the idea to him as closely as possible; it would have been quite contrary to all numismatic laws for him to have instituted at once a gold coinage of the same style as his silver coins; to him the essential features of a gold coin were those of the only gold coins he knew.'
Therefore, we see that, far from necessitating any embracing of Islam by Offa, his copying of the dinar was simply in accordance with standard practice for making new coinage. In the British Museum, in the same room as Offa's coin, are coins by Umayyad Caliphs, copying the style of `Christian' Byzantine coinage. To be fair, it should be noted that the makers of these coins have altered the design sufficiently to remove the Christian symbolism of the originals. This, however, is to be expected, as these symbols would be meaningful and distasteful to the Caliphs. It is likely that Offa had very little, if any, knowledge of Islam; therefore, he would have no reason to feel threatened by what were to him the unintelligible squiggles of the Muslim creed.
The question then arises: why would Offa want to make gold coins at all? The balance of trade between East and West at the time was against the West, as the Arabs wanted little from the West, but the West had a keen demand for Oriental luxuries. It would be necessary to have a supply of gold coinage to pay for these. There is also the possibility that the coin, found in Rome, formed part of a regular gold shipment from Offa to the Pope, known as `Peter's Pence'. This, however, is not definite, as the form of the shipment is uncertain and, in any case, Rome was the centre of the medieval world; it is therefore not surprising that coins of all countries were found there.
Whatever Offa's real purpose in making the coins, it is quite clear that there is absolutely no reason to conclude that he converted to Islam. Anyone who wishes to maintain this position must find much stronger evidence in order to be even vaguely credible.
Offa ascended the throne of Mercia in AD 757. He defeated a Welsh invasion in 760 and by 777 ruled the whole of England south of the River Humber. He defeated South Wales in 778 and again in 784, erecting Offa's Dyke, an earthwork to serve as a boundary between his own land and that of the Welsh.
Offa was greatly respected by Pope Adrian I, who formally addressed him as `Rex Anglorum' (king of England). Charlemagne, the Emperor of France, dealt with him as an equal and almost married his eldest son to one of Offa's daughters. Their friendship is evidenced by the fact that Charlemagne sent some of the booty from one of his victories to Offa with his greetings in 780.
Offa was a zealous builder and benefactor of monasteries, including that of St. Albans. He seemed to resent his own bishops paying allegiance to the Archbishop of Canterbury in Kent who, whilst under Offa's control, was not of his own kingdom of Mercia. Offa therefore created his own archbishopric in Lichfield, who presided over all the bishops from the Humber to the Thames. All this began in 786, with the consent of Pope Adrian. The Pope’s official representatives were received warmly by Offa and were present at the Council of Chelsea (787), often called `the contentious synod', where it was proposed that the Archbishopric of Canterbury be restricted in order to make way for Offa's new archbishop. It was vehemently opposed, but Offa and the papal representatives defeated Archbishop Jaenbert, installing Higbert as the new Archbishop of Lichfield. Pope Adrian sent Higbert his ceremonial garment, obviously denoting his support for this move. In gratitude, Offa promised to send an annual shipment of gold to the pope for alms and supplying the lights in St. Peter's church in Rome.
The Archbishopric of Lichfield only lasted for 16 years, ending soon after Offa's death, when it was restored to Archbishop Aethelheard of Canterbury. Offa died in July 796, still at the height of his power. His only son Ecgferth survived him by a mere 141 days, so ending the line of Offa.
The burial place of Offa is not known, although legend has it that he was buried in a chapel on the river Ouse near Bedford.
Thus it can be seen from a brief reading of fairly standard history books that, far from being a proclaimer of Islam, Offa was on very good terms with the Pope and a strong supporter of Christian monasteries. The great trouble that he went through to establish his own Archbishop (with the Pope's approval) only shows that Islam could not have been further from his mind.
Copyright © 1997 Toby Jepson
Was King Offa a Muslim? - No.
King Offa behaved in several ways that was entirely inconsistent with being a Muslim.
Firstly, he anointed his son in a Christian ceremony as his heir. He was the first English King to have done so (see Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1943, pp. 218-219).
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states:
A.D. 785 (actually, 787). This year died Bothwin, Abbot of Ripon, and a litigious synod was holden at Chalk-hythe; Archbishop Eanbert resigned some part of his bishopric, Hibbert was appointed bishop by King Offa, and Everth was consecrated king. In the meantime legates were sent from Rome to England by Pope Adrian, to renew the blessings of faith and peace which St. Gregory sent us by the mission of Bishop Augustine, and they were received with every mark of honour and respect.
The ceremony was (and still is) an intensely Christian religious ceremony. The Chronicle uses the term cyninge gehalgod for consecration to kingship. "Gehalgian is the word which is normally used of the consecration of bishops and churches in Anglo-Saxon texts, and is a clear indication of ecclesiastical influence in the making of kings" (Blair, Peter Hunter, Anglo-Saxon England, Folio 1997, p195)
The ritual of anointing is the most sacred part of the coronation ceremony. Queen Elizabeth II consented to the filming of all of her coronation, except for this part of the ceremony.
The anointing by the Church places the King in his rightful position on Earth. A "Christian King is Christ's deputy among Christian people." (Ibid., p198) It is recognition of the sacred duty owed by and to kings.
For a more detailed description of "anointing" see http://www.zoomnet.net/~kyowva/bbacks/anointing.htm
When Offa took part in the ceremony to raise his son to the rank of kingship, he would have been in a great Mercian church with bishops and priests, pomp and ceremony. All this had a PR function; he was showing the world the relationship between God, the crown, the church and the people. God created kings, kings created bishops, bishops created priests and priests ministered to the people. In the mind of the people there was only one religion, only one God, that is, the Christian God.
This Synod, the anointing of Ecgfrith, the reorganising of the Bishoprics and the appointment of Hibbert as a bishop all took place in 787, eleven years after the date on the coin. Eleven years after his supposed conversion.
During his reign Offa built many churches and granted land to nunneries and monasteries. (Not a single mosque is recorded to have been built by him)
Some of the surviving grants are detailed at: http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/users/sdk13/chartwww/
He was praised by Pope Leo for his generous donation to the church in Rome for the "Relief of the poor and the maintenance of lights". If there is a record of any Moslem ruler donating to the catholic church, I am unaware of it.
On one occasion he gave a gospel book to the church at Worcester. (Wood, Michael In Search of the Dark Ages, Penguin, London 1994 p91) Surely a Muslim King would not give land and other valuable gifts to Christian religious organizations. Is there any record of any Muslim King doing this anywhere in the world? There are many recorded grants to Christian religious orders by Offa after his supposed conversion to Islam.
A dark ages king relied upon the church to legitimise his position.
He holds his title "By the Grace of God". Should an Anglo-Saxon king convert from Christianity then we would expect a number of things to follow. A record of this scandalous event would be made at Rome and shortly thereafter excommunication would follow. Once word of this reached the church in England the king would immediately lose his right to rule and most likely, lose his life. His aeldermen and his kinsmen alike would depose him and almost certainly kill him in the process. A powerful king like Offa would have many enemies, they would seize upon this opportunity to take the "high moral ground" against the heathen and inevitably seize his throne.
No record of this exists anywhere. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records many events both momentous and minor, of this time. It makes no mention of what would have been a shocking and scandalous event. The church at Rome records many trials for heresy, and many more excommunications; no mention is made of any conversion by any Anglo-Saxon king to Islam.
The crown and the church are inseparable concepts in Anglo-Saxon times.
One would suppose a Muslim ruler has a similar position in a Muslim country. Would a modern day Sheik maintain his throne if he converted to Christianity or Hinduism? The legitimacy of a ruler was significantly strengthened if not created by the sanction of the Pope.
Offa's hold on power like many other Kings of his time was tenuous at the best of times. It relied on his presence and the constant royal progressions were proof of this. He was in fact "showing the flag" and exerting his power around his kingdoms. An absence of sufficient time to visit Spain (even briefly, far shorter than one would expect to convert him) would have meant that on his return his kingdoms would be ruled by his enemies. In any event, why would he visit Spain? Surely his interests would be better served by visiting his major trading partner Charlemagne. He didn't go to France or Rome (there would have been a record of it), which makes it extremely unlikely that he visited Spain.
During Offa's reign he was both feared and respected. However some centuries after his death he was reviled by the church as a killer of a saint. Aethelberht of East Anglia was a very popular "under king" of Offa's. He was executed possibly for treason (Wood) and subsequently a cult grew up around his memory. The Church created him a saint and thereafter the good works that Offa had done in his lifetime had been overshadowed by this act. The Church would have jumped at the chance to attack Offa's memory with heathen accusations, but they didn't. The concept of an English king not being Christian would have appeared to the Anglo-Saxon mind as being so bizarre as to be unbelievable.
After the ascendancy of the Mercians the West, Saxons came to the fore of the Anglo-Saxon world. These rulers did all they could to erase the achievements and denigrate their Mercian predecessors. Consequently if there were the merest hint that Offa was not a good Christian, then they would have extracted all of the mileage they could out of the heresy. Not a word of this imaginary scandal exists.
The only evidence presented against Offa's Christianity is that single coin. Coin designs change frequently, they travel frequently, they are absorbed easily into foreign cultures. Religion does none of these things. Religion goes more to the core of what an Anglo-Saxon King was than any other attribute or quality, Anglo-Saxon Kings must be Christian.
Offa traced his line back to the original Offa, his impeccable lineage was one of the attributes he brought to the throne. None of his ancestors is known to be Muslim, his whole ethnic background supports his Christianity, he had no reason to convert and every reason not to.
To see inside a man's heart is difficult under most circumstances, much more so as the centuries pass. However clues can be gleaned from his actions and if they are consistent and numerous then we can reliably deduce his state of mind. King Offa behaved at every opportunity that has been recorded in the manner of a Christian King. No contemporary reports him to have converted to Islam. None of his later enemies use this terrific PR weapon against him. Consequently, with no further evidence to rely on, we must consider the matter of his religion to be resolved. He was Christian.
Paul Hannah, July 2000
[I, Paul Hannah, am an atheist with no particular axe to grind in relation to or against any religion whatsoever. I maintain an abiding interest in Anglo-Saxon history and King Offa in particular.]
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