Responses to Islamic Awareness

"Dirham" In The Time Of Joseph?


The "Islamic Awareness" team is faced with another anachronistic statement in the Qur'an. Surah 12:20 tells us:

They sold him [Joseph] for a miserable price, for a few dirhams counted out [darahima ma‘dudatin]; in such low estimation did they hold him!

The problem with this passage is the fact that dirhams did not exist during the time of Joseph. The "Islamic Awareness" team must find a way to put dirhams into the hands of people, long before these coins [or any coins] existed. As in other articles, the "Islamic Awareness" team will attempt to broaden the definition of "dirham" to such a degree that nearly any ancient coin, by implication, could be considered a "dirham". After failing to demonstrate the existence of coins, let alone a coin called a "dirham", near the time of Joseph, the "Islamic Awareness" team goes on the attack, claiming that the Bible makes a similar error. In this paper, we will respond to their claims.

Dirham: A Historical & Philological Investigation

The "Islamic Awareness" team notes:

The pre-Islamic romance poetry of ‘Antara mentions the word dirham.

'Antara Ibn Shaddad al-'Absi can be considered "pre-Islamic" - he wrote his poetry sometime around 580 A.D., during the early life of Muhammad. 'Antara's use of the term dirham shows that the coin was not invented by 'Umar, however it does not place these coins in the time of Joseph.

A "coin" is a standard weight of some metal that is stamped with the design/mark of a governing authority who guarantees its acceptability as payment. There is some debate over which coin is the world's oldest. Some Indian scholars believe that the earliest Indian coins date from around 700 B.C., based on the dating of the geological strata in which the coins were found. Most scholars believe that coins were invented in Lydia - a kingdom on the fringe of Greece, located in modern Turkey. These coins were made of electrum [an alloy of silver and gold], and date from, approximately 600 B.C. ["The Origin of Electrum Coinage" by Robert W. Wallace, a professor at Northwestern University, in American Journal of Archaeology July 1987].

The Athenian leader Pericles [495-429 BC] minted coins for Athens. He used silver from nearby Laurium to mint the famous Athenian tetradrachms – the ancestor of modern coins. These Athenian coins became the international monetary standard, as the U.S. Dollar and Euro are today, and local imitations of these coins were made in Persia, Syria and Arabia.

Before Muhammad became a self-styled "Prophet", he was a merchant in the caravan trade of his day. Muhammad traded with the Sassanians [Persians] – who were the major economy at that time. The Sassanians used silver drachms (dirhem coins, which were minted for the Sassanian kings). When the Muslim armies conquered the Sassanians in 642, Muhammad's successors adopted the Sassanian coinage, copying the drachms, but changed these coins by eliminating human images and adding Arabic inscriptions on the borders of the coins. The Sassanian drachm was the model for the Arabic dirham.

There is scholarly consensus about the fact, and all of the sources quoted by the "Islamic Awareness" team agree with this, that the Arabic word dirham is ultimately derived from the Greek drachm, though probably through the Persian term drahm. It should be obvious that it is absurd to believe that dirhams existed [or worse, to search for dirhams] in a time long before the drachm, the ancestor of the dirham, was invented. Nevertheless, this is what the "Islamic Awareness" team will attempt to prove!

Precious Metals As A Means Of Trade In Ancient Egypt

The "Islamic Awareness" team has not only failed to demonstrate the existence of a coin called a "dirham" in the time of Joseph, they have also failed to show that any coin existed during this period of history! They must now broaden the definition of "coin" so that it could include any piece of metal.

Metal ingots were used as a medium of exchange in the ancient world. In the case of Joseph, he was sold, according to Genesis 37:28, to the Midianite merchants for twenty shekels of silver. The "Islamic Awareness" notes that Qur'an stresses that the pieces of silver were "counted" and not "weighed". The act of counting ingots of silver is not sufficient to turn them into coins. In other words, the "Islamic Awareness" team cannot conclude that, since these pieces of metal were counted instead of weighed, the silver ingots must have been coins; and, if they were coins, they must have been dirhams!

The "Islamic Awareness" team goes into a long winded discussion about weights and measures being possible examples of "coins" in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian deben is put forth as a possible "coin" in ancient Egypt. However, deben, as well as kite and seniu, were not coins in any sense of the term. These were standard weights which were used to the state value of various items. These weights were produced in many different shapes. The original deben was a ring. Other deben were in the form of simple geometric shapes like conuses and spheroids. Some were even in the shape of cow statuettes.

According to J. H. Breasted [Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 280]:

"The balances, accurate and true, of Thoth, which the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, [Make]re (Hatshepsut), made for her father, Amun, lord of Thebes, in order to weigh the silver, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite and every splendid costly stone, for the sake of the life, property and health of her majesty."

So, in spite of all of the sophistry, fact twisting and wishful thinking, these metal ingots were not coins, but standard weight measures of value.

"Islamic Awareness" attempted, and failed, to broaden the definition of a "coin" so that any piece of metal could be considered a coin, and therefore, be a "dirham". The fact of the matter is that dirhams did not exist during the time of Joseph. In fact, no coins of any variety existed at that point in history. After failing to make the case that dirham coins could have existed during the time of Joseph, thus rescuing the Qur'an from a huge anachronism and historical error, the "Islamic Awareness" team goes on the attack, claiming that the Bible makes a similar error.

"Daric" In The Time Of David?

The "Islamic Awareness" team tells us:

Another example is the mention of the name "Potiphar" in the time of Joseph. The earliest attestation of the name "Potiphar" in Egypt post-dates both Joseph and Moses and it comes from the 21st Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1070 – 946 BCE) in ancient Egypt. Since we are dealing with coins, it is worthwhile saying something about the mention of "daric" in the time of David in 1 Chronicles 29:7. In 1 Chronicles 29, David was asking an assembly of people to donate for the construction of the Temple. The people gave generously "toward the work on the temple of God five thousand talents and ten thousand darics of gold, ten thousand talents of silver, eighteen thousand talents of bronze and a hundred thousand talents of iron." ....

In other words, the Persian gold coin daric appeared some 400 years after the reign of David. Hence the use of daric during the time of David is an anachronism.

So, has the Bible made an error, similar to the anachronistic use of dirham in the Qur'an? After all, I Chronicles 29:7 clearly says that the Israelites gave 10,000 darics of gold to build the Temple - which was built sometime around 970 B.C., while the daric was not minted before 515 B.C. When the author of I Chronicles used the term daric to measure value, he was employing what is known as a "prolepsis". A prolepsis is a figure of speech that assigns an event or name to a time that precedes it.

The author of I Chronicles did not believe, nor did he want his readers to believe, that darics existed during David's lifetime. He simply expressed, in language and terms that would be understandable to his readers, the amount of the gold donated by the Israelites to build the Temple.

Some readers may be thinking: couldn't the same argument be used to extricate the Qur'an from its anachronistic and incorrect use of the term dirham, which did not exist at the time of Joseph? Well, the answer is no. We Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God and was written by many human beings under the Divine inspiration of Almighty God. The Bible is the true Word of God, and it is also rooted in human experience and context of history. The Muslims do not share the same idea concerning the Qur'an. The Qur'an, in their view, is eternal, existing with God in Heaven at all times, and was essentially dictated, word for word, by the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad. If the Qur'an were, in fact, the Word of God, it would not contain such anachronistic errors such as dirhams in the time of Joseph or Samaritans in the time of Moses.

The "Islamic Awareness" team does not make any attempt to explain the use of dirham in the Qur'an as a prolepsis, as Jews and Christians do for the use of the term daric in I Chronicles. Instead, they expend a great amount of time and effort to find dirhams in the time of Joseph. It appears that they consider such an explanation inappropriate for the Qur'an - and for a good reason.

The use of the term dirham in the Quran shows that it cannot be a prolepsis. For example, the author of I Chronicles used numbers and units, known in his day, so that readers would understand clearly the value of the donated money. Modern authors also use similar terms such as "a day's wages" or "one year's income" to communicate the value of money from place to place or from one historical period to another. The Qur'an does not give the value, even in the contemporary dirhams of Muhammad's day, of the price for which Joseph was sold. The only two pieces of information that the Qur'an provides is the statement that it was "a few dirhams counted" (which is not only unspecific but wrong) and that it was a "miserable price". Precisely how much was a "miserable price"? The author of I Chronicles uses the prolepsis to make the value of something CLEAR to its readers, whereas the Qur'an remains unspecific and does not make the value of the transaction clear to its readers.

Also, had the Quran used deben or another genuine Egyptian term, it would have been far more impressive than the fact that it used nothing more than the currency common in the days in which it was written. If the Qur'an had said "for a miserable price, equivalent to a few dirhams today" or "for a miserable price, some pieces of silver worth a few dirhams today", it would have shown an awareness that such coins did not exist in Joseph's time. Such a simple insertion world not be difficult to make for an all-knowing God, i.e. for an author who was allegedly already around at the time of Joseph. But the author of the Quran seems to have been unaware of numismatic history. He apparently assumed that the currency used in his own time would also have been the means of payment used in the time of Joseph. Although the name Dirham was already in use before Islam, it was derived from Drahm, and simply could not have been used as currency before the Drachme was invented.

In addition to the problem of the anachronistic use of Dirham, the Qur'an provides us with another example where it shows a pattern of being highly unspecific with the facts. Muhammad was not sure how much "a miserable price" really was. Various Muslim commentators have speculated that the "price" for which Joseph was sold was somehwere in the range of 20 to 40 Dirhams! The fact of the matter is that they simply do not know. Why would Muhammad talk specifically about Dirhams, but not give a specific amount?

The problem of Muhammad's unspecific statements is found elsewhere in the Qur'an. For example, in Sura 18 [which describes the ordeal of the "Companions of the Cave"] Muhammad did not answer the question asked him concerning the number of the youths in the cave, nor does he tell the place where or the time when the event is said to have occurred. It is common for story tellers, even in modern-day South Asia and Africa, to modify the facts in their stories as they go from village to village. These stories are a form of entertainment, so few people are bothered by variations in the plot. In the case of Muhammad, he was attempting to pass his stories off as divine revelation; and he was attempting to do this with an audience of Jews and Christians – many of whom knew the stories better than he knew them. Therefore, Muhammad was intentionally vague with the details.


The use of the word Dirham in the sale of Joseph as a slave is one of many anachronisms in the Qur'an. Dirhams, as well as all other coins, did not exist in the time of Joseph. Even if one accepts the dating of Joseph's life in Egypt that is favored by "Islamic Awareness", coins were still not invented until several centuries after his time.

The deben or sh‘t of ancient Egypt were not coins, but were units of measure. Simply put, there was no "coinage" in ancient Egypt.

The "Islamic Awareness" team makes their usual triumphant conclusion:

In assessing the evidence of coinage in ancient Egypt, Cerný came to the conclusion that sh‘ty "was a flat, round piece of metal 1/12 deben, that is about 7.6 grams, in weight, possibly with an inscription to indicate this weight or the name of the issuing authority", adding "If so, the 'piece' was practically a coin."[103] Although Cerný's assessment was startling,[104] he was not too far off the mark.

However, after spending an enormous amount of time and effort to convince us that Dirhams existed during the time of Joseph, the "Islamic Awareness" team makes an astonishing statement:

In conclusion, the Qur'anic description of the transaction darahima ma‘dudatin (i.e., a few pieces of silver, countable) is accurate from the point of view of ancient Egypt.

From where did the "Islamic Awareness" team get their translation "a few pieces of silver"? It appears that they are very uncomfortable with, and may not even believe, their own theory! This can be concluded from their translation of the crucial phrase in Surah 12:20: "darāhima ma‘dūdatin" (i.e., a few pieces of silver, countable)". The "Islamic Awareness" paraphrase deliberately avoids using the correct translation of the word which is Dirhams!

So, what was the point of the "Islamic Awareness" article in the first place? Wasn't the whole point of this discussion the claim that the Qur'an does not use "pieces of silver" but "Dirhams"? If the Qur'an used the phrase "pieces of silver", nobody would ever have raised an objection in the first place!

How does the "Islamic Awareness" team justify their translation of Surah 12:20 [darāhima ma‘dūdatin], replacing "Dirhams" [which is in the Qur'anic text] with "pieces of silver"? The Arabic word for "silver" is fidda, while darāhima unquestionably means Dirhams. This is nothing more than a manipulation of the facts – simply not correctly translating a very problematic term. Most translators of the Qur'an say Dirhams, though Shakir and Pickthall also render it "pieces of silver". Al-Hilali & Khan say Dirhams and adds "a few silver COINS" in parentheses. The majority of Qur'an translators do not think that Dirhams are merely pieces of silver, but the term indicates minted metal coins.

Also, in order to be intellectually honest, the "Islamic Awareness" team must apply the same standards of evidence to their arguments, which they apply to others. For example, in the aforementioned text, the "Islamic Awareness" team said:

Another example is the mention of the name "Potiphar" in the time of Joseph. The earliest attestation of the name "Potiphar" in Egypt post-dates both Joseph and Moses and it comes from the 21st Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1070 – 946 BCE) in ancient Egypt.

Therefore, they imply that no one could have possibly been named Potiphar prior to the date of this inscription. The same people, when attempting to support their claims conclude that "the 'piece' [of metal] was practically a coin."

"Practically" is simply an unacceptable standard. We insist that the "Islamic Awareness" team be held to their own intellectual standards: produce an identifiable coin called a "Dirham" which dates from the time of Joseph.

If the "Islamic Awareness" team cannot produce such evidence, then they are simply stuck in a circular argument – there were Dirhams in the time of Joseph because the Qur'an said that there were Dirhams in the time of Joseph, regardless of the facts. Paraphrasing this group's own words: it is evident that the intellectual framework, on which the "Islamic Awareness" team attempts to build its case, is preconceived by the "qur'anic account", and they simply attempt to force the "facts" into this framework. They should instead, build their intellectual framework out of the facts.

Andrew Vargo

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