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Ghaznavid Coinage: Narrow Dirham of Isma’il

This is a silver dirham of Emir Isma’il who succeeded his father Emir Sebuktegin as the second ruler of the Ghaznavid empire, which formed the eastern frontier of medieval Islam. He ruled from 387 A.H. (997 C.E.) to 388 A.H. (998 C.E.).


Cryptic Tamgha at the top

Lines 1-3: La ilaha illa Allah wahdahu la sharika lahu

Line-4:     Al-Ta’i Billah (The reigning Abbasid caliph)


Top:     Lillah (For Allah)

Line-1: Muhammad Rasul (Muhammad is the messenger of Allah)

Line-2: Allah Mansur

Line-3: bin Nuh (Abu’l Harith Mansur bin Nuh (Mansur II) the Samanid ruler from 997-999 A.H.)

Line-4: Isma’il

On both the obverse and reverse, the sequence of characters after the last line, provide a crude rendering of the mint name: Farwan. Both the fabric and the layout of the coin is identical to the narrow dirhams of Ismail’s father Emir Sebuktegin. These issues were minted in the city of Farwan. The catalog reference for this issue is Album-1601, where it is listed as scarce. Dated specimens of this type are difficult to find being quite rare, while most of these issues are date-less.

The reigning Abbasid caliph during Ismail’s rule was al-Qadir Bi’llah. However, the Samanids did not recognize him as the Abbasid caliph, because he was placed on the Abbasid throne by the Buyids. Therefore, as a show of their disapproval, the Samanids continued to cite al-Qadir’s predecessor, al-Ta’i bi’llah on their coins. As a Samanid vassal, Ismail’s coins also cite al-Ta’i as the caliph of Islam.


When Sebuktegin died in 387 A.H. (997 C.E.), the Ghaznavid empire included the regions of Tukharistan, Bamiyan, Balkh, Ghor, Gharchistan, Bust, Herat, and Ghazna. While his son Emir Saif al-Dawlah Mahmud was the commander of Samanid army in Khorasan.

Emir Isma’ils Ascension:

At his deathbed, Sebuktegin nominated his son Isma’il to succeed him at Ghazna. He had further nominated that his brother Bughrachuk, and his son Nasr would continue their existing charges as Ghaznavid governors of Herat and Bust, respectively. While his most experienced and battle-hardened son Mahmud was to continue as the commander of Samanid army in Khorasan.

Sebuktegin’s preference of Isma’il over Mahmud, has puzzled historians for a long time. Not only had Mahmud seen more military action than Isma’il, he had also been the commander of the Samanid army in the politically disturbed yet economically prosperous province of Khorasan. Mahmud’s tenure brought relative peace and stability to Khorasan. Given these credentials Mahmud was considered the most likely choice to succeed Sebuktegin, which would have also brought Khorasan under Ghaznavid control.

The most likely reason for Isma’ils selection is that Sebuktegin saw any changes that he to the status of Mahmud being an encroachment on Samanid authority. Because Mahmud was appointed by the Samanids in Khorasan where Sebuktegin had no authority.

Some historians have also put forth the theory that Sebuktegin had selected Isma’il because his mother was Alptegin’s daughter, while Mahmud’s mother was either a slave girl or a noble-born woman from Zabulistan. In any case, Sebuktegin considered Isma’il to have a stronger claim to Ghaznavid rule than Mahmud.

Emir Isma’ils Rule:

Isma’il recognized Mahmud as the biggest threat to his rule. And as Mahmud’s control on Khorasan became stronger and his prestige grew, Isma’il had to bribe his court nobles and military generals to retain their favor and loyalty. The extravagant gifts and bribes handed out by Isma’il put considerable pressure on the treasury.

Defeat and Deposition by Mahmud:

Citing Isma’ils misappropriations from the treasury and the diminishing Ghaznavid finances as an excuse, Mahmud marched on Ghazna to depose Isma’il. The forces of Mahmud and Isma’il met near Ghazna on 388 A.H. (998 C.E.), and Isma’il was defeated and dethroned. Mahmud personally led the final and decisive charge on the armies of Isma’il.

After wresting the control of Ghazna from Isma’il, Mahmud became the Ghaznavid Emir, and as an act of respect paid homage to the Samanid court. The Samanids officially recognized him as the Emir of Ghazna and the successor of Sebuktegin.

Isma’il was forgiven and comfortably spent the rest of his life in captivity at a fortress in Juzjan. There is a legend associated with the fate of Isma’il: after the battle of Ghazna, Mahmud had inquired from Isma’il about what he would have done with Mahmud, in the event that he (Isma’il) had been the victor. Isma’il had replied by saying that he would have spared Mahmud’s life but would have had him imprisoned for the rest of his life, while making sure that he had enough resources to lead a comfortable life. Thus, by making his real intentions known, Isma’il sealed his own fate, and Mahmud had him imprisoned in Juzjan, where Isma’il eventually died after leading an eventless but comfortable life. 


  1. Utbi, Tarikh-i-Yamini (English translation by James Reynolds, 1858)
  2. Bosworth, C.E. (1963). The Ghaznavids:994-1040. Edinburgh University Press.
  3. Bosworth, C.E. Encyclopedia Iranica.
  4. Stephen Album (2011). Checklist of Islamic Coins.

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