Offa a Muslim? What Does This Question Really Tell Us?

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It has been suggested that King Offa of Mercia, he who held sway for 40 years and had built the huge Offa’s Dyke to keep his people safe from Welsh raiders, was a Muslim.

The evidence for this seems to be limited to the appearance of a coin now on display in the British Museum. This coin, remarkably well-preserved, was made during Offa’s time and at the direction of the great Offa.

He, it will be remembered, considered himself on par with Charlemagne and treated with the pope. Offa did have coins made, yes, and this action proved that he had great influence over his people. That other people would accept his coins as payment speaks volumes about his status as well.

An inscription on the coin is written in Arabic. On the basis of this alone, the theory has been put forth that Offa, a secret Muslim, was announcing his true faith to the world. That he was very much a Christian monarch, having anointed his son in a Christian church, seems to be lost on the purveyors of this theory.

And yet, it might very well be true. As with other questions from this time period–in which not much was written down for posterity–we just can’t say with absolute certainty. The weight of historical evidence is definitely on the side of Offa’s being a Christian king, but the very idea that this rival claim is being made brings up a different question: Would it have made any difference?

The great message of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is that the Christians converted the pagan Saxons to the “true faith.” The Germanic tribes had inherited their initial religious practices from their forebears and had brought those practices with them when they settled on Britannia. It took them awhile to accept the Christian way of life, but they did eventually. And the writers of the Chronicle were trying to advance their doctrine by recording events through a proselytizing looking glass. So it should come as no surprise that conversion of Saxon Britain to Christian Britain is given great play in this “historical” set of writings.

And yet, pagan kings reigned. It has been seen that the Christian conversion process took time, even generations. Some kingdoms accepted the new religion, then rejected it. Others would have nothing to do with it. And with the relative success of the first Muslim “converters” in the Arabic world, the world of Allah and Muhammad spread beyond the southern Mediterranean shore.

It seems only natural that the leaders of the various European nations would have had knowledge of the basics of Islam. They would almost certainly have entertained Muslim representatives at their courts. (It can probably be assured that the Christian experts at these courts were quick to point out to their monarchs the relative “faults,” in their minds, with the Muslim religion.)

And it seems entirely possible that the spreaders of Islam would have named in their number a good many Europeans who were receptive to such a message. So why not Offa? He was, after all, a man of the world. He traveled to Europe to meet the Pope and Charlemagne. He traded with Arabic countries. He would almost certainly have known the particulars of Islam. He might have even decided that that was his “true faith.” Under this scenario, his including an Arabic inscription on a coin could have been his way of announcing to the world that he was a Muslim.

So what’s the big deal? What did it really matter if Offa were a Muslim?

Well, the Christian messengers were doing quite well in their conversion process by the time Offa had become King of Mercia. He was a bigshot, in charge of many lands of people. He had been a shining example of a Germanic warlord who had become king and had professed himself a member of the Christian faith. Thousands of people saw him as a Christian monarch. If he were to announce his conversion to Islam, well, that would have been seen as undermining the efforts of the Christian messengers, not to mention a grievous affront to other Christians, a great many of whom believed that anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus Christ wouldn’t be spending time in heaven anytime soon after their deaths.

The evidence to support this “renegade” theory is rather slim, and the theory will probably never be proved for certain; but the tantalizing possibility is one that should make religious historians pause and take note, for if questions this revolutionary are being asked, then what else might be in the offing?