763 - 809 Harun al-Rashid

Hārūn al-Rashīd (Arabic: هارون الرشيد‎; properly spelled Harun ar-Rashid; English: Aaron the Upright, Aaron the Just, or Aaron the Rightly Guided) (17 March 763 – 24 March 809) was the fifth and most famous Abbasid Caliph in Iraq. He was born in Rayy in Iran, close to modern Tehran.

He ruled from 786 to 809, and his time was marked by scientific, cultural and religious prosperity. Art and music also flourished significantly during his reign. He established the library Bayt al-Hikma ("House of Wisdom").

Since Harun was intellectually, politically and militarily resourceful, his life and the court over which he held sway have been the subject of many tales: some are factual but most are believed to be fictitious. An example of what is known to be factual is the story of the clock that was among various presents that Harun had delightfully sent to Charlemagne. The presents were carried by the returning Frankish mission that came to offer Harun friendship in 799. Charlemagne and his retinue deemed the clock to be a conjuration for the sounds it emanates and the tricks it displays every time an hour ticks. Among what is known to be fictional is the famous The Book of One Thousand and One Nights containing many stories that are fantasized by Harun's magnificent court, and even Harun al-Rashid himself. The family of Barmakids which played a deciding role in establishing the Abbasid Caliphate declined gradually during his rule.


Hārūn was born in the Rayy. He was the son of al-Mahdi, the third Abbasid caliph (ruled 775–785), and al-Khayzuran, a former slave girl from Yemen and a woman of strong personality who greatly influenced affairs of state in the reigns of her husband and sons.

Hārūn was strongly influenced by the will of his mother in the governance of the empire until her death in 789. His vizier (chief minister) Yahya the Barmakid, Yahya's sons (especially Ja'far ibn Yahya), and other Barmakids generally controlled the administration.

The Barmakids were a Persian-Afghani family and their family origins back to the Barmak of Magi, He had become very powerful under al-Mahdi. Yahya had aided Hārūn in obtaining the caliphate, and he and his sons were in high favor until 798, when the caliph threw them in prison and confiscated their land. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari dates this in 803 and lists various accounts for the cause: Yahya's entering the Caliph's presence without permission, Yahya's opposition to Muhammad ibn al Layth who later gained Harun's favour, Jafar's release of Yahya ibn Abdallah ibn Hasan whom Harun had imprisoned, the ostentatious wealth of the Barmakids and the alleged romantic relationship between Yahya's son and Harun's sister Abasa.

The latter allegation is specified in the following tale; Hārūn loved to have his own sister Abbasa and Jafar with him at times of recreation. Since Muslim etiquette forbade their common presence, Hārūn had Jafar marry Abbassa on the understanding that the marriage was purely nominal. Nonetheless, the two consummated the marriage. Some versions have it that she entered Jafar's bedroom in the darkness, masquerading as one of his slave girls. A child given secret birth was sent by her to Mecca but a maid, quarrelling with her mistress, made known the scandal. Hārūn, while on a pilgrimage in Mecca, heard the story and ascertained that the tale was probably true. On his return shortly after, he had Jafar executed, whose body was despatched to Baghdad, and there, divided in two, impaled on either side of the bridge. It stayed there for three years, when Harun, happening to pass through Baghdad from the East, gave command for the remains to be taken down and burned. On the death of Jafar, his father and brother were both cast into prison.

This romantic story is highly doubted by Ibn Khaldun and most modern scholars. The fall of the Barmakids is far more likely due to the fact that Barmakids were behaving in a manner that Harun found disrespectful (such as entering his court unannounced) and were making decisions in matters of state without consulting him first.

Hārūn became caliph when he was in his early twenties. On the day of accession, his son al-Ma'mun was born, and al-Amin some little time later: the latter was the son of Zubaida, a granddaughter of al-Mansur (founder of the city of Baghdad); so he took precedence over the former, whose mother was a Persian slave-girl. He began his reign by appointing very able ministers, who carried on the work of the government so well that they greatly improved the condition of the people.

It was under Hārūn ar-Rashīd that Baghdad flourished into the most splendid city of its period. Tribute was paid by many rulers to the caliph, and these funds were used on architecture, the arts and a luxurious life at court.

In 796 the Caliph Hārūn decided to reign his court and the government to his father like he did before Ar Raqqah at the middle Euphrates. Here he spent 12 years, most of his reign. Only once he returned to Baghdad for a short visit. Several reasons might have influenced the decision to move to ar-Raqqa. It was close to the Byzantine border. The communication lines via the Euphrates to Baghdad and via the Balikh river to the north and via Palmyra to Damascus were excellent. The agriculture was flourishing to support the new Imperial center. And from Raqqa any rebellion in Syria and the middle Euphrates area could be controlled. Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani pictures in his anthology of poems the splendid life in his court. In ar-Raqqah the Barmekids managed the fate of the empire, and there both heirs, al-Amin and al-Ma'mun grew up.

Due to the "Thousand -and-One Nights" tales Harun al-Rashid turned into a legendary figure obscuring his true historic personality. In fact, his reign initiated the political disintegration of the Abbasid caliphate. Syria was inhabited by tribes with Umayyad sympathies and remained the bitter enemy of the Abbasids and Egypt witnessed uprisings against Abbasids due to mal-administration and arbitrary taxation. The Umayyads had been established in Spain in 755 A.D., the Idrisids in the Maghrib(Morocco) in 788 A.D., and the Aghlabids in Ifriqiya(Tunis) in 800 A.D. Besides, unrest flared up in Yemen, and the Kharijites rose in rebellion in Daylam, Kirman, Fars and Sistan. Revolts also broke out in Khurasan. He waged many campaigns against the Byzantines.

For the administration of the whole empire he fell back on his mentor and long time associate Yahya bin Khalid bin Barmak. Rashid appointed him as his vazier with full executive powers, and, for seventeen years, this man Yahya and his sons, served Rashid faithfully in whatever assignment he entrusted to them. But Harun al-Rashid in 187 A.H. brutally eliminated all the members of Barmakid family.

Al-Rashid appointed Ali bin Isa bin Mahan as the governor of Khurasan. He tried to bring to heel the princes and chieftains of the region, and to reimpose the full authority of the central government on them. This new policy met with fierce resistance and provoked numerous uprisings in the region. A major revolt led by Rafeh bin Layth was started in Samarqand which forced Harun al-Rashid to move to Khurasan. He first removed and arrested Ali bin Isa bin Mahan but the revolt continued unchecked. Harun al-Rashid died very soon when he reached Sanabad village in Toos and was buried in the summer palace of Humaid bin Qahtabah, the former Abbasid governor in Khurasan, situated near the Sanabad village in the Toos region.

He imposed heavy taxes on farmers, traders and artisans. He maintained 4000 slave-girls and concubines to entertain him.

Al-Rashid virtually dismembered the empire by apportioning it between his two sons al-Amin and al-Ma'mun. Very soon it became clear that by dividing the empire, Rashid had actually helped to set the opposing parties against one another, and had provided them with sufficient resources to become independent of each other. After the death of Harun al-Rashid civil war broke out in the empire between his two sons al-Amin and al-Ma'mun.

Both Einhard and Notker the Stammerer refer to envoys travelling between Harun's and Charlemagne's courts, amicable discussions concerning Christian access to the Holy Land and the exchange of gifts. Notker mentions Charlemagne sent Harun Spanish horses, colourful Frisian cloaks and impressive hunting dogs. In 802 Harun sent Charlemagne a present consisting of silks, brass candelabra, perfume, balsam, ivory chessmen, a colossal tent with many-colored curtains, an elephant named Abul-Abbas, and a water clock that marked the hours by dropping bronze balls into a bowl, as mechanical knights — one for each hour — emerged from little doors which shut behind them. The presents were unprecedented in Western Europe and may have influenced Carolingian art.

When the Byzantine empress Irene was deposed, Nikephoros I became emperor and refused to pay tribute to Harun, saying that Irene should have been receiving the tribute the whole time. News of this angered Harun, who wrote a message on the back of the Roman emperor's letter and said "In the name of God the most merciful, From Amir al-Mu'minin Harun al-Rashid, commander of the faithful, to Nikephoros, the Roman dog. I have read thy letter, Thou shalt not hear, thou shalt behold my reply". After campaigns in Asia Minor, Nikephoros was forced to conclude a treaty, with humiliating terms.

Harun made the pilgrimage to Mecca several times, e.g. 793, 795, 797, 802 and last in 803. Tabari concludes his account of Harun's reign with these words: "It has been said that when Harun al-Rashid died, there were nine hundred million odd (dirhams) in the state treasury."

In 808, Harun went to settle the insurrection of Rafi ibn Leith in Transoxania, became ill and died. He was buried under the palace of Hamid ibn Qahtabi, the governor of Greater Khorasan, Iran. The location later became known as Mashhad ("The Place of Martyrdom") because of the martyrdom of Imam Reza in 818.

Al-Masudi's Anecdotes

Al-Masudi relates a number of interesting anecdotes in The Meadows of Gold illuminating the character of this famous caliph. For example, he recounts (p. 94) Harun's delight when his horse came in first, closely followed by al-Ma'mun's, at a race Harun held at Raqqa. Al-Masudi tells the story of Harun setting his poets a challenging task. When others failed to please him, Miskin of Medina succeeded superbly well. The poet then launched into a moving account of how much it had cost him to learn that song. Harun laughed saying he knew not which was more entertaining, the song or the story. He rewarded the poet.

There is also the tale of Harun asking Ishaq ibn Ibrahim to keep singing. The musician did until the caliph fell asleep. Then, strangely, a handsome young man appeared, snatched the musician's lute, sang a very moving piece (al-Masudi quotes it), and left. On awakening and being informed of this, Harun said Ishaq ibn Ibrahim had received a supernatural visitation.

Harun, like a number of caliphs, is given an anecdote connecting a poem with his death. Shortly before he died he is said to have been reading some lines by Abu al-Atahiya about the transitory nature of the power and pleasures of this world.

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