Harun al-Rashid (766-809) was the fifth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. During his reign the power and prosperity of the dynasty was at its height, though its decline is sometimes held to have begun at that time.
In 750 the Abbasid dynasty replaced the Umayyad as rulers of the Islamic Empire, and for a generation they were busy consolidating their rule and overcoming internal disorders. They moved the capital eastward from Damascus to their new city of Baghdad. By 786 the reorganization of the empire was bearing fruit in greater trade and greater wealth, which made possible the luxury now associated with the caliphal court.
Harun al-Rashid was born at Rey near Teheran in 766 (or perhaps 763), the third son of the third Abbasid caliph, Mohammed al-Mahdi. His mother was Khayzuran, a Yemeni slave girl, later freed, who through her husband and son came to have great political influence. As a boy, Harun was nominal leader of military expeditions against the Byzantines in 780 and 782. Because of his victories he received the honorific name al-Rashid (the Upright). He also gained experience as governor of various provinces under the supervision of a high official, Yahya ibn Khalid the Barmakid. In 782 Harun had been named as second in succession to the throne, but on his father's death in 785, the new caliph, his brother al-Hadi, treated him very badly. Al-Hadi, however, died mysteriously in September 786, and Harun was proclaimed caliph. He at once appointed Yahya the Barmakid as his vizier.
For the first 17 years of his reign Harun relied to a great extent on his vizier and two of the vizier's sons, al-Fadl and Jafar. Yahya appears to have been an exceptionally competent administrator and to have shown great wisdom in the selection and training of subordinates; his two sons had similar qualities. The Barmakid family fell from power suddenly with the execution of Jafar on the night of Jan. 28/29, 803, and with the arrest of his father and al-Fadl. The fundamental reason was that they were too powerful and left too little scope to the caliph.
Although the caliphate was now mostly pacified and there were no major revolts, there was an almost constant series of local insurrections. In the earlier part of the reign there were troubles in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Yemen, and Daylam (south of the Caspian Sea), and in 806 a more serious revolt in Khurasan under Rafi ibn Layth. The difficulty of holding together an empire as vast as Harun's led to the establishment of an independent principality in Morocco by the Idrisid dynasty in 789 and of a semi-independent one in Tunisia by the Aghlabid dynasty in 800. These marked a loss of power by the central government. The danger of disintegration was increased by Harun's unwise arrangement for succession. It provided for one son, al-Amin, to become caliph and for another son, al-Mamun, to have control of certain provinces and of a section of the army.
Harun took a personal interest in the campaigns against the Byzantines, leading expeditions in 797, 803, and 806. In 797 the empress Irene made peace and agreed to pay a large sum of money. The emperor Nicephorus denounced this treaty but was forced to make an even more humiliating one in 806. Cyprus was occupied in 805. Though not mentioned in Arabic sources, there seem to have been diplomatic contacts between Harun and Charlemagne, in which the latter was recognized as protector of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. Harun died at Tus in eastern Persia on March 24, 809, during an expedition to restore order there.
Although the poet, thinking of some of the stories of the Arabian Nights, could speak of "the good Haroun Alraschid, " the scholar R. A. Nicholson thought he was rather "a perfidious and irascible tyrant, whose fitful amiability and real taste for music and letters hardly entitle him to be described either as a great monarch or a good man."
Yet with all its violence and cruelty and its readiness to have human beings executed and tortured, the court of Harun al-Rashid undoubtedly had something which later ages admire. It was far from being without a conscience, and in the quality of its living there were elements of grandeur and nobility of style; and the tone of this life was set by Harun and the Barmakids.
There is no recent scholarly work on Harun. E. H. Palmer, Harun Alraschid: Caliph of Bagdad (1881), is out of date. H. St. J. B. Philby, Harun al Rashid (1933), is popular but based on secondary sources. F. W. Buckler, Harunu'l-Rashid and Charles the Great (1931), deals in detail with the diplomatic exchanges between the monarchs. Nabia Abbott, Two Queens of Baghdad (1946), describes court life and shows the influence of Khayzuran, Harun's mother, and of Zubayda, his wife. There are also brief accounts in general histories. The stories about Harun may be found in translations of the Arabian Nights (or Thousand and One Nights), with great differences between different versions.
Glubb, John Bagot, Sir, Haroon al Rasheed and the great Abbasids, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976. □
Fifth abbasid khalifah
Zenith of Power . Harun al-Rashid was the fifth Abbasid khalifah (reigned 786–809) during whose rule the khilafah reached its zenith of wealth and power and also began to experience the symptoms and stirrings of provincial autonomy. The khilafah reached “the golden age” as Baghdad had become the wealthiest city in the world. Born in February 766, he was tutored in the arts of politics and culture by Yahya al-Barmaki. The khilafah was in good hands when Harun came to power (with al-Rashid as his title) and appointed Yahya the Barmakid as his Vizir (chief minister). Even though the territories were well administered and Baghdad was well respected, the far western provinces began to disengage from the center, especially Andalusia under the rule of the so-called Umayyads of Spain. This development invited correspondence and exchanges of gifts and ambassadors between Harun and Charlemagne to forge a strategy against their common enemies, the Umayyads and the Byzantines.
Cultural Achievements . During his reign Baghdad became a major cosmopolitan center attracting poets, literati, musicians, singers and other entertainers, physicians, and translators. Harun’s court attracted various cultural figures, such as the poet Abu Nuwwas and the musician Ziryab. It is said that Ziryab perfected the Oud, the pear-shaped wooden instrument with six double strings, at the court of Harun. (The Oud was later adapted to western music to become the lute.) The stories found in the Arabian Nights or The 1001 Nights, although composed and recorded centuries later, were loosely based on this vibrant period of Abbasid history.
Female Influence . Women seemed to have had a great deal of influence on Harun’s court as well as the culture of the day. Harun’s mother al-Khayzuran was instrumental in ensuring his succession to power. Harun’s wife Zubayda became well known for her own public activities and public-works projects, such as the construction of a fresh water aqueduct to supply Makkah from twenty-five miles away. Also, she had rest stops constructed along the pilgrimage route from Basrah to Makkah. This road became known as Darb Zubayda (Zubayda’s road) in the Middle Ages.
Protocol of Makkah. In the first years of the ninth century trouble began to appear between the provinces and Baghdad. The major issues in this conflict were the amount of provincial taxation to be forwarded to the capital city and the role of local elite in the administration of the provinces. It seems that Harun was the first khalifah to grant a hereditary governorship in the provinces when he allowed Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab and his descendants to rule the province of Ifriqiya (Tunis). To remedy the rapidly deteriorating situation, Harun proposed to divide the far-flung territories of the khilafah among his sons (similar to the solution reached among Charlemagne’s grandsons). The division, largely between al-Amin and al-Ma’mun, was recorded and solemnized by oaths in the shadow of the Ka’bah. The document, known as the Protocol of Makkah, was entrusted to the inner sanctum of the Ka’bah. Yet, this division eventually led to civil war between the two brothers and ushered in a period of instability that would lead to continued provincial autonomy. Harun al-Rashid died on 24 March 809 in eastern Iran while on his way to Merv, the provincial capital of the eastern-most province of Khurasan.
Andre Clot, Harun al-Rashid and The World of the Thousand and One Nights, translated by John Howe (London: Saqi, 1989).