Rashid, Harun Al- (C. 763 or 766–809)

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RASHID, HARUN AL- (C. 763 OR 766–809)

Harun al-Rashid (Aaron "The Rightly-Guided") was the fifth Abbasid caliph, who ruled the great Islamic empire from 786 to 809 during its zenith. A patron of learning and culture, he is known to the world through the tales of The Arabian Nights, which portray his court in Baghdad as a place of wealth and splendor.

Harun al-Rashid was born in 763 (or 766) in the city of al-Rayy, south of today's Tehran, the third son of the caliph Muhammad al-Mahdi ("the Well-Guided"). Harun's mother, al-Khayzuran, and his wife, Zubayda, played influential roles during his reign. Harun had eleven sons and twelve daughters; his sons al-Amin, al-Ma˒mun, and al-Mu˓tasim each in his turn became caliph.

Already as a teenager, Harun had led two military expeditions against the Byzantines. For his success on the battle-field, he was appointed governor of the provinces of northwest Africa (Ifriqiya), Egypt, Syria, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, although his tutor Yahya al-Barmaki was actually administrator. Harun then faced serious intrigues by his older half-brother and rival for the throne, Musa al-Hadi (Moses "the Guide"). After their father died, al-Hadi became ruler, but he died mysteriously after only one year in power. Al-Hadi's son was forced at the point of a sword to renounce the caliphate; Harun—still in his early twenties—received the ring of the caliphate and was proclaimed caliph. Following the advice of his mother, he entrusted the administration to his Iranian tutor, Yahya al-Barmaki, and the latter's family. The Barmakides assisted Harun in controlling his political rivals and Shi˓ite opponents, and in defeating major uprisings in the provinces: in Syria (796), Egypt (788, 794–795), northwest Africa (786, 794–795, 797), and the Yemen (795–804). However, the administrative body formed by the Barmakides soon became a state within the state, promoting the "Iranization" of the, until then, Arab-Islamic caliphate.

Throughout his reign, Harun personally led many military campaigns against the Byzantines and established a Muslim naval power (with raids on Cyprus in 805 and Rhodes in 807). He granted the request of the Roman emperor, Charles the Great (Charlemagne; r. 800–814), to ameliorate the conditions for European Christian visitors to Jerusalem and the Holy Land and exchanged embassies and precious gifts with him: For example, Harun sent Charles an elephant and a water-clock of curious design. In the last periods of his reign, Harun seems to have lacked the competence and energy he showed in earlier years. Deteriorated in health, Harun al-Rashid died on 24 March 809.

The picture that medieval Arabic scholarship presents of Harun is somewhat contradictory: pious, statesmanlike, and of remarkably mild countenances, on the one hand; and dissolute, incompetent, and lacking modesty in enjoying wine and other privileges claimed by the upper class, on the other. Nevertheless, the development of Islamic society benefited from Harun's enlightenment: He promoted commercial activities (as far as China), fine arts, poetry, literature, music, architecture, and the natural sciences. He reinforced law and order, secured state finances, and conducted major public construction projects. Yet, his reign marked a turning point for the Abbasid caliphate because the efficiency of administration began to decline and the political unity of the empire to disintegrate: Harun's diplomacy eventually failed to neutralize provincial dynasties and local rulers, and his decision to apportion the empire among three of his sons virtually precipitated its political decline.

See alsoCaliphate ; Empires: Abbasid .


Abbott, Nabia. Two Queens of Baghdad. Mother and Wife ofHarun al-Rashid. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Bosworth, C. E., trans. The ˓Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium. The Caliphates of Musa al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid. a.d. 785–809 / A.H. 169–193. Vol. 30 of The History of al-Tabari. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Clot, André. Harun al-Rashid and the World of the Thousand and One Nights. Trans. by J. Howe. London: Saqi Books, 1989.

El-Hibri, Tayeb. Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Harun al-Rashid and the Narrative of the Abbasid Caliphate. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Omar, Farid. "Harun al-Rashid." In Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by B. Lewis, et al. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971.

Sebastian Günther