Harun al-Rashid

Harun al-Rashid

Infobox Monarch | name =Harun al-Rashid
title =Caliph of Baghdad

reign =14 September 786 - 24 March 809
"15 Rabi' al-awwal 170AH - 3 Jumada al-thani 193AH"
coronation =
predecessor =Abu Abdullah Musa ibn Mahdi al-Hadi
successor =Muhammad ibn Harun al-Amin
heir =
consort =
issue =
dynasty =Abbasid
royal anthem =
father =Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi
mother =Al-Khayzuran
date of birth =birth date|763|3|17|mf=y
place of birth =Rayy / Tehran, Iran
date of death =death date and age|809|3|24|763|3|17|df=y
place of death = modern day Mahshad
place of burial=|

Hārūn al-Rashīd ( _ar. and Persian:هارون الرشيد ); also spelled Harun ar-Rashid; English: "Aaron the Upright", "Aaron the Just", or "Aaron the Rightly-Guided"; March 17, 763 – March 24, 809) was born in Rayy near Tehran, Iran and was the fifth and most famous Abbasid Caliph.

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 a library Bayt al-Hikma.

Since Harun was intellectually, politically and militarily resourceful, his life and the court over which he held sway have been the subject of many fictional 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 779. 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.


Hārūn was born in the Tehran province of Iran. Hārūn 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, his sons, and other Barmakids generally controlled the administration.

The Barmakids were a Persian family that 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 Ja'far and Harun's sister Abasa. [Tabari, v. 30, p. 201f.]

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 consumated 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. [http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/BAI_BAR/BARMECIDES.html]

This romantic story is highly doubted by Ibn Khaldun and most modern scholars. [See the translator's note on page 215 of at Tabari v. 30.] 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 of the 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 ar-Rashīd decided to move his court and the government to 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 al-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.

Hārūn gave great encouragement to learning, poetry and music. He was a scholar and poet himself and whenever he heard of learned men in his own kingdom, or in neighboring countries, he invited them to his court and treated them with respect. The name of Hārūn, therefore, became known throughout the world. At Tabari refers to the physician Mankah coming from India to treat Harun. [Tabari, v. 30m p. 313.] Harun had diplomatic relations with China and with Charlemagne.

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. Harun sent gifts in return. 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.

In military matters, Hārūn was an excellent soldier and showed this ability at a young age when his father was still caliph. He later commanded an army of 95,000 Arabs and Persians sent by his father to invade the Byzantine Empire, formerly the Eastern Roman Empire, which was then ruled by the Empress Irene. After defeating Irene's famous general, Nicetas, Harun marched his army to Chrysopolis (now Üsküdar in Turkey) on the Asiatic coast, opposite Constantinople. He encamped on the heights in full view of the Byzantine capital. [John H. Haaren, " [http://www.authorama.com/famous-men-of-the-middle-ages-13.html Famous Men of the Middle Ages] ".]

The Empress saw that the city would certainly be taken by the Muslims. She therefore sent ambassadors to Harun to arrange terms; but he sternly refused to agree to anything except immediate surrender. It is reported that then one of the ambassadors said,:The Empress has heard much of your ability as a general. Though you are her enemy, she admires you as a soldier.These flattering words were pleasing to Hārūn. He walked to and fro in front of his tent and then spoke again to the ambassadors.:Tell the Empress that I will spare Constantinople if she will pay me seventy thousand pieces of gold as a yearly tribute. If the tribute is regularly paid Constantinople shall not be harmed by any Muslim force.The Empress agreed to these terms. She paid the first year's tribute; and soon the great Muslim army set out on its homeward march. The tribute of gold that the Empress Irene agreed to pay Hārūn was sent regularly for many years. It was always received at Baghdad with great ceremony. The day on which it arrived was made a holiday. The Byzantine soldiers who came with it entered the gates in procession. Muslim troops also took part in the parade. When the gold had been delivered at the palace, the Byzantine soldiers were hospitably entertained, and were escorted to the main gate of the city when they set out on their journey back to Constantinople.

When empress Irene was deposed, Nicephorus became emperor and refused to pay tribute to Harun, saying that Irene should have been receiving the tribute the whole time. Then Harun became angry and said that Nicephorus would soon see his answer.

Harun sent and led other expeditions against the Byzantines, a notable one in 806 in which he commanded an army 135,000 men and forced the Byzantine Empire to pay him 50,000 gold pieces immediately and 30,000 gold pieces annually. In 797/798 he took a fortress called "The Willows" beyond the Cilician Gates. In 806/807 he captured Heraklia.

At Tabari describes Harun as devout, charitable, munificent, patron of poets and averse to religious disputes. His justice is extolled. In 804/805 during his stay in Rayy, Iran he investigated complaints against his Khurasani governor in Iran, Ali ibn Isa. On that occasion the governor satisfied him. In 806/807 further complaints against Ali ibn Isa resulted in the dispatch of a new governor, Harthamah, who arrested Isa, his sons and agents and returned Isa's excessive acquisitions to those wronged.

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." [Tabari, v. 30, p. 335.]

In 808 when Harun al-Rashid was passing through there to settle down the insurrection of "Rafi ibn Leith" in Transoxania, he became ill and died. He was buried under the palace of "Hamid ibn Qahtabi", the governor of Khorasan, Iran. The place later became known as Mashhad(the place of martyrdom) because of the martyrdom of Imam Reza in 818. [Zabeth (1999), p. 12f.]

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. [Al-Masudi, "The Meadows of Gold", p. 94.]

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.


*763: Hārūn is born on March 17, the son of Caliph al-Mahdi and the Yemeni slave girl al-Khayzuran.

*780: Hārūn is the nominal leader of military expeditions against the Byzantine Empire.

*782: Hārūn is nominal leader of a military campaign against the Byzantine Empire reaching as far as the Bosporus. A peace treaty is signed on favourable terms. Harun receives the honorific title "ar-Rashīd", named second in succession to the caliphal throne and also appointed governor of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

*786: September 14: Hārūn's brother al-Hadi dies under mysterious circumstances — it was rumoured that his mother al-Khayzuran was responsible. Hārūn becomes the new caliph and makes Yahya the Barmakid his Grand Vizier - but al-Khayzuran exercised much influence over the politics.

*789: al-Khayzuran dies, leaving more of the effective power in the hands of Hārūn.

*791: Hārūn wages war against the Byzantine Empire.

*795: To prevent Shiite rebellions, Hārūn imprison Musa al-Kazim, the Shiite imam.

*796: Hārūn moves the Imperial residence and the government from Baghdad to ar-Raqqah.

*799: Hārūn orders Sindi ibn Shahiq to poison the 7th Shiite Imam Musa al-Kazim, causing the death of the Shiite leader in prison, four years after having been imprisoned by Hārūn.

*800: Hārūn appoints Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab governor over Tunisia, making him a semi-autonomous ruler in return for substantial yearly payments.

*802: Hārūn gives two albino elephants to Charlemagne as a diplomatic gift.

*803: Yahya dies, and even more of effective power comes in the hands of Hārūn.

*807: Hārūn's forces occupy Cyprus.

*809: Lead 5 expeditions against Abdurrahman Ad-Dakhil in Cyprus, wins the first battle in the north of Cyprus. Attacked by Ali An-Zabuhn while praying on Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, received injuries to his eyes. He died on November 30 after being injured for 1 day.

Hārūn is widely considered the greatest of the Abbasid "caliph"s, presiding over the Arab Empire at its political and cultural peak. Consequently, Islamic literature (the work of ibn Kathir, for example) has raised him to the level of an ideal figure, a great military and intellectual leader, even a paragon for future rulers to emulate. His best-known portrayal in the West, in the stories of the Thousand and One Nights, has little basis in historical fact, but does show the mythic stature he has attained over time.

Popular culture and references


*Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem which started :One day Haroun Al-Raschid read:A book wherein the poet said:Where are the kings and where the rest:Of those who once the world possessed?

*Alfred Tennyson wrote a poem in his youth entitled "Recollections Of The Arabian Nights". Every stanza (except the last one) ends with "of good Haroun Alraschid".
*Harun al-Rashid was a main figure and character throughout several of the stories of some of the oldest versions of the 1001 Nights
*Hārūn ar-Rashīd figures throughout James Joyce's "Ulysses", in a dream of Stephen Dedalus, one of the protagonists. Stephen's efforts to recall this dream continue throughout the novel, culminating in the novel's fifteenth episode, wherein some characters also take on the guise of Hārūn.
*Harun al-Rashid is also celebrated in the 1923 poem by W.B. Yeats "The Gift of Harun al-Rashid".
*Harun al-Rashid is noted in Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" by the character Korovyov.
*The two protagonists of Salman Rushdie's 1990 novel "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" are Haroun and his father Rashid Khalifa.
*Harun al-Rashid, as portrayed in 1001 nights is used as a role-model for the character Jinny Hamilton, the young heiress to the solar system-wide Conrad empire, in Spider Robinson's novel Variable Star.


*The movie The Golden Blade (1952), starring Rock Hudson and Piper Laurie depicts the adventures of "Harun" who uses a magic sword to free a fairy-tale Bagdad from Jafar, the evil usurper of the throne. After he finally wins the hand of princess Khairuzan she awards him the title Al-Rashid.


*The comic book "The Sandman" issue 50 featured a story (No. 50, "Ramadan") set in the world of the "Arabian Nights", with Hārūn ar-Rashīd as the protagonist. The story is included in the collection "".
*Haroun El Poussah in the French comic strip "Iznogoud" is a satirical version of Hārūn ar-Rashīd.
*The graphic novel "Dschinn Dschinn" by Ralf König has as its backstory the delegation from Harun bringing gifts to Charlemagne.
*He appear in Doraemon long story, Dorabian Night when Doraemon and his friends first came to Baghdad


*In "Quest for Glory II", the sultan who adopts the Hero as his son is named Hārūn ar-Rashīd. He is often seen prophesizing on the streets of Shapeir as The Poet Omar.


*Future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, when he was a New York Police Department Commissioner, was called in the local newspapers "Haroun-al-Roosevelt" for his habit of lonely all-night rambles on the streets of Manhattan, surreptitiously catching police officers off their posts. (Harun al-Rashid is said in the 1001 Nights to have wandered Baghdad at night dressed as merchant in order to observe the lives of his subjects).


References and further reading

*al-Masudi, The Meadows of Gold, The Abbasids, transl. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, Kegan paul, London and New York, 1989

* al-Tabari "The History of al-Tabari" volume XXX "The 'Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium" transl. C.E. Bosworth, SUNY, Albany, 1989.

*Andre Clot "Harun Al-Rashid and the Age of a Thousand and One Nights"

*Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, "Two Lives of Charlemagne," transl. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1977 (1969)

* John H. Haaren, "Famous Men of the Middle Ages" [http://www.authorama.com/famous-men-of-the-middle-ages-13.html]

* William Muir, K.C.S.I., "The Caliphate, its rise, decline, and fall" [http://www.answering-islam.org/Books/Muir/Caliphate/]

*Theophanes, "The Chronicle of Theophanes," transl. Harry Turtledove, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1982

*cite book | last=Norwich| first=John J. | title=Byzantium: The Apogee | publisher=Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. | year=1991 | isbn=0-394-53779-3

* cite book | last=Zabeth | first=Hyder Reza | title=Landmarks of Mashhad
publisher=Alhoda UK | year=1999 | id=ISBN 9644442210

* هارون الرشيد.. والعصر الذهبي للدولة العباسية - [http://www.islamonline.net/arabic/history/1422/06/article06.shtml]

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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