Harun al-Rashid was the fifth Abbasid caliph who ruled from 786 to 809. He ruled during the Islamic Golden Age and was one of the most popular figures during that period. The fifth caliph established the Grand Library of Baghdad (Bayt al-Hikma), which is also referred to as the House of Wisdom. This started off a movement which later established the city as a center of culture and education. He encouraged cultural and religious practices during his rule. During the golden age, a fictional Arabic tale was composed, titled ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’ Some of the parts of the tale were set in his court and a few featured him as well. Harun al-Rashid was also featured in many other such popular folklores. Al-Rashid’s era saw the ‘Barmakids’, a popular Iranian family which helped establish the Abbasid Caliphate, gradually lose their popularity and eventually come to an end. The caliph formed a great relationship with Charlemagne, otherwise known as Charles the Great, through a ‘Frankish’ missionary and sent him several gifts, including a well-crafted clock with a mechanism never-seen-before at that time.
Childhood & Early Life
The exact date of Harun al-Rashid’s birth is not known, but according to various documents, he was born either on March 17, 763, or in February 766, in Ray, Jibal (currently in Tehran Province, Iran).
His father, Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah al-Mansur, was the third Abbasid caliph and his mother was Al-Khayzuran bint Atta. Despite being a slave girl before her marriage, Al-Rashid’s mother was a strong-willed woman who had great vision as an administrator.
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Becoming the Caliph
Harun al-Rashid became the fifth Abbasid caliph in 786 when he was around twenty years old. Despite being very young, al-Rashid didn’t take long to show his capabilities as a ruler.
He had learned a lot from his father and quickly reformed the ministry by appointing hard-working and visionary ministers. Soon, he began work to develop the cities and provided people with better resources.
Within ten years of becoming the caliph, al-Rashid moved his court to Raqqa, from there he would rule for the rest of his reign. It was argued that he moved to Raqqa due to several reasons, including its agricultural advantage.
Being in Raqqa helped him to control the Syrian rebellion and any potential threats from the middle Euphrates area as Raqqa was much closer to the Byzantine border.
Harun al-Rashid appointed many good and powerful people in important posts. Their individual qualities improved the state of affairs. The caliph appointed Muhammad al-Shaybani, a jurist from the Hanafi School, as the ‘Qadi’ (the magistrate or judge of a Sharia court).
Al-Rashid’s long-term associate and friend, Yahya bin Khalid, was made the ‘Wazir’ (or Vizier) by the caliph. Khalid was a very influential person of the ‘Barmakids’ and helped control the empire.
Yahya bin Khalid became very powerful under the caliph’s rule. He stood by the caliph, helped him rule the kingdom, and controlled the internal rebellion in Syria, Egypt, and Yemen. His son Jafar was also given an administrative post.
The Barmakids witnessed the rise of their lineage during al-Rashid’s reign but unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
Harun al-Rashid soon started to have differences with Yahya with regards to the latter’s disapproval of Muhammad ibn al Layth who was very highly regarded by the caliph.
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Yahya’s son Jafar fell in love with the caliph’s sister, Abbasa, which the caliph didn’t like. He, however, gave permission to the two to get married secretly but forbade them to give birth to an heir.
When Harun al-Rashid became aware of Jafar and Abbasa having a son, he immediately arrested Jafar and other Barmakids. Jafar was beheaded and the Barmakids were imprisoned. The caliph also confiscated the properties, lands and all the power of the Barmakids, initiating the end of the lineage.
Towards the beginning of the ninth century, Harun al-Rashid and Charles the Great, Emperor of the Romans, formed a great diplomatic bond. A Frankish mission carrying a message of friendship from the Roman emperor visited al-Rashid in 799. This initiated a number of exchanges of diplomatic messages between the two empires, and envoys from both sides visited each other’s courts.
Harun al-Rashid sent various gifts to the Roman emperor, some of which were symbolic of great craftsmanship. The most important and talked about gift al-Rashid sent was a “Clepsydra” or “Water Clock” which was a real work of genius.
At the mark of each hour, a bronze ball would drop into a bowl, making a particular sound and a metal replica of a knight would emerge from a little door. Such craftsmanship had never been seen before in Europe and is believed to have inspired many works of art in the Carolingian dynasty.
Al-Rashid’s strong ties with the Roman emperor brought Nikephoros I to his knees after he refused to pay tribute to the caliph. After the Abbasid invasion of Asia Minor, Nikephoros I, the Byzantine Emperor, signed a treaty that was not only humiliating for him, but also a demonstration of the powerful influence of the caliph.
Family & Personal Life
Harun al-Rashid had many wives, but the most important of them were Zubaidah bint Ja'far. Zubaidah was the daughter of Salsal, sister of Harun al-Rashid’s mother Al-Khayzuran. The caliph honoured Zubaidah by renaming the pilgrim road from Baghdad to Mecca and Medina as Darb Zubaidah.
He had many children, including Muhammad al-Amin and Abdallah al-Ma'mun.
The caliph and his wives lived a lavish life. He lived in an enormous royal palace which housed numerous servants, eunuchs, singing women, and mistresses. Gold, silver, and rare crystals were extensively used in royal ornaments. Singers, poets, and artists were regularly showered with costly gifts and ornaments from the royal family.
Harun al-Rashid had to move to Khorasan when Rafi ibn al-Layth, a Khurasani Arab noble, rebelled against the caliphate. He went to curb the rebellions and while travelling to Sanabad, a village in Tus, he became seriously ill. He died a few months later on March 24, 809, in Tus, and was buried in the Imam Reza Mosque, Mashhad.