• Fri. Aug 6th, 2021

Harun al-Rashid | 775CE – 809CE

Harun al-Rashid is, without a doubt, the most famous caliph. Even those who don’t know anything about Islamic history know the name of Harun al-Rashid. Most of what we think we know about him comes more from exotic imagination and the Arabian Nights than from actual history. Whenever someone talks about a good leader in the Islamic World, Harun is almost always one of the people they’re thinking about – a just and stern autocrat. Still, no one has ever been able to live up to that man, not even the real Harun.
Before we talk about Harun and his Golden Prime, let’s talk about his predecessors, who pulled Harun, a shy just-let-me-sleep kind of guy, into the politics of the Abbasid Caliphate. Harun was born in or around the year 766CE in the city of Rayy, near what is today, Tehran. His father, Muhammad, was serving as the viceroy of the east there. It was during the reign of his grandfather, al-Mansur. al-Mansur passed away at the end of 775CE, leaving the empire, peacefully, to Muhammad who took the title of “al-Mahdi” which was a deeply religious title. He was in his early thirties while Harun was around 11 or 12 years of age.


Al-Mahdi was much more easy-going than his calculating father had been. He loved poetry and the company of women. Yet, he also continued his father’s tradition of leading Friday prayer and even held court to listen to people’s petitions. He was approachable which shows us how the Abbasid caliph, at least at that point in time, thought of themselves. He forced his governors to pray with the people as well instead of praying in private chambers in the mosque. In this way, he was somewhat traditionally pious.
His reign was pretty normal and calm. It was mostly a continuation of his father’s reign. He inherited his father’s bureaucracy and establishment and he went with it. The most remarkable thing about his reign was his plan of succession. al-Mahdi was fairly young when he became caliph but even young people died unexpectedly. So, he chose an heir pretty early on. Well, an heir AND a spare. He chose two of his sons, Musa and Harun as his heirs. Musa was to succeed al-Mahdi and Harun was to succeed Musa.
Al-Mahdi had spent his first year as caliph, 776CE on some construction projects, mosques and palaces mostly. The second year, he took a pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah. His father had soured relations between the Abbasids, the Alids and the people of the Holy Cities. al-Mahdi wanted to fix that. He went to the holy cities with his sons and talked to the people there. He expanded both Holy Mosques. He was told that the Kaaba was close to collapsing. The reason was that ever since Abd al-Malik, a great cloth was put on top of the Kaaba. The old ones weren’t removed and the new ones were just piled on top. It had become too heavy. al-Mahdi ordered them to be removed. One by one, those clothes were removed. Can you imagine that? Almost 100 years of history in fabrics. Must’ve been quite a sight.
In Madinah, al-Mahdi sought to restore the original simplicity of the Mosque of the Prophet. One interesting story about it is that the original minbar of Prophet Muhammad, on which he stood to deliver his sermon, had been altered by Muawiyah. al-Mahdi wanted those alterations removed to restore the primitive simplicity. However, he was told that to do that would destroy the whole minbar and al-Mahdi was forced to back down.
In addition to all this, al-Mahdi declared his succession plan to the people of the Holy Cities, made them take the oath of allegiance to his sons and distributed incredible amounts of gold amongst the people. As you might say gold is good, so the people really liked al-Mahdi and old wounds began to heal. The gold that he distributed was around half-a-million gold dinar. 300,000 of which came from Egypt, the rest 200,000 from Yemen.


Al-Mahdi was determined to groom his sons. He sent them on expeditions. al-Mahdi himself had grown up, well, like a prince but he tried to encourage his sons to make their own allies and supporters. The older one, Musa was eager in these matters but Harun was kind of shy. He was his mother’s beloved and preferred to just sit under a tree on a calm afternoon than to engage with the bustle at the court. Nevertheless, his father handpicked Yahya ibn Khalid ibn Barmak to be his tutor. In 780CE, when Harun must’ve been no older than 16, he led a campaign against the Byzantine Empire.

Campaigns against the Byzantine Empire were almost an annual tradition at this point. The Muslims would gather an army and volunteers and just raid Southern Anatolia. It wasn’t all that serious except for, you know, the people who died. This campaign, which was to be led by the Prince, was a more serious business, though. The caliph himself came from Baghdad to help the prince. Harun being kind of shy wasn’t really into the campaign and it was at this point that his father’s establishment started thinking of him as a joke. Even the older members of the dynasty considered him no one to take too seriously. Nevertheless, the campaign was a moderate success. They took a lot of Christian prisoners and resettled them in Baghdad. The church built for their community came to be known as Dayr al-Rum, the monastery for the Byzantines.
A similar but much larger campaign was sent two years later as well, in which, it’s said, Empress Irene herself sued for peace because Harun was harassing cities near the Bosporus. An interesting thing about these campaigns, they were a tricky act of balance. If the Muslims sent a small army, it would risk facing an imperial army. If they sent a large army, they would have trouble with the supplies. In this case, Harun asked the Empress to make the markets in Anatolia available to them on the way back. The gains were nothing compared to the cost of the expedition but the Caliph was teaching his son. Actually, both of his sons. While Harun was leading armies, Musa was back home in Baghdad administering the realm.
Just three years later, in 785CE, Musa got that job permanently. The circumstances of al-Mahdi’s death are mysterious. It was in August 785, al-Mahdi was away from Baghdad. He either died on a hunting trip where his startled horse threw him into a brick arch. Or, and here’s the most sinister version, he died after eating a poisoned piece of fruit which one of his concubines had left for another one of his concubines. The real version of events is probably somewhere in between. Harun is said to have led the funeral prayer so he might’ve been with him, but nothing is clear.

Harun al-Rashid is, without a doubt, the most famous caliph. Even those who don’t know anything about Islamic history know the name of Harun al-Rashid. Most of what we think we know about him comes more from exotic imagination and the Arabian Nights than from actual history. Whenever someone talks about a good leader in the Islamic World, Harun is almost always one of the people they’re thinking about – a just and stern autocrat. Still, no one has ever been able to live up to that man, not even the real Harun.
Before we talk about Harun and his Golden Prime, let’s talk about his predecessors, who pulled Harun, a shy just-let-me-sleep kind of guy, into the politics of the Abbasid Caliphate. Harun was born in or around the year 766CE in the city of Rayy, near what is today, Tehran. His father, Muhammad, was serving as the viceroy of the east there. It was during the reign of his grandfather, al-Mansur. al-Mansur passed away at the end of 775CE, leaving the empire, peacefully, to Muhammad who took the title of “al-Mahdi” which was a deeply religious title. He was in his early thirties while Harun was around 11 or 12 years of age.
Al-Mahdi was much more easy-going than his calculating father had been. He loved poetry and the company of women. Yet, he also continued his father’s tradition of leading Friday prayer and even held court to listen to people’s petitions. He was approachable which shows us how the Abbasid caliph, at least at that point in time, thought of themselves. He forced his governors to pray with the people as well instead of praying in private chambers in the mosque. In this way, he was somewhat traditionally pious.
His reign was pretty normal and calm. It was mostly a continuation of his father’s reign. He inherited his father’s bureaucracy and establishment and he went with it. The most remarkable thing about his reign was his plan of succession. al-Mahdi was fairly young when he became caliph but even young people died unexpectedly. So, he chose an heir pretty early on. Well, an heir AND a spare. He chose two of his sons, Musa and Harun as his heirs. Musa was to succeed al-Mahdi and Harun was to succeed Musa.
Al-Mahdi had spent his first year as caliph, 776CE on some construction projects, mosques and palaces mostly. The second year, he took a pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah. His father had soured relations between the Abbasids, the Alids and the people of the Holy Cities. al-Mahdi wanted to fix that. He went to the holy cities with his sons and talked to the people there. He expanded both Holy Mosques. He was told that the Kaaba was close to collapsing. The reason was that ever since Abd al-Malik, a great cloth was put on top of the Kaaba. The old ones weren’t removed and the new ones were just piled on top. It had become too heavy. al-Mahdi ordered them to be removed. One by one, those clothes were removed. Can you imagine that? Almost 100 years of history in fabrics. Must’ve been quite a sight.
In Madinah, al-Mahdi sought to restore the original simplicity of the Mosque of the Prophet. One interesting story about it is that the original minbar of Prophet Muhammad, on which he stood to deliver his sermon, had been altered by Muawiyah. al-Mahdi wanted those alterations removed to restore the primitive simplicity. However, he was told that to do that would destroy the whole minbar and al-Mahdi was forced to back down.
In addition to all this, al-Mahdi declared his succession plan to the people of the Holy Cities, made them take the oath of allegiance to his sons and distributed incredible amounts of gold amongst the people. As you might say gold is good, so the people really liked al-Mahdi and old wounds began to heal. The gold that he distributed was around half-a-million gold dinar. 300,000 of which came from Egypt, the rest 200,000 from Yemen.
Al-Mahdi was determined to groom his sons. He sent them on expeditions. al-Mahdi himself had grown up, well, like a prince but he tried to encourage his sons to make their own allies and supporters. The older one, Musa was eager in these matters but Harun was kind of shy. He was his mother’s beloved and preferred to just sit under a tree on a calm afternoon than to engage with the bustle at the court. Nevertheless, his father handpicked Yahya ibn Khalid ibn Barmak to be his tutor. In 780CE, when Harun must’ve been no older than 16, he led a campaign against the Byzantine Empire.
Campaigns against the Byzantine Empire were almost an annual tradition at this point. The Muslims would gather an army and volunteers and just raid Southern Anatolia. It wasn’t all that serious except for, you know, the people who died. This campaign, which was to be led by the Prince, was a more serious business, though. The caliph himself came from Baghdad to help the prince. Harun being kind of shy wasn’t really into the campaign and it was at this point that his father’s establishment started thinking of him as a joke. Even the older members of the dynasty considered him no one to take too seriously. Nevertheless, the campaign was a moderate success. They took a lot of Christian prisoners and resettled them in Baghdad. The church built for their community came to be known as Dayr al-Rum, the monastery for the Byzantines.
A similar but much larger campaign was sent two years later as well, in which, it’s said, Empress Irene herself sued for peace because Harun was harassing cities near the Bosporus. An interesting thing about these campaigns, they were a tricky act of balance. If the Muslims sent a small army, it would risk facing an imperial army. If they sent a large army, they would have trouble with the supplies. In this case, Harun asked the Empress to make the markets in Anatolia available to them on the way back. The gains were nothing compared to the cost of the expedition but the Caliph was teaching his son. Actually, both of his sons. While Harun was leading armies, Musa was back home in Baghdad administering the realm.
Just three years later, in 785CE, Musa got that job permanently. The circumstances of al-Mahdi’s death are mysterious. It was in August 785, al-Mahdi was away from Baghdad. He either died on a hunting trip where his startled horse threw him into a brick arch. Or, and here’s the most sinister version, he died after eating a poisoned piece of fruit which one of his concubines had left for another one of his concubines. The real version of events is probably somewhere in between. Harun is said to have led the funeral prayer so he might’ve been with him, but nothing is clear.

Harun al-Rashid is, without a doubt, the most famous caliph. Even those who don’t know anything about Islamic history know the name of Harun al-Rashid. Most of what we think we know about him comes more from exotic imagination and the Arabian Nights than from actual history. Whenever someone talks about a good leader in the Islamic World, Harun is almost always one of the people they’re thinking about – a just and stern autocrat. Still, no one has ever been able to live up to that man, not even the real Harun.
Before we talk about Harun and his Golden Prime, let’s talk about his predecessors, who pulled Harun, a shy just-let-me-sleep kind of guy, into the politics of the Abbasid Caliphate. Harun was born in or around the year 766CE in the city of Rayy, near what is today, Tehran. His father, Muhammad, was serving as the viceroy of the east there. It was during the reign of his grandfather, al-Mansur. al-Mansur passed away at the end of 775CE, leaving the empire, peacefully, to Muhammad who took the title of “al-Mahdi” which was a deeply religious title. He was in his early thirties while Harun was around 11 or 12 years of age.
Al-Mahdi was much more easy-going than his calculating father had been. He loved poetry and the company of women. Yet, he also continued his father’s tradition of leading Friday prayer and even held court to listen to people’s petitions. He was approachable which shows us how the Abbasid caliph, at least at that point in time, thought of themselves. He forced his governors to pray with the people as well instead of praying in private chambers in the mosque. In this way, he was somewhat traditionally pious.
His reign was pretty normal and calm. It was mostly a continuation of his father’s reign. He inherited his father’s bureaucracy and establishment and he went with it. The most remarkable thing about his reign was his plan of succession. al-Mahdi was fairly young when he became caliph but even young people died unexpectedly. So, he chose an heir pretty early on. Well, an heir AND a spare. He chose two of his sons, Musa and Harun as his heirs. Musa was to succeed al-Mahdi and Harun was to succeed Musa.
Al-Mahdi had spent his first year as caliph, 776CE on some construction projects, mosques and palaces mostly. The second year, he took a pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah. His father had soured relations between the Abbasids, the Alids and the people of the Holy Cities. al-Mahdi wanted to fix that. He went to the holy cities with his sons and talked to the people there. He expanded both Holy Mosques. He was told that the Kaaba was close to collapsing. The reason was that ever since Abd al-Malik, a great cloth was put on top of the Kaaba. The old ones weren’t removed and the new ones were just piled on top. It had become too heavy. al-Mahdi ordered them to be removed. One by one, those clothes were removed. Can you imagine that? Almost 100 years of history in fabrics. Must’ve been quite a sight.
In Madinah, al-Mahdi sought to restore the original simplicity of the Mosque of the Prophet. One interesting story about it is that the original minbar of Prophet Muhammad, on which he stood to deliver his sermon, had been altered by Muawiyah. al-Mahdi wanted those alterations removed to restore the primitive simplicity. However, he was told that to do that would destroy the whole minbar and al-Mahdi was forced to back down.
In addition to all this, al-Mahdi declared his succession plan to the people of the Holy Cities, made them take the oath of allegiance to his sons and distributed incredible amounts of gold amongst the people. As you might say gold is good, so the people really liked al-Mahdi and old wounds began to heal. The gold that he distributed was around half-a-million gold dinar. 300,000 of which came from Egypt, the rest 200,000 from Yemen.
Al-Mahdi was determined to groom his sons. He sent them on expeditions. al-Mahdi himself had grown up, well, like a prince but he tried to encourage his sons to make their own allies and supporters. The older one, Musa was eager in these matters but Harun was kind of shy. He was his mother’s beloved and preferred to just sit under a tree on a calm afternoon than to engage with the bustle at the court. Nevertheless, his father handpicked Yahya ibn Khalid ibn Barmak to be his tutor. In 780CE, when Harun must’ve been no older than 16, he led a campaign against the Byzantine Empire.
Campaigns against the Byzantine Empire were almost an annual tradition at this point. The Muslims would gather an army and volunteers and just raid Southern Anatolia. It wasn’t all that serious except for, you know, the people who died. This campaign, which was to be led by the Prince, was a more serious business, though. The caliph himself came from Baghdad to help the prince. Harun being kind of shy wasn’t really into the campaign and it was at this point that his father’s establishment started thinking of him as a joke. Even the older members of the dynasty considered him no one to take too seriously. Nevertheless, the campaign was a moderate success. They took a lot of Christian prisoners and resettled them in Baghdad. The church built for their community came to be known as Dayr al-Rum, the monastery for the Byzantines.
A similar but much larger campaign was sent two years later as well, in which, it’s said, Empress Irene herself sued for peace because Harun was harassing cities near the Bosporus. An interesting thing about these campaigns, they were a tricky act of balance. If the Muslims sent a small army, it would risk facing an imperial army. If they sent a large army, they would have trouble with the supplies. In this case, Harun asked the Empress to make the markets in Anatolia available to them on the way back. The gains were nothing compared to the cost of the expedition but the Caliph was teaching his son. Actually, both of his sons. While Harun was leading armies, Musa was back home in Baghdad administering the realm.
Just three years later, in 785CE, Musa got that job permanently. The circumstances of al-Mahdi’s death are mysterious. It was in August 785, al-Mahdi was away from Baghdad. He either died on a hunting trip where his startled horse threw him into a brick arch. Or, and here’s the most sinister version, he died after eating a poisoned piece of fruit which one of his concubines had left for another one of his concubines. The real version of events is probably somewhere in between. Harun is said to have led the funeral prayer so he might’ve been with him, but nothing is clear.
Musa was in Jurjan where he was the Governor. He came to the capital and was ascended to the caliph. He took the title of al-Hadi. He was the military’s favourite who were anxious about Harun and his supporters. Harun, however, just wanted to retire to a private life with Zubayda, his new Bride. However, both sides had powerful people who were trying to pull the strings of the caliphate. The Barmakids, who had invested so heavily in Harun, wanted him to maintain an active political life. The military, on the other hand, were incredibly suspicious of the cold and calculating Barmakids. They didn’t believe Harun to be a serious man which went back to the expeditions. This went so far that the military leaders convinced al-Hadi to change the plan of succession from Harun to his own son, Ja’far who was a very young boy. This would’ve been a huge deal if al-Hadi had undertaken it. So many people had sworn the oath of allegiance to Harun as the heir. Some people were definitely alienated by the rumours of the Caliph’s change of succession.
One of those people was the Queen Mother, Khayzuran. She had been a fairly powerful figure. Whenever the caliph was away, the elites at Baghdad would take their orders from her. Even when al-Hadi ascended to the caliphate this continued. The caliph was angry and not-so-subtly, told the elites to stop visiting the Queen Mother saying, “What business do women have discussing men’s matters?” and the Queen certainly didn’t like that al-Hadi was pushing her beloved Harun out of succession.
In September 786, al-Hadi died. Some say, from natural causes. Some say a slave girl suffocated him by putting a pillow on his face and sitting on it. A girl sitting on your face, not the worst way to die. What makes it particularly painful is that it might’ve been ordered by his mother. The death was kept a secret. The Queen quickly assembled the Barmakids who woke Harun in the middle of the night. Harun thought his brother was having his arrested and panicked. The young prince Ja’far, al-Hadi’s son was put under arrest by the Queen. Harun was brought to her along with the elites who swore allegiance to the new caliph. Hence Prince Harun became Caliph Harun al-Rashid, “the rightly guided”.
The next few years were fairly uneventful. al-Tabari, who could dedicate hundreds of pages to a single war, was very brief about these years. The caliph lived a comfortable and peaceful life. The Barmakids dealt with the day to day administration stuff and would often receive orders from the Queen Mother. Yahya, Harun’s mentor, was made vizier. His two sons, Fadl and Ja’far became very important at the court as well. They were both close to Harun in age. Ja’far was even Harun’s closest friend and drinking buddy. Fadl was installed as the governor of Khurasan in 794CE. A very successful governor, he improved the province a lot, increased its revenue and made a huge amount of money himself.
In literature, we find both Barmakid men enjoying their moments of glory. Ja’far is the companion of Harun in the Arabian Nights. He goes on adventures with his friend and they’re both inseparable. Fadl, on the other hand, is remembered for his money and his generosity. He gave away millions of Dinars to the people. Meanwhile, their father ran the court, very effectively, I might add. Harun enjoyed this peace and calm. He didn’t have to worry about the problems while money flooded into Baghdad. His role became somewhat ceremonial. He made pilgrimage to Makkah around eight times as Caliph. More than any other caliph. His qalansuwa famously had the words, “The warrior and the pilgrim” written on it. Pointing to both his pilgrimages and his campaigns. Both of which were hugely publicized events.
Justin Marozzi writes in Islamic Empires…
At the very pinnacle of Baghdad society with Harun was his wife and cousin Zubayda. Even without her royal marriage to the most powerful man alive, she was a formidable character. As granddaughter of Mansur, Zubayda was of royal blood, immensely wealthy and well educated in religion, poetry and literature. She won lasting fame on two counts: first for her unrivalled displays of luxury, second for her charitable and religious activities. Harun’s Baghdad was a temple of conspicuous consumption and no one was more conspicuous than Zubayda. It was said that during the most important court ceremonies she was so laden with gold and precious stones that two servants were required simply to help her stand upright. At her wedding to Harun in 781 she was given ‘precious stones, jewellery, diadems and tiaras, silver and gold palanquins, scents, clothes, servants and maids of honour’, together with a priceless waistcoat encrusted with rows of large rubies and pearls, booty seized from the Umayyads at the fall of Damascus in 750. Huge sums of money were distributed among the awestruck guests, gold dinars in silver bowls and silver dirhams in golden bowls, bags of musk and ambergris, expensive perfumes in glass bottles and richly coloured robes of honour woven with gold. ‘Nothing comparable had ever been seen in Islamic times.’ A staggering 50 million dinars was spent on the ceremony from the private treasury alone, with more coming from Harun’s own purse.
Funny enough, today, we can’t even imagine Harun without Baghdad and Baghdad without Harun. However, he spent remarkably little time there. He seemed eager to get out of there. Almost since the start of his reign, Harun had been looking for another place to found a city. He even called Baghdad “the Steam Room” because of the heat. He looked for locations to found a new city in the Zagros Mountains but abandoned the project. Then he looked to Hira, which was the ancient capital of the Lakhmids, a legendary pre-Islamic Arab dynasty. This was near Kufa and Harun decided that its ancient glory was spoiled by its proximity to the tiresome people of Kufa. Harun finally decided on Raqqa which became his unofficial capital. The city, an ancient Byzantine settlement, had been rebuilt by his grandfather, al-Mansur.
In 792, Harun had his succession plan laid out. He chose his son Muhammad, a mere five-year-old as his heir and made his people swear allegiance to the boy. The matter was forced on Harun by the establishment. Muhammad’s mother was princess Zubayda, Harun’s beloved wife. She was an Abbasid princess herself and her father had been an important figure so she was very rich and influential in her own right. On top of that, Fadl Barmakid was convinced, apparently, by members of the Abbasid family to use his influence to install Muhammad as the heir. Fadl, convinced that this boy would be the best way to secure Barmakid influence for the next generation, spent millions to get the military to swear allegiance to Muhammad. Harun, still relatively young, now had an heir.
In 798, Harun arranged for a spare. Abdullah, another one of his sons, was chosen as the heir of Muhammad. Just as Harun himself had been chosen as his brother’s heir. His mother was probably a member of the Khorasani nobility. Harun realized that court intrigue might cause problems in the plan of succession after him, so he drew an agreement. In 802, he went on a pilgrimage to Makkah and took his two sons along just as his father had done with him and his brother. In ceremonies similar to before, Harun donated loads of gold to the people of the holy cities. Then, Harun displayed his arrangement to the people. The agreement had the following points. First, Muhammad would be succeeded by Abdullah even if he had sons of his own. Muhammad would also respect Abdullah’s autonomous rule over Khorasan province. Abdullah would be given access to caliphal institutions like the postal service. Abdullah, in return, would provide him with his forces if needed. If Muhammad broke any clause of this agreement, he would be abdicating his throne to Abdullah. Not only were the people of the holy cities sworn over this agreement, the agreement was signed by the princes and hung inside Kaaba, this was quite something the Islamic world had never seen before. God himself was now watching over the sanctity of the agreement. No way this would cause trouble in the future.
In 803 after he returned from the pilgrimage, Harun did something unthinkable. Overnight, he destroyed the Barmakids. He ordered the arrest of both Fadl and Yahya, his own mentor. A man he had called to be like a father to him. These two would never regain their freedom. Ja’far, Harun’s dear friend, was met by Masrur, Harun’s executioner. As he was dragged to be executed, he begged Masrur to ask Harun again insisting that Harun only ordered it because he was drunk out of his senses. According to one version, Masrur went to Harun to confirm the order. Harun told him if he returned without Ja’far’s head, he would send someone else to collect his head along with Ja’far ‘s. Ja’far was executed and his body was cut into pieces and displayed on Baghdad’s bridges.
There are many versions of this story and many explanations as to why Harun destroyed the Barmakids. However, not much is clear about it. Every historian who has noted this story usually gives his own explanation for it. Keeping with that tradition, I’ll give my own which is not exactly my own. The reason that makes the most sense to me is that Harun was resentful of the power of the Barmakids. He was shy and the establishment didn’t take him very seriously. For the first three years of his reign, his mother was controlling almost everything. Then the Barmakids. While Harun’s orders were never rejected, Harun could feel that he wasn’t as powerful as he liked to think he was. I think it became especially apparent to him when he had to choose Muhammad as his heir because of the establishment’s pressure. He preferred Abdullah and not being able to choose him must’ve made him feel powerless. On top of everything, the Barmakids had almost an entire court culture of their own. They were patrons to many poets and intellectuals. Something just snapped inside Harun. Whatever the reason might be what we know for sure is that winter came for the house of Barmak and all of Baghdad paid for it. Poets lost their patrons, the government grinded to a halt. Famously, the offices became full of piles of unopened letters. Fadl ibn Rabi, the new chief administrator tried to restore balance but it was a slow process.
Balance was eventually restored and Harun even led campaigns into Anatolia. His last great political act was to depose the governor of Khorasan. He sent his son Abdullah there to rule as governor. He was on his way there as well when he fell sick near Tus. On March 24th, 809CE, Caliph Harun al-Rashid passed away. He was in his late forties. He was succeeded by Caliph Muhammad who took the title of al-Amin.
I want to end with a note of Harun al-Rashid and his legacy. The name itself, first of all, is peculiar because no other Abbasid caliph is remembered by both his royal title and his actual given name. Harun was flawed in many ways. The golden era that we imagine today, only comes with the benefit of hindsight. No one who lives in a golden era ever thinks that they’re living in one. Perhaps his era looks like that because it was followed by, spoiler alert, a bloody and long civil war. One that, without any argument, Harun had engineered. Even though his intentions were the exact opposite. Whatever his role in the political future of the Abbasid caliphate, his role in the so-called Islamic Golden Age cannot be exaggerated. Believe me, I’ve tried but that’s a story for another time.
It’s fun, nevertheless, to imagine the era of Harun, the Harun of the Arabian Nights. The caliph who used to go out in disguise to see how his people were doing. A man who used to go on adventures with his viziers. A man who cannot be separated from Baghdad. A man who enjoyed the company of poets and storytellers, all settled around him, sitting on a carpet with pillows behind their backs and fruit and wine being served in plates and chalices of gold. Those stories and anecdotes, while far from accurate, serve a very important purpose. They tell us about how people thought about his time looking back and perhaps felt envious of those who lived in his time. You can’t blame them. For it was in the golden prime… Of good Haroun Alraschid.
See you next time.


Musa was in Jurjan where he was the Governor. He came to the capital and was ascended to the caliph. He took the title of al-Hadi. He was the military’s favourite who were anxious about Harun and his supporters. Harun, however, just wanted to retire to a private life with Zubayda, his new Bride. However, both sides had powerful people who were trying to pull the strings of the caliphate. The Barmakids, who had invested so heavily in Harun, wanted him to maintain an active political life. The military, on the other hand, were incredibly suspicious of the cold and calculating Barmakids. They didn’t believe Harun to be a serious man which went back to the expeditions. This went so far that the military leaders convinced al-Hadi to change the plan of succession from Harun to his own son, Ja’far who was a very young boy. This would’ve been a huge deal if al-Hadi had undertaken it. So many people had sworn the oath of allegiance to Harun as the heir. Some people were definitely alienated by the rumours of the Caliph’s change of succession.
One of those people was the Queen Mother, Khayzuran. She had been a fairly powerful figure. Whenever the caliph was away, the elites at Baghdad would take their orders from her. Even when al-Hadi ascended to the caliphate this continued. The caliph was angry and not-so-subtly, told the elites to stop visiting the Queen Mother saying, “What business do women have discussing men’s matters?” and the Queen certainly didn’t like that al-Hadi was pushing her beloved Harun out of succession.
In September 786, al-Hadi died. Some say, from natural causes. Some say a slave girl suffocated him by putting a pillow on his face and sitting on it. A girl sitting on your face, not the worst way to die. What makes it particularly painful is that it might’ve been ordered by his mother. The death was kept a secret. The Queen quickly assembled the Barmakids who woke Harun in the middle of the night. Harun thought his brother was having his arrested and panicked. The young prince Ja’far, al-Hadi’s son was put under arrest by the Queen. Harun was brought to her along with the elites who swore allegiance to the new caliph. Hence Prince Harun became Caliph Harun al-Rashid, “the rightly guided”.
The next few years were fairly uneventful. al-Tabari, who could dedicate hundreds of pages to a single war, was very brief about these years. The caliph lived a comfortable and peaceful life. The Barmakids dealt with the day to day administration stuff and would often receive orders from the Queen Mother. Yahya, Harun’s mentor, was made vizier. His two sons, Fadl and Ja’far became very important at the court as well. They were both close to Harun in age. Ja’far was even Harun’s closest friend and drinking buddy. Fadl was installed as the governor of Khurasan in 794CE. A very successful governor, he improved the province a lot, increased its revenue and made a huge amount of money himself.
In literature, we find both Barmakid men enjoying their moments of glory. Ja’far is the companion of Harun in the Arabian Nights. He goes on adventures with his friend and they’re both inseparable. Fadl, on the other hand, is remembered for his money and his generosity. He gave away millions of Dinars to the people. Meanwhile, their father ran the court, very effectively, I might add. Harun enjoyed this peace and calm. He didn’t have to worry about the problems while money flooded into Baghdad. His role became somewhat ceremonial. He made pilgrimage to Makkah around eight times as Caliph. More than any other caliph. His qalansuwa famously had the words, “The warrior and the pilgrim” written on it. Pointing to both his pilgrimages and his campaigns. Both of which were hugely publicized events.
Justin Marozzi writes in Islamic Empires…
At the very pinnacle of Baghdad society with Harun was his wife and cousin Zubayda. Even without her royal marriage to the most powerful man alive, she was a formidable character. As granddaughter of Mansur, Zubayda was of royal blood, immensely wealthy and well educated in religion, poetry and literature. She won lasting fame on two counts: first for her unrivalled displays of luxury, second for her charitable and religious activities. Harun’s Baghdad was a temple of conspicuous consumption and no one was more conspicuous than Zubayda. It was said that during the most important court ceremonies she was so laden with gold and precious stones that two servants were required simply to help her stand upright. At her wedding to Harun in 781 she was given ‘precious stones, jewellery, diadems and tiaras, silver and gold palanquins, scents, clothes, servants and maids of honour’, together with a priceless waistcoat encrusted with rows of large rubies and pearls, booty seized from the Umayyads at the fall of Damascus in 750. Huge sums of money were distributed among the awestruck guests, gold dinars in silver bowls and silver dirhams in golden bowls, bags of musk and ambergris, expensive perfumes in glass bottles and richly coloured robes of honour woven with gold. ‘Nothing comparable had ever been seen in Islamic times.’ A staggering 50 million dinars was spent on the ceremony from the private treasury alone, with more coming from Harun’s own purse.
Funny enough, today, we can’t even imagine Harun without Baghdad and Baghdad without Harun. However, he spent remarkably little time there. He seemed eager to get out of there. Almost since the start of his reign, Harun had been looking for another place to found a city. He even called Baghdad “the Steam Room” because of the heat. He looked for locations to found a new city in the Zagros Mountains but abandoned the project. Then he looked to Hira, which was the ancient capital of the Lakhmids, a legendary pre-Islamic Arab dynasty. This was near Kufa and Harun decided that its ancient glory was spoiled by its proximity to the tiresome people of Kufa. Harun finally decided on Raqqa which became his unofficial capital. The city, an ancient Byzantine settlement, had been rebuilt by his grandfather, al-Mansur.
In 792, Harun had his succession plan laid out. He chose his son Muhammad, a mere five-year-old as his heir and made his people swear allegiance to the boy. The matter was forced on Harun by the establishment. Muhammad’s mother was princess Zubayda, Harun’s beloved wife. She was an Abbasid princess herself and her father had been an important figure so she was very rich and influential in her own right. On top of that, Fadl Barmakid was convinced, apparently, by members of the Abbasid family to use his influence to install Muhammad as the heir. Fadl, convinced that this boy would be the best way to secure Barmakid influence for the next generation, spent millions to get the military to swear allegiance to Muhammad. Harun, still relatively young, now had an heir.
In 798, Harun arranged for a spare. Abdullah, another one of his sons, was chosen as the heir of Muhammad. Just as Harun himself had been chosen as his brother’s heir. His mother was probably a member of the Khorasani nobility. Harun realized that court intrigue might cause problems in the plan of succession after him, so he drew an agreement. In 802, he went on a pilgrimage to Makkah and took his two sons along just as his father had done with him and his brother. In ceremonies similar to before, Harun donated loads of gold to the people of the holy cities. Then, Harun displayed his arrangement to the people. The agreement had the following points. First, Muhammad would be succeeded by Abdullah even if he had sons of his own. Muhammad would also respect Abdullah’s autonomous rule over Khorasan province. Abdullah would be given access to caliphal institutions like the postal service. Abdullah, in return, would provide him with his forces if needed. If Muhammad broke any clause of this agreement, he would be abdicating his throne to Abdullah. Not only were the people of the holy cities sworn over this agreement, the agreement was signed by the princes and hung inside Kaaba, this was quite something the Islamic world had never seen before. God himself was now watching over the sanctity of the agreement. No way this would cause trouble in the future.
In 803 after he returned from the pilgrimage, Harun did something unthinkable. Overnight, he destroyed the Barmakids. He ordered the arrest of both Fadl and Yahya, his own mentor. A man he had called to be like a father to him. These two would never regain their freedom. Ja’far, Harun’s dear friend, was met by Masrur, Harun’s executioner. As he was dragged to be executed, he begged Masrur to ask Harun again insisting that Harun only ordered it because he was drunk out of his senses. According to one version, Masrur went to Harun to confirm the order. Harun told him if he returned without Ja’far’s head, he would send someone else to collect his head along with Ja’far ‘s. Ja’far was executed and his body was cut into pieces and displayed on Baghdad’s bridges.
There are many versions of this story and many explanations as to why Harun destroyed the Barmakids. However, not much is clear about it. Every historian who has noted this story usually gives his own explanation for it. Keeping with that tradition, I’ll give my own which is not exactly my own. The reason that makes the most sense to me is that Harun was resentful of the power of the Barmakids. He was shy and the establishment didn’t take him very seriously. For the first three years of his reign, his mother was controlling almost everything. Then the Barmakids. While Harun’s orders were never rejected, Harun could feel that he wasn’t as powerful as he liked to think he was. I think it became especially apparent to him when he had to choose Muhammad as his heir because of the establishment’s pressure. He preferred Abdullah and not being able to choose him must’ve made him feel powerless. On top of everything, the Barmakids had almost an entire court culture of their own. They were patrons to many poets and intellectuals. Something just snapped inside Harun. Whatever the reason might be what we know for sure is that winter came for the house of Barmak and all of Baghdad paid for it. Poets lost their patrons, the government grinded to a halt. Famously, the offices became full of piles of unopened letters. Fadl ibn Rabi, the new chief administrator tried to restore balance but it was a slow process.
Balance was eventually restored and Harun even led campaigns into Anatolia. His last great political act was to depose the governor of Khorasan. He sent his son Abdullah there to rule as governor. He was on his way there as well when he fell sick near Tus. On March 24th, 809CE, Caliph Harun al-Rashid passed away. He was in his late forties. He was succeeded by Caliph Muhammad who took the title of al-Amin.
I want to end with a note of Harun al-Rashid and his legacy. The name itself, first of all, is peculiar because no other Abbasid caliph is remembered by both his royal title and his actual given name. Harun was flawed in many ways. The golden era that we imagine today, only comes with the benefit of hindsight. No one who lives in a golden era ever thinks that they’re living in one. Perhaps his era looks like that because it was followed by, spoiler alert, a bloody and long civil war. One that, without any argument, Harun had engineered. Even though his intentions were the exact opposite. Whatever his role in the political future of the Abbasid caliphate, his role in the so-called Islamic Golden Age cannot be exaggerated. Believe me, I’ve tried but that’s a story for another time.
It’s fun, nevertheless, to imagine the era of Harun, the Harun of the Arabian Nights. The caliph who used to go out in disguise to see how his people were doing. A man who used to go on adventures with his viziers. A man who cannot be separated from Baghdad. A man who enjoyed the company of poets and storytellers, all settled around him, sitting on a carpet with pillows behind their backs and fruit and wine being served in plates and chalices of gold. Those stories and anecdotes, while far from accurate, serve a very important purpose. They tell us about how people thought about his time looking back and perhaps felt envious of those who lived in his time. You can’t blame them. For it was in the golden prime… Of good Haroun Alraschid.
See you next time.


Musa was in Jurjan where he was the Governor. He came to the capital and was ascended to the caliph. He took the title of al-Hadi. He was the military’s favourite who were anxious about Harun and his supporters. Harun, however, just wanted to retire to a private life with Zubayda, his new Bride. However, both sides had powerful people who were trying to pull the strings of the caliphate. The Barmakids, who had invested so heavily in Harun, wanted him to maintain an active political life. The military, on the other hand, were incredibly suspicious of the cold and calculating Barmakids. They didn’t believe Harun to be a serious man which went back to the expeditions. This went so far that the military leaders convinced al-Hadi to change the plan of succession from Harun to his own son, Ja’far who was a very young boy. This would’ve been a huge deal if al-Hadi had undertaken it. So many people had sworn the oath of allegiance to Harun as the heir. Some people were definitely alienated by the rumours of the Caliph’s change of succession.
One of those people was the Queen Mother, Khayzuran. She had been a fairly powerful figure. Whenever the caliph was away, the elites at Baghdad would take their orders from her. Even when al-Hadi ascended to the caliphate this continued. The caliph was angry and not-so-subtly, told the elites to stop visiting the Queen Mother saying, “What business do women have discussing men’s matters?” and the Queen certainly didn’t like that al-Hadi was pushing her beloved Harun out of succession.
In September 786, al-Hadi died. Some say, from natural causes. Some say a slave girl suffocated him by putting a pillow on his face and sitting on it. A girl sitting on your face, not the worst way to die. What makes it particularly painful is that it might’ve been ordered by his mother. The death was kept a secret. The Queen quickly assembled the Barmakids who woke Harun in the middle of the night. Harun thought his brother was having his arrested and panicked. The young prince Ja’far, al-Hadi’s son was put under arrest by the Queen. Harun was brought to her along with the elites who swore allegiance to the new caliph. Hence Prince Harun became Caliph Harun al-Rashid, “the rightly guided”.
The next few years were fairly uneventful. al-Tabari, who could dedicate hundreds of pages to a single war, was very brief about these years. The caliph lived a comfortable and peaceful life. The Barmakids dealt with the day to day administration stuff and would often receive orders from the Queen Mother. Yahya, Harun’s mentor, was made vizier. His two sons, Fadl and Ja’far became very important at the court as well. They were both close to Harun in age. Ja’far was even Harun’s closest friend and drinking buddy. Fadl was installed as the governor of Khurasan in 794CE. A very successful governor, he improved the province a lot, increased its revenue and made a huge amount of money himself.
In literature, we find both Barmakid men enjoying their moments of glory. Ja’far is the companion of Harun in the Arabian Nights. He goes on adventures with his friend and they’re both inseparable. Fadl, on the other hand, is remembered for his money and his generosity. He gave away millions of Dinars to the people. Meanwhile, their father ran the court, very effectively, I might add. Harun enjoyed this peace and calm. He didn’t have to worry about the problems while money flooded into Baghdad. His role became somewhat ceremonial. He made pilgrimage to Makkah around eight times as Caliph. More than any other caliph. His qalansuwa famously had the words, “The warrior and the pilgrim” written on it. Pointing to both his pilgrimages and his campaigns. Both of which were hugely publicized events.
Justin Marozzi writes in Islamic Empires…


At the very pinnacle of Baghdad society with Harun was his wife and cousin Zubayda. Even without her royal marriage to the most powerful man alive, she was a formidable character. As granddaughter of Mansur, Zubayda was of royal blood, immensely wealthy and well educated in religion, poetry and literature. She won lasting fame on two counts: first for her unrivalled displays of luxury, second for her charitable and religious activities. Harun’s Baghdad was a temple of conspicuous consumption and no one was more conspicuous than Zubayda. It was said that during the most important court ceremonies she was so laden with gold and precious stones that two servants were required simply to help her stand upright. At her wedding to Harun in 781 she was given ‘precious stones, jewellery, diadems and tiaras, silver and gold palanquins, scents, clothes, servants and maids of honour’, together with a priceless waistcoat encrusted with rows of large rubies and pearls, booty seized from the Umayyads at the fall of Damascus in 750. Huge sums of money were distributed among the awestruck guests, gold dinars in silver bowls and silver dirhams in golden bowls, bags of musk and ambergris, expensive perfumes in glass bottles and richly coloured robes of honour woven with gold. ‘Nothing comparable had ever been seen in Islamic times.’ A staggering 50 million dinars was spent on the ceremony from the private treasury alone, with more coming from Harun’s own purse.
Funny enough, today, we can’t even imagine Harun without Baghdad and Baghdad without Harun. However, he spent remarkably little time there. He seemed eager to get out of there. Almost since the start of his reign, Harun had been looking for another place to found a city. He even called Baghdad “the Steam Room” because of the heat. He looked for locations to found a new city in the Zagros Mountains but abandoned the project. Then he looked to Hira, which was the ancient capital of the Lakhmids, a legendary pre-Islamic Arab dynasty. This was near Kufa and Harun decided that its ancient glory was spoiled by its proximity to the tiresome people of Kufa. Harun finally decided on Raqqa which became his unofficial capital. The city, an ancient Byzantine settlement, had been rebuilt by his grandfather, al-Mansur.
In 792, Harun had his succession plan laid out. He chose his son Muhammad, a mere five-year-old as his heir and made his people swear allegiance to the boy. The matter was forced on Harun by the establishment. Muhammad’s mother was princess Zubayda, Harun’s beloved wife. She was an Abbasid princess herself and her father had been an important figure so she was very rich and influential in her own right. On top of that, Fadl Barmakid was convinced, apparently, by members of the Abbasid family to use his influence to install Muhammad as the heir. Fadl, convinced that this boy would be the best way to secure Barmakid influence for the next generation, spent millions to get the military to swear allegiance to Muhammad. Harun, still relatively young, now had an heir.
In 798, Harun arranged for a spare. Abdullah, another one of his sons, was chosen as the heir of Muhammad. Just as Harun himself had been chosen as his brother’s heir. His mother was probably a member of the Khorasani nobility. Harun realized that court intrigue might cause problems in the plan of succession after him, so he drew an agreement. In 802, he went on a pilgrimage to Makkah and took his two sons along just as his father had done with him and his brother. In ceremonies similar to before, Harun donated loads of gold to the people of the holy cities. Then, Harun displayed his arrangement to the people. The agreement had the following points. First, Muhammad would be succeeded by Abdullah even if he had sons of his own. Muhammad would also respect Abdullah’s autonomous rule over Khorasan province. Abdullah would be given access to caliphal institutions like the postal service. Abdullah, in return, would provide him with his forces if needed. If Muhammad broke any clause of this agreement, he would be abdicating his throne to Abdullah. Not only were the people of the holy cities sworn over this agreement, the agreement was signed by the princes and hung inside Kaaba, this was quite something the Islamic world had never seen before. God himself was now watching over the sanctity of the agreement. No way this would cause trouble in the future.
In 803 after he returned from the pilgrimage, Harun did something unthinkable. Overnight, he destroyed the Barmakids. He ordered the arrest of both Fadl and Yahya, his own mentor. A man he had called to be like a father to him. These two would never regain their freedom. Ja’far, Harun’s dear friend, was met by Masrur, Harun’s executioner. As he was dragged to be executed, he begged Masrur to ask Harun again insisting that Harun only ordered it because he was drunk out of his senses. According to one version, Masrur went to Harun to confirm the order. Harun told him if he returned without Ja’far’s head, he would send someone else to collect his head along with Ja’far ‘s. Ja’far was executed and his body was cut into pieces and displayed on Baghdad’s bridges.
There are many versions of this story and many explanations as to why Harun destroyed the Barmakids. However, not much is clear about it. Every historian who has noted this story usually gives his own explanation for it. Keeping with that tradition, I’ll give my own which is not exactly my own. The reason that makes the most sense to me is that Harun was resentful of the power of the Barmakids. He was shy and the establishment didn’t take him very seriously. For the first three years of his reign, his mother was controlling almost everything. Then the Barmakids. While Harun’s orders were never rejected, Harun could feel that he wasn’t as powerful as he liked to think he was. I think it became especially apparent to him when he had to choose Muhammad as his heir because of the establishment’s pressure. He preferred Abdullah and not being able to choose him must’ve made him feel powerless. On top of everything, the Barmakids had almost an entire court culture of their own. They were patrons to many poets and intellectuals. Something just snapped inside Harun. Whatever the reason might be what we know for sure is that winter came for the house of Barmak and all of Baghdad paid for it. Poets lost their patrons, the government grinded to a halt. Famously, the offices became full of piles of unopened letters. Fadl ibn Rabi, the new chief administrator tried to restore balance but it was a slow process.


Balance was eventually restored and Harun even led campaigns into Anatolia. His last great political act was to depose the governor of Khorasan. He sent his son Abdullah there to rule as governor. He was on his way there as well when he fell sick near Tus. On March 24th, 809CE, Caliph Harun al-Rashid passed away. He was in his late forties. He was succeeded by Caliph Muhammad who took the title of al-Amin.
I want to end with a note of Harun al-Rashid and his legacy. The name itself, first of all, is peculiar because no other Abbasid caliph is remembered by both his royal title and his actual given name. Harun was flawed in many ways. The golden era that we imagine today, only comes with the benefit of hindsight. No one who lives in a golden era ever thinks that they’re living in one. Perhaps his era looks like that because it was followed by, spoiler alert, a bloody and long civil war. One that, without any argument, Harun had engineered. Even though his intentions were the exact opposite. Whatever his role in the political future of the Abbasid caliphate, his role in the so-called Islamic Golden Age cannot be exaggerated. Believe me, I’ve tried but that’s a story for another time.
It’s fun, nevertheless, to imagine the era of Harun, the Harun of the Arabian Nights. The caliph who used to go out in disguise to see how his people were doing. A man who used to go on adventures with his viziers. A man who cannot be separated from Baghdad. A man who enjoyed the company of poets and storytellers, all settled around him, sitting on a carpet with pillows behind their backs and fruit and wine being served in plates and chalices of gold. Those stories and anecdotes, while far from accurate, serve a very important purpose. They tell us about how people thought about his time looking back and perhaps felt envious of those who lived in his time. You can’t blame them. For it was in the golden prime… Of good Haroun Alraschid.

bombay 60

Bombay60 internet website News, Entertainment, knowledge And travels Blog most amazing and popular website .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *