Islamic History, part 22: the Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid (786-809)

Islamic History Series

It’s not my intention to spend a lot of future entries on individual caliphs, because that would take forever and because, from this point on, there aren’t a lot of caliphs who warrant that much space. But Harun al-Rashid does. If there’s one caliph from the Abbasid period who epitomizes what the caliphate could be at the peak of its prestige and excess, it’s Harun, and the fact that he is featured as the “ideal” monarch in several stories in One Thousand and One Nights speaks to the impact of his legacy. So if nothing else he’s useful as a sort of museum exhibit, the dictionary definition of “caliphate,” despite the fact that, as we will see, objectively Harun was really nothing special as a ruler.

Harun was born sometime in the 760s in the city of Rey, the son of the caliph al-Mahdi and a Yemeni slave girl named al-Khayzuran. In his youth he led armies on campaign against the Romans, supposedly getting all the way to Constantinople in 782 before having to turn back (he extracted tribute from the Romans before he left, but probably nowhere near enough to cover the cost of the expedition). When al-Mahdi named al-Hadi his successor, al-Hadi was required to swear that Harun would be his heir apparent, though you can imagine that if al-Hadi had reigned for a longer amount of time, he would have found some way to have his own sons succeed him instead. This is probably why al-Khayzuran, who seems to have favored Harun, is suspected of having poisoned her elder son to ensure Harun’s succession. It’s also said that the young Harun was very shy, which might explain why his reign really saw the removal of the caliph from the daily life of his empire.

Indeed, the first thing that jumps out at the observer of Harun al-Rashid’s caliphate is how impersonal it was. I know we keep talking about the morphing of the caliphate into absolutism, but it’s absolutely one of the biggest themes of these first couple of centuries after Muhammad. Umar was said to have lived in a modest home in Medina and to have walked the city every evening to be among the poor and to hear their stories and complaints. As the size of the empire exploded under Umar and Uthman, the caliph obviously couldn’t be everywhere to listen to everybody’s petitions and grievances, but he was responsible for appointing army commanders and local governors, and when those officials returned or sent messengers to Medina to make a report, it was mostly likely the caliph himself who would hear it. As the Umayyads gradually turned the caliphate into a formal monarchy, layers were created between the caliph and the day to day management of the empire, and between the caliph and the general public (the reign of Umar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAziz was the exception). This transformation reflected the transformation of the Arab polity from its tribal/city-state roots to a serious imperial project, but there may also have been a practical reason to restrict the caliph’s interactions with the public. After all, those early caliphs may have been more accessible to the public, but they were consequently also accessible to the assassins who killed them (Umar, Uthman, and Ali). Removing the caliph from daily life was safer, in addition to being more regal.

The Abbasids, having come to power at the vanguard of a populist uprising, might have been expected to reverse this trend toward high absolutism, but instead by the reign of Harun al-Rashid we see a caliph almost entirely insulated from the everyday people and workings of his empire. Under him was a wazir (vizier), the chief financial officer in the empire and the man who then delegated the tasks of administration to a vast number of other secretaries and bureaucrats. The caliph could involve himself in everyday matters when he felt like it, basically, but his main formal governing role was as the final arbiter for disputes or decisions that couldn’t be easily resolved by referring to Qurʾan, Hadith, etc.

A lot of modern (by which I mean mid-20th century) scholars of Islamic history saw this new style of ruling as the “Persianification” of the caliphate, or the adoption of a style of rule that looked a lot more like ancient Persian absolutism than the more modest, almost Greek-like (so the story goes) ruling style of the Rashidun caliphs and, to a lesser extent, the Umayyads. There may be something to this; the Abbasids did move the capital from a traditionally Greco-Roman city (Damascus) to a traditionally Persian one (Baghdad, which was a new city but built only about 20 miles away from the old Persian capital Ctesiphon), and there’s no doubt that the caliph started to look and act an awful lot like the ancient Persian kings. But when western Orientalists have talked about “Persianizing” trends in Islamic history, they’ve meant it as a pejorative, to suggest that the caliphate was becoming more decadent and thus weaker (anything “Iranian” or “Persian” has been symbolic of the decadent East as compared to the vibrant West as far back as ancient Greece). So I tend to steer clear of that kind of talk.

The caliph’s two greatest responsibilities were religious — he was expected to lead the Friday communal prayer (salat) in the capital (though he generally appointed a substitute on all but the most important occasions) — and military — he was expected to lead (though not directly command; the generals handled that) the army on campaign against the Romans in Anatolia, something that had by now become an almost annual undertaking but that never really accomplished much beyond a little booty-taking and an outlet for soldiers’ violent impulses. The Anatolian terrain was too unforgiving and the population too unwelcoming to allow the caliphal army to gain any permanent foothold beyond the Taurus Mountains that were the frontier between the two empires. Under Harun, the boundaries of the caliphate remained relatively stable under Harun; the places that had already been lost (Spain, Morocco) stayed lost, but he managed to keep control over the rest despite uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, and various parts of Iran. He also appointed Ibrahim b. al-Aghlab to govern the province of Ifriqiyah (modern Tunisia, western Libya, and eastern Algeria); this turned into an inherited governorship, which made for problems down the road when Ibrahim’s successors started ruling the province with greater autonomy. Aside from his obsession with the annual campaign against the Romans, Harun’s primary martial concern was Khurasan, the eastern Iranian province from which the Abbasid Rebellion had gotten its start, where episodic unrest (particularly around the house of Ali) and ambitious governors were still major concerns.

Overall, the caliph was supposed to ensure justice and provide security; he wasn’t supposed to meddle in religious matters, which were left to the scholars, and he wasn’t supposed to get involved with directing the economy. The individual was ultimately responsible for his (or her, I guess, but let’s be honest, this wasn’t an egalitarian society as far as gender was concerned) own well-being in this life and salvation in the next.

This map (via) is really packed with information, but if you can follow the brownish line, that’s the extent of the empire under Harun. Note the loss of Morocco and Spain from Umayyad times.

Freed from the demands of everyday administration, the caliph had a lot more time to act like what he was, an extremely wealthy dude who could afford to indulge whims, buy fancy things, and pay artists to produce more fancy stuff for him. Musicians and poets started to appear around the royal court, patronized by the caliph (other wealthy families got in on this act as well, but the caliphal court obviously had pride of place as far as artists were concerned). Religious scholars could be the objects of court patronage as well, though many scholars were loathe to accept potentially corrupting money from the worldly authority for doing spiritual work. Charity was big among the monied elite, who undoubtedly saw excess giving as a way to curry favor with God and finagle their way into Paradise. Outside the capital, wealthy elites would sponsor great infrastructure projects, like digging irrigation canals or drainage systems, and rich people everywhere were, as you might expect, keenly interested in trading for expensive luxuries from foreign lands.

Learning also flowered in this new courtly caliphate, and it was under Harun that Arabic began to develop into a real literary language. At first this took the form of a few translations and a whole lot of poetry, both original and transcriptions of pre-Islamic epics, by artists like Abu Nuwas (d. ~803). The incorporation of pre-Islamic traditions into emerging literary Arabic led to the interesting fact that, as topics for poetry go, the decidedly un-Islamic themes of wine-drinking and sex (particularly with young boys) loom large, but very Islamic mystical themes were also fruitful ground for literary exploration. Along with the literature came the study of the language itself, trying to lay down written grammar rules for a language that had heretofore been almost entirely oral. Grammarians like Sibawayh (d. 796) poured over whatever written documents they could, i.e., the Qurʾan and Hadith reports, and tried to codify rules of oral, Bedouin language.

Apart from language and literature, the court under the early Abbasids began to sponsor learning in the sciences, philosophy, and theology (these were not clearly delineated fields at this point, so don’t take that list the wrong way). A major chunk of this learning (at least in science and philosophy) took the form of translating works from Greek, Sanskrit, Pahlavi Persian, and Syriac Aramaic into Arabic. The preservation of older learning had been the responsibility of individual cities, like Alexandria, Gundeshapur, Nishapur, etc., but Baghdad quickly became the hub for both the preservation of that older learning and for its translation into Arabic (which then made further study possible). This was the beginning of a movement that would culminate under Harun’s son, al-Maʾmun, so let’s save the bulk of this topic for a later entry.

I should note that despite the fact that Baghdad flowered quite a bit under Harun as it had under the earlier Abbasids and as it would continue to flower under Harun’s successors, it wasn’t actually Harun’s capital. In 796, for whatever reason (possibly its proximity to the frontier with the Romans, or its proximity to Damascus and any potential rebellion there), Harun moved the capital to al-Raqqah (and history keeps on rhyming), on the upper Euphrates River, in modern Syria. Baghdad continued to be the administrative hub of the empire and its most important city, and resumed its position as the capital after Harun’s death.

One family deserves mention here, though we’ve already talked about them: the Barmakids. We already know that they had become close with the Abbasids and that Khalid and Yahya had been chief advisors to the first four Abbasid caliphs. They amassed quite a bit of power and money in this position, not surprisingly, and they threw it around almost as much as the Abbasids themselves did. Harun made Yahya his vizier, in no small part because it Yahya’s efforts that had secured his succession, and placed three of his sons in high positions in his government: al-Fadl was made governor of the East, Musa was appointed governor in Damascus, and Jaʿfar was basically Harun’s body man (when you’re emperor, “best friend” is an appointed job) until he succeeded Yahya as vizier. In 803, ostensibly because he caught Jaʿfar having an affair with his sister Abassa but more likely because he was jealous of their wealth and concerned about their power, Harun had all the Barmakid men thrown in the hoosegow, except Jaʿfar who was beheaded. Yahya hung on until 806 and al-Fadl until 808, but both died in captivity. Whatever the roots of their falling out with Harun, the Barmakids obviously knew what they were doing as administrators, because when Harun finally died the state treasury was overflowing with money. Interestingly, the Barmakids seem to have been more conciliatory toward descendents of Ali (“Alids”) than the Abbasid caliphs were (which may have contributed to their fall from favor), and they seem to have continually pushed for the caliph to take a larger direct role in the formation and interpretation of religious law, an idea that would later be heavily pushed by Harun’s son, the caliph al-Maʾmun.

Harun has a quasi-legendary stature in the West, in part because of his role in several of the 1001 Nights stories, like “The Tale of Attaf” and “The Tale of the Murdered Young Woman.” His reputation was also boosted by the diplomatic relationship his court had with the court of Charlemagne. Among the gifts Harun sent his Carolingian counterpart were an elephant, a water clock, a massive tent, ivory chess pieces, and a number of other items whose like had never before been seen in Western Europe. But the reality is that his reign was not all that notable (except, as I say, as the sort of ideal case for the study of caliphal absolutism); no new territory was won — in fact he barely maintained what he had in the face of repeated revolts in the east — and while some important cultural and intellectual trends had their beginnings in Harun’s court, none of them really got very far until some time after his death. In fact, the manner of Harun’s administration (appointing governors who exercised substantial autonomy, and eliminating the very capable Barmakids from the imperial administration) and succession (see below, and the next entry) really did considerable long-term damage to the unity of the empire. In fact, a lot of his reputation in later Islamic history probably owes to the fact that conditions got so much worse after his death, plus the fact that later scribes would trace the origins of their very office to his reign, so the whole thing took on this sort of “Golden Age” vibe in retrospect.

Starting around 805, Harun’s control of Khurasan started to waver. His governor there, Ali b. Isa b. Mahan, was the leader of a powerful political and military faction called the Abna, or “sons,” descendents of the first Abbasid army, and for that reason was resented by the aristocratic families in Khurasan who had never quite been comfortable with the Abbasid revolt (and who were also being extorted by Ali, for his own benefit). One of these aristocrats, Rafi b. Layth, revolted in 805 and Ali failed to quell the uprising. This gave Harun an excuse to rid himself of Ali, who was more trouble than he was worth thanks to all the resentment he engendered, but that didn’t end the rebellion either. In 809, Harun decided to lead the army east himself to put Rafi’s rebellion down, which turned out to be a mistake insofar as he died en route, still a relatively young man in his mid-40s (we don’t know the exact year of his birth, so we don’t know exactly how old he was when he died). Historians dispute the terms of his succession. The traditional story goes that Harun divided the empire on his death between his two sons; the elder al-Maʾmun was to rule with virtual autonomy in the east, while the younger al-Amin (whose mother was of higher stature than Maʾmun’s) would rule in the west and take the title of Caliph. But more recent scholarship contends that the idea of Maʾmun’s “autonomy” was written back into the historical record later on, to justify Maʾmun’s hostility to his brother and (more importantly) his caliph, and that what Harun bequeathed was a pretty standard inheritance, whereby Amin would succeed him while his other son, Maʾmun, would have an important governorship and would serve as his brother’s heir apparent. It was not uncommon for caliphs to try to designate their next two or more successors (and this is what al-Mahdi had done with al-Hadi and Harun), though as you might guess it was rare that these longer-term plans were ever actually followed. Whatever Harun really intended, if you guessed that we’re heading for yet another civil war, give yourself a gold star.

Next time: Fitnah, again, and al-Maʾmun’s reign (809-833)

Further reading:

Obviously 1001 Nights is a classic and you should read it, but don’t do it thinking you’ll learn anything about the real Harun.

Harun’s notoriety means that he’s been the subject of modern Western biographies, unusual for a caliph, like Andre Clot’s Harun Al-Rashid and the World of 1001 Nights. I haven’t read this one, but it seems like it’s written with a general audience in mind.

If you really want to dig into the question of Harun’s reign as Golden Age, and his treatment by later Muslim historians, there’s Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Harun al-Rashid and the Narrative of the Abbasid Caliphate, by Tayeb El-Hibri, but this one is not meant for a general audience.

The 19th-early 20th century Lebanese novelist Jurji Zaydan wrote a historical novel that covers the fall of the Barmakids, called al-‘Abbasa ukht al-Rashid, available in English translation as The Caliph’s Sister: Harun al-Rashid and the Fall of the Persians. Again, this isn’t going to tell you much about the historical Harun or the Barmakids. But it’s so rare to find Arab literature in translation, and Zaydan was such an important figure in the Nahda, the pre-World War I renaissance (that’s what nahda means) of Arab culture within the Ottoman Empire, that if you’re interested in modern Arabic literature (but maybe don’t read Arabic so well), or world literature in general, this is a good one to pick up.

Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (vol. 1)

Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050, and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty


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