Al-Ma'mun

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Abu Jafar al-Ma'mun ibn Harun (also spelled Almanon and el-Mâmoûn) (786October 10, 833) (المأمون) was an Abbasid caliph who reigned from 813 until his death in 833. He succeeded his brother al-Amin.

Caliphate

Al-Ma'mun came to power by defeating his brother in battle. The father of the two brothers was Harun al-Rashid who in 802 had ordered that al-Amin succeed him and al-Ma'mun serve as governor of Khurasan and as caliph after the death of al-Amin. Al-Ma'mun was reportedly the older of the two brothers, but his mother was a Persian slave while al-Amin's mother was a member of the reigning Abbasid family. After al-Rashid's death in 809, the relationship between the two brothers deterioriated. In response to al-Ma'mun's moves toward independence, al-Amin declared his own son Musa to be his heir. This violation of al-Rashid's testament led to a civil war in which al-Ma'mun's newly recruited Khurasani troops, led by Tahir bin Husain (d. 822), defeated al-Amin's armies and laid siege to Baghdad. In 813, al-Amin was beheaded and al-Ma'mun recognized as caliph throughout the empire. Al-Ma'mun would continue to rule the empire for another decade from the city of Merv in Khurasan. But eventually he would be forced to return to Baghdad.

Al-Ma'mun's reign is marked by his efforts as a humanist and scholar. Al-Ma'mun gathered scholars of many religions at Baghdad, whom he treated magnificently and with tolerance. He sent an emissary to the Byzantine Empire to collect the most famous manuscripts there, and had them translated into Arabic. It is said that, victorious over the Byzantine Emperor, Al-Ma'mun made a condition of peace be that the emperor hand over of a copy of the Almagest. Al-Ma'mun also conducted, in the plains of Mesopotamia, two astronomical operations intended to determine the value of a terrestrial degree.[1] Almanon crater, on the Moon, has been named in recognition of this caliph’s contributions to astronomy.

Al-Ma'mun's record as an administrator is also marked by his efforts toward the centralization of power and the certainty of succession. The Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, was established during his reign. The ulama emerged as a real force in Islamic politics during al-Ma'mun's reign for opposing the mihna, which was instituted in 827.

The mihna, or 'ordeal,' is comparable to Medieval European inquisitions only in the sense that it involved imprisonment, a religious test, and a loyalty oath. The casualties of Abbasid inquisition would not approach a fraction of those executed in Europe under similar circumstances. In the effort to centralize power and test the loyalty of his subjects, al-Ma'mun required elites, scholars, judges and other government officials to undergo the test, which was a series of questions relating to theology and faith. The penalty for failing the mihna could include death.

The controversy over the mihna was exacerbated by al-Ma'mun's sympathy for Mu'tazili theology. Mu'tazili theology was deeply influenced by Aristotelian thought and Greek rationalism, and stated that matters of belief and practice should be decided by reasoning on the basis of the Qur'an. This defied the literalist position, according to which everything a believer needed to know about faith and practice was spelled out literally in the Qur'an and the Hadith. Moreover, the Mu'tazilis stated that the Qur'an was created rather than eternal, in opposition to general Muslim opinion that the Qur'an and the Divine were coeternal. The fact that the Mu'tazili school had its foundations in the paganism of Greece further disenchanted majority of Islamic clerics.

Although al-Mahdi had proclaimed that the caliph was the protector of Islam against heresy, and had claimed too the ability to declare orthodoxy, religious scholars in the Islamic world believed that al-Ma'mun was overstepping his bounds in the mihna. The penalties of the mihna became increasingly difficult to enforce as the ulama became firmer and more united in their opposition. Although the mihna persisted through the reigns of two more caliphs, al-Mutawakkil abandoned it in 848. The failure of the mihna seriously damaged Caliphal authority and ruined the reputation of the office for succeeding caliphs. The caliph would lose much of his religious authority to the opinion of the ulama as a result of the mihna.

The ulama and the major Islamic law schools became truly defined in the period of al-Ma'mun and Sunnism, as a religion of legalism, became defined in parallel. And doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia began to become more pronounced. Ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali legal school, became famous for his opposition to the mihna. Al-Ma'mun's simultaneous opposition and patronage of intellectuals led to the emergence of important dialogues on both secular and religious affairs, and the Bayt al-Hikma became an important center of translation for Greek and other ancient texts into Arabic. This Islamic renaissance spurred the rediscovery of Hellenism and ensured the survival of these texts into the European renaissance.

Al-Ma'mun had been named governor of Khurasan by Harun, and after his ascension to power, the caliph named Tahir as governor for his military services in order to assure his loyalty. It was a move that al-Ma'mun soon regretted, as Tahir and his family became entrenched in Iranian politics and became increasingly powerful in the state, contrary to al-Ma'mun's desire to centralize and strengthen Caliphal power. The rising power of the Tahirid dynasty became a threat as al-Ma'mun's own policies alienated them and his other opponents.

The shakiriya, which were to trigger the movement of the capital from Baghdad to Samarra during al-Mu'tasim's reign, were raised in al-Ma'mun's time. The shakiriya were military units from Central Asia and North Africa, hired, complete with their commanders, to serve under the Caliph.

Al-Ma'mun, in an attempt to win over the Shi'a Muslims to his camp, named the eighth Imam, Ali ar-Rida, his successor, if he should outlive al-Ma'mun. Most Shi'ites realized, however, that ar-Rida was too old to survive him and saw al-Ma'mun's gesture as empty; indeed, ar-Rida died in 818. The incident served to further alienate the Shi'ites from the Abbasids, who had already been promised and denied the Caliphate by al-'Abbas.

Al-Ma'mun also attempted to divorce his wife during his reign, who had not borne him any children. His wife hired a Syrian judge of her own before al-Ma'mun was able to select one himself; the judge, who sympathized with the caliph's wife, refused the divorce. Following al-Ma'mun's experience, no further Abbasid caliphs were to marry, preferring to find their heirs in the harem.

The Abbasid empire grew somewhat during the reign of al-Ma'mun. Hindu rebellions in Sindh were put down, and most of Afghanistan was absorbed with the surrender of the leader of Kabul. Mountainous regions of Iran were brought under a tighter grip of the central Abbasid government, as were areas of Turkestan. Battles against the Byzantine Empire continued in Asia Minor, and al-Ma'mun would die while leading an expedition in Sardis.

Shortly before his death, during a visit to Egypt in 832, the caliph ordered the breaching of the Great Pyramid of Giza. He apparently entered the pyramid by unblocking a tunnel made by grave robbers in ancient times. Because the pyramid had already been robbed, his expedition found only the remains of Cheops' mummy.

Al-Ma'mun died near Tarsus and the city's major mosque contains a tomb reported to be his.

Al-Ma'mun died in 833, and was succeeded by his brother, al-Mu'tasim.

See also

External links

Preceded by
al-Amin
Caliph
813–833
Succeeded by
al-Mu'tasim