Harun al-Rashid

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For the 12th-century caliph with the same epithet, see Ar-Rashid (1109–1138).
Harun al-Rashid
Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation sent by Charlemagne at his court
5th Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate
Reign 14 September 786 – 24 March 809
Predecessor al-Hadi
Successor al-Amin
Born (763-03-17)17 March 763
Rey, Jibal, Abbasid Caliphate (in present-day Tehran Province, Iran)
Died 24 March 809(809-03-24) (aged 46)
Tus, Khorasan, Abbasid Caliphate (in present-day Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran)
Burial Tomb of Harun al-Rashid in Imam Reza Mosque, Mashhad, Iran
  • Zubaidah bint Ja`far
  • Marajil bint Ustadhis
  • Maridah bint Shabib
  • Qasif
  • Azizah bint Hadi
  • Umm Muhammad
  • Abbassah
  • Uthmanid
  • Ghadir
  • Hailanah
  • Dananir
  • Sihr
  • Diya
  • Dhat al-khal
  • Inan
  • Ri'm
  • Irbah
  • Sahdhrah
  • Khubth
  • Rawah
  • Dawaj
  • Kitman
  • Hulab
  • Irabah
  • Hamdunah
  • Ghusas
  • Sukkar
  • Rahiq
  • Shajar
  • Khzq
  • Haly
  • Aniq
  • Samandal
  • Zinah
  • Amat-al-aziz
Full name
Harun ar-Rashid ibn Muhammad al-Mahdi
Dynasty Abbasid
Father al-Mahdi
Mother al-Khayzuran

Harun al-Rashid (/hɑːˈrnɑːlrɑːˈʃd/ Arabic: هَارُون الرَشِيد‎, Hārūn Ar-Rašīd; 17 March 763 or February 766 — 24 March 809) was the fifth Abbasid Caliph. His birth date is debated, with various sources giving dates from 763 to 766. His surname translates to "the Just", "the Upright", or "the Rightly-Guided"; fully translated, his name means "Harun the Just". Al-Rashid ruled from 786 to 809, during the peak of the Islamic Golden Age. His time was marked by scientific, cultural, and religious prosperity. Islamic art and music also flourished significantly during his reign. He established the legendary library Bayt al-Hikma ("House of Wisdom") in Baghdad in present-day Iraq, and during his rule Baghdad began to flourish as a center of knowledge, culture and trade.[1] During his rule, the family of Barmakids, which played a deciding role in establishing the Abbasid Caliphate, declined gradually. In 796, he moved his court and government to Ar-Raqqah in present-day Syria.

Since Harun was intellectually, politically, and militarily resourceful, his life and his court have been the subject of many tales, some factual, but most believed to be fictitious. One factual tale is the story of the clock that was among various presents that Harun sent to Charlemagne. The presents were carried by the returning Frankish mission that came to offer Harun friendship in 799. Charlemagne and his retinue deemed the clock to be a conjuration for the sounds it emanated and the tricks it displayed every time an hour ticked.[2] Among what is known to be fictional is The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, which contains many stories that are fantasized by Harun's magnificent court and even Harun al-Rashid himself.[3]

Amongst some of the Twelver sect of Shia Muslims he is disliked for his supposed role in the murder of their 7th Imam (Musa ibn Ja'far), although Sunnis and Zaidiyyah Shia do not believe the historicity of this.


Hārūn was born in Rey, then part of Jibal in the Abbasid Caliphate, in present-day Tehran Province, Iran. He was the son of al-Mahdi, the third Abbasid caliph (ruled 775 – 785), and al-Khayzuran, a former slave girl from Yemen, who was a woman of strong personality and who greatly influenced affairs of state in the reigns of her husband, mother and sons.

Hārūn was 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, Yahya's sons (especially Ja'far ibn Yahya), and other Barmakids generally controlled the administration.

The Barmakids were a Persian family (from Balkh) that dated back to the Barmak a hereditary Buddhist priest of Nava Vihara, who converted after the Islamic conquest of Balkh and became very powerful under al-Mahdi. Yahya had helped 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; and Ja'far's release of Yahya ibn Abdallah ibn Hasan, whom Harun had imprisoned.

During the reign of the Harun al-Rashid, the city of Baghdad began to flourish as a center of knowledge, culture and trade.

The fall of the Barmakids is far more likely due to their behaving in a manner that Harun found disrespectful (such as entering his court unannounced) and making decisions in matters of state without first consulting him. Al-Fadl ibn al-Rabi succeeded Yahya the Barmakid as Harun's chief minister.

Hārūn became caliph when he was in his early twenties. Before that, in 780 and again in 782, he had already nominally led campaigns against the Caliphate's traditional enemy, the Byzantine Empire, which was under the rule of empress Irene of Athens. The latter expedition was a huge undertaking, and even reached the Asian suburbs of Constantinople. 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. 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.[4]

A silver dirham minted in Madinat al-Salam (Bagdad) in 170 AH (786 CE). At the reverse, the inner marginal inscription says: "By order of the slave of God, Harun, Commander of the Faithful"

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, Hārūn 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 did he return to Baghdad for a short visit. Several reasons might have influenced the decision to move to ar-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.

Because of the Thousand and One Nights tales, Harun ar-Rashid turned into a legendary figure obscuring his true historic personality. In fact, his reign initiated the political disintegration of the Abbasid caliphate. Syria was inhabited by tribes with Umayyad sympathies and remained the bitter enemy of the Abbasids, while Egypt witnessed uprisings against Abbasids due to maladministration and arbitrary taxation. The Umayyads had been established in Spain in 755, the Idrisids in Morocco in 788, and the Aghlabids in Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) in 800. Besides, unrest flared up in Yemen, and the Kharijites rose in rebellion in Daylam, Kerman, Fars and Sistan. Revolts also broke out in Khorasan, and ar-Rashid waged many campaigns against the Byzantines.

Map of the Muslim expansion and the Muslim world under the Umayyad and early Abbasid caliphates

For the administration of the whole empire, he fell back on his mentor and longtime associate Yahya bin Khalid bin Barmak. Rashid appointed him as his vizier with full executive powers, and, for seventeen years, this man Yahya and his sons, served Rashid faithfully in whatever assignment he entrusted to them.[5]

Ar-Rashid appointed Ali bin Isa bin Mahan as the governor of Khorasan, who tried to bring to heel the princes and chieftains of the region, and to reimpose the full authority of the central government on them. This new policy met with fierce resistance and provoked numerous uprisings in the region. A major revolt led by Rafi ibn al-Layth was started in Samarqand which forced Harun ar-Rashid to move to Khorasan. He first removed and arrested Ali bin Isa bin Mahan but the revolt continued unchecked. Harun ar-Rashid died very soon when he reached Sanabad village in Tus and was buried in Dar al-Imarah, the summer palace of Humayd ibn Qahtaba, the Abbasid governor of Khorasan. Due to this historical event, the Dar al-Imarah was known as the Mausoleum of Haruniyyeh.

Ar-Rashid virtually dismembered the empire by apportioning it between his two sons al-Amin and al-Ma'mun (with his third son, al-Qasim, being belatedly added after them). Very soon it became clear that by dividing the empire, Rashid had actually helped to set the opposing parties against one another, and had provided them with sufficient resources to become independent of each other.[citation needed] After the death of Harun ar-Rashid, civil war broke out in the empire between his two sons, al-Amin and al-Ma'mun, which spiralled into a prolonged period of turmoil and warfare throughout the Caliphate, ending only with Ma'mun's final triumph in 827.

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. 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.

When the Byzantine empress Irene was deposed, Nikephoros I became emperor and refused to pay tribute to Harun, saying that Irene should have been receiving the tribute the whole time. News of this angered Harun, who wrote a message on the back of the Roman emperor's letter and said "In the name of God the most merciful, From Amir al-Mu'minin Harun ar-Rashid, commander of the faithful, to Nikephoros, dog of the Romans. Thou shalt not hear, thou shalt behold my reply". After campaigns in Asia Minor, Nikephoros was forced to conclude a treaty, with humiliating terms.[6][7]

Harun made pilgrimages 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 ar-Rashid died, there were nine hundred million odd (dirhams) in the state treasury."

An alliance was established with the Chinese Tang dynasty by Ar-Rashid after he sent embassies to China.[8][9] He was called "A-lun" in the Chinese T'ang Annals.[10] The alliance was aimed against the Tibetans.[11][12][13][14][15][16]

In 808, Harun went to settle the insurrection of Rafi ibn al-Layth in Transoxania, became ill, and died in 809. He was buried under the palace of Hamid ibn Qahtabi, the governor of Khorasan. The location later became known as Mashhad ("The Place of Martyrdom") because of the martyrdom of Imam ar-Ridha in 818.


Many anecdotes attached themselves to the person of Harun ar-Rashid in the centuries following his rule. Saadi of Shiraz inserted a number of them into his Gulistan, in one telling how Harun enjoined his son to forgiveness.

Al-Masudi relates a number of interesting anecdotes in The Meadows of Gold illuminating the character of this caliph. For example, he recounts 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.[17]

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.

Popular culture and references[edit]

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?
  • O. Henry uses the character in his story "The Caliph And The Cad". The theme of the story is "turning the tables on Haroun al Raschid".
  • 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 in several of the stories in some of the oldest versions of the One Thousand and One 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 a 1923 poem by W.B. Yeats, "The Gift of Harun al-Rashid".
  • A story of one of Harun's wanderings provides the climax to the narrative game of titles at the end of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (1979). In Calvino's story, Harun wanders at night, only to be drawn into a conspiracy in which he is selected to assassinate the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid.
  • In Charles Dickens' 1842 travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, he compares American supporters of slavery to the "Caliph Harun al-Rashid in his angry robe of scarlet".
  • The two protagonists of Salman Rushdie's 1990 novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories are Haroun and his father Rashid Khalifa.
  • In the Sten science fiction novels by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch, the character of the Eternal Emperor uses the name "H. E. Raschid" when incognito; this is confirmed, in the final book of the series, as a reference to the character from Burton's translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.
  • In Roald Dahl's story The BFG, the Sultan of Baghdad says he had an uncle called Caliph Harun al-Rashid who disappeared with his wife and ten children.
  • 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 Baghdad 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 righteous").
  • The comic book The Sandman features a story (issue 50, "Ramadan") set in the world of the One Thousand and One Nights, with Hārūn ar-Rashīd as the protagonist. It highlights his historical and mythical role as well as his discussion of the transitory nature of power. The story is included in the collection The Sandman: Fables and Reflections.
  • Haroun El Poussah in the French comic strip Iznogoud is a satirical version of Hārūn ar-Rashīd.
  • In Quest for Glory II, the sultan who adopts the Hero as his son is named Hārūn ar-Rashīd. He is often seen prophesying on the streets of Shapeir as The Poet Omar.
  • Harun al-Rashid appears as the leader of Arabia in the video game Civilization 5.[18]
  • Future US President Theodore Roosevelt, when he was a New York Police Department Commissioner, was called in the local newspapers "Haroun-al-Roosevelt".
  • In The Master and Margarita, by novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, Harun al-Rashid is referenced by the character Korovyev in which he warns a door man not to judge him "by [his] suit," and to reference the story of "the famous caliph, Harun al-Rashid".
  • In the 1924 film Waxworks, a poet is hired by a wax museum proprietor to write back-stories for three wax models. Among these wax models is Harun al-Rashid, played by Emil Jannings.
  • In the 2006 novel Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson, chapter 1 is prefaced with a quotation from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Recollections of the Arabian Nights" regarding "good Harun Alrashid," the relevance of which becomes apparent in chapter 2 when one character relates stories (probably apocryphal and presumably drawn from Tennyson) of Harun al-Rahsid to another character in order to use them as an analogy.
  • The second chapter in the novel Prince Otto by Robert Louis Stevenson has the title "In which the Prince Plays Haroun al-Raschid".
  • Haroun al-Rashid has a character page in the video game Crusader Kings II, and it is possible to play as his descendants of the Abbasid dynasty.
  • Harun al-Rashid is mentioned in passing by the character Madame de Villefort in Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo as an example of how different cultures react to poisoners.


  1. ^ Audun Holme, Geometry: Our Cultural Heritage p. 150.
  2. ^ André Clot, Harun al-Rashid and the world of the thousand and one nights, p. 97.
  3. ^ André Clot, Harun al-Rashid and the world of the thousand and one nights.
  4. ^ New Arabian nights' entertainments, Volume 3
  5. ^ Masʻūdī, Paul Lunde, Caroline Stone, The meadows of gold: the Abbasids page 62
  6. ^ Tarikh ath-Thabari 4/668-669
  7. ^ Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya wa'l-Nihaya v 13 .p 650
  8. ^ Dennis Bloodworth, Ching Ping Bloodworth (2004). The Chinese Machiavelli: 3000 years of Chinese statecraft. Transaction Publishers. p. 214. ISBN 0-7658-0568-5. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  9. ^ Herbert Allen Giles (1926). Confucianism and its rivals. Forgotten Books. p. 139. ISBN 1-60680-248-8. Retrieved 2011-12-14. 
  10. ^ Marshall Broomhall (1910). Islam in China: a neglected problem. LONDON 12 PATERNOSTER BUILDINGS, E.C.: Morgan & Scott, ltd. pp. 25, 26. Retrieved 2011-12-14. 
  11. ^ Bajpai 2002, p. 15.
  12. ^ Bajpai 1981, p. 55.
  13. ^ Bajpai 1970, p. 8.
  14. ^ Chaliand 2004, p. 32.
  15. ^ Luciano Petech, A Study of the Chronicles of Ladakh (Calcutta, 1939), pp. 73-73.
  16. ^ Luciano Petech, A Study of the Chronicles of Ladakh (Calcutta, 1939), pp. 55-85.
  17. ^ Al-Masudi, The Meadows of Gold, p. 94.
  18. ^ Zacny, Rob (December 24, 2010). "Civilization V Field Report 2". GamePro. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Clot, André (1990). Harun Al-Rashid and the Age of a Thousand and One Nights. New Amsterdam Books. ISBN 0-941533-65-4. 
  • St John Philby. Harun al Rashid (London: P. Davies) 1933.
  • 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 [1]
  • William Muir, K.C.S.I., The Caliphate, its rise, decline, and fall [2]
  • Theophanes, "The Chronicle of Theophanes," transl. Harry Turtledove, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1982
  • Norwich, John J. (1991). Byzantium: The Apogee. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ISBN 0-394-53779-3. 
  • Zabeth, Hyder Reza (1999). Landmarks of Mashhad. Alhoda UK. ISBN 964-444-221-0. 

The starting statement that he was the fifth Arab Abbasid Caliph that encompassed modern Iraq is very incomplete because abbaside caliphate during haroon's reign encompassed at least modern day Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and parts of northern Africa.

External links[edit]

Harun al-Rashid
Born: 763 Died: 809
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by
Caliph of Islam
Succeeded by