1902 Encyclopedia > Haroun al Raschid

Haroun al Raschid
(Harun al-Rashid)
Caliph of Baghdad (786-809 AD)

HAROUN AL RASCHID, more properly Harun er Rashid, "Aaron the Orthodox," was the fifth of the Abbaside caliphs of Bagdad. His full name was Harun 'bn Mohammed ibn Abdallah ibn Mohammed ibn Ali 'bn Abdallah ibn Abbas. He was born at Ray the last day of Dhi '1 Heggah, 145 A.H. (20th March 763 A.D.) according to some accounts, and according to others 1st Moharrem 149 A.H. (15th Feb. 766 A.D.). Haroun al Raschid was twenty-two years old when he ascended the throne. His biographers unanimously speak of him as " the most accomplished, eloquent, and generous of the caliphs ;" but, though his name is a household word, and few figures stand out more grandly prominent in the history of their times, little is really popularly known about his private life and personal history.

Raschid owed his own succession to the throne entirely to the prudence and sagacity of Yahya 'bn Khalid ibn Barmek, his secretary, whom, on his accession, he appointed his lieutenant and grand vizier. Yahya, upon whom the whole responsibility of the government really devolved, performed his duties with the most consummate ability and judgment. He fortified the frontiers, and repaired all the deficiencies in the administration of the empire. He filled the treasury, made the provinces flourishing and prosperous by encouraging trade and securing the public safety, and in a word brought the caliphate up to the highest pitch of prosperity and glory. He personally superintended and organized the whole system of govern-ment. As a minister he was eloquent, wise, accomplished, and prudent, and he was moreover an able administrator, ruling with a firm hand and proving himself able to cope with any emergency that might arise. His generosity was munificent in the extreme and gained for him universal encomiums. With a most affable demeanour and great moderation he combined an imposing dignity that com-manded universal respect.

In 182 A.H. (798 A.D.) Al Raschid proclaimed his son Abdallah as his heir apparent after El Amin, his eldest son, whom he had appointed his successor when only five years old, and gave him the post of viceroy of Khorassan. It was on this occasion that he gave Abdallah the name of El Mamiin and confided him to the care of Jaafer, son of Yahya. The historians speak of this act of Raschid's with natural surprise, for he had seen the results of similar policy on the part of his father and of his grandfather, as well as what his brother Hadi had done in his own case.

Yahya, the prime minister, and Jaafer, his son, enjoyed so fully the confidence of Haroun al Raschid that they rapidly rose to wealth and power. The great popularity and influence of the Barmek or Barmecide family, however, at length aroused the caliph's jealousy, and to make matters worse he heard that Jaafer had secretly married his sister. No sooner had he been made acquainted with the facts than he caused his sister to be put to death, ordered Mesriir, his slave and executioner, to bring him Jaafer's head, and next murdered his two inoffending young nephews.

After the fall of the Barmek family the office of prime minister was exercised by Fadhl ibn Rabi" who had been chamberlain to Haroun himself, and to his predecessors Mensiir, Mehdi, and Hadi. He held the office of vizier until the death of Haroun al Raschid himself, which occurred at Tus, the birthplace of the celebrated Persian epic poet Firdousi. Al Raschid had set out for Khorassan to put down the insurrection of Raff ibn Leith ibn Nasr ibn Sayyar, who had revolted against his authority, made him-self master of Samarcand, and killed the governor of that province. The rising had assumed such alarming propor-tions that Al Raschid determined to march in person against the rebels. He had not, however, got further than Tus when he was surprised by death in 193 A.H. (808-9 A.D.).

The reign of Al Raschid was one of the most brilliant in the annals of the caliphate, and the limits of the empire were then more widely extended than at any other period. The greater part of the Eastern world submitted to his laws, and paid tribute into his treasury; Egypt itself was only a province under his sway, and its ruler an officer appointed by himself. No caliph ever gathered round him so great a number of learned men, poets, jurists, grammarians, cadis, and scribes, to say nothing of the wits and musicians who enjoyed his patronage. Haroun himself was an accomplished scholar and an excellent poet. He was well versed in history, tradition, and poetry, which he could always quote on appropriate occasions. He possessed exquisite taste and unerring discernment, and his dignified demeanour made him an object of profound respect to high and low.

Haroun al Raschid is best known to Western readers as the hero of many of the stories in the Arabian Nights; and in Arabic literature he is the central figure of number-less anecdotes and humorous stories. Of his incognito walks through Baghdad, however, the authentic histories say nothing; and the account of his relations with Charlemagne, of which European historians speak, does not rest on a trustworthy basis. His reign is chiefly remarkable for the fact that a family belonging to the pure Persian aristocracy held for so long the reins of power under a caliph whose boast was that he was the only one who came of unmixed Hashimi blood, that of the family from which the prophet of El Islam sprung.

The principal authorities for the history of this period are—the Arabic histories of Ibn El Athir, Ibn Khaldun, and the Tarikh El Khamis; while the best European works to consult on the subject are Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Homam Empire; Osborn's Islam under the Caliphs of Bagdad; and Weil's Oeschichte der Chalifen. (E. H. P.)


According to the Mahometan law of succession the eldest brother or male relative of the reigning monarch is the heir apparent to the throne, and almost all Muslim princes have endeavoured to set aside the claims of their relatives in favour of their own children. El Hadi, Haroun's brother, was no exception to the rule, and conceived the idea of stripping Haroun of his rights and proclaiming his own son Jaafer as his successor. Yahya was then Haroun's secretary, and expected to exercise the important office of vizier if ever his master should mount the throne. Hadi saw that his first step must be to conciliate Yahya ; lie therefore took him apart, and having given him a present of 20,000 dinars began to broach the subject nearest his heart. Yahya, however, brought a very strong argument to bear upon the point: "If you do so, Prince of the Faithful," said he, '' you will set your subjects an example of breaking an oath and dis-regarding a contract, and other people will be bold enough to do the same. But if you leave your brother Haroun in possession of his title of heir apparent and appoint your son Jaafer as next in suc-cession to him, it will be much more likely to secure his ultimate accession to the throne." Hadi allowed the matter to rest for some time, but at length paternal affection got the better of him, and he again summoned Yahya into his presence and consulted him, and Yahya urged that if the caliph should die while Jaafer was yet a child the chiefs of the imperial family would never recognize the validity of his succession. Hadi having acknowledged the truth of this, Yahya continued, " Renounce then this project, in order the better to arrive at the consummation of your wishes. Even if your father El Mehdi had not appointed Haroun to succeed you it would be policy on your part to do so, inasmuch as that is the only way to ensure the continuance of the caliphate in the family of the Beni Hashem." Raschid ever afterwards acknowledged this as the Greatest obligation which he owed to Yahya.

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