Harun al-Rashid Research Paper

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From 786 to 809 CE Harun al-Rashid ruled as the Abbasid dynasty’s fifth caliphate. It was a culturally dynamic period marked by important developments in Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy (with the continued translation of Greek works), literature (with the integration of Persian influences), and personal piety (with the emergence of early Sufism). Al-Rashid’s reign can be characterized as a mixture of military aggression and pragmatic diplomacy.

Harun al-Rashid ibn Muhammad al-Mahdi ibn al-Mansur al-‘Abbasi reigned as “al-Rashid,” the fifth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty (749/50–1258), from 786 to 809 CE. His reign was pivotal in the administrative and institutional development of the caliphate, marking in many senses the zenith which presaged its decline. His contacts with the Latin West, and his relationship to The One Thousand and One Nights, made him a famous, if overly romanticized, figure.

Harun was likely born in al-Rayy (modern Shahre- Rey in Iran) in February 766 CE, the third son of the caliph al-Mahdi (reigned 775–785 CE) by a slave from Yemen named al-Khayzurun. Although he grew up in the luxury of the increasingly decadent caliphal court, young Harun gained military and administrative experience, at least nominally, in expeditions against Byzantium and as governor of the western provinces. His candidature for caliph was stage-managed by his mother and Yahya ibn Khalid (d. 805 CE), a scion of the powerful Barmakid family. He suffered under the rule of his brother al-Hadi (reigned 785–786 CE), whose death under suspicious circumstances left the way clear for Harun’s succession. As caliph he assumed the honorific al-Rashid (“the Rightly Guided”).

The Barmakids remained the real power behind the throne until 803, by which time al-Rashid had established an independent administrative regime based on palace slaves and clients who owed their loyalty to him alone—a pattern that was to be followed in future caliphates. Under al-Rashid’s rule, the caliphate was torn by forces of decentralization, characterized by the loss or impending loss of Africa, Khorasan (present-day northeastern Iran), and Yemen. Much of this was due to factors beyond the ruler’s control, although some of his policies, including dividing his realms among his chief heirs, hastened the subsequent decline.

The period comprising his rule was culturally dynamic, marked by important developments in Islamic jurisprudence (including the development of Malikism, one of the four main schools of jurisprudence), philosophy (with the continued translation of Greek works), literature (with the integration of Persian influences) and personal piety (with the emergence of early Sufism).

Al-Rashid’s relationship with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) was characterized by a mixture of military aggression and pragmatic diplomacy. Byzantium made a suitable object for the regular raiding that a caliph was ideally expected to carry out against the non-Muslim world, and al-Rashid himself led many such missions. Although these did not result in permanent territorial gains, they forced the Empress Irene (reigned 780–802 CE), under pressure from the Bulgarians, to seek a peace treaty. Al-Rashid was compelled to accept given the threat of the Khazars, Turkic tribal allies of Byzantium who controlled European Russia.

In 798 Charlemagne (742?–814 CE), the Frankish king and aspirant to the title of Holy Roman Emperor, sent an embassy to Baghdad, proposing an alliance against Irene. In 801 al-Rashid reciprocated, sending an embassy to Aachen under the direction of a Jewish merchant named Isaac and bearing a number of notable gifts, including a water clock and an elephant. No practicable alliance resulted, but certain general accords were reached concerning trade and travel. In 806, however, a spectacular Abbasid military victory against Irene’s usurper, Nicephorus, forced Byzantium into humiliating submission.

Al-Rashid’s rival in the far west, the Umayyad emirate of al-Andalus (on the Iberian Peninsula), also benefited from contacts with the Abbasid caliphate, primarily in matters of culture and technology. Al- Rashid’s patronage of the musical innovator Ziryab prompted envy in the Ziryab’s master, the head court musician Ishaq al-Mawsili, who orchestrated Ziryab’s exile. In 821 CE Ziryab arrived in Cordoba, where he rapidly became a favorite of the emir and an arbiter of taste among the Andalusi aristocracy, single-handedly revolutionizing western Mediterranean cooking, poetry, music, and dress habits.

The Abbasids had long-standing trade and diplomatic relations with China, both via the Indian Ocean and overland, through the mediation of Jewish merchants, the Radhans. From the mid-eighth century, China and the caliphate were political rivals in Transoxiania (northeast of Khorasan), and Muslims began to intervene occasionally in Chinese internal power struggles. A regular series of diplomatic missions had been sent to the Tang emperors since the early 700s; this was continued under al-Rashid.

The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of folktales and parables drawn from Arabic, Persian, and Indian traditions, several of which feature al- Rashid as a leading character, are the primary source of the caliph’s image in the modern West. The first European-language version appeared in French in 1704 and was eventually followed by Richard Burton’s The Arabian Nights (1885–1888). Thanks largely to this, al-Rashid enjoys a reputation as a cultured, wise, and effective ruler, an assessment which does not necessarily conform to the historical evidence.


  1. Al-Tabari, & Bosworth, C. E. (1989). The ‘Abbasid Caliphate in equilibrium. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. Clot, A. (1989). Harun Al-Rashid and the world of The Thousand and One Nights. London: Saqi.
  3. El-Hibri, T. (1999). Reinterpreting Islamic historiography: Harun al-Rashid and the narrative of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Hodgson, M. G. S. (1961). The venture of Islam:Vol. 1. The classical age of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Le Strange, G. (1983). Baghdad during the Abbasid caliphate: From contemporary Arabic and Persian sources. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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