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Harun al-Rashid

Harun al-Rashid of Abbasid Dynasty
Caliph of Baghdad
Persian miniature depicting Hārūn ar-Rashīd.
Reign 14 September 786 - 24 March 809
15 Rabi' al-awwal 170AH - 3 Jumada al-thani 193AH
Born March 17, 763(763-03-17)
Birthplace Rayy / close to modern Tehran, Iran
Died 24 March 809 (aged 46)
Place of death Tus present day Mahshad, Iran
Predecessor Abu Abdullah Musa ibn Mahdi al-Hadi
Successor Muhammad ibn Harun al-Amin
Dynasty Abbasid
Father Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi
Mother Al-Khayzuran

Hārūn al-Rashīd (Arabic: and Persian:هارون الرشيد‎; also spelled Harun ar-Rashid; English: Aaron the Upright, Aaron the Just, or Aaron the Rightly-Guided; March 17, 763March 24, 809) was the fifth and most famous Abbasid Caliph. He was born in Rayy, near Tehran, Iran, and lived in Baghdad, Iraq and most of his reign in Ar Raqqah at the middle Euphrates.

He ruled from 786 to 809, and his time was marked by scientific, cultural and religious prosperity. Art and music also flourished significantly during his reign. He established the library Bayt al-Hikma ("House of Wisdom").

Since Harun was intellectually, politically and militarily resourceful, his life and the court over which he held sway have been the subject of many fictional tales: some are factual but most are believed to be fictitious. An example of what is known to be factual is the story of the Clock that was among various presents that Harun had delightfully 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 emanates and the tricks it displays every time an hour ticks. Among what is known to be fictional is the famous The Book of One Thousand and One Nights containing many stories that are fantasized by Harun's magnificent court, and even Harun al-Rashid himself.



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

Hārūn was strongly 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, his sons, and other Barmakids generally controlled the administration.

The Barmakids were a Persian family that had become very powerful under al-Mahdi. Yahya had aided 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, Jafar's release of Yahya ibn Abdallah ibn Hasan whom Harun had imprisoned, the ostentatious wealth of the Barmakids and the alleged romantic relationship between Yahya's son and Harun's sister Abasa.

The latter allegation is specified in the following tale; Hārūn loved to have his own sister Abbasa and Jafar with him at times of recreation. Since Muslim etiquette forbade their common presence, Hārūn had Jafar marry Abbassa on the understanding that the marriage was purely nominal. Nonetheless, the two consummated the marriage. Some versions have it that she entered Jafar's bedroom in the darkness, masquerading as one of his slave girls. A child given secret birth was sent by her to Mecca but a maid, quarrelling with her mistress, made known the scandal. Hārūn, while on a pilgrimage in Mecca, heard the story and ascertained that the tale was probably true. On his return shortly after, he had Jafar executed, whose body was despatched to Baghdad, and there, divided in two, impaled on either side of the bridge. It stayed there for three years, when Harun, happening to pass through Baghdad from the East, gave command for the remains to be taken down and burned. On the death of Jafar, his father and brother were both cast into prison.

This romantic story is highly doubted by Ibn Khaldun and most modern scholars.[1] The fall of the Barmakids is far more likely due to the fact that Barmakids were behaving in a manner that Harun found disrespectful (such as entering his court unannounced) and were making decisions of the state without consulting him first.

Hārūn became caliph when he was in his early twenties. 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 slave-girl. 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.

Julius Köckert's painting of Harun ar-Rashid receiving the delegation of Charlemagne.

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 the Caliph Hārūn decided to reign his court and the government to his father like he did before Ar Raqqah at the middle Euphrates. Here he spent 12 years, most of his reign. Only once he returned 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.

Hārūn gave great encouragement to learning, poetry and music. He was a scholar and poet himself and whenever he heard of learned men in his own kingdom, or in neighboring countries, he invited them to his court and treated them with respect. The name of Hārūn, therefore, became known throughout the world. At Tabari refers to the physician Mankah coming from India to treat Harun.[2] Harun had diplomatic relations with China and with Charlemagne.

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 empress Irene was deposed, Nicephorus became emperor and refused to pay tribute to Harun, saying that Irene should have been receiving the tribute the whole time. Then Harun became angry and said that Nicephorus would soon see his answer. Harun made the pilgrimage 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 al-Rashid died, there were nine hundred million odd (dirhams) in the state treasury.

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

Al-Masudi's Anecdotes

Al-Masudi relates a number of interesting anecdotes in The Meadows of Gold illuminating the character of this famous caliph. For example, he recounts (p. 94) 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.[3]

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.


  • 763: Hārūn is born on March 17, the son of Caliph al-Mahdi and the Yemeni girl al-Khayzuran.
  • 780: Hārūn is the leader of military expeditions against the Byzantine Empire.
  • 782: Hārūn is leader of a military campaign against the Byzantine Empire reaching as far as the Bosporus. A peace treaty is signed on favourable terms. Harun receives the honorific title ar-Rashīd, named second in succession to the caliphal throne and also appointed governor of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • 786: September 14: Hārūn's brother al-Hadi dies under mysterious circumstances — it was rumoured that his mother al-Khayzuran was responsible. Hārūn becomes the new caliph and makes Yahya the Barmakid his Grand Vizier - but al-Khayzuran exercised much influence over the politics.
  • 789: al-Khayzuran dies, leaving more of the effective power in the hands of Hārūn.
  • 791: Hārūn wages war against the Byzantine Empire.
  • 795: To prevent Shiite rebellions, Hārūn imprisons Musa al-Kazim, the Shiite imam.
  • 796: Hārūn moves the Imperial residence and the government from Baghdad to ar-Raqqah.
  • 799: Hārūn orders Sindi ibn Shahiq to poison the 7th Shiite Imam Musa al-Kazim, causing the death of the Shiite leader in prison, four years after having been imprisoned by Hārūn.
  • 800: Hārūn appoints Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab governor over Tunisia, making him a semi-autonomous ruler in return for substantial yearly payments.
  • 802: Hārūn gives two albino elephants to Charlemagne as a diplomatic gift.
  • 803: Yahya dies, and even more of effective power comes in the hands of Hārūn.
  • 805: Harun defeats Emperor Nikephoros I Logothetes at the Battle of Krasos
  • 807: Hārūn's forces occupy Cyprus.
  • 809: Lead 5 expeditions against Abdurrahman Ad-Dakhil in Cyprus, wins the first battle in the north of Cyprus. Attacked by Ali An-Zabuhn while praying on Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, received injuries to his eyes. He died on November 30 after being injured for 1 day.

Hārūn is widely considered the greatest of the Abbasid caliphs, presiding over the Arab Empire at its political and cultural peak. Consequently, Islamic literature (the work of ibn Kathir, for example) has raised him to the level of an ideal figure, a great military and intellectual leader, even a paragon for future rulers to emulate. His best-known portrayal in the West, in the stories of the Thousand and One Nights, has little basis in historical fact, but does show the mythic stature he has attained over time.

Popular culture and references


  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem which started
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 this character in his theme "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 throughout several of the stories of some of the oldest versions of the 1001 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 the 1923 poem by W.B. Yeats "The Gift of Harun al-Rashid".
  • Harun al-Rashid is noted in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita by the character Korovyov.
  • 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.
  • The two protagonists of Salman Rushdie's 1990 novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories are Haroun and his father Rashid Khalifa.
  • Harun al-Rashid, as portrayed in 1001 nights is used as a role-model for the character Jinny Hamilton, the young heiress to the solar system-wide Conrad empire, in Spider Robinson's novel Variable Star.
  • In the Science Fiction "Sten" 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 One Thousand Nights and a Night.


  • 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 Bagdad 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 comic book The Sandman issue 50 featured a story (No. 50, "Ramadan") set in the world of the Arabian Nights, with Hārūn ar-Rashīd as the protagonist. 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.
  • The graphic novel Dschinn Dschinn by Ralf König has as its backstory the delegation from Harun bringing gifts to Charlemagne.
  • He appears in Doraemon long story, Dorabian Night when Doraemon and his friends first came to Baghdad


  • In Quest for Glory II, the sultan who adopts the Hero as his son is named Hārūn ar-Rashīd. He is often seen prophesizing on the streets of Shapeir as The Poet Omar.


Future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, when he was a New York Police Department Commissioner, was called in the local newspapers "Haroun-al-Roosevelt" for his habit of lonely all-night rambles on the streets of Manhattan, surreptitiously catching police officers off their posts. (Harun al-Rashid is said in the 1001 Nights to have wandered Baghdad at night dressed as a merchant in order to observe the lives of his subjects).


  1. ^ See the translator's note on page 215 of at Tabari v. 30.
  2. ^ Tabari, v. 30m p. 313.
  3. ^ Al-Masudi, The Meadows of Gold, p. 94.

References and further reading

  • 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, Andre (1990). Harun Al-Rashid and the Age of a Thousand and One Nights. New Amsterdam Books. ISBN 0941533654. 
  • 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 9644442210. 

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