What was and what might have been

By Dr. Paul Stenhouse © 2008 Chevalier Press. Used by permission.

As the 'Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid lay on his death-bed in 809 AD in Tus, Khurasan, in what is today Iran, he listened to gossips blaming his physician Jibril bin Bukhtishu' for mis-prescribing medicine and causing his illness. He decided to have him put to death and to have him dismembered as had earlier been done at his command to Bashir, the brother of his enemy Rafi' bin Layth bin Nasr bin Sayyar.[1]

Bashir had been captured and brought to the Caliph as he lay ill in bed. When Bashir begged for mercy, Harun al-Rashid ordered him to be dismembered by a butcher with blunt knives. When his body had been cut into fourteen pieces the Caliph praised Allah for permitting him to exact vengeance "to your [i.e. Allah's] satisfaction."[2]

The wily [and almost certainly innocent] physician, grandson of the Nestorian Christian physician of al-Rashid's own grandfather, al-Mansur, begged that he be granted a respite until the following morning. The Caliph died before morning came and the Bukhtishu' family continued its monopoly on the Baghdad court medical practice for another four generations.[3]

Much is made by Islamic apologists these days of the Golden Age of Islam represented by the 'Abbasid Caliphate with Baghdad as its capital.[4] Its high point is associated with the reign of Harun bin Muhammad bin 'Abd Allah better known from the ever-popular collection of colourful Indian, Persian and Arab legends, The Thousand Nights and One Night, which feature him, and describe him as Harun al-Rashid, i.e. Harun the "rightly-guided."

Harun was a child of his time - a good friend, chivalrous and generous at times, but changeable, and a bad enemy. At his worst he was as Richard Burton describes some contemporary Arabs, "a mere barbarian, [whose] acts of revolting savagery are the natural results of a malignant fanaticism and a furious hatred of every creed beyond the pale of al-Islam."[5]

As his media image, and the myth of the "Golden Age" is largely derived from the compilation of tales of The Thousand Nights and One Night, it is well to remember that according to contemporary Muslim ideas to which the Nights appealed for their popularity, his headstrong and violent nature fitted him perfectly for the role of autocratic Caliph.

His life was filled with blood-letting. When Harun was fourteen, and again when he was sixteen years-old, he was appointed by his father - the Caliph al-Mahdi - to lead expeditions against the Byzantines. These were successful. In the latter expedition 54,000 Byzantines were killed in battle, and 2,090 prisoners were put to death.[6] The planning and leadership fell to others more experienced but in the light of these victories his father gave him the title by which we remember him still: Harun the "rightly-guided".[7]

The title caught on. When just a sixteen-year-old, Harun [like Alexander the Great] was proclaimed "governor" not [like Alexander] of Byzantium, but of Africa, Egypt, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Again unlike Alexander in Byzantium, the day-to-day affairs of these regions were again run by others: in this instance by Harun's mentor and secretary Yahya bin Khalid whom he called "father", and whose influence on the young prince and on the welfare of the 'Abbasids was positive and even crucial.

Despite Harun's having been nominated as his successor by the Caliph, his elder brother Musa al-Hadi became Caliph after al-Mahdi died under suspicious circumstances.[8] Harun was 19 years old. It was only when al-Hadi himself died mysteriously in 786 AD as a result of a palace conspiracy[9] that Harun succeeded to the throne at the age of twenty.

Life as a pampered if insecure youngster in al-Mahdi's lax and hedonistic court did not prepare the young Harun for the kind of independent and magnanimous thinking necessary to rule the fractured and fractious Muslim empire he inherited.

He handed administration over to Yahya and his two sons, al-Fadl and Ja'fr - and these wazirs of Persian origin virtually ruled the empire for seventeen years. Their rule was nicknamed Barmakid because Yahya's grandfather was a Barmak or chief priest in a Buddhist monastery in Persia.

On the whole, the Shi'ite Barmakids ruled wisely and well; too well, as it turned out, for the Sunni Harun al-Rashid, who eventually grew to fear their great power and wealth.

He had his former mentor Yahya, along with Yahya's son al-Fadl [who was Harun's foster-brother because their mothers had suckled each other's child], and two other sons Muhammad and Musa [of whom it was said "they did good, and harmed no one"][10] imprisoned until they died. AI-Fadl died in prison five months before the Caliph died.

Ja'fr, the remaining son, famous as an adviser of calm good sense, a peacemaker and even more generous than his ever-generous father and siblings,[11] was beheaded. His head was impaled on the Middle bridge in Baghdad, and the other two halves of his body impaled on the Upper and Lower bridges.[12]

The page Yasir, whom Harun ordered to behead Ja'fr, was himself immediately beheaded because the Caliph "could not bear to look upon the slayer of Ja'fr."[13]

All the Barmakid family's wealth [30,672,000 dinars in cash alone] and property was confiscated, and all their family members, retainers, slaves and agents were arrested and according to one source, massacred.[14]

The grisly end of Yahya and his family is doubly ironical, granted that Harun would never have become Caliph without the Barmakids' endorsement of his claim, and the loyal advice of Yahya and assistance of the sons.

The "rightly-guided" Caliph was only following the example of his bloodthirsty grandfather, Ja'fr al-Mansur ["rendered victorious by God"], who had his paternal uncle 'Abd Allah to whom he owed the Caliphate, murdered.

After imprisoning 'Abd Allah for seven years he had him put in a house whose foundations were made of salt and that was surrounded by water. The house collapsed on 'Abd Allah and killed him.[15]

The other person to whom al-Mansur owed his throne was Abu-Muslim from Khurasan, who had defeated 'Abd Allah. He was prevailed upon to visit the court, and was treacherously killed.[16]

The 'Abbasids had gained the Caliphal throne of the 'Umayyads whom they exterminated almost to the last family member, by posing as sympathizers if not kin of the Persian Shi'ites known as the 'Alids.

With 'Abbasid victory, the Caliphate was moved from Damascus to Baghdad, and the mask dropped. Harun al-Rashid continued the 'Abbasid animosity towards their former allies, and especially towards the Zindiks, or Muslim Manichees,[17] of predominantly Persian origin.

Throughout the 'Umayyad Caliphate, despite being nominally Muslim, Syria remained predominantly Christian. This was to change under the 'Abbasids, especially under the intolerant regime of Harun. Christian churches along the border with Byzantine territory were demolished, and Jews and Christians had to wear different clothes from the Muslims.

According to scholars the reign of Harun was a high point, but like many such, it was also a turning point for the 'Abbasid dynasty and for Islamic culture.

The legends about the Caliph of Baghdad in the Thousand Nights and One Night make much of the magnificence and luxury[18] and frivolity that was a feature of 'Abbasid life in the time of Harun al-Rashid, but as Philip Hitti writes: "[of] the humdrum life of the ordinary citizen in Baghdad and the feelings that surged in the breast of the common man, we find little in the sources ..."[19]

Between 797 and 806 AD western chroniclers[20] report that Charlemagne the emperor of the Franks in the West exchanged embassies and presents with Harun al-Rashid in the East. Charlemagne may have been seeking a possible ally against a hostile Byzantine empire, and Harun may have wanted assistance against the rival 'Umayyad Caliphate in Cordova set up by 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiyah one of the few members of the 'Umayyad dynasty to escape the Abbasid spies and assassins who dogged his every step until he reached Spain in 755 AD.

Muslim authors are silent on the matter of the embassies between Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid, though "Aaron the king of Persia" can be none other than Harun the 5th Caliph of Baghdad.

In 800 AD the keys to the Holy Sepulchre had been sent to Charlemagne and some thought these to have been a gift from Harun al-Rashid, or at least sent with his approva1.[21] No reliable evidence has been produced to support this claim.[22] They were sent by the Patriarch of Jerusalem.[23]

The marked decline in the quality of Imperial administration under Harun, along with the much flaunted affluence of the rich few, the continuing battles between Yemenis and the Mudaris [from northern Arabia], between the Sunni and the Shi'a, and the fragmentation of Islam into myriad sects and sub-sects, set in motion forces that were to lead to the eventual disintegration of the Muslim "Empire".[24]

This disintegration occurred despite impressive economic and cultural gains that flowed from the rich trade that extended as far as China and brought brief but dazzling brilliance to the court of the Caliph in Baghdad.

When Harun died in 809 AD the Baghdad treasury contained 900 million silver dirhams [or 630 million gold dinars].[25] One hundred years later, in 908 when the Caliph al-Muktafi died, the treasury contained 100 million gold dinars.[26]

Richard Burton, no slouch as an Arabist, yet tainted, albeit unwittingly, by the political correctness of his day [and ours], predictably contrasted the "civilised and well-regulated rule" of the 'Abbasid Caliph Harun with the "barbarity and turbulence of occidental Christendom," comparing unfavourably the "quasi-savagery of London and Paris whose palatial halls were spread with rushes"' with the "splendid court and luxurious life of Baghdad and its carpets and hangings."[27]

This half-truth holds much appeal for those who like their prejudices to be dished up hot and spicy, but when will pundits admit that comparisons between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, and the mediaeval Muslim empire of the 'Umayyad and 'Abbasid dynasties, are intellectually dishonest, and even dangerous?

The Byzantine Christian empire based in Constantinople, and the Arab Muslim empires based in Damascus and Baghdad, had relatively easy and untrammelled access to earlier civilizations whose knowledge and technologies they inherited [in the case of the Byzantines] or took by main force [in the case of the Arabs]. Their military might and consequent immense wealth gave them the opportunity to enhance and further develop their eclectic cultures despite occasional - mainly external - threats to their political and social integrity.

Western Europe, on the other hand, had been reduced to a cultural and militarily defenceless wasteland, first of all by the transfer under Constantine from 324 AD onwards of much of its wealth, skilled-labour and resources to Byzantium, and then by successive waves of barbarian invaders and by neglect and treachery on the part of the Byzantine Emperors who from 476 AD onwards were officially emperors of Old and New Rome.

Instead of deploring the poverty and intellectual and technological backwardness of Europe in the so-called Dark Ages, critics should wonder in amazement at the intellectual vitality and spiritual resilience of those who survived the depredation of the invaders and the internecine wars caused by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. There was little or no economic or military support from the Eastern empire that closed its borders [apart from the odd incursion westward] and turned in on itself.

The perilous situation for the west was not helped by the constant sniping of some of the Byzantine patriarchs jealous of the pre-eminent position of the Pope, the bishop of Old Rome. This latter, despite being bishop of a devastated and at times almost depopulated city, remained nevertheless successor of the Prince of the Apostles and enjoyed the primacy among Catholic bishops.

Harun al-Rashid's decision to split his empire between his sons was, like Constantine's almost five hundred years earlier, misguided. It sounded the first drum roll of what was to be the death knell of the 'Abbasids and their empire. His subsequent fear of being poisoned boded ill for the future, as did the still simmering popular resentment at the brutal extermination of the Barmakid family.[28]

He designated his eldest son al-Amin his first successor, and Amin's younger and brighter brother al-Ma'mun as his second successor. After Harun's death, a war between the brothers ensued. Al-Amin was murdered in September 813 AD, and a series of rebellions led to four Caliphs occupying the throne of the 'Abbasids in Baghdad over the next 34 years. The so-called "Golden Years" of the 'Abbasids effectively ended with al-Wathiq who died in 847.

The death-knell for the 'Abbasids, however, never stopped sounding until Al-Must'sim, the thirty-seventh and last Caliph of the dynasty, was killed by Mongol forces led by the grandson of Genghis Khan four hundred years later, on February 20, 1258 AD.

Baghdad, officially named Madinat as-Salam or the "city of peace," had been built over a period of four years from 762-766 AD from materials taken from the ruins of Ctesiphon, the greatest and most beautiful royal city of the Sasanid Persians.

Ctesiphon had been captured and pillaged by the marauding Arabian Muslim bands a mere five years after the death of Muhammad in June 637 AD.

Baghdad was to suffer the same fate in 1258 AD: it was to be put to the torch by a terrifying Mongol horde, and the majority of the population and all the family of the last 'Abbasid Caliph were to be massacred. But all that lay in the future.


[1] The History of al-Tabari, State University of New York Press, vol. xxx, #737, p. 301.
[2] ibid. #734/735, pp. 297, 298.
[3] ibid, #737, p. 301.
[4] For an analysis of the treatment of dhimmis or "tolerated" non-Muslims under the 'Abbasids see The Legacy of Jihad, by Andrew G. Bostom, Prometheus Books. 2005, New York, passim.
[5] Richard Burton, "Terminal Essay", The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Private Subscribers' limited edition, vol. x, p. 65.
[6] al-Tabari, op. cit. vol. xxix, #505, p. 221.
[7] ibid. vol. xxix, #506, p. 223.
[8] ibid. vol. xxix #523-526, pp. 243-246.
[9] ibid. vol. xxx, #569ff, pp. 41ff.
[10] al-Mas'udi, ch. cxii, quoted - Richard Burton, "Terminal Essay", The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Private Subscribers' limited edition, vol. x, p. 138.
[11] Richard Burton, "Terminal Essay", The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Private Subscribers' limited edition, vol. x, p. 139.
[12] The History of al-Tabari, State University of New York PresS, vol. xxx, #678ff, pp. 216ff esp. p. 219.
[13] Burton, op. cit. p. 139.
[14] ibid. See also The History of al-Tabari, ed. cit., vol. xxx, #678ff, pp. 216ff. See note 749.
[15] ibid. vol. xxix, #330, p. 16.
[16] ibid. vol. xxix, #433, p. 138.
[17] See among many other references in al-Tabari, op. cit. vol. xxx, #549ff, p. 10ff; and #588ff, pp. 69ff.
[18] When Harun's mother al-Khayzuran died, they found in her house, among her possessioos, eighteen-thousand sleeveless robes of embroided silk. See the Arabic text of al-Tabari, ed. Dar ibn Hazim, 1426 AH. vol. ii, p. 2702.
[19] History of the Arabs, Macmillan 1968, p. 304.
[20] See e.g. Annales Regni Francorum, in Scriptorum Rerum Germanicarum, vol. 43, Hanover 1895, pp. 114, 123-124 quoted Hitti, op. cit., p. 298.
[21] E.g., Louis Brehier, "Croisades", Dictionnaire Apologetique de la Foi Catholique, ed. A D'Ales, Gabriele Beauchesne, Paris, 1925, tome i col. 820. See Eginbard, Vila Karoli, cap. xvi
[22] See Hitti, op. cit. p. 298.
[23] See Einar Joranson, "The Alleged Frankish Protectorate in Palestine," American Historical Review, vol. xxxii, 1927, pp. 241ff.
[24] See "Harun al-Rashid," by F. Omar, Baghdad, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Brill, 1976, vol. 3 p. 232.
[25] The History of al-Tabari, State University of New York Press, vol. xxx, #764, p. 335. See all Hitti, op. cit. p. 321. The dirham was worth 7/10ths of a dinar so 900 million dirhams would = 630 million dinars
[26] 100 million dinars = 130 million dirhams. [27] op. cit. p.136.
[28] See, for example, Richard Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Private Subscribers' limited edition, vol. iv, p. 159 "Ja'fr and the bean seller", and pp. 179, 181.

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