Harun al-Rashid (766-809) was the fifth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. During his reign the power and prosperity of the dynasty was at its height, though its decline is sometimes held to have begun at that time.
In 750 the Abbasid dynasty replaced the Umayyad as rulers of the Islamic Empire, and for a generation they were busy consolidating their rule and overcoming internal disorders. They moved the capital eastward from Damascus to their new city of Baghdad. By 786 the reorganization of the empire was bearing fruit in greater trade and greater wealth, which made possible the luxury now associated with the caliphal court.
Harun al-Rashid was born at Rey near Teheran in 766 (or perhaps 763), the third son of the third Abbasid caliph, Mohammed al-Mahdi. His mother was Khayzuran, a Yemeni slave girl, later freed, who through her husband and son came to have great political influence. As a boy, Harun was nominal leader of military expeditions against the Byzantines in 780 and 782. Because of his victories he received the honorific name al-Rashid (the Upright). He also gained experience as governor of various provinces under the supervision of a high official, Yahya ibn Khalid the Barmakid. In 782 Harun had been named as second in succession to the throne, but on his father's death in 785, the new caliph, his brother al-Hadi, treated him very badly. Al-Hadi, however, died mysteriously in September 786, and Harun was proclaimed caliph. He at once appointed Yahya the Barmakid as his vizier.
For the first 17 years of his reign Harun relied to a great extent on his vizier and two of the vizier's sons, al-Fadl and Jafar. Yahya appears to have been an exceptionally competent administrator and to have shown great wisdom in the selection and training of subordinates; his two sons had similar qualities. The Barmakid family fell from power suddenly with the execution of Jafar on the night of Jan. 28/29, 803, and with the arrest of his father and al-Fadl. The fundamental reason was that they were too powerful and left too little scope to the caliph.
Although the caliphate was now mostly pacified and there were no major revolts, there was an almost constant series of local insurrections. In the earlier part of the reign there were troubles in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Yemen, and Daylam (south of the Caspian Sea), and in 806 a more serious revolt in Khurasan under Rafi ibn Layth. The difficulty of holding together an empire as vast as Harun's led to the establishment of an independent principality in Morocco by the Idrisid dynasty in 789 and of a semi-independent one in Tunisia by the Aghlabid dynasty in 800. These marked a loss of power by the central government. The danger of disintegration was increased by Harun's unwise arrangement for succession. It provided for one son, al-Amin, to become caliph and for another son, al-Mamun, to have control of certain provinces and of a section of the army.
Harun took a personal interest in the campaigns against the Byzantines, leading expeditions in 797, 803, and 806. In 797 the empress Irene made peace and agreed to pay a large sum of money. The emperor Nicephorus denounced this treaty but was forced to make an even more humiliating one in 806. Cyprus was occupied in 805. Though not mentioned in Arabic sources, there seem to have been diplomatic contacts between Harun and Charlemagne, in which the latter was recognized as protector of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. Harun died at Tus in eastern Persia on March 24, 809, during an expedition to restore order there.
Although the poet, thinking of some of the stories of the Arabian Nights, could speak of "the good Haroun Alraschid, " the scholar R. A. Nicholson thought he was rather "a perfidious and irascible tyrant, whose fitful amiability and real taste for music and letters hardly entitle him to be described either as a great monarch or a good man."
Yet with all its violence and cruelty and its readiness to have human beings executed and tortured, the court of Harun al-Rashid undoubtedly had something which later ages admire. It was far from being without a conscience, and in the quality of its living there were elements of grandeur and nobility of style; and the tone of this life was set by Harun and the Barmakids.
There is no recent scholarly work on Harun. E. H. Palmer, Harun Alraschid: Caliph of Bagdad (1881), is out of date. H. St. J. B. Philby, Harun al Rashid (1933), is popular but based on secondary sources. F. W. Buckler, Harunu'l-Rashid and Charles the Great (1931), deals in detail with the diplomatic exchanges between the monarchs. Nabia Abbott, Two Queens of Baghdad (1946), describes court life and shows the influence of Khayzuran, Harun's mother, and of Zubayda, his wife. There are also brief accounts in general histories. The stories about Harun may be found in translations of the Arabian Nights (or Thousand and One Nights), with great differences between different versions.
Glubb, John Bagot, Sir, Haroon al Rasheed and the great Abbasids, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976.