Reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Hārūn al-Rashīd’s reign marks one of the high points in the power and authority of the ՙAbbāsid caliphate and the Golden Age of the Islamic Empire centered on the capital at Baghdad. He encouraged thriving intellectual and cultural activities and saw to the caliphate’s rise in industry and trade.

Summary of Event

In 750 the ՙAbbāsid family, which claimed descent from the Prophet Muḥammad’s paternal uncle, ՙAbbās (566-c. 653), overthrew the reigning Umayyad Dynasty Umayyad caliphate and assumed leadership over the vast Islamic Empire. The second ՙAbbāsid caliph, al-Manṣūr Manṣūr, al-(ՙAbbāsid caliph) (r. 754-775), in 762-763 developed the site of the village of Baghdad (literally, “the gift of God”) in Mesopotamia into the imperial capital and, ultimately, a sprawling metropolis. Al-Mahdī Mahdī, al- , who followed his father al-Manṣūr as the third caliph (r. 775-785), numbered among his children two sons: al-Hīdī Hīdī, al- and Hārūn al-Rashīd. [kw]Reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd (786-809) [kw]Hārūn al-Rashīd, Reign of (786-809) Hārūn al-Rashīd ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids] Iraq;786-809: Reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd[0750] Syria;786-809: Reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd[0750] Turkey;786-809: Reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd[0750] Arabia;786-809: Reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd[0750] Cultural and intellectual history;786-809: Reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd[0750] Government and politics;786-809: Reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd[0750] Hārūn al-Rashīd Khayzurān Yaḥyā ibn Khālid al-Barmakī Irene, Saint Nicephorus I Charlemagne

As the eldest, al-Hādī was in line for succession to the caliphate ahead of the younger Hārūn. However, it was Hārūn who was to distinguish himself as a brilliant military commander. At the age of eighteen, he led ՙAbbāsid forces against the Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire;Muslim invasion of and penetrated into the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. This exploit is said to have been the occasion on which al-Mahdī conferred on his son the title of “al-Rashīd” (or “the Upright”). Hārūn’s campaign forced the empress Irene, Irene, Saint who was then acting as regent for her son Emperor Constantine VI Constantine VI (r. 780-797), to capitulate to a one-sided treaty in which her government agreed to pay the caliphate an annual tribute of up to ninety thousand dinars. In 786, after only a year on the throne, al-Hādī died, and Hārūn al-Rashīd became the fifth ՙAbbāsid caliph.

The strongest influences during the early years of Hārūn’s reign were his mother, al-Khayzurān Khayzurān, al- , and Yaḥyā ibn Khālid al-Barmakī Yaḥyā ibn Khālid al-Barmakī , the vizier and patriarch of the powerful eighth to ninth century Barmakid family. Both had been very supportive of Hārūn’s claims to succession and had urged him to resist pressure from Caliph al-Hādī to surrender these claims in favor of al-Hādī’s son. Yaḥyā was imprisoned by the caliph, who died shortly thereafter. Al-Khayzurān was later suspected by some of having connived at al-Hādī’s untimely death in order to elevate Hārūn to the throne. Al-Khayzurān, who had been a slave, continued to exert tremendous behind-the-scenes influence at the ՙAbbāsid court.





The Barmakids were of Persian origin: Yaḥyā’s father Khālid had served as vizier to al-Manṣūr and Yaḥyā had been Hārūn’s mentor before becoming vizier in his turn. The Barmakids Barmakids , under the leadership of Yaḥyā and his sons Jaՙfar Jaՙfar and al-Faḍl, amassed fortune, power, and prestige that were second only to those of the ՙAbbāsids themselves. As the Barmakids waxed ever stronger, however, Hārūn became alarmed and broke them. In 803, Jaՙfar was killed by Hārūn’s order, while Yaḥyā and al-Faḍl Faḍl, al- (d. 808) were incarcerated for the rest of their lives. Persian influence, however, would continue to overshadow and dominate the Arabic element in the ՙAbbāsid state.

Until 802, the major source on international conflict facing the ՙAbbāsid Empire had been the rival Umayyad caliphate centered on Córdoba, Spain, and the breakaway Idrīsid regime in Morocco. In that year, however, Empress Irene was overthrown in a palace coup by an administrative official, who assumed the imperial title as Nicephorus I Nicephorus I . Nicephorus repudiated the annual tribute to the caliphate and went so far as to demand restitution. Hārūn responded by leading a military campaign, forcing Nicephorus to sue for peace. Though the Byzantine emperor agreed to resume tribute payments, he went back on his word as soon as the ՙAbbāsid armies left. A second campaign was launched, with similar results, and issues with the Byzantines remained unresolved at Hārūn’s death.

The caliph initiated an alliance with Charlemagne Charlemagne , king of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, sending him lavish gifts, including an elephant named Abūl ՙAbbās. The two had common adversaries in the Córdoba Umayyads and the Byzantines. Hārūn, who is credited with having introduced the game of chess from Persia into the Arab world, is further said to have included a chessboard and chessmen among his presents to Charlemagne, and may thus have also brought chess into Europe.

In 809, while at the border town of Tūs, preparing for a military drive against the rebellious Khāijite religious sect in Khorāsān (now northeastern Iran), Hārūn suffered what was probably a stroke and died shortly thereafter.


In the years following Hārūn’s death, particularly after 847, when ՙAbbāsid power had visibly deteriorated, Hārūn’s reign would take on a nostalgic glow as a time of glory and prosperity, and the caliph was considered a paragon of wisdom and cultural enlightenment. Though Baghdad’s fabled “House of Wisdom” was not established until around 820, achievements were still impressive. The Chinese technology of papermaking was first evident in the Middle East during Hārūn’s reign; the caliph’s head librarian, al-Faḍl ibn Nawbakht, began actively translating a large number of Persian manuscripts into Arabic; Ibrāhīm al-Mawsili and ibn-Jami Mukhariq brought Islamic music Music;Muslim to new heights; and Muḥammad ibn Irāhīm al-Fazārī conducted the first scientific astronomical studies in the Muslim world.

Hārūn al-Rashīd’s embassy delivers gifts to Charlemagne.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

In poetry Poetry;Muslim , the time of Hārūn’s reign produced two outstanding individuals: Abū al-Nuwās Abū al-Nuwās and ՙAbd al-ՙAtāhiyah. Abū al-Nuwas ՙAbd al-ՙAtāhiyah , whose verses extol good living and carousing and are often bawdy in content, was said to have been a favorite drinking companion to both Hārūn and his son and successor, al-Amīn Amīn, al- (r. 809-813). ՙAbd al-ՙAtāhiyah’ ՙAbd al-ՙAtāhiyah poetry was ascetically religious in nature.

There also were significant advances in medicine Medicine;Muslim Islam;medicine . Hārūn authorized the first medical field hospital (with “ambulance” service by camel transport) and the first public hospital (in Baghdad) in the Islamic Empire. Included among the era’s noteworthy literary accomplishments were Kitaāb al-kharāj (Islamic Revenue Code, 1979), by Abū Yūsuf, and Ahmad ibn Abdullah ibn Salām’s translation of the Bible into Arabic.





The extent of Hārūn’s connection to the collection of Indian, Persian, African, and Arabic lore known as Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’s Entertainments, 1706-1708; also known as The Thousand and One Nights) Arabian Nights’s Entertainments, The is uncertain. The work was centuries in the making and not compiled into its final form until the fifteenth century. The frame story of Scheherazade and some of the tales date back to a Persian work called Hazar Afsana, prior to the ՙAbbāsid caliphate. Some of the stories apparently originated during the reign of al-Manṣūr, others during that of Hārūn or shortly thereafter (including those that use Hārūn and his court as a backdrop). Still others were incorporated during the Mamlūk era in Egypt. Literature;Islamic

Hārūn’s reign is heralded as a time of exceptional cultural and intellectual vitality, though it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between fact and legend. Hārūn’s prestige is so remarkable that he is traditionally credited with many advances that may have occurred not in the course of his reign but during those of his sons, al-Amīn and al-Ma՚mūn (r. 813-833).

It cannot be denied that tangible advances and contributions in the fields of literature, jurisprudence, philology, Arabic grammar, science, medicine, and music were realized during the reign of Hārūn. The extent of the caliph’s personal role in this, however, is debatable. Much of the credit must undoubtedly be attributed to, or at least shared with, the disgraced but brilliant Barmakid family. Nonetheless, as head of state and religion, Hārūn would have been a crucial supporter of the arts throughout his realm.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bishai, Wilson B. Islamic History of the Middle East: Backgrounds, Development, and Fall of the Arab Empire. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1969. Fine chronological work with a very readable format. The reigns of the different caliphs are discussed, with a full section devoted to the career of Hārūn. Maps, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockelmann, Carl. History of the Islamic Peoples. Translated by Joel Carmichael and Moshe Perlmann. New York: Routledge, 2000. This reprinted volume is still the classic work on Islamic history, its civilization, and its main dynasties, including the ՙAbbāsid period. The synopsis on Hārūn is among the most developed and useful case studies in the book. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldston, Robert. The Sword of the Prophet: The History of the Arab World from the Time of Mohammed to the Present. New York: Dial Press, 1979. A good fundamental study, though it somewhat underplays the cultural achievements of the ՙAbbāsids.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibri, Tayeb el-. Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Hārūn al-Rashīd and the Narrative of the ՙAbbāsid Caliphate. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Argues that past historical accounts of the eighth and ninth century caliphate were not written as portraits of the time, but instead as a means to convey the religious, political, and social issues that were then prominent. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. Remains one of the definitive works on the subject. Devotes much attention to the “Golden Age” idea as it pertains to Hārūn and his reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Classical Age of Islam. Vol. 1 in The Venture of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. The outstanding features of this study are the tables, maps, and explanatory notes that make it ideal for all readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. New York: Longman, 1986. A crisp account that is somewhat critical of Hārūn and focuses a great deal on the fall of the Barmakids.

Categories: History