Haroon al-Rashid

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Haroon al-Rashid
Haroon Rashid meeting Europeans.png
In this nineteenth-century painting, Haroon receives European dignitaries at court.
Abbasid Caliph
Reign 786 - 809
Predecessor Al-Hadi
Successor Al-Amin
Born 763
Died 809
Haroon al-Rashid (Arabic: هارون الرشيد‎) was the fifth Abbasid caliph of the Abassid dynasty. He was in power for 23 years from 786 C.E. to 809 C.E. and murdered the seventh Shiite Imam, Musa ibn Jafar al-Kadhim. He also ordered the demolition of the shrine of Imam Husain in the year 787.

The court of Haroon has been romanticized in the fictional work of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (better known as the Arabian Nights), due to the extravagant palace life that the caliph and his associates lived in. The palace is known to have been adorned with expensive woven carpets, and contained zoos, gardens and various chambers.[1]



Haroon al-Rashid was born in Ray, a city now absorbed into the Greater Tehran area in Iran. He was the son of Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi and his mother was al-Khayzaran binte Atta, a kidnapped slave from Yemen. In the year 780 and 782, Haroon led several successful expeditions against the Byzantine Empire, with the help of experienced generals who were accompanying him, and also made his decisions. Due to his success, he was named "al-Rashid", the upright one. During his reign, Baghdad rose to have one of the largest treasuries in the world. As he became a caliph in his early twenties, Haroon initially depended entirely on the advice of his chief minister Yahya al-Bermeki in the administration of the caliphate. When he appointed Yahya as his minister, he told him: "I have invested you with responsibility for the subjects' affairs and have transferred the burden from myself to you. So exercise authority in this with what you consider to be sound judgement; appoint as your subordinate governors whom you think fit; and conduct affairs as you consider best."[2] However, during the last few years of Haroon's reign, their relationship deteriorated, and Haroon eventually imprisoned and executed him.

In popular culture and literature, Haroon's orthodoxy, liberal nature, literary brilliance and victories over the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus made him stand out among all other Abbasid caliphs. However, looking beyond his achievements, Haroon was a deceitful and irascible tyrant, whose vast interest in poetry, music and singing did not mean he was a great caliph, nor a good man.[3] His reign saw a great deal of violence and cruelty, including a willingness to execute and torture others for seemingly petty and unjust reasons.

Rise to Power

The position of caliphate came to Haroon spontaneously and unexpectedly, due to the plotting and scheming of his mother. She assassinated the brother of Haroon, Al-Hadi, who was the then reigning caliph. Nobody in the palace knew of his mother's scheme until later, including Haroon himself as he was detained in prison. Soon after the asassination, Yahya rushed towards the prison to wake up Haroon and said: “Rise, Commander of the faithful!” Haroon replied angrily saying, "You always terrify me due to your admiration for my succession! You are fully aware of my condition with this man (al-Hadi). If he hears of this, what will be my affair with him?” Yahya smiled and replied, “Al-Hadi has died. This is his ring. His minister al-Herrani is at the door.”

It was that very night that Haroon was released from prison and took over the affairs of the state. Also on this night, his slave gave birth to a child whom he named Abdullah (better known as Al-Ma'mun), who later became the seventh Abbasid caliph. The next day, Haroon performed the funeral prayer for his brother and buried him in the gardens of his palace. People then came forward to pledge their allegiance to Haroon and accepted him as their caliph.

A dirham minted in Zaranj in 179 AH (795 CE). At the reverse, the inner inscription says: "God's prayer and salutations upon him the caliph al-Rashid"


The policies of Haroon were consistent with those of his predecessors; the government would swallow the wealth of the people, and then spend it lavishly, distributing it disproportionately to the rich as communities lived a life of poverty. The government was extremely wealthy, and some historians have reported revenues to be at 500,246,000 dirhams.[4] However, this wealth was usually only distributed among those who had access to the court or who were in high governmental positions.[5] The source of this wealth was not only the efficient and streamlined taxation, but also through the trade of goods from Africa, India, China, central Asia and Russia.[6]

Key areas in which Haroon spent much of his wealth included various forms of entertainment, including but not limited to singers, food, slave girls and jewelry. He also gave expensive gifts to poets and singers who were able to compose lines of poetry that he enjoyed. He also specifically rewarded poets who flattered him in their pieces and thus, Haroon was able to use them as a form of propaganda to improve his image in popular culture. He also spent significant amounts on food, to the extent where he could spend ten thousand dirhams on meals when needed. Jafar al-Bermeki states that in one instance, they purchased sheep for Haroon's kitchen, so much so that they would not run out of mutton, and they spent four hundred thousand dinars on this investment.

Haroon also had a fondness for exotic slave girls, and this is well documented in history. In his court, the number of slave girls has been numbered at an estimated two thousand. These slave girls were brought in from various countries, from regions as far as Rome (Italy) and Sindh (India). His palace spent at least ten thousand dirhams on each of them, and were paid a lot of attention. Their vast expenses included ornaments, clothes, and decorations. It is important to note that Haroon did not spend his own wealth on these expenses, and rather, he used money from the Public Treasury. The wife of Haroon, Zubayda, is also known to have spent money from the public treasury on her own pleasures. In fact, her sandals were decorated with gemstones.[7]

Relations with Imam Musa ibn Jafar

Both Shiite and Sunni historians are in agreement that Haroon was behind the killing of the seventh Shiite Imam, Musa ibn Jafar al-Kadhim (as). Imam al-Kadhim used to openly express his displeasure with the government of Haroon. This has been illustrated quite explicitly when Imam Musa warned his followers by saying: "If I was thrown down a tremendous height and cut into pieces, it would be more lovable to me than that I undertook a work for them or walked on a carpet of a man of them."[8] Haroon was well aware of the status and respect that Musa ibn Jafar had amongst the residents of Medina and he was also aware of the fact that Musa ibn Jafar was more worthy of the caliphate when compared to himself. However, Haroon's materialistic attachments and love for the caliphate did not allow him to give up his position, and he ensured that the Imam and his family remained relatively poor. Haroon was fearful of the possibility of a revolt if Musa ibn Jafar's economic circumstances improved.

The Imam's defiant attitude against the reign of Haroon became widely known as he had explicitly instructed his followers to refrain from cooperation with the ruling authorities. The verdicts of the Shiite Imam encouraging disobedience to Haroon and other tyrants inevitably led to Haroon's extreme anger and displeasure. Increasingly worried and jealous of the Imam's influence, Haroon made his intentions clear while visiting the city of Medina. He visited the grave of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 795 C.E. and apologized to the Prophet for the fact that he wanted to imprison Musa ibn Jafar (the Prophet's great grandson). According to Haroon, the Imam intended to cause strife and split the Muslim community, causing bloodshed. He ordered the arrest of the Imam on January 1st, 796 C.E. (20th Shawwal, 179 A.H.).[9] Under Haroon's direct orders, the Imam was taken to Basra, a city in present day Iraq, and detained in prison for a year.

As the news and location of Musa ibn Jafar's imprisonment became famous, Haroon ordered Isa ibn Jafar, the individual overlooking the detention of the Imam, to assassinate him. However, Isa had noticed the spiritual status of Imam Musa ibn Jafar, and could not bring himself to carry out Haroon's orders. Because of this, Haroon transferred the Imam to Baghdad and imprisoned Musa ibn Jafar in the house of one of his ministers, as opposed to a public prison. Many times, Haroon used to disguise himself and leave his palace anonymously and in plain clothes so as to monitor public opinion. Likewise in Baghdad, Haroon would also watch over the Imam in prison. On one occasion the following conversation[10] took place between Haroon and his minister Fadhl bin al-Rabi, where Haroon asked:

- What is that garment I see in that place every day?
- Commander of the faithful, that is not a garment; that is Musa b. Ja‘far. Every day he prostrates himself in prayer from sunrise to the inclination of the sun.
- Surely he is among the Hashimite monks!
- Commander of the faithful, why have you harassed him in prison?
- How far! There is no escape from that!

At one point in time, Haroon removed Imam al-Kadhim from prison, and instead, kept him under house arrest. This gave the Imam the opportunity to attract a following as he guided and directed them towards truth. However this period was so short-lived that details are scarce. The Imam had also requested permission to go to Medina, so that he could see his close family and friends. Haroon initially gave the Imam permission, but the Imam never made the trip as Haroon’s doubts overcame him.[11] Instead, Haroon re-arrested the Imam and transferred him to the house of Fadhl bin Yahya where he was kept under detention. Fadhl, contrary to the wishes of Haroon, treated the Imam in a pleasant manner once he saw the devotion of the Imam towards God. Haroon was informed of Fadhl's behavior and was also informed that Fadhl was delaying his orders to assassinate the Imam. Fadhl was eventually relieved of this duty, only a few days after being given the responsibility and was flogged for his disobedience to Haroon. Thereafter, the Imam was transferred to the house of Sindi bin Shahik, the commander of the police, who most historians report was the individual who later poisoned the Imam.

Haroon ordered Sindi to harass the Imam and to make life difficult for him. On Haroon's orders, the Imam was shackled with thirty iron chains and was forced to live an exhausting life. In a letter he sent to Haroon from prison, he mentions that: “A day of my tribulation does not go by until a day of your welfare goes by! Then we all will die until the day that does not expire, on that day shall they perish who say false things."[12] Although historians unanimously agree that the Imam's poisoning was on the orders of Haroon, the individual who carried the task out is contested. Some historians report that it was Yahya al-Bermeki who poisoned dates and grapes that he gave the Imam to eat. However, most historians report that it was Sindi bin Shahik who carried out Haroon's orders and poisoned fresh dates that were given to the Imam. Haroon al-Rashid made his presence known in the burial procession of Imam al-Kadhim and showed no signs of guilt or remorse. Boldly, he asked Allah to show mercy on the Imam, playing innocent in the public eye so as to not reveal that he was responsible for the Imam’s killing.


In the year 808 C.E., during a journey towards Tus, Haroon became ill. His doctors deemed his illness trivial. However, an experienced Persian physician was given a sample of his urine and was not told that it belonged to Haroon. Upon examination he delivered a message back saying that, "Warn the patient that there is no hope and tell him to make his will, for his sickness is incurable."[13] Subsequently, his illness grew and led to his death. He was buried in the palace of Hamid ibn Qahtabi, the then governor of present-day Mashhad.


  1. Daily Life in Ancient and Modern Baghdad by D. Kotapish and R. Webb; page 30 | ISBN 0822532190
  2. The Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium, Tarikh al-Tabari; Volume 30, Translated by C. E. Bosworth, page 98 | ISBN 0887065643
  3. A Literary History of the Arabs, by R.A Nicholson; page 261 | ISBN 1616403403
  4. Kitab al-Wuzara wa al-Kuttab - كتاب الوزراء والكتاب, by Muhammad ibn Abdus Jahshiyari
  5. Government leaders, military rulers, and political activists, an encyclopedia of people who changed the world; Edited by David W. Del Testa | ISBN 1573561533
  6. Islam: A Brief History, by Tamara Sonn | ISBN 1405109009
  7. Bayna al-khulafa wa-al-khula'a - بين الخلفاء والخلعاء في العصر العباسي , by Salah al-Din al-Munajjid; page 55
  8. al-Makasib, Chapter on Authority undertaken by the Oppressive by Shaykh al-Ansari
  9. Bihar al-Anwar, by Allama Majlisi; vol. 11, p. 296
  10. Ibid, by Allama Majlisi; vol. 11, p. 298
  11. Mukhtasar Tarikh al-Arab by Sayyd Amir Ali, page 209
  12. Al-Bidaya wa al-Nihaya - البداية والنهاية, by Ibn Kathir, volume 10
  13. The meadows of gold: the Abbasids by Al-Masudi; page 98 | ISBN 0710302460
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