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Harun al-Rashid

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Harun al-Rashid

    ca. 764– 809 Fifth Abbasid caliph

    Harun al-Rashid, the fifth and most famous Abbasid caliph, was the son of al-Mahdi, the third caliph. As a teenager, Harun helped lead two successful military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire before receiving the title al-Rashid (one following the right path). After al-Mahdi died in 785 , Harun's half-brother, Musa al-Hadi, became the fourth caliph. A year later, after al-Hadi mysteriously died, rumors circulated that Harun's mother, al-Khayzuran, had murdered the fourth caliph so that her son could rule.

    Harun appointed the Barmakids, a powerful Iranian family, as administrators of the Abbasid empire, and his childhood tutor Yahya became his chief minister. The empire prospered under Harun's rule. Industry and trade expanded and wealth flowed into Baghdad, the capital. Harun extended diplomatic ties with the Holy Roman Empire and China, and his grand palace included a court that numbered in the hundreds.

    Harun accomplished much during his reign. He built the first hospital and observatory in Baghdad and supported education, music, and poetry. In popular myth, the caliph was thought to disguise himself so that he could walk through the streets unnoticed to learn more about his subjects.

    In 803 Harun turned against the Barmakid family, executed his former allies, and seized their property. Many historians believe that Harun had grown jealous of the Barmakid family's power and wealth. Harun's next administrators were less capable. Revolts increased and some provinces broke away from Baghdad. Harun sought to prevent further strife by dividing the empire between two of his sons. The empire, however, plunged deeper into civil war and Abbasid power declined in the decades following Harun's death.

    The splendor of Harun's palace and luxury of his court had been previously unmatched. He became a legendary figure among Arabs and several stories in the famous book The Thousand and One Nights reflect the glory of his reputation. See also Abbasid Caliphate.

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