Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

The Triumphs of the Black Flags

In spite of the distractions and the revelry of the court of Bagdad, the Caliph never lost sight of the fact that he had an empire to govern. The first years of Harun al-Rashid's reign were comparatively peaceful, but trouble was not far away. The temporary harmony that had lifted the Abbassids on to the throne no longer existed. Ali's descendants, who had hoped for eventual control, soon learned that they had been duped. The Alids had drawn all the chestnuts from the fire for the Abbassids alone. They knew it only too well now, and the new dynasty found them bitterly irreconcilable. The controlling powers thought it wise to rid themselves of these sectarians whose cooperation was no longer useful and might even appear scandalous to orthodox Mussulmans. They undertook the task with an efficient and shameless cynicism that betrays the quality of their political skill and ethics. Harun had learned his methods from his predecessors, notably from Mansur who had callously sacrificed the Alid general Abu Muslim, to whom he was greatly indebted for some important victories, and had rigorously persecuted his followers.

Ridding himself of these troublesome pretenders became Harun's principal object. They themselves furnished the excuse in fomenting a revolt in the northern provinces of the kingdom. It had been promptly repressed, but there was a strong feeling that this internal enemy was not permanently subdued and that worse outbreaks were to come. Meanwhile, secret police watched them closely and recorded all births and deaths in the family of the Prophet's descendant, thus noting every possible pretender, present or to come.

That ailment, dismemberment, which gnaws at every upstart empire, had been active in Islam for several years. Harun al-Rashid's entire reign was marked by numerous uprisings of provinces, revolts of parties or sects, and separatist movements by distant viceroys.

Then too, besides these internal enemies, there was an external one, that traditional foe against whom every sovereign must make campaigns, favorable and disastrous in turn. In this instance it was the Byzantine Greeks. Mandi had conquered the regent, Empress Irene, decisively enough to relieve his empire of much fear of future trouble from her. It was the part of wisdom, however, to protect those provinces most exposed to the mercy of Byzantine arms: Upper Syria, Armenia and the Taurus.

On the advice of Yahia the Barmecide, Harun gave the necessary orders. A protective cordon was stretched along these frontiers; ancient fortresses were restored, new ones were built. Faraj, the Turk, was their Vauban. After fortifying Adana, he was ordered to set up defensive positions outside the city of Tarsus, which lies on the borders of the Mediterranean above the gulf of Antioch. All the strongholds of Mesopotamia were established on a single march to the north-west and called "The Defense," with Mambij (Hierapolis) as a capital. The Mussulmans could organize each year in the shelter of these ramparts and make successful cavalry raids, which were not only good exercise for them but also forceful reminders to the Byzantines of their recent defeats and to the Empress Irene of her obligations to pay tribute promptly. This was not breaking the armistice, but merely emphasizing the necessity for it and giving it value and savor.

Thanks to these wise and efficacious arrangements, the empire of Bagdad remained for five or six years in a fairly peaceful state, and Harun could leave his capital freely at any time for pilgrimages to distant Mecca.

Few Mussulman sovereigns have performed their religious duties as faithfully as Harun al-Rashid. His seal bore the device "Harun leans on God," and he demonstrated more often than any other caliph the belief that "a pilgrimage is one of the five columns that support the Faith." During his reign he conducted in person eight pilgrimages, five of these within nine years, which is quite remarkable when one considers the difficulties and fatigue of the long journey. When he did not go in person, he was represented by numerous deputies, richly equipped in every way. Even the holy wars, which yielded considerable material compensation, did not divert him from these pious expeditions.

The Caliph Rashid was widely known as Aaron the Orthodox. The liberties which he took with certain laws of the Koran in the night life of his court did not prevent him from observing publicly, during the daytime, sufficient religious duties to give him an extensive reputation for piety. He was undoubtedly inconsistent, but there are similar cases in every era. All religions have their indulgences; all civilizations, their hypocrisies. Yahia explained this very well one day in a letter to his son Jafar. The vizier deplored the relationship between his son and the caliph, and the orgies in which they both indulged. His remonstrances being in vein, he urged Jafar at least to observe the conventions outwardly.

"Pass your days in seeking honors," he wrote, and endure with patience separations from him whom you love. But when darkness comes to conceal our vices, spend the night as you wish. Night is the daytime of clever men. Many of the supposedly devout indulge themselves during the night in strange pleasures. Concealed by veils of darkness they pass their hours lightly until the break of day. He is a fool who exhibits his diversions in public. Enemies are always on the alert to spread scandal."

This was fruitful advice. With the Caliph's sanction, Jafar had a palace built for himself in a lonely section on the left bank of the Tigris where he could entertain with discretion.

Harun himself practised so thoroughly the respectable Yahia's princely ethics that Oriental historians never weary of dwelling on his religious zeal and emotional reactions to the exhortations of the learned men with whom he surrounded himself, his insistence upon having prayers said at exact canonical hours, the hundred supererogatory genuflections which he made daily, the fervor with which he made on foot the various prescribed walks around the Kaaba at Mecca, his religious endowments, and his generosity toward the sanctuaries of Islam and the family of Muhammad.

There is no doubt not only that this faith was sincere but that it increased with the years to a point at which Harun became fanatical and inquisitorial. The important thing about it is its political significance. The Abbassids had gained their power during a reaction against the irreligion and immorality of the Ommayyads. They had to maintain their reputation for orthodoxy against the attacks of malcontents and to preserve orthodoxy itself among populations only half converted and under the influence of all sorts of heretic sects, sacerdotal or pantheistic. And this at a time when all beliefs were criss-crossed by diverse currents, ranging from zendik communism to the mysticism of the first sufis. Even in the spheres of pure religion a rare theological effervescence was present which had survived a feud of free-thinking carried on amid terrific disputes between the adherents of determinism and those of free will, between rationalists and atheists, and discussions as to the divine origin of the Koran. Harun al-Rashid was a contemporary of those four celebrated imams who founded the great schools of Mussulman doctrine, and during his reign the four orthodox rites which still divide contemporary Islam came into being. His own piety, at least the external manifestation of it, was a powerful characteristic of his reign.

During the long absences of their sovereign; the viziers, who were not permitted to make pilgrimages while in office, administered the affairs of state. The councils of the caliphate, as in the lesser departments, functioned from the power of their own momentum. Yahia the Barmecide presided over this complex machinery, which was even then complicated by red tape.

When Rashid, several times a hadj  (i.e., having made the pilgrimage to Mecca), would return to his capital—or to Rakka, which he loved better—he would find no unwelcome changes in Bagdad, nothing between the Tigris and the Euphrates to worry him. This condition could scarcely be expected to last, however.

Upon his return in 792, he learned that the Alids and their followers the Shiites had again rebelled, this time in earnest. Their seat of insurrection was Dailem, on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, and their leader, who was an authentic descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet, was keenly active, and had been proclaimed legitimate caliph. The able Barmecide, .Fadl, then governor of Khorassan, was sent to cope with the situation. He started out with fifty thousand men, but once actually within sight of the Alids' camp, decided not to give battle. It may have been a natural reluctance to take up arms against one of Muhammad's descendants, but it seems more likely that he lacked confidence in his own troops. There were many Persians in his army, and one might fear anything from the religious exaltation and fanaticism which a rebellion was likely to arouse in these people. Fadl preferred to negotiate. It seemed easy. "There is no better emissary than money," according to an Arab proverb. By means of a reasonable settlement, Fadl induced the Alid to capitulate on condition that he receive an autographed safe-conduct from the Caliph, countersigned by the principal governmental authorities.

Harun al-Rashid considered this a splendid solution. He dispatched the requested paper, full of promises, salutations and conventions, and covered with signatures, a choice document hand-written by himself. He even sent presents. Everything went smoothly. The Alid leader, provided with this talisman, presented himself at once in Bagdad, where he was first received with elaborate festivities, and then thrown into prison with his safe-conduct for company.

Harun's mind being now at rest, he reflected that it might be just as well to give some semblance of legality to this drastic proceeding. He called together a council to determine whether the paper written and signed by him had not perhaps in some way lost its value. A few honest souls expressed their opinion to the effect that it was a bonafide document, but the majority cried aloud in unison that of course it was only a scrap of paper. This independent and spontaneous decision reassured the Caliph. Fortunately it coincided exactly with his own opinion.

This was certainly not a pleasant coup, especially since the poor Alid did not molder in his prison but was soon removed forever from the contemplation of his safe-conduct by the contents of a little phial. It must be admitted that "the good Harun al-Rashid," as Tennyson, with Victorian poetic license, so politely called him, did not stop at this. The list of his victims is long, and the methods employed in disposing of them, ingenious and cruel.

Harun, however, should not be looked upon as a monster. He was no worse than others of his race; rather better, in fact, when one considers the atrocities committed not only by the Ommayyad caliphs, but by Harun's great-uncle Abbas, who once had the head of a decapitated enemy brought to him and the tongue given to a cat. Descriptions of even the milder forms of torture in Asiatic kingdoms are enough to make one shiver; so it is not surprising to learn that Harun was capable of doing away with a victim by having him enclosed in a sack of quicklime.

Sometimes a dignified attitude or turn of speech on the part of a prisoner would be enough to disarm the Caliph, and his anger would turn into a mood of infinite clemency. It is a pity that not all of his victims were quick-witted, although some of them escaped for other less obvious reasons. Harun happened one day to be feeling solicitous about his ancestral honor and remarked of a prisoner condemned to death: "I have looked more than once at this man's throat, which I could slit with one stroke of my sabre, but a disinclination to establish such a precedent in my family has deterred me!"

Human life counted for very little in those distant days when the bloody tolls of national wars had not as yet demonstrated its value. Diplomacy, as a substitute for bloodshed, had not yet been invented, and the security of the State had to be assured. Assassination as an auxiliary to government was practised in all climates, all latitudes, among all peoples, with a disquieting persistence. One might almost say that it still has serious partisans.

At any rate, Harun al-Rashid, the Well-Directed, certainly saw nothing unreasonable in drastic measures, for some years later he subjected another follower of Ali to a similar fate. This was the famous Musa who had been active in Medina. The Caliph was informed that he was a dangerous pretender to the throne. Harun took advantage of his entrance into the Holy City after a pilgrimage and had him set upon by stalwart retainers, carried in a closed litter with drawn curtains to Bagdad and confined in a secure place. Then the Caliph went back to his splendid palace at Rakka.

A short time afterward it was rumored about that poor Musa had died a natural death. It seemed probable. The prefect of police, at whose home the poor wretch had been staying, was able to show a perfectly good parchment to prove it, a certificate drawn up by doctors and lawyers. Arabian history is not alone in its long lists of these "natural deaths." These are acts of providence which can occur far away from their beneficiary.

'There were other operations, too, carried on at long distance. For instance, during Hadi's short reign, the rebellious Alids of Arabia had suffered disastrous defeat. Corpses left unburied on the battlefield had been devoured by beasts and birds of prey. One Alid alone, named Idris, had succeeded in escaping the massacre. Aided by a high Egyptian functionary, Wadiq, he was able to get as far as Morocco. There he intended to found an independent kingdom. This was not pleasant for the eastern caliphate. The new usurper must not be allowed to play the same tricks as that audacious Ommayyad who had founded the caliphate at Cordova.

Harun persuaded himself that this evil should be torn out instantly by the roots. He could not, however, be expected to undertake such a distant and costly expedition; besides, Morocco itself worried him very little; he could have seen it perish without a qualm. But this was a matter of principle. Acting upon Yahia's advice, Shamaq, a freed slave, was sent to the court of Idris, and managed to get into the good graces of the king. One beautiful summer day (July sixteenth, 793 ) he induced Idris to inhale the aroma from a small bottle. The flask was innocent in appearance; Idris only became drowsy from it, but he never woke up again. There again, the conventions, if one may put it so, were preserved! The phial contained essence of roses. Nothing could have been more subtle.

Shamaq, who escaped with some serious wounds including the loss of a hand, felt that he deserved the Egyptian posts. These he was given as successor to the traitor Wadiq. The assassination of Idris did not accomplish much after all. A posthumous son took up his father's work and succeeded in founding the city and independent kingdom of Fez, that cradle of the future Sharifian empire of Morocco.

These pleasant proceedings, however, brought criticism from a few moralists. The excellent Ibn Khaldun, notwithstanding his admiration of Harun, could not refrain from using the word "treachery" in speaking of the death of Idris, and a poet of the tenth century, Abu Firas, in evoking the Alid's memory cried:

O you who would draw a veil

over the crimes of the children of Abbas,

could even you succeed in masking the perfidy

of al-Rashid toward the Alid?

However efficacious the method of assassination, it could not always be adopted, and moreover was sometimes impracticable. In the early years of Harun's reign there were other evils to overcome. Syria was a prey to anarchy. An obscure civil war, relic of old animosities, was being waged between two groups of Arabs, the Modharites of the North and the Yemenites of the South. Apparently it had started from a quarrel between two Bedouins from the plains of Damascus over a stolen watermelon. It is such things that go to make up Arab history. The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem has often stirred up such feuds.

As a matter of fact, the general discontent began when one of the Caliph's officers killed the brother of Hatim, chief of the Modharites, who had started the insurrection. Troops were sent to Syria to establish order. Jafar was in charge of them, but his heart suffered too much at leaving his beloved Caliph, and he returned to Bagdad, appointing his generals as deputies to conquer in his name. This was done, though with some difficulty. Hatim was a brave man and a poet besides. Like the ancient Bedouins he valiantly strove to inspire his warriors by his verses, but one of his own brothers was cleverly bribed, and that, in addition to a little well-plotted treachery, finally sealed his fate.

These police operations were not completed when graver troubles burst out in Egypt. It was no longer simply a question of clashes between tribes who might conceivably kill each other off in time; it was the actual sovereign power of the Caliph that was at stake. A governor was conspiring against the Caliph and rebellion had broken out. Harun sent him an order to resign his office and hand it over to an ugly little man who was to become provisional governor in his place.

This Omar came to Cairo dressed most simply, with one servant behind him in the saddle. He did not leave until he had reestablished the situation equitably, imposed a fair system of taxation, balanced the budget, and satisfied the rebellious Egyptians, who could scarcely believe their eyes. His successor, however, by excessively strict exactions, soon brought them back to earth again. They rebelled once more and this time could only be subdued by the army of General Harthama.

Fire extinguished in one place breaks out in another. One fine day the Khazars, those heterodox Puritans in Mesopotamia, revolted under the leadership of Walid, son of Tarif. Two of the Caliph's armies had been defeated when Harun finally sent out General Yazid. This was an unfortunate choice, for Yazid was a tributary of the rebel. He waged war casually and temporized as much as possible. The Barmecides, who were on bad terms with him, had no trouble in convincing Harun that this over mild warrior was not the man for the situation.

Harun sent him the following eloquent epistle: "Any adjutant at all would have done better in your place. It is only too clear that we can expect nothing from you—that you are guarding only your own interests. But I swear by Allah that, if you do not hurry up and punish him, I shall send some one to bring me your head." Whether it was a question of forcing an unwilling artist to sing, or demanding victories from army chiefs, this death threat was always on the tip of Harun's tongue: ". . . by cutting off the head and neck."

It must be admitted that it was a sovereign method of galvanizing the indecision into action. Yazid did not need a second letter. He caught up with the rebel by forced marches. When his troops arrived they were no longer fresh and were in no condition to attack. The commander grasped the situation perfectly. "Hold!" he said to them, "You have to do with undisciplined hordes. If you withstand their first attack, they will disband." And that is just what happened. It was a wonderful battle, full of heroic deeds, inspiring words and spectacles. Yazid's son threw himself in front of a sabre to emulate his father whose forehead was slashed. Walid was pursued and beheaded. The dead man's sister entered into the battle to avenge him. Yazid threw himself in front of her, crying: "Go home! You are dishonoring the tribe!" The Amazon, touched by her pride of clan and ashamed of her temerity, withdrew into her tent where, being a poetess, she wrote an elegy on the misfortunes of her brother.

After Morocco, Egypt, Syria, and the Khazars, came Mosul, that lovely city where one went in boats to breathe the odor of jasmin. This was too much for the Caliph. Harun felt his military qualities stirring again after ten years. He had had enough of the soft pleasures of peace and his heart yearned for the thrill of battle. It was one way of regaining his fading youth. Back to the battlefield he went once more, and from then until the end of his days he never failed to gallop off with his troops.

He attended in person to the punishment of Al-Attaf, who was having a good time running Mosul for his own profit. Harun came, saw, conquered, and punished the city by having its ramparts torn down. His anger was so unbridled that he could scarcely be restrained from razing it to the ground, but he finally cooled down and gave over to Fadl the responsibility of restoring its former loyalty.

Revolts and counter-revolts were continually going on. North Africa, with its populations of Berbers, so turbulent that the eastern Arabs looked upon them as savages, had always been a theatre of bloody quarrels and intrigues. Kairwan was the pivotal point shaken by the activities of heretics who sought refuge there. The caliphs of Bagdad were little concerned with the fate of these provinces as long as they remained as heretofore nominally faithful to the empire. The local authority was in the hands of governors appointed by Bagdad and prayers were made in the name of the Caliph. Matters, however, had become complicated. The actual tribal chiefs, assuming the roles of feudal lords, were giving so much trouble to the governors, who in turn were steadily losing control and hence must be abolished, that the power of the Caliph was no longer even nominal.

Harun resolved to act energetically. He sent the undefeated general Harthama, skilful adjuster of desperate cases, to stage one of his triumphant campaigns. Preceded by ambassadors, whose efforts failed utterly, Harthama and his armed forces were soon able to obtain the results which had eluded the diplomatic togas. He entered Kairwan a conqueror. But Harthama was purely a military man: to be installed in a proconsulate and govern over continual agitators did not appeal to him at all. A complete military victory had been enough for him and he asked to be recalled.

Disorders began again immediately. Harun, realizing that he could not hold Africa without tremendous sacrifices, decided to try a new policy: self-government throughout his empire, Africa for the Africans. He accepted the proposal made by an African amir, prefect of Zab, Ibrahim son of Arlab, who announced himself ready to govern the country more or less independently, but in the Caliph's name, and to relinquish the subsidies which the empire had conceded to his predecessors. Still better, he volunteered to turn over to the Caliph an annual revenue of forty thousand dinars. Harun, in doubt as to the wisdom of accepting these conditions, submitted the case to a council. Harthama was called to give expert advice on the situation. During his stay at Kairwan, the brave general had been overwhelmed with attentions from Ibrahim and had found him sympathetic and intelligent. He therefore spoke in favor of the Aghlabid's proposal. The arrangement seemed attractive politically as well as financially, and Harun adopted it. It did not, however, work out well in practice.

Ibrahim, in asking to be appointed Amir of Africa, had specified that the title should be hereditary: a good arrangement from his point of view, giving him independence and making a kingdom out of a fief and a dynasty out of a family. For a time it seemed to work. The Arlabids governed theoretically for the Caliph and continued to make the Friday prayer in his name. The official black uniform of the Abbassids was worn, and the customary feudal tributes of captives, rugs and poems were sent regularly. But the bonds soon began to relax and eastern Barbary became practically independent of Bagdad. Thus, by falling in with the plans of the first Arlabids, Harun had lopped off peacefully, legally and constitutionally. This was in the year 800.

But Bagdad was the centre of an Oriental empire and Harun al-Rashid, with his Persian following, was turning his thoughts almost entirely toward Asia, that great dream of conquerors where the memory of Alexander was still fresh. There lay, he thought, the future of Islam and the glory of his reign—a singular piece of clairvoyance which future events were to justify. From Mesopotamia to the Indies, to the heart of the islands of Malaysia and as far as China and Japan, millions of people scattered over vast territories were waiting for the religion of the Prophet!

As for western Europe, it had to be approached from another angle. The road through Africa and Spain was barred. These provinces were already dead branches of Islam. The reconquest of Spain by the Catholic kings threatened to cut off this point of the Crescent. Europe must be taken by way of that great, ancient route of invasions—the Bosphorus, the Danube and the plains of Hungary. Here again history was to realize Harun's glimpse into the future, Islam extending to Vienna, Byzantium in the hands of the Turks, Stambul holding the Dardanelles!

It is easy to see why Harun, unable to be everywhere at once and supervise in person the success of every operation, elected to undertake the Greek campaign. The Eastern Roman Empire was a foe worthy of him, and Constantinople had been coveted for centuries! A victorious army would bring back from these countries the finest booty imaginable in riches and slaves. Harun had already had a taste of combat with the Greeks and was eager for more. A Byzantine war was exactly to his liking. The peace that had existed at the beginning of his reign was gone now.

Not in vain had the Arabian warriors made periodic raids into the heart of Asia Minor. They reached Angora, which is today the capital of the Turkish republic, and Ephesus, and pressed on to the south of Smyrna and into those provinces conquered by Constantine VI, who had succeeded his mother, the regent Irene. It was a particularly harsh winter; the Mussulmans, demoralized by the cold, suffered a severe repulse. The situation, was serious. Harun, as in the days of his gallant youth, set forth at the head of his army to pluck fresh military laurels. Where Haroun, son of Mandi, had once invaded this very region, Harun al-Rashid, Commander of the Faithful, was now leading his army, with all the prestige of a mighty conqueror.

He crossed Asia Minor, routed Constantine's troops, and razed the city of Safsaf, while his lieutenant Abd-al-Malik was advancing on Angora. His fleet took possession of Cyprus, capturing the Admiral Theophilus, who chose to be executed rather than embrace the Mussulman faith.

At about this time a revolution broke out in the enemy's ranks. Irene and her party deposed her son Constantine, had his sight destroyed with a white-hot mirror, and regained control. The moment was ripe for Harun to consolidate his advantage and push on to the Bosphorus. It seemed at first, that nothing could stop him, but his advance was halted, nevertheless; Armenia was overrun with Turkoman hordes. The Khazars, as they were called, were encamped in the neighborhood of the Caspian Sea. It had already been necessary, to repulse them several times, urged on as they were by the Byzantine government to which they were united by intermarriage and treaties. The Barmecide, Fadl, had made a diplomatic effort to secure their neutrality by marrying a daughter to their king, the Kha Khan. Unhappily the plan had not turned out well: the princess died a short time after leaving her father and he, either convinced that she had been assassinated or pretending to think so as an excuse for creating a favorable diversion for the Byzantines, had thrown his nomads upon Armenia. They ravaged the district, and the defenceless Mussulmans and Christians of the country were led away into captivity.

Harun al Rashid


It was necessary to adjust this situation at once. Harun retraced his steps. The generals Khuzaima and Yazid marched against the invaders and drove them out of Armenia. But it was then too late to take the road again for Byzantium, and Harun had to content himself with listening to the proposals of the Empress Irene. She sent him fine presents and begged for peace, throwing all the blame for the trouble on her son, and pointing out the mischief she had done to Constantine as proof of her kindly intentions toward the Caliph. Harun consented to a four-year truce and accepted Irene's conciliatory proposal, but on condition that she pay an annual tribute even heavier than that which Mandi had once imposed. It was a victory for Bagdad after all.

Thus, by the year 800, Harun had succeeded in reducing the descendants of Alexander and the Caesars to the status of tributaries. In spite of many insurrections which were, after all, only episodes in the life of a caliph, and in which he was always victorious—notwithstanding his losses on the coast of Africa, which seemed very unimportant, then, compared with his eastern interests—Harun al-Rashid, the master of a huge Islamic empire, was undoubtedly a great conqueror and a mighty sovereign in the eyes of the entire world.