Harun al-Rashid's Court Inspired the 'Arabian Nights'

Color painting of Harun al-Rashid with courtiers.

Harun-Charlemagne.jpg ; derivative work / Julius Köckert / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Harun Al-Rashid was also known as Haroun ar-Rashid, Harun al-Raschid, or Haroon al Rasheed. He was known for creating a fabulous court at Baghdad that would be immortalized in "The Thousand and One Nights." Harun al-Rashid was the fifth Abbasid caliph.

Places of Residence and Influence

Asia: Arabia

Important Dates

Became caliph: Sept. 14, 786

Died: March 24, 809

About Harun al-Rashid

Born to the caliph al-Mahdi and the former slave-girl al-Khayzuran, Harun was raised at court and received the bulk of his education from Yahya the Barmakid, who was a loyal supporter of Harun's mother. Before he was out of his teens, Harun was made the nominal leader of several expeditions against the Eastern Roman Empire. His success (or, more accurately, the success of his generals) resulted in his earning the title "al-Rashid," which means "the one following the right path" or "upright" or "just." He was also appointed the governor of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, which Yahya administered for him, and named second in line to the throne (after his older brother, al-Hadi).

Al-Mahdi died in 785 and al-Hadi died mysteriously in 786 (it was rumored that al-Khayzuran arranged his death). Harun became caliph in September of that year. He appointed as his vizier Yahya, who installed a cadre of Barmakids as administrators. Al-Khayzuran had considerable influence over her son until her death in 803, and the Barmakids effectively ran the empire for Harun. Regional dynasties were given semi-autonomous status in return for considerable annual payments, which enriched Harun financially but weakened the power of the caliphs. He also divided his empire between his sons al-Amin and al-Ma'mun, who would go to war after Harun's death.

Harun was a great patron of art and learning, and is best known for the unsurpassed splendor of his court and lifestyle. Some of the stories, perhaps the earliest, of "The Thousand and One Nights" were inspired by the glittering Baghdad court. The character King Shahryar (whose wife, Scheherazade, tells the tales) may have been based on Harun himself.

Sources

Clot, Andre. "Harun Al-Rashid and the World of a Thousand and One Nights." John Howe (Translator), Hardcover, New Amsterdam Books, 1989.

El-Hibri, Tayeb. "Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Harun al-Rashid and the Narrative of the Abbasid Caliphate." Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization, Kindle Edition, Cambridge University Press, November 25, 1999.

"Harun ar-Rashid." Infoplease, The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press, 2012.

"Harun al-Rashid." Jewish Virtual Library, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 1998.

"Harun al-Rashid." NNDB, Soylent Communications, 2019.