2 – Harun al-Rashid (763?-809)
Born in Iran in 763 (some sources say 766), Harun Al-Rashid became Abbasid Dynasty’s fifth Caliph and is considered as its greatest leader. By the time he came to power in 786, the Abbasids were at their strongest, and he was one of the world’s most powerful men. At this time, the dynasty’s capital of Baghdad was the largest city on the planet outside of China, and Harun’s incredible court at Baghdad is the subject of many tales including The Thousand and One Nights.
Harun was the third son of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the third caliph of the dynasty and was named the second heir after his older brother when he turned 16. His father died in 785, and his brother al-Hadi became caliph. However, he died the following year in mysterious circumstances and was probably the victim of a conspiracy. Harun became caliph and immediately appointed his advisor, Yahya, as his primary minister (vizier).
Harun’s reign occurred right in the middle of the Islamic Golden Age, and the Abbasid Empire was at its peak. It extended from Morocco to India and the new caliph relied heavily on his vizier to help keep the vast empire together. One of his major military achievements was the successful campaigns against the Byzantines from 797 to 806. He forced Empress Irene to make payments to Baghdad in 797 but her successor, Nicephorus, rejected the treaty. However, he was defeated in 806 and forced to make annual payments to the Abbasids.
Although Arab sources don’t discuss it, there were probably diplomatic contacts between Harun and Charlemagne where the Abbasid leader recognized the European ruler as the protector of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. Harun died in Rus, Prussia, in 809 during a visit to restore order in the region.
While he didn’t expand the empire any further, Harun’s reign is best known for religious, scientific and cultural prosperity with Islamic art and music prospering. Despite Muslims later hailing him as a great leader, critics point out that he left no surviving architecture. There are suggestions that his son al-Ma’mun was the man who established the dynasty as a learning center. He is also accused of great cruelty during his reign, but for his proponents, Harun was the man who pushed Islamic culture forward and is recognized as one of the great Muslim leaders.