I will not be surprised if some readers, upon hearing the name of Harun al-Rashid, the famed Caliph of Islam, based in the legendary City of Baghdad, dismiss him as a fictitious character given the fact that he is, in many ways, linked to many of the fantastic folklore tales told in the famous collection of Arabian Nights Tales by the wily Princess Sheherazade. The book itself of the Arabian folklore called “THE ARABIAN NIGHTS OR A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS” – is a book of gripping stories of adventure, fantasy and wonder that fascinated our young minds as teenagers and continues to thrill even to-day’s generations. Who would aver that he/she has not loved the stories of “Alladin and the Wonderful Lamp” or “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” or the alluring exotic sea-adventures of “Sinbad the Sailor?”
As a matter of fact, in many of the stories of the Arabian Nights, Caliph Harun Al-Rashid appears in person, as a character. Indeed, there are many stories in the book in which Harun al-Rashid is himself an active participant. Yet, he was no fictitious character. He was a real, historic person, who left his indelible imprint in Islamic society and history. He was a great Caliph, a king — and a very influential one too! Indeed, a key historical figure during whose reign the Islamic Empire rose to newer heights in terms of intellectual attainments in knowledge, science, philosophy as well as art and technology. During Harun al-Rashid’s time, the Islamic Empire reached its golden age and Harun al-Rashid’s rule lasted from 786-809 A.D. His empire was in Iraq with the beautiful City of Baghdad as its capital, which was unanimously reckoned as one of the fabulous cities of its era. Caliph Harun al-Rashid was a towering personality of his time who, with the “House of Wisdom” (Bayt al–Hikma), which he founded, and which brought together the most illustrious intellectual luminaries (not all necessarily Muslims) in science, mathematics and philosophy under one roof and whose work would help advance knowledge and, in the process, that of civilization as well. Harun al-Rashid was a contemporary of Emperor Charlemagne of France with whom he inter-acted often and exchanged gifts.
Harun al-Rashid was the fifth Caliph of Islam of the Abbasid dynasty. The Abbasid dynasty comes from Abbas, who was an uncle of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), and Harun al-Rashid became Caliph after the collapse of the Umeyyad dynasty that had triumphed over Caliph Ali at Karbala, in Iraq. Caliph Ali himself was murdered in 661 A.D. The Umeyyads were based in Damascus, Syria.
By the time Harun al-Rashid ascended the Caliphate, the Islamic Empire/Caliphate was enjoying what was termed by historians “the “Golden Age of Islam.” It was an era when Islam, as a cultural force, dominated in the fields of art, philosophy and science while Europe was still “in darkness.” Indeed, Islamic civilization was at its peak and it would later help usher, in Europe, thanks to its many break-through studies and translations of the Chinese, Indian and Latino-Greek classics into Arabic and later, into Latin—that would help usher in the Age of Enlightenment.
Europe was then moving Into the Era of the Renaissance, from where it would not look back. The City of Baghdad, which was the capital the Islamic Empire and the home of the House of Wisdon — a Centre of Learning like no other — was one of the most flourishing cities of its time, with a population of one million people, and a prized place of higher learning that attracted students even from the European nobility, to its highly reputed universities and libraries. Baghdad was the cultural ‘Centre’ of the world then. It was the age when cultural advances made by Islamic scholars, scientists, philosophers revolutionized the learning of sciences and philosophy. And Europe, as we know it, took good advantage of the upsurge of knowledge then. Indeed, Europe wouldn’t be the same.
Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s rule ended in 909. Actually, he would be felled by an assassin following a rebellion that had started in his realm. He was succeeded by his son, Al-Mamum, who continued in the footsteps of his illustrious father. He too was a great patron of the arts, sciences as well as mathematics. He was a prime supporter of the “House of Wisdom” (Bayt al–Hikmah), founded by his father. So, would it be under their successors. In fact, the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam would continue well into the thirteenth century – in other words till 1258 A.D. when everything would suddenly come to a brutal end with the disastrous invasion of the Mongol hordes led by Halagu Khan, who sacked the beautiful city of Baghdad, destroying everything on his way burning libraries, mosques, churches– indeed, everything! He destroyed the “House of Wisdom” and its famous libraries and its amazing collection of rare books that were all burned or thrown into the River Tigris whose waters, it was said, ran black with ink. The Mongols, indeed, proved a calamity to the Islamic Caliphate. It ended the Golden Age and also ended the dynasty of the Abbasid Caliphate following the death of the Caliph Al-Mutasim, who was actually killed by invader, the Mongol Halagu Khan.
The Mongol invasion proved a very painful chapter in Islamic history. It would take years for the religion of Islam to recover as a political and military force. But recover, Islam did. In fact, come to think of it, Islam had the last laugh in the whole tussle. As the world knows, most of the Mongols later would convert to Islam and become strong defenders of the faith.
Harun al-Rashid did, indeed, leave his mark on history and he did it also in a majestic way. He was a strong patron of learning and, as such, gave the impetus through his House of Wisdom (Bayt al Hikmah) to Islamic culture and thoughts and, with the rise of the Sufi tradition, mystic poets and thinkers, Islam would get a new spiritual impetus and eventually re-emerge as a driving religious and cultural force that would eventually help boost Islam and Islamic studies to newer heights and help in the spread of Islamic knowledge and thoughts through poetry, philosophy and the sciences — a move that would greatly impact the entire civilized world.
Harun al-Rashid was not just a passing character in the ‘Arabian Nights Tales”. He was definitely way bigger – indeed, bigger than life! His name and fame survive till to-day — not only in Baghdad but throughout the Middle East, indeed, throughout the Islamic world.