c. 766 - 809
Abassid Caliph of the Arabian Nightsby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
"I have read thy letter. Thou shalt not hear, thou shalt SEE my reply."
"Long ago, in a far off land . . ." Thus began the tale told by the storyteller who himself lived a long time ago, in a far off land. He sat before a glittering court in the palace of Caliph  Harun al'Rashid—a legendary palace in the fabled capitol of Baghdad. Continuing to spin his tale, the storyteller told it more gloriously than ever, in accordance with a storyteller's tradition. Resplendent with jinni , kings, and fabulous wealth, his tales resembled those found in The Arabian Nights a collection of "Persian, Indian, Arabic[,] and Egyptian literature, polished up to reflect [Muslim] values and ideals."  Filled with magic, magnificence, and mystery, The Arabian Nights describe life from the time of Harun al'Rashid. However, these stories were not really wholesome but contained murders, lewdness, and demons, as well as many other evil things. But just as most people remember The Arabian Nights only for Disney movies such as Aladdin, so modern scholars praise Harun al'Rashid only for his good deeds, while at the same time they gloss over his hard-hearted cruelty.
Second son of caliph al'Mahdi, the third Abassid caliph of the Arab empire, Harun al'Rashid grew up in a violent age. Barely ten years before Harun's birth, al'Abbas  used his religious prestige to lead a revolt against the Umayyad caliphate, establishing the Abassid caliphate. During Harun's youth, many parts of the Arab empire began to revolt against Arab rule. In fact, Harun's father sent him, at the age of twenty, as commander of a force to suppress the Byzantine empire. Byzantium's regent, the empress Empress Irene, declared Byzantine free from Arab rule, but Harun's army beat the Byzantine forces soundly. Before he had attacked Constantinople, though, Empress Irene sent emissaries to try to appease Harun, but he obstinately refused to spare the city.
As the story goes, however, one of the emissaries told Harun that "The Empress has heard much of your ability as a general. Though you are her enemy, she admires you as a soldier."  After hearing this, Harun was so flattered that he agreed to spare Constantinople . . . if Irene would pay seventy thousand pieces of gold a year in tribute. Empress Irene quickly rounded up the first year's tribute and sent it home with Harun and his army.
In 785, about the time Harun subdued the Byzantine empire, his father died. Al'Mahdi left the caliphate to Harun's older brother, al'Hadi. However, al'Mahdi had ordered that if al'Hadi died before al'Rashid, then al'Rashid would rule instead of al'Hadi's son. This pleased neither al'Hadi, who wished for his son to inherit his rule, nor al'Rashid's mother, a strong and influential woman who wanted her son to rule after al'Mahdi.
Now during the revolution that ultimately established the Abassid caliphate, a certain Khalid ibn Barmak supported the Abassids, after which service he received a government position. Khalid ibn Barmak's son Yahya became vizier  after his father. Yahya served the caliphs Mansur  and al'Mahdi before serving caliph al'Hadi. During these years of service that had passed since the revolution which brought them to power, the Barmakids' power had increased greatly, and Yahya exercised some of this power to make al'Rashid caliph. Although al'Hadi only threw Yahya into prison for his pains, al'Rashid finally recompensed Yahya after his brother's mysterious death in 786. 
Yahya and his two sons Fadhl and Ja'far helped al'Rashid administer his empire. With the help of his viziers, al'Rashid expanded and improved Baghdad. Under al'Rashid's rule, Baghdad became "a Paris of the ninth century,"  with an ever-growing population—merchants, eunuchs, physicians, philosophers, poets, storytellers, mathematicians, in short, all sorts of people. In addition, al'Rashid built schools, libraries, hospitals, and supported the translation of many Greek and Latin texts into Arabic.  Harun al'Rashid reportedly encouraged literature and learning and brought learned men from all parts of the empire to Baghdad. Al'Rashid also corresponded with Charlemagne and even sent him a clock and an elephant. Yet despite the advances promoted by al'Rashid, historians never mention his cold and despotic rule. For the slightest reason, he could (and did) have anyone he wished executed and even kept an executioner with a drawn sword by his throne at all times!  His own viziers provide an unhappy example of al'Rashid's absolute power.
Over the years, al'Rashid grew very fond of the Barmakids, who helped him immensely. In fact, al'Rashid liked Ja'far so well that he gave his sister Abbasah to Ja'far in marriage. However, to prevent Ja'far from producing an heir , al'Rashid forbade Ja'far and Abbasah to meet, except in al'Rashid's presence. But Abbasah gave birth to a son, and though she hid the child from her brother for a time, he inevitably found her out.
Calling one of his servants, al'Rashid ordered Ja'far's execution, which was promptly carried out. He then confiscated the wealth of the entire Barmakid family, and threw many Barmakids in prison, including Yahya and Fadhl. Ja'far's execution took place around 803, and his father and brother both died in prison. This, then effectively ended the power and prestige of the Barmakids.
Around this same time, in 802 , Nicephorus succeeded Empress Irene as ruler of the Byzantine Empire. He promptly sent a message to Harun al'Rashid declaring that he would no longer pay al'Rashid the annual tribute. In answer to his rudely worded message, al'Rashid returned the previously mentioned quote—"I have read thy letter. Thou shalt not hear, thou shalt SEE my reply."  Always a man of action, al'Rashid immediately led an army into Byzantium and captured a city. Nicephorus hurriedly agreed to pay the tribute, but as soon as al'Rashid had left Byzantium, he refused again.
Just as promptly, al'Rashid returned. This time, however, he wreaked havoc along his way. And Nicephorus yet again agreed to pay the tribute, and yet again he refused as soon as al'Rashid departed. Finally, terribly angry, al'Rashid swore that he would kill Nicephorus if he could lay hands on him. But during his third and last campaign al'Rashid died en route to Constantinople in 809.
Although Harun al'Rashid ruled during the Golden Age of Arabia, after and indeed during his rule the empire began to disintegrate, despite the advances he had promoted in medicine and education. Actually, this disintegration resulted from the decadent lifestyle led by the caliph, his court, and many of his subjects as well as the corruption among the governors he appointed to rule provinces of the Arab empire. Decadence found in daily life included polygamy and concubinage in addition to slavery and harsh treatment of subordinates. However, the ceremony required in the caliph's court was probably the greatest immediate cause of the empire's disintegration.
After the capitol moved from Damascus to Baghdad in 762, the Abbasid caliphs "reigned as semi-divine beings who represented God on earth and had total control over their subjects."  Ceremonies performed in court culminated during the rule of Harun al'Rashid, when visitors or supplicants had to prostrate themselves before they even saw the caliph. Also, the predominately Muslim state worshiped Allah rather than the true God. Thus, they violated God-given law; Jesus declared , "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only." Therefore, when the Abbasid caliphs, and Caliph Harun al'Rashid in particular, exalted themselves and their own achievements rather than God, God humbled their dynasty, and within one-hundred years of Harun al'Rashid's rule, the Abbasid dynasty had fallen from power.
up2Genie is the modernized form of jinni. However, contrary to popular conception, the jinni found in Arab tradition were not good or kindly but instead wicked, cruel, and demonic. In The Arabian Nights, jinni are also called ifrits, fire demons or malicious spirits.
up3Charles Kimball, "The Arab Golden Age: The Abbasid Caliphate in its Prime," The Xenophile Historian, <http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/neareast/ne10.html#Abbasid> (21 Apr. 2004). These "ideals" shocked individuals of the Victorian era (which had sound morals, on the whole) when Sir Richard Burton published a seventeen-volume, "unabridged" translation of The Arabian Nights, complete with sexually explicit or violent passages.
up4Sunni Muslims supported the revolution because al'Abbas was Muhammad's uncle as well as one of his close companions. Shia Muslims also supported the revolution because of the connection with al'Abbas' father (Muhammad's grandfather).
up5John H. Haaren, A. B. Poland, and Robert G. Shearer, "Harun-al-Rashid," in Famous Men of the Middle Ages April 2003, Authorama: Public Domain Books, <http://www.authorama.com/famous-men-of-the-middle-ages-13.html> (21 Apr. 2004).
up8Some speculation exists that Harun al'Rashid's mother might have had something to do with al'Hadi's mysterious death, although scholars know very little about the circumstances of his death. If al'Hadi was assassinated, this fact was carefully covered up afterwards.
up10Many historians and other scholars laud this as a great Arab accomplishment because many of the original Greek and Latin texts were lost over time and without the Arabic translations would have been lost to the literary world. However, these same historians skip over the fact that Christian monks in monasteries carried out this same work to much the same effect.
up12Halsall, Paul, ed. "The Book of Golden Meadows: The Caliph Haroun Al Rashid." Internet Medieval Sourcebook 20 Apr. 2004. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/masoudi.html>. Al'Rashid did not want Ja'far to produce an heir who might one day contend with al'Rashid or al'Rashid's son for the caliphate.