Harun al-Rashid – Caliph of Baghdad, Iraq

Harun al Rashid was one of the sons of al-Manṣūr (al-Mahdī, the third ʿAbbāsid caliph) and was the fifth caliph of the ʿAbbāsid dynasty (786–809). Ascending the throne as a youth of just twenty-two in the year 786, after al-Hādī (Harun al Rashid’s elder brother and fourth caliph of the ʿAbbāsid dynasty) died mysteriously. al-Hadi had opposed attempt of his mother (al-Khayzuran) to share power of his caliphate, so he got killed by his mother after severe disputes. Harun al-Rashid was brought to power by al-Khayzuran, who hoped that unlike his brother he would not oppose her (his mother).  Harun al-Rashid officially handed over all control to his mother and relied upon her advice. This saved his life. But right after ascending the throne he faced internal revolts and external invasion. Regional revolts in Africa were suppressed, tribal revolts from the Qais and Quzhaa in Egypt were controlled and sectarian revolts from the Alavis were contained. The Byzantines were kept off and compelled to pay tribute. For 23 years he governed an empire that had stitched together a broad arc of the earth.

Harun’s reign was the golden age of Islam. It was neither the extraordinary wealth of the empire nor the fairy tales of the Arabian Nights that made it golden; it in fact was the strength of its ideas and its valuable contributions to human thought. As the empire had expanded, it had come in touch with ideas from classical Greek, Zoroastrian, Indian, Buddhist and Hindu civilizations. The process of translation and appreciation of global ideas was already under way since the time of al Mansur. But it received a major boost from Harun al Rashid.

Harun al Rashid set up a School of translation Bait ul Hikmah (house of wisdom) and had men of learning for company. His administration was in the able hands of viziers of extraordinary capabilities, the Bermecides (Barmakids). His courtiers included great poets, musicians, juris doctors, writers, logicians, mathematicians, scientists, men of culture and fiqh scholars. Ibn Hayyan (inventor of the science of chemistry), worked at the court of Harun. The scholars who were involved in the work of translation included Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians Muslims and Hindus. From Greece arrived the works of Plato, Galen, Socrates, Aristotle, Hippocratis, Archimedes, Demosthenes, Euclid, Ptolemy and Pythagoras. From India came a delegation with the Siddhanta of Brahmagupta, the concept of zero, Indian numerals and Ayurveda. From China arrived the science of alchemy and the technologies of silk, paper and pottery. The Zoroastrians came with the disciplines of administration, agriculture and irrigation. The Muslims learnt from these sources to get enlightened and gave to the world algebra, sociology, chemistry and the concept of infinity.

What Harun initiated, his son Mamun sought to complete. Mamun was himself a scholar, had studied medicine, logic, Fiqh and was a Hafiz e Qur’an. He dispatched delegations to Constantinople and the courts of Chinese and Indian princes requesting them to send classical books and scholars. He exhilarated the translators and gave them attractive rewards. Possibly the story of this epoch is best told by the great men of the era. The first philosopher of Islam, al Kindi worked at this time in Iraq. The illustrious mathematician al Khwarizmi worked at the court of Mamun. Al Khwarizmi is credited for the recurring method of solving mathematical problems, which is in use even today and is termed algorithms. Al Khwarizmi coined the word algebra (from the Arabic word j-b-r (meaning to force, beat or multiply), presented the Indian numeral system to the Muslim world (from where it reached Europe and got converted into the “Arabic” numeral system), institutionalized the usage of the decimal in mathematics and invented the empirical method in astronomy.

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