Harun al-Rashid (the Righteous) succeeded as caliph in 786 AD when his father, al-Mahdi, died the year before. During Harun’s reign, the caliph’s court in Baghdad became more Persian because of the influence of the Barmakid family and the Abbasids’ other Persian backers. The Abbasid court adopted Sassanian customs which required all subjects to bow down before the caliph as a greeting. The caliph also adopted the establishment of a harem (a contrast to original Islamic law which allowed men to have four wives). The Caliphate in Baghdad is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during the 8th century AD.
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The responsibilities of the caliph transformed from active administrator to a mere religious and military symbol during this period when Harun distanced himself from administrative affairs and left this task to his vizier. He, however, remained as the “representative of God” or the holy head of the ummah (Muslim community) on earth. The Persians, by then, held much sway in the Abbasid court as well as in the military. It was something the Arab population resented, but the discontent was offset by the political stability and economic prosperity during Harun’s reign.
It was said that the Abbasid caliphate and Muslim community reached a cultural, political, commercial, and scientific golden age during Harun’s reign. He ordered Muslim scholars to translate Greek and Syriac scientific texts to Arabic, while literature, mathematics, and medicine flourished during his rule. The development of the legal framework of the Islamic community called the Sharia also started and became fully developed during this period.
Harun’s reign started the golden age of the Islamic community. The years that followed were also the start of a long political and economic decline of the Abbasids into the 13th century. The caliph traveled to Khorasan to stop a rebellion in the last year of his reign. He died on the way at the ancient city of Tus (near present-day Mashhad) in 809 AD. He arranged an unconventional succession for his two sons before he died, and appointed the older son, Al-Amin, as ruler in Baghdad. His favorite son by a Persian concubine, Al-Mamun, was appointed as the governor of Khorasan in the east. The arrangement did not go well for the brothers. By 811, a full-scale civil war erupted between the two which ended only in 813 upon the death of Al-Amin.
Al-Mamun succeeded his deceased brother as the new Abbasid caliph, but Shiite and Kharijite rebellions plagued the first ten years of his reign. He died in 833 AD and was succeeded by his brother, Al-Mutassim, who was unpopular among the people of Baghdad. Fearful for his life, the new caliph hired Turkish bodyguards who were former slaves and who, in recent years, had converted to Islam. Al-Mutassim further alienated himself from his own people when he moved the court from Baghdad and established another capital in Samarra.
The Turks steadily rose to power and became influential during the time of Al-Mutassim. Sunni Islam became popular among the people during the time of this caliph, but Shiite rebellion and economic instability plagued the caliphate most of the time. The conflict with the Byzantine Empire also worsened during his reign after Al-Mutassim and his troops repeatedly invaded Byzantine border towns. Al-Mutassim died in Samarra in 842 AD. He was succeeded by Al-Wathiq whose reign was dominated by doctrinal issues.
Al-Mutawakkil succeeded his brother, Al-Wathiq, upon his death, but the new caliph started his 14-year reign with a bang with the brutal execution of his brother’s vizier. The persecution of the Shiites, Christians, and Jews followed this brutal act. They were banned from public employment and subjected to forced conversions to Sunni Islam. He remained in Samarra and his son, Al-Muntasir, hired a Turkish soldier to assassinate the Caliph years later. Al-Muntasir succeeded his father but reigned only for five months before he died by poisoning in 861 AD. The Abbasid caliphate went into a slow and steady decline in the years that followed while the Turkish soldiers held the reins of power until the rise of the Buyid dynasty in the middle of the 10th century.
Picture By Julius Köckert – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=587146
“Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate from Contemporary Arabic and Persian Sources.” Internet Archive. Accessed August 24, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/BaghdadDuringTheAbbasidCaliphateFromContemporaryArabicAndPersian/LeStrange_Baghdad_Abbasid#page/n8/mode/1up.
Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Marozzi, Justin. Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood. Penguin UK, 2014.
Wollaston, Arthur N. “The Sword Of Islam.” Internet Archive. Accessed August 24, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/swordofislam030787mbp#page/n0/mode/1up.
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