Weekly Middle East Historical Figure – Harun Al-Rashid

Harun Al-Rashid delivering a decree surrounded by opulence and decadence, as his reign came to be viewed by Europeans

Harun Al-Rashid (763-809) – Ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate (786-809)

Perhaps the most famous Muslim ruler of his era, Harun Al-Rashid was instrumental in creating the modern image of the Middle East and his reign represented a golden age of Muslim culture.  His court was the model that was used for the setting of many of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights that later became famous in the Western world.

Under his rule the Abbasid Caliphate became the richest, most powerful and culturally influential political entity in the world.  His court was filled with philosophers and scientists and he was a patron of the arts and architecture.  This time of Muslim history, filled with richness and splendor, became the way that many Europeans came to view the Muslim world.  This is characterized by the settings used in the Arabian Nights tales or myths such as the magic carpets, making Harun Al-Rashid’s cultural legacy as important as the political achievements of his lifetime.

One of the more famous anecdotes concerning Harun Al-Rashid was the clock that he sent to Charlemagne, then emperor of the Franks.  The Frankish emperor had never seen such technology and thought that the clock was run by magic, displaying the technological gap that then existed between the Muslim world and most of Europe.

In the political sphere HarunAl-Rashid led successful military expeditions against the Byzantine Empire and was instrumental in reinvigorating the previously declining and fragmenting Abbasid Caliphate.  But, upon his death, he divided his empire between his sons, which led to a lengthy civil war that began the irreversible decline of the empire that stretched from modern day Iran to Spain.

Yet, the reign of Harun Al-Rashid represented the high point of Muslim cultural and political influence in the world at large.  Not until the Ottoman Empire would a Muslim ruler exert so much control over the world.

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