NOT MANY OF THE GREAT figures of early Islamic history are widely known in the Western world today. The achievements of caliphs such as the Umayyad Abd al-Malik (r.685-705) or the second Abbasid caliph Mansur (r.754-75) in consolidating their respective holds over the Muslim world and establishing administrative systems that maintained their vast empires, are virtually unknown outside the ranks of specialists in early Islamic history. Most people are aware that Arab Muslim civilisation enjoyed a 'golden age' in early medieval times but the men and women who led and dominated this world are virtually forgotten.
There is, however, one exception to this, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809). A contemporary of Charlemagne, his caliphate (the title caliph comes from the Arabic khalifa meaning the deputy of God on earth) stretched from modern Tunisia, through Egypt, Syria and Iraq, to Iran and ex-Soviet Central Asia. Oman, Yemen and much of modern Pakistan were in his domains.
The vast empire the Abbasids ruled had been created by the Muslim conquests between 632 and 650. From 661 to 750 it was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty from their capital in Damascus. Considered impious and tyrannical by many Muslims, especially in Iraq, the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids and their supporters in 750. Harun inherited this empire from his shrewd grandfather Mansur and his popular father Mahdi.
The Abbasids claimed to be members of the family of the Prophet, descended from his uncle Abbas, though their claim was rejected by the Shi'ites who believed, and still do believe, that only the direct descendants of his daughter Fatima and her husband All call be considered true leaders of the Muslim community.
By the time Harun succeeded, the Abbasid capital Baghdad was the largest city in the world outside China. Baghdad had been founded by Mansur in 762 and its growth had been phenomenal. By Harun's reign it had already expanded far beyond the round city Mansur had built, and now, a vast, rambling, unplanned metropolis, it spread for miles on both sides of the Tigris.
Harun was not originally the designated heir apparent, but took over power after the mysterious death of his elder brother, Hadi. When he died, the misguided provisions of his own will almost destroyed the Caliphate entirely. Harun's reputation does not rest on his achievements as a politician or leader; he was at best an adequate caretaker of what he had inherited. Nor was he a great patron of culture: he left virtually no surviving architecture and it was his son and eventual successor al-Ma'mun (813-833) who fully established the reputation of the Abbasid court as a place of learning and scientific endeavour.
Yet later Muslims looked back to his reign as an era of extravagance and magnificence, before the Caliphate was plagued by the financial anxieties and problems that diminished and eventually destroyed it (the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad fell to the Shi'ite Buwayhids in the mid-tenth century). After Harun's death, Baghdad was to endure the nightmare of prolonged civil war, but in his reign the city was both prosperous and innocent, and its inhabitants must have been aware that they lived in the finest city in the Islamic world.
It was not real achievements which kept the memory of Harun alive, but his role in the stories collected in Isfahani's great Book of Songs (c. 950) and the collection of traditional stories known as the Arabian Nights. Here he is the caliph who explores the streets of his capital by night in disguise and joins in the lives and adventures of his subjects. He is accompanied by a small group of companions, notably his closest friend Ja'far the Barmakid, his chief factotum the eunuch Masrur, and the poet and court jester Abu Nuwas. All these are historical figures. The earliest known version of the Nights dates from the fourteenth century and many of the stories that we think of as typical of them, such as All Baba and Aladdin, date from well after that. …