When Harun recalled to his vizier the peaceful early days of the Faith, it was undoubtedly by way of contrasting them with the dissensions which had broken out after the death of the Prophet and raged so intensely that they were woven into the history of the caliphate in such a way as to influence unpleasantly the events surrounding his own accession.
Caliph, Overlord, he still was, but he had every reason to reflect with melancholy upon the departed and already dimming succession of Islam's triumphs. The vast empire of the Faithful was no longer under the direct control of a single hand as in the days of his early predecessors. Distant branches were falling away from the mighty trunk. Spain had her own caliphate, and Morocco, Tunis, and Egypt were about to declare theirs.
The cross currents which had caused the storm and impaired the integrity of the caliphate must have swept through Harun's alert mind. After the death of Muhammad in 632 the question of his succession, both spiritual and earthly, had precipitated the most intense clash of human passions. Although the first four caliphs had been unanimously chosen and were widely respected, two of them had been assassinated, and a half century after the demise of the Prophet, Islam was torn with internal strife.
The fourth caliph, Ali, was a holy man, first cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, but lacking in decision, unfit to cope with the seething grudges and overweening ambitions about him, and hampered by the active and powerful antagonism which Ayesha, the widow of the prophet, bore toward all members of his family.
Against Ali and Persian Mesopotamia were arrayed the Arab faction and Syria, and the civil war which ensued was only terminated by the massacre of the Alids at Kerbela in 680. Mussulman unity perished at the same time. The doctrine of the Alids, "Shiism," regarded Ali as the first legitimate successor of the Prophet and his descendants as the only rightful caliphs; all others as no more than regents holding office until that miraculous clay when "the chosen of Allah" would come in person to claim his rightful place. The Sunnites, on the contrary, acknowledged the first three caliphs and now founded the first "orthodox" dynasty under the leadership of the Ommayyads. These moved the seat, of power from Medina to Damascus and reigned there some seventy years.
The followers of Ali took refuge in Persia and exploited there the bitterness of a dissatisfied race. They rallied to them all those whose patriotism was outraged by Arab domination, religious as well as temporal, together with groups of chronic malcontents and professional agitators.
It was easy for them to season their propaganda with tales of the turpitude of the reigning princes, to inflame the fanaticism of the Faithful with a description of the vices, impiety, and cruelty of the present Ommayyad caliph who, they claimed, had married his father's women, violated his own daughter, ridiculed the Faith, and dissipated the public treasure in orgies.
Khorassan and Persia finally answered the call of the Shiites, and the black flag of the Abbassids was unfurled in rebellion. The deposition of the Ommayyads was proclaimed at Merv with wild enthusiasm. Their last desperate stand was made near the Great Zab, an affluent of the Tigris. There they were crushingly defeated. Their leader, hunted like a rabbit from cover to cover, was destined to finish his days miserably in the wastes of Egypt.
"Lions in battle, the Ommayyads died like sheep," Harun al-Rashid was fond of saying when he was recalling how his grand-uncle Abul Abbas had installed the new dynasty of the Abbassid caliphs on the throne in 749. The fifth of his line, Harun carried the family name not only to the highest point in its history, but down through generation after generation in the never-ending glamour and glory of legend.