Son of Muhammad-el-Mandi, son of Abdallah, son of Muhammad, son of Ali, son of Abdallah, son of Abbas, Harun was born in Media on the 20th of March, 763 (or possibly the 15th of February, 766). Today his natal city of Rai (the celebrated Rhagae of the ancients) is a mass of ruins near the modern Teheran. His birthplace, near the Caspian Sea, removes all doubt as to Harun's heredity. He was an Arab. His father was then governor of Azerbaijan.
Harun's childhood was spent mostly in court at Mesopotamia. There he had the opportunity to know all the Abbassid caliphs excepting the first, his great-uncle Abbas, the Shedder of Blood (Saflah). He had learned, however, from an early age to respect the memory of this famous kinsman who had distinguished himself by his learning, austere piety, and tremendous energy in organizing the empire as well as by his efficient methods of accomplishing his purpose.
Harun had been taught according to the doctrine of the dynasty that Caliph Abbas had inaugurated his reign with a speech famous among Mussulmans. After addressing many fine compliments to the people of Kuf a, he said: "This is the era of God. Prepare yourselves, for I am the Lavish Shedder of Blood." Perhaps the small Harun dreamed then in his childish heart of shedding blood also, when he should reach man's estate.
If a strange ideal to us, second nature to one of his race. With the Arabs, he who sheds blood is not necessarily a murderer, but a generous host who in order to provide lavishly for his guests will go so far as to kill his most precious live stock; in other words, to bleed himself. In the case of Abbas, however, every implication of the name was deserved; for he was a tyrant who ruthlessly massacred all of his enemies. His grand-nephew did not perhaps suspect that his own reputation would one day carry a similar red stain.
Harun's early days in the harem, where he was brought up under the care of the women, were enlivened by occasional visits from his grandfather, Mansur the Victorious, successor to the Shedder of Blood. It is reasonably safe to assume that the small Arab's attention was centred more on the magnificent boots and black turban of this tall gaunt old caliph than on his pious counsels. He was never very hopeful of receiving presents from this Oriental Croesus, whose bulging treasury had earned him the reputation of being a money-hoarder and who regaled the child with tales of the glories of his reign and the virtue of thrift instead of bringing him gifts.
Who, after all, could have foretold at that time the next ruler of the Arabs? Unlike the thrones of Europe, where the passing on of the crown according to seniority was a pledge of peace, the caliphate was not even hereditary. Fortunate, indeed, the princes who were sure of their future.
The problem of the succession was an ardent one with the Mussulmans, often leading to treachery, assassination, and civil war. Theoretically, the Lieutenant of God had to be elected by the Faithful. Even when the election was only a sham, skillfully manoeuvred by the followers of the reigning caliph in favor of one of his relatives, one could never actually predict the result. Even if a very natural paternal instinct influenced the ruler's mind to such an extent that he preferred to be succeeded by one of his sons, this did not necessarily imply that the eldest would be chosen. All the intrigues of palaces, influences of the khojas, pressure through the tender channels of the emotions, were employed to bring to the fore one claimant or another.
Maternal wire-pulling was the order of the day—and night—when so many mothers were arrayed against a single father! The four legitimate wives allowed by the Koran, combined with an unlimited number of concubines, provided each sovereign with a swarm of children whose mothers were each prepared to fight to the death for the interests of her own brood. The besieged father must have been reminded of that Arab proverb: "He who has two wives passes his life in anxiety; he who has three is embittered all his life; but he who has four wives is like a dead man." The proverb does not touch upon his bevy of concubines.
The caliphate of the Abbassids was stained with one gory tragedy after another. Khaizuran, the mother of Harun, was extremely ambitious and stopped at nothing to satisfy her appetite for power. Her husband, the caliph Mandi, had freed her from slavery, but although he was most generous to her in every way she seemed never content.
Khaizuran had two sons, Hadi and Harun, but she had always preferred the latter and never ceased to intrigue until she saw him on the throne. In order to insure his succession she had a marriage ceremony performed between herself and Mandi just before he became caliph at the death of his father Mansur. The latter died as piously as he had lived, while on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and was buried in the Holy City, his face uncovered, and arrayed in the penitential cloak of a pilgrim.
Harun was six years old when his father began to reign. It was the age when a young Mussulman passes from the harem and the hands of women to school and into the hands of men. First came the surgical ceremony of circumcision. Harun, son of Mandi, must experience in common with all his fellow-followers of the Prophet, the cries, songs, and strident huzzas which always celebrated this occasion. To a good Mussulman, his son is as the apple of his eye, and Harun somewhat dazed by the hubbub was much impressed by his father's pride, but his heart was a mixture of happiness and pain and he scarcely knew whether to hold his head high or give way to tears.
After this initiation into manhood, Harun's education began. In the case of a caliph's son this was most carefully carried out. His father confided him to the excellent care of Yahia the Barmecide, a most distinguished Arab of high degree, who was destined with his illustrious family to play an important part in the history of Harun's reign.
Yahia quickly acquired the absolute respect and confidence of his pupil, who called him Father to the end of his days. In a sense this appellation was justified. The friendship between the Caliph Mandi and Yahia, and their families, had been such that the Barmecide's wife had at times suckled the infant Harun, while Yahia's elder son Fadl had been nursed by Khaizuran. Yahia's influence over Harun was reinforced by Mandi's instructions that the boy should submit himself completely to the orders and advice of his tutor.
We have no reason to doubt that the instructions of this father and teacher were as wise as those of Gargantua; but, if the humane giant voluntarily abolished corporal punishments, we cannot say as much for the Oriental educators. Abu Muhammad says in his treatise on education: "It is not necessary for the instructor, should the occasion arise, to punish a child by giving him more than three blows." The young Harun probably drew his share of punishment. But there is no need to pity him on this score.
One of the most savory characteristics of a noble Arab's education was the practice of substituting the bodies of others for these punitive blows: sons of slaves, servants, perhaps officers or poets of the court. When the young Harun's taste, turning early toward the fine arts, led him to seek the company of the celebrated composer Mosuli, it was the latter who suffered for Harun's transgressions, became his whipping-boy, so to speak. This practice did not apply to royalty alone. If a singer at a court performance sang a false note, they punished her by striking the shoulders of another. One may be sure that her pride suffered a smarting wound! When a cheetah, who was being trained for the hunt, made a mistake, it was a dog that was whipped before his eyes. The cheetah is a noble animal and must have suffered from such a humiliation! After all, the education of the sons of Louis XIV was not very different. This extraordinary custom of effecting the expiation of sins by passing them on from privileged beings to scapegoats goes back beyond Biblical times to the mystic customs of ancient tribes and clans.
One can imagine from these examples the conception that a young Arab might form of royal power, and the lessons for the future which he would draw from them. It does not seem strange then that Harun, as sovereign, ordered one day a hundred blows for a servant who spoke without sufficient deference of some king of an ancient dynasty. The Caliph gave this unanswerable excuse: "Power establishes a sort of union and family bond between kings. I am punishing this man in order to maintain respect to the throne and the consideration that kings owe each other."
Harun's training produced early results. While still a youth he was allowed to go out with the armies, but always attended by Yahia.
War was raging then between the Mussulmans and the Byzantines in Asia Manor. There the Greeks and the Asiatics defended themselves as they had to in Homeric times, as they had to do again in our days. In 779, the Caliph Mandi assembled his army on the plains of Baradan north of Bagdad and started forward at the beginning of the following spring. This was to be Harun's baptism of fire. They crossed Mesopotamia and Syria and penetrated Cilicia as far as the shores of the Pyramus river. It seemed necessary to send out an expeditionary force.
The young Saracen prince was a splendid sight as he rode at the side of his father under the coal-black standards of the Abbassids which an Andalusian poet once likened to beauty spots on the cheeks of royalty. His heart came near to bursting with pride when his father suddenly decided to put him in command of the expedition. This was a real school of war for the fifteen-year-old youth. It was really Yahia the Barmecide who bore the responsibility of the expedition, although to Harun went the credit and glory for capturing the fortress Samalu after a siege of thirty-eight days.
The Greek inhabitants had surrendered on condition that their lives should be spared and they not separated from one another. Harun magnanimously ordered them to be conducted to Bagdad, where they built several Nestorian monasteries and lived under the authority of the Greek Catholic patriarch of Bagdad. This example of tolerance should be written large on the records of all Mussulmans and of those of Harun al-Rashid in particular.
The Caliph was so pleased with his son's exploit that he immediately dispatched an order making Harun governor of the entire western part, of the empire including Azerbaijan and Armenia. A course in government was now to follow the schooling in war with the efficient Barmecide, of course, at the helm.
The victorious warriors rode triumphantly into Bagdad, that city so recently founded by the preceding caliph, yet already on its way to becoming not only the seat of the Abbasid power but the capital of civilization. Khaizuran embraced her cherished son with mingled emotions of fondness and chagrin. Her joy over his prowess was tempered by the fact that Hadi was even then on his way to the mosque of Bagdad expecting soon to be appointed successor to his father. History has not always analyzed the hearts of mothers. It is, however, a fact that this one did not love her elder son. Her caresses and favors had always been for Harun. Her mind was teeming with schemes to secure the throne for him by any means possible. It might take some time, but she would leave no stone unturned. She brought all the pressure in her power to bear on Mandi.
Before long, events took place which seemed to favor her plans. Less than two years after the capture of Samalu, war burst out again. Leo IV, at the head of the Byzantine empire, had recently died leaving the throne to Constantine VI. This prince being only ten years old, his mother, Irene, acted as regent, assuming the title of Augusta. By her orders Michael Lachanodrakon invaded Asia Minor with a strong army. The first Arab troops to encounter them weakened, and retired. Caliph Mandi, irritated by this defection, decided to send Harun to save the situation.
The young prince started out with 100,000 men accompanied by the Caliph's chamberlain, Rabi, and the very excellent general, Yazid ben Mazyad. But on this occasion the command appears to have been left chiefly in the hands of Harun. Their orders were to carry the war to the very gates of Byzantium. The campaign was quickly over. Yazid put to flight the Patrician, Nicetas, Count of Opsikion; and Harun marched against Nicomedia, where he vanquished the commander-in-chief of the Greeks and pitched his camp on the shores of the Bosphorus. Once more the Saracen flood was rolling stormily toward this fragile rampart, once more Islam was knocking at the doors of Central Europe. Nevertheless, seven centuries were to elapse before this narrow strait, this embryo sea, would be crossed.
Byzantium from across the Bosphorus, as viewed by Harun al-Rashid during his first campaign at the age of fourteen.
For the, moment they contented themselves with imposing rather strenuous conditions upon Irene: a truce of three years, an annual tribute of 90,000 dinars, and an agreement to supply the Mussulmans with guides and provisions for their return trip.
This brilliant success seconded Khaizuran's plans admirably. She had no difficulty in persuading Mandi to appoint Harun successor-designate after Mandi. It was on this occasion also that the Caliph, as an especial mark of affection, gave his son the surname of "Rashid," by which he has been known throughout history and fiction. "Heaven gave you virtue and excellent judgment, and in addition you were called `Rashid'," says a verse of Abul-Atahiya. "Rashid" means follower of the right cause, well-directed, strict and just in religion. We translate it by one word, colorless, perhaps, but clear, orthodox. "Guide us in the straight path," says the introductory prayer of the Koran. Aaron the Orthodox was soon to discover what causes he was destined to follow and what paths his feet would tread.