1. Harun al-Rashid

Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah found himself ruler of an empire extending from the Indus to the Atlantic: Sind (northwest India), Baluchistan, Afghanistan, Turkestan, Persia, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Crete, Egypt, and North Africa. Moslem Spain, however, rejected his authority, and in the twelfth year of his reign Sind threw off his rule. Hated in Damascus, uncomfortable in turbulent Kufa, al-Saffah made Anbar, north of Kufa, his capital. The men who had helped him to power, and now administered the state, were predominantly Persian in origin or culture; after al-Saffah had drunk his fill of blood, a certain Iranian refinement and urbanity entered into the manners of the court; and a succession of enlightened caliphs dignified the growth of wealth by promoting a brilliant flowering of art and literature, science and philosophy. After a century of humiliation, Persia conquered her conquerors.

Al-Saffah died of smallpox in 754. His half brother Abu Jafar succeeded him under the name of al-Mansur, “the Victorious.” Mansur’s mother was a Berber slave; of the thirty-seven Abbasid caliphs, slaves mothered all but three through the institution of concubinage and the legitimation of its progeny; in this way the Moslem aristocracy was perpetually recruited by the democracy of chance and the fortunes of love and war. The new Caliph was forty, tall, slender, bearded, dark, austere; no slave to woman’s beauty, no friend of wine or song, but a generous patron of letters, sciences, and arts. A man of great ability and little scruple, by his firm statesmanship he established a dynasty that might else have died at al-Saffah’s death. He gave himself sedulously to administration, built a splendid new capital at Baghdad, reorganized the government and the army into their lasting form, kept a keen eye on every department and almost every transaction, periodically forced corrupt officials—including his brother—to disgorge their peculations into the treasury, and dispensed the funds of the state with a conscientious parsimony that won him no friends, but the title of “Father of Farthings.”16 At the outset of his reign he established on a Persian model an institution—the vizierate—which was to play a major role in Abbasid history. As his first vizier he appointed Khalid, son of Barmak; this family of Barmakids was cast for a heavy part in the Abbasid drama. Al-Mansur and Khalid created the order and prosperity whose full fruits were to fall into the lap of Harun al-Rashid.

After a beneficent reign of twenty-two years al-Mansur died on a pilgrimage to Mecca. His son al-Mahdi (775–85) could now afford to be benevolent. He pardoned all but the most dangerous offenders, spent lavishly to beautify the cities, supported music and literature, and administered the empire with reasonable competence. Byzantium having seized the opportunity of the Abbasid revolution to recover Arab-conquered territory in Asia Minor, al-Mahdi sent an army under his son Harun to renew a theft long sanctified by time. Harun drove the Greeks back to Constantinople, and so threatened that capital that the Empress Irene made peace on terms that pledged a yearly payment of 70,000 dinars ($332,500) to the caliphs (784). From that time onward al-Mahdi called the youth Harun al-Rashid—Aaron the Upright. He had previously named another son heir apparent; now, seeing the far superior capacity of Harun, he asked al-Hadi to waive his claim in favor of his younger brother. Al-Hadi, commanding an army in the east, refused, and disobeyed a summons to Baghdad; al-Mahdi and Harun set out to capture him, but al-Mahdi, aged forty-three, died on the way. Harun—so counseled by the Barmakid Yahya, son of Khalid—recognized Hadi as Caliph, and himself as heir apparent. But, as Sa‘di was to say, “Ten dervishes can sleep on one rug, but two kings cannot be accommodated in an entire kingdom.”17 Al-Hadi soon set Harun aside, imprisoned Yahya, and proclaimed his own son as successor. Shortly thereafter (786) al-Hadi died; rumor said that his own mother, favoring Harun, had had him smothered with pillows. Harun ascended the throne, made Yahya his vizier, and began the most famous reign in Moslem history.

Legends—above all, the Thousand and One Nights—picture Harun as a gay and cultured monarch, occasionally despotic and violent, often generous and humane; so fond of good stories that he had them recorded in state archives, and rewarded a lady raconteur, now and then, by sharing his bed with her.18 All these qualities appear in history except the gaiety, which perhaps offended the historians. These depict him first of all as a pious and resolutely orthodox Moslem, who severely restricted the liberties of non-Moslems, made the pilgrimage to Mecca every second year, and performed a hundred prostrations with his daily prayers.19 He drank thirstily, but mostly in the privacy of a few chosen friends.20 He had seven wives and several concubines; eleven sons and fourteen daughters, all by slave girls except al-Emin, his son by the Princess Zobeida. He was generous with all forms of his wealth. When his son al-Mamun fell in love with one of Harun’s palace maids, the Caliph presented her to him, merely asking him in payment to compose some lines of poetry.21 He enjoyed poetry so intensely that on some occasions he would overwhelm a poet with extravagant gifts, as when he gave the poet Merwan, for one brief but laudatory ode, 5000 pieces of gold ($23,750), a robe of honor, ten Greek slave girls, and a favorite horse.22 His boon companion was the libertine poet Abu Nuwas; repeatedly angered by the poet’s insolence or open immorality, he was repeatedly mollified by exquisite verse. He gathered about him in Baghdad an unparalleled galaxy of poets, jurists, physicians, grammarians, rhetors, musicians, dancers, artists, and wits; judged their work with discriminating taste, rewarded them abundantly, and was repaid by a thousand metrical doxologies. He himself was a poet, a scholar, an impetuous and eloquent orator.23No court in history had ever a more brilliant constellation of intellects. Contemporary with the Empress Irene in Constantinople and with Charlemagne in France, and coming a little later than Tsüan Tsung at Chang-an, Harun excelled them all in wealth, power, splendor, and the cultural advancement that adorns a rule.

But he was no dilettante. He shared in the labor of administration, earned repute as a just judge, and—despite unprecedented liberality and display-left 48,000,000 dinars ($228,000,000) in the treasury at his death. He led his armies personally in the field, and maintained all frontiers intact. For the most part, however, he entrusted administration and policy to the wise Yahya. Soon after his accession he summoned Yahya and said: “I invest you with the rule over my subjects. Rule them as you please; depose whom you will, appoint whom you will, conduct all affairs as you see fit”; and in ratification of his words he gave Yahya his ring.24 It was an act of extreme and imprudent confidence, but Harun, still a youth of twenty-two, judged himself unprepared to rule so wide a realm; it was also an act of gratitude to one who had been his tutor, whom he had come to call father, and who had borne imprisonment for his sake.

Yahya proved to be one of the ablest administrators in history. Affable, generous, judicious, tireless, he brought the government to its highest pitch of efficiency; established order, security, and justice; built roads, bridges, inns, canals; and kept all the provinces prosperous even while taxing them severely to fill his master’s purse and his own; for he, too, like the Caliph, played patron to literature and art. His sons al-Fadl and Jafar received high office from him, acquitted themselves well, paid themselves better; they became millionaires, built palaces, kept their own herds of poets, jesters, and philosophers. Harun loved Jafar so well that gossip found scandal in their intimacy; the Caliph had a cloak made with two collars, so that he and Jafar might wear it at the same time, and be two heads with but a single breast; perhaps in this Siamese garb they sampled together the night life of Baghdad.25

We do not know the precise causes that so suddenly ended the Barmakids’ power. Ibn Khaldun saw the “true cause” in “their assumption of all authority, their jealous disposition of the public revenue, to such degree that al-Rashid was sometimes reduced to asking for a trivial sum without being able to obtain it.”26 As the young ruler grew into middle age, and found no complete expression of his abilities in the pursuit of sensual pleasure and intellectual discourse, he may have regretted the omnipotence with which he had dowered his vizier. When he ordered Jafar to have a rebel executed, Jafar connived at the man’s escape; Harun never forgave this amiable negligence. A story worthy of the Thousand and One Nights tells how Abbasa, Harun’s sister, fell in love with Jafar; now Harun had vowed to keep the Hashimite blood of his sisters as pure as might be of any but high Arabian fluid, and Jafar was Persian. The Caliph permitted them to marry, but on their promise never to meet except in his presence. The lovers soon broke this agreement; Abbasa secretly bore Jafar two sons, who were concealed and reared in Medina. Zobaida, Harun’s wife, discovered the situation and revealed it to Harun. The Caliph sent for his chief executioner, Mesrur, bade him kill Abbasa and bury her in the palace, and supervised in person the performance of these commands; then he ordered Mesrur to behead Jafar and bring him the severed head, which was duly done; then he sent to Medina for the children, talked long with the handsome boys, admired them, and had them killed (803). Yahya and al-Fadl were imprisoned; they were allowed to keep their families and servants, but were never released; Yahya died two years after his son, al-Fadl five years after his brother. All the property of the Barmakid family, reputedly amounting to 30,000,000 dinars ($142,500,000), was confiscated.

Harun himself did not long survive. For a while he dulled his sorrow and remorse with work, and welcomed even the toils of war. When Nicephorus I, Byzantine Emperor, refused to continue the payments pledged by Irene, and boldly demanded the return of the tribute already paid, Harun replied: “In the name of Allah the Merciful, the Compassionate. From Harun, Commander of the Faithful, to Nicephorus, dog of a Roman: I have your letter, O son of an infidel mother. The answer shall be for your eyes to see, not for your ears to hear. Salaam.”27 He took the field at once, and from his new and strategic residence at Raqqa, on the northern frontier, he led into Asia Minor such impetuous expeditions that Nicephorus soon agreed to resume the tribute (806). To Charlemagne—a useful foil to Byzantium—he sent an embassy bearing many presents, including a complicated water clock and an elephant.28

Though Harun was now only forty-two, his sons al-Emin and al-Mamun were already competing for the succession, and looking forward to his death. Hoping to mitigate their strife, Harun arranged that al-Mamun should inherit the provinces east of the Tigris, al-Emin the rest, and that on the death of either brother the survivor should rule the whole. The brothers signed this compact, and swore to it before the Kaaba. In that same year 806 a serious rebellion broke out in Khurasan. Harun set out with al-Emin and al-Mamun to suppress it, though he was suffering from severe abdominal pains. At Tus in eastern Iran he could no longer stand. He was in his last agony when Bashin, a rebel leader, was brought before him. Made almost insane by pain and grief, Harun upbraided the captive for causing him to undertake this fatal expedition, ordered Bashin to be cut to pieces limb by limb, and watched the execution of the sentence.29 On the following day Harun the Upright died (809), aged forty-five.

2. The Decline of the Abbasids

Al-Mamun continued to Merv, and came to an agreement with the rebels. Al-Emin returned to Baghdad, named his infant son heir to his power, demanded of al-Mamun three eastern provinces, was denied them, and declared war. Al-Mamun’s general Tahir defeated the armies of al-Emin, besieged and almost destroyed Baghdad, and sent al-Emin’s severed head to al-Mamun after a now inviolable custom. Al-Mamun, still remaining in Merv, had himself proclaimed Caliph (813). Syria and Arabia continued to resist him as the son of a Persian slave; and it was not till 818 that he entered Baghdad as the acknowledged ruler of Islam.

Abdallah al-Mamun ranks with al-Mansur and al-Rashid as one of the great caliphs of the Abbasid line. Though capable at times of the fury and cruelty that had disgraced Harun, he was usually a man of mild and lenient temper. In his state council he included representatives of all the major faiths in his realm—Mohammedan, Christian, Jewish, Sabian, Zoroastrian—and guaranteed, until his latest years, full freedom of worship and belief. For a time free thought was de rigueur at the Caliph’s court. Masudi describes one of al-Mamun’s intellectual afternoons:

Al-Mamun used to hold a salon every Tuesday for the discussion of questions in theology and law…. The learned men of diverse sects were shown into a chamber spread with carpets. Tables were brought in laden with food and drink…. When the repast was finished, servants fetched braziers of incense, and the guests perfumed themselves; then they were admitted to the Caliph. He would debate with them in a manner as fair and impartial, and as unlike the haughtiness of a monarch, as can be imagined. At sunset a second meal was served, and the guests departed to their homes.30

Under al-Mamun the royal support of arts, sciences, letters, and philosophy became more varied and discriminating than under Harun, and left a far more significant result. He sent to Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and elsewhere for the writings of the Greek masters, and paid a corps of translators to render the books into Arabic. He established an academy of science at Baghdad, and observatories there and at Tadmor, the ancient Palmyra. Physicians, jurists, musicians, poets, mathematicians, astronomers enjoyed his bounty; and he himself, like some nineteenth-century mikado, and like every Moslem gentleman, wrote poetry.

He died too young—at forty eight (833)—and yet too late; for in a fever of authoritarian liberalism he disgraced his final years by persecuting orthodox belief. His brother and successor, Abu Ishaq al-Mutassim, shared his good will but not his genius. He surrounded himself with a bodyguard of 4000 Turkish soldiers, as Roman emperors had leaned on a Praetorian Guard; and in Baghdad, as in Rome, the guard became in time and effect the king. The people of the capital complained that al-Mutassim’s Turks rode recklessly through the streets and committed unpunished crimes. Fearing popular revolt, the Caliph left Baghdad, and built himself a royal residence some thirty miles north at Samarra. From 836 to 892 eight caliphs* made it their home and sepulcher. For twenty miles along the Tigris they reared great palaces and mosques, and their officials built luxurious mansions with murals, fountains, gardens, and baths. The Caliph al-Mutawakkil affirmed his piety by spending 700,000 dinars ($3,325,000) on a vast congregational mosque, and only a trifle less on a new royal residence, the Jafariya, with a palace called the “Pearl,” and a “Hall of Delight,” all surrounded with parks and streams. To find money for these structures and their trappings al-Mutawakkil raised taxes and sold public offices to the highest bidders; and to appease Allah he defended orthodoxy with persecution. His son persuaded his Turkish guards to kill him, and took the throne as al-Muntasir—“he who triumphs in the Lord.”

Internal factors corrupted the caliphate before external force reduced it to subservience. Overindulgence in liquor, lechery, luxury, and sloth watered down the royal blood, and begot a succession of weaklings who fled from the tasks of government to the exhausting delights of the harem. The growth of wealth and ease, of concubinage and pederasty, had like effects among the ruling class, and relaxed the martial qualities of the people. There could not come from such indiscipline the strong hand needed to hold together so scattered and diverse a conglomeration of provinces and tribes. Racial and territorial antipathies festered into repeated revolt; Arabs, Persians, Syrians, Berbers, Christians, Jews, and Turks agreed only in despising one another; and the faith that had once forged unity split into sects that expressed and intensified political or geographical divisions. The Near East lives or dies by irrigation; the canals that nourished the soil needed perpetual protection and care, which no individual or family could provide; when governmental maintenance of the canal system became incompetent or negligent, the food supply lagged behind the birth rate, and starvation had to restore the balance between these basic factors in history. But the impoverishment of the people by famine or epidemic seldom stayed the hand of the tax-gatherer. Peasant, craftsman, and merchant saw their gains absorbed into the expenses and frills of government, and lost the incentive to production, expansion, or enterprise. At last the economy could not support the government; revenues fell; soldiers could not be adequately paid or controlled. Turks took the place of Arabs in the armed forces of the state, as Germans had replaced Romans in the armies of Rome; and from al-Muntasir onward it was Turkish captains that made and unmade, commanded and murdered, the caliphs. A succession of sordid and bloody palace intrigues made the later vicissitudes of the Baghdad caliphate unworthy of remembrance by history.

The weakening of political diligence and military power at the center invited the dismemberment of the realm. Governors ruled the provinces with only formal reference to the capital; they schemed to make their position permanent, at last hereditary. Spain had declared itself independent in 756, Morocco in 788, Tunis in 801, Egypt in 868; nine years later the Egyptian emirs seized Syria, and ruled most of it till 1076. Al-Mamun had rewarded his general Tahir by assigning to him and his descendants the governorship of Khurasan; this Tahirid dynasty (820–72) ruled most of Persia in semisovereignty until replaced by the Saffarids (872–903). In 929–44 a tribe of Shia Moslems, the Hamdanids, captured northern Mesopotamia and Syria, and dignified their power by making Mosul and Aleppo brilliant centers of cultural life; so Sayfu’l-Dawla (944–67), himself a poet, made places at his Aleppo court for the philosopher al-Farabi and the most popular of Arab poets, al-Mutanabbi. The Buwayhids, sons of the Caspian highland chieftainBuwayh, captured Isfahan and Shiraz, and finally Baghdad (945); for over a century they forced the caliphs to do their bidding; the Commander of the Faithful became little more than the head of orthodox Islam, while the Buwayhid emir, a Shi‘ite, assumed direction of the diminishing state. Adud al-Dawla, the greatest of these Buwayhids (949–83), made his capital, Shiraz, one of the fairest cities of Islam, but spent generously also on the other cities of his realm; under him and his successors Baghdad recaptured some of the glory that it had known under Harun.

In 874 the descendants of Saman, a Zoroastrian noble, founded a Samanid dynasty that ruled Transoxiana and Khurasan till 999. We are not wont to think of Transoxiana as important in the history of science and philosophy; yet under the Samanid kings Bokhara and Samarkand rivaled Baghdad as centers of learning and art; there the Persian language was revived, and became the vehicle of a great literature; a Samanid court gave protection, and the use of a rich library, to Avicenna, the greatest of medieval philosophers; and al-Razi, greatest of medieval physicians, dedicated the al-Mansuri, his immense summary of medicine, to a Samanid prince. In 990 the Turks captured Bokhara, and in 999 they put an end to the Samanid dynasty. As the Byzantines for three centuries had fought to contain the Arab expansion, so now the Moslems fought to check the westward movement of the Turks; so, later, the Turks would struggle to stay the Mongol flood. Periodically the pressure of a growing population upon the means of subsistence generates the mass migrations that overshadow the other events of history.

In 962 a band of Turkish adventurers from Turkestan invaded Afghanistan under the lead of Alptigin, a former slave, captured Ghazni, and established there a Ghaznevid dynasty. Subuktigin (976–97), first slave, then son-in-law, then successor, of Alptigin, extended his rule over Peshawar and part of Khurasan. His son Mahmud (998–1030) took all Persia from the Gulf to the Oxus, and in seventeen ruthless campaigns added the Punjab to his empire, and much of India’s wealth to his coffers. Surfeited with plunder, and fretting over the unemployment caused by demobilization, he spent part of his riches, and some of his men, in building the congregational mosque of Ghazni. Says a Moslem historian:

It had an immense nave, in which 6000 servants of God might fulfill their duties without inconvenience to one another. And he raised near it a college, and supplied it with a library, and rare volumes. … And to those pure walls came students, professors, and divines … and from the endowments of the college they received their daily sustenance, and all necessaries, and a yearly or monthly salary.31

To this college and his court Mahmud brought many scientists, including al-Biruni, and many poets, including Firdausi, who reluctantly dedicated to him the greatest of Persian poems. During this generation Mahmud stood near the top of the world in more senses than one; but seven years after his death his empire passed into the hands of the Seljuq Turks.

It would be an error to picture the Turks as barbarians. As it was necessary to modify that term as applied to the German conquerors of Rome, so it must be said that the Turks were already passing out of barbarism when they overran Islam. Moving westward from Lake Baikal, the Turks of north central Asia organized themselves in the sixth century under a khan or chagan. Forging iron found in their mountains, they made weapons as hard as their code, which punished not only treason and murder, but adultery and cowardice, with death. The fertility of their women outran the mortality of their wars. By A.D. 1000 a branch of Turks known by the name of their beg or leader Seljuq dominated Transoxiana as well as Turkestan. Mahmud of Ghazni, thinking to halt this rival Turkish power, seized a son of Seljuq, and imprisoned him in India (1029). Undaunted and enraged, the Seljuq Turks under the stern but masterful Tughril Beg took most of Persia, and paved their further advance by sending to the Caliph al-Qaim at Baghdad a deputation announcing their submission to him and Islam. The Caliph hoped that these fearless warriors might free him from his Buwayhid overlords; he invited Tughril Beg to come to his aid. Tughril came (1055), and the Buwayhids fled; al-Qaim married Tughril’s niece, and made him “King of the East and the West” (1058). One by one the petty dynasties of Asiatic Islam crumbled before the Seljuqs, and acknowledged again the supremacy of Baghdad. The Seljuq rulers took the title of sultan—master—and reduced the caliphs to a merely religious role; but they brought to the government a new vigor and competence, and to Mohammedanism a new fervor of orthodox faith. They did not, like the Mongols two centuries later, destroy what they conquered; they rapidly absorbed the higher civilization, unified into a new empire what had been the scattered members of a dying state, and gave it the strength to endure and survive that long duel, between Christianity and Islam, which we know as the Crusades.

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