Harun Ar-Raschid (also spelled as Harun Al-Raschid) was a caliph of Baghdad during the Abbasid dynasty who reigned from 786 to 809 A.D. His court was arguably the most memorable of the Abbasid dynasty, and he was the inspiration for many tales in One Thousand and One Nights.
In her book Scheherazade Goes West, Fatima Mernissi spends an entire chapter describing Harun Ar-Raschid’s many qualities that has made him a lasting figure in Arab history: “physical beauty, youth, athleticism, intelligence, love of learning and the sciences, and military success.” Since her book is about the Arab harem (and the differences between the reality of the Arab harem compared to the idea of the harem by Westerners, which, by the way, Orientalists, Ur Doin It Rong), she spends a great deal of time on the sensuous nature of the caliph. Many bios online describe the politics surrounding his reign, so here are some descriptions of him by Mernissi, who had access to Arabic and French texts about Harun ar-Raschid (and being Muslim herself, is in a better position to talk about him and his romantic exploits).
By all accounts he was handsome without being superficial or conceited. Medieval Muslim historians … describe his good nature as being due to a harmonious mix of physical characterstics and intellectual gifts.
… If Harun Ar-Raschid had been nothing more than a handsome, chess-playing prince, he would have been forgotten or dismissed… in contract, Harun knew when to stop playing and switch to business. … And Harun’s life was in perfect balance. In addition to his highly developed intellectul and physical capabilities, ‘he was scrupulous in fulfilling his duties as a pilgrim and waging Holy War. He undertook public works by building wells, cisterns, and strongholds on the road to Mecca. …’
… But again … It was his capacity to know when to stop fighting, enjoy life, and cultivate sensuality and refined entertainment that made him a hero.
Zubaida bint Jafar
At age sixteen, Harun Ar-Raschid fell in love with and married his cousin Zubayda bint Abu Jafar, a granddaughter of the founder of Baghdad. Fatima Mernissi notes, “that young Harun had chosen as a wife a princess who was both beautiful and politically involved was to be expected.”
Queen Zubayda, like her husband loved luxury: “For her the finest clothes were made of varicoloured silk called washi, a single length of which, designed for her, cost 50,000 dinars. She was the first to organize a bodyguard of eunuchs and slave girls, who rode at her side, fulfilled her orders, and carried her letters and messages. … She was the first to introduce the fashion for slippers embroidered with precious stones and for candles made of ambergris…”
However, she is also remembered for her patronage of the arts and poetry, herself educated by great teachers of literature. She was a lifelong scholar of the Quran and Hadith – she had one hundred slave girls to recite the Holy Quran constantly, so her home “perpetually echoed with the voices of the recitation”. She was erudite, rivalling scholars of the time.
Of great note are her public works: she initiated and headed a project to build wells all along the road from Baghdad to Mecca to ease the travellers on the Haj. (She herself made the Haj several times.) She built mosques, had a stonewall erected along the sides of the road from Baghdad to Mecca to prevent the sands from blowing over and obscuring it, and a canal to provide water to residents in the region between Lebanon and Beirut. Her most monumental work is the Zubaydah Canal, built to ensure a supply of water to Mecca and its pilgrims. This canal, flowing from two separate fountains that were linked to a single canal, was built through mountainous areas and valleys, an example of the hydro-engineering technology of the time.
The Reign of Harun Ar-Raschid
Khalifa Harun ruled from the city of ar-Raqqah, rather than from the capital of Baghdad, in order to keep a hold on Syria.
The Abbasid court at the height of the Golden Age of Islam was cosmopolitan, welcoming of foreigners who brought their own backgrounds, languages, and knowledge, adding to the cultural wealth that was Baghdad. George Dimitri Sawa wrote of the Abbasid era court, “scholars, artists, poets and litterateurs came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (speaking Aramaic, Arabic, Person, and Turkish), colors (white, black, and mulatto), and creeds (Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sabian and Magian).”
Khalifa Harun founded Bayt al-Hikma - بيت الحكمة – the House of Wisdom: a library and translation institute that would, in his son’s time, become unrivalled as a center for the study of humanities and science, preserving and translating Persian, Indian and Greek texts.
In 799, he received the Frankish diplomats, and sent back presents of silks, brass candelabra, perfume, balsam, and other such regular things. Of more interest, there were two albino elephants, and a water-clock that dropped bronze balls into a bowl, the hours marked by mechanical knights that would emerge from behind little doors.
Harun ar-Raschid invaded the Byzantium empire before he became caliph, and he extracted tribute from Empress Irene, who paid it under a peace treaty. When she was deposed, her usurper, Nikephoros I Logothetes, rejected her treaty, and wrote to Harun ar-Raschid:
From Nikephoros, the King of Romans, to Ar-Raschid the King of the Arabs, as follows: That woman put you and your father and your brother in the place of kings and put herself i the place of a commoner. I put you in a different place and am preparing to invade your lands and attack your cities, unless you repay me what that woman paid you. Farewell!
Khalifa Harun was so incensed, he wrote the following letter:
In the name of God, the Merciful and the Compassionate, from the servant of God, Harun, Commander of the Faithful, to Nikephoros, the dog of the Romans, as follows: I have understood your letter, and I have your answer. You will see it with your own eyes, not hear it.
With that, he raised and led an army all the way to Constantinopole, “killing, plundering, taking captives, destroying castles, and obliterating traces, until he came to the narrow roads before Constantinople, and when they had reached there, they found that Nikephoros had already trees cut down, thrown across the roads, and set on fire…”
OH SNAP. Them Romans got told there!
The Harem of Harun ar-Raschid
Part of the appeal of Harun ar-Raschid is his monumental presence in Arab history and legend. His royal personage has appeared in several of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights. Mernissi writes, “Whence my admiration of Harun ar-Raschid’s courage to show his emotions and run the risk of being ridiculed. In at least one of the tales in The Thousand and One Nights, he is described as an unfortunate husband, betrayed by an unfiathful jarya who seduces his own musician.”
Jarya is the Arabic word for “harem slave”, as “odalisque” is the Turkish word. Jarya were famous for their intelligence, wisdom, and talent – in order to attract the attentions of their masters, they cultivated skills in not just dance, but also music, poetry, erudition; they educated themselves on all sorts of sciences like astronomy, geometry, history; they studied the Quran, exegesis, philosophy.
Mernissi uses Harun ar-Raschid’s taste in women as a contrast against Immanuel Kant’s ideal woman: Harun ar-Raschid “equated beauty with erudition, and paid astronomic sums for the witty jarya in his harem,” while “Kant’s ideal woman was speechless.” As a result of his intellectual engagement with his harem, Harun ar-Raschid often fell in love and had an active love life.
Love pushes you to go beyond your usual routine and into directions you might not otherwise have taken. Which brings us back to our list [of Arabic words for love]. Many of the sixty words describe love as a compelling voyage (huyam), a step into the unknown (ghamarat), and adventure in alien territories. And if such an adventure is risky for the average person, it was even more so for the caliphs, which is why Harun ar-Raschid never left pleasure to chance. It had to be planned for, strategized, and integrated into the calendar.
For Harun ar-Raschid, the pursuit of intellectual sensuality was a passion he found hard to resist, even as it was al jihad al akbar – the “big jihad”.
One time, when he was brooding over whether to purchase ‘Inane, a famous attractive poetess whose price was very high, Asma’i, one of his close companions, asked what was bothering him. The caliph confessed that it was ‘Inane who was giving him trouble, but added, “It is only her poetry which attracts me to her.” Asma’i then tried to tell the caliph, as politely as he could, that he did not believe a word he’d said. “Sure, there is nothing to be attracted to in ‘Inane but her poetry, Sire,” he said. “Would the Commander of the Faithful have been enchanted to have sexual intercourse with al-Farazdaq for example?” At that, “Harun ar-Raschid burst into such a deep lauighter that his head went backward.” Farazdaq was a famous but extremely coarse male poet who excelled in describing battle scenes.
Part of the strength of the Golden Age of Islam was the pluralism and multiculturalism ride in the Arab world. This same strength was also a cause of conflict, as it so often is, and it was rather like the differences between genders:
During this era, the conflict between the sexes was in a way managed like the conflict between cultures. Though loaded with antagonisms, it enriched whoever dared to engage in it. To fall in love is to experiment with the differnet, to open oneself up to the risky plkeasures of unfamiliar sensations and emotions, in a place where fear and the desire for discovery are fatally connected. To take part, one needs two precious assets: a lot of free time to invest in the relationship and the courage to become vulnerable. Men of the era who wished to engage in an erotic exchange with a talented woman had to learn to write poetry, to put feelings into rhythmic words. Harun ar-Raschid’s poetry was decidedly second-rate, but the surprising thing about him is that he did not feel ridiculous trying.
Although Harun ar-Raschid had thousands of jarya and often fell in love, he could get emotionally entangled with only one woman at a time. Only once did the brave caliph get emotionally tied up with three beauties simultaneously and the result was particularly lousy poetry.
I’m not going to put the poem here because it truly is as terrible as Mernissi says it is. You can look for her book to read it if you want. It’s on page 136.
I want to end this post with a quote that I think encapsulates the vast difference between the reality of Khalifa Harun’s harem and the Westerner’s typical vision of the harem, because I think it’s a very important distinction that often gets lost amid the dreamy romanticism many Victorientalists have, spurred on by the paintings of Europeans who have never actually been inside a harem or a Turkish bath:
… since Harun much preferred listening to talented jarya, who were professional wordsmiths, … he knew his limitations and had no illusions about his talent as a poet. Instead, he focused on being attractive and stocked up on thousands of shirts and robes.
Sounds to me like Khalifa Harun ar-Raschid was quite the dreamboat, and knew where it was at.
Fatema Mernissi. Scheherazade Goes West. Washington Square Press: NY, 2001.
Jaymee Goh is a steampunk postcolonialist who blogs for Silver Goggles, among other places on the aetherwebs.