Part II—Caliph Harun ar-Rashid and Ja’far the Barmakid.
by Michael Isenberg.
As I said in Part I of this article, readers of my medieval murder mystery, The Thread of Reason, often tell me how surprised they are by how much wine the Muslim characters in the book drink. “Isn’t alcohol forbidden in Islam?” they ask.
It most definitely is, and in the first installment I provided some of the relevant citations in the Quran and the Hadith. But I also explained that the prohibition was often disobeyed during the Middle Ages. Wine shops and drinking parties were frequent settings in the literature of the time such as the Maqamat of Qasim Hariri of Basra or The Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes the stories featured pious characters who expressed their disapproval. Other times the drinking parties were portrayed as just a normal part of life, deserving of no special comment. Even the highest official in Islam, the caliph, got into the act. In one of the stories in the Nights, Caliph Harun ar-Rashid (d. 809 AD), whose reign is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Islamic history and achievement, attended a raucous party, accompanied by his vizier Ja’far of the House of Barmak, and his “Sworder of Vengeance” Masrur the Eunuch. And although neither Harun nor Ja’far imbibed, the caliph seemed to have no issue with those around them doing so.
|Harun ar-Rashid and the Poet, by Eloise-Caroline Huitel (1827-1896). This Western depiction takes some artistic liberties. The real Harun would never allow the women of his household to appear in the presence of unrelated men.|
The Thousand and One Nights and the other literature of the time are important historical documents. They reflect the attitudes of their authors and they give details about daily life which are often lacking in more staid sources. But the bottom line is that they’re works of fiction, often markedly different from real life. For example, unlike their fictional counterparts, in real life Harun ar-Rashid and Ja’far the Barmakid drank plenty. Their escapades beautifully illustrate the spirit of the times.
Where alcohol wasn’t involved, Harun and Ja’far were pillars of orthodoxy. Harun was well-known for his pre-dawn prayers in the chapel of his palace. The chronicles place him leading the obsequies at the funerals of his father and brother. In The Thread of Reason I wrote about how Harun's vast charitable enterprises—his giving extended into the millions of gold dinars—were inspired by a nightmare about the Day of Judgment.
One theory as to why he moved his capital from Baghdad to Raqqa in Syria was that it was convenient to the Byzantine frontier, the better to wage jihad on the unbelievers. In our own century, ISIS also picked Raqqa as their capital, in order to garb themselves in reflected piety from Harun ar-Rashid. Harun made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, nine times in his life. Indeed he had the distinction of being the only caliph in history to personally lead both the hajj and the jihad in the same year (797). Indeed, he was so proud of these roles, he had a qalasuwa—a cap around which a turban is wrapped—made for himself, inscribed with the words Ghazi wa Hajj: warrior and pilgrim.
As for Ja’far, his reputation for mastery of the shari’ah was so great that the historian ibn Khallikan said, no doubt with some exaggeration, that he once, under Harun ar-Rashid’s supervision, issued a thousand legal opinions in a single night, and “not one of these decisions deviated in the least from what was warranted by the law.”
Harun and Ja’far were inseparable; so close that Harun had a robe made with two collars that they could wear together. Despite their reputation for orthodoxy, however, it seems there’s barely a story involving either of them that doesn’t involve some sort of drinking.
In The Thread of Reason, I describe the spectacular palaces that the caliphs built in Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris River. The initial settlement in Baghdad was on the west bank, and in his book Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate, Guy LeStrange explains how the move across the river got started. It turns out it was thanks to Ja’far's drinking parties:
Yakut gives us the history of these palaces, and in the first place relates how Ja'far the Barmecide, being much given to wine-bibbing in the company of poets and singers, was frequently reproved by his father Yahya—at that time Wazir of Harun-ar-Rashid—for the scandal that he was creating. Ja'far professed inability to alter his ways, but in order to shun the observation of strict Moslems who abhorred wine and singing, he agreed to build himself a palace apart, for the celebration of his joyous assemblies, on the unoccupied lands to the south of the Mukharrim Quarter. Ja'far was at this time still the favourite boon companion of Harun-ar-Rashid, who showed much interest in the building, which was indeed so remarkable for its magnificence, that when all was completed an astute friend advised Ja'far to tell Harun that this palace was in reality built as a present for [Harun’s son] Mamun, and thus to avoid the well-known jealousy of the Caliph.
Ja’far was indispensable at the caliph’s own drinking parties—as was the caliph’s sister Abbasa. Alas, it was prohibited for Abbasa to be in the same room as Ja’far—a man to whom she was not related. Harun ar-Rashid solved that problem by means of marriage between the two, but he made it clear that it was to be a marriage in name only, never to be consummated.
In 803, Harun turned on the Barmakids. He ordered Masrur, his “Sworder of Vengeance,” who I mentioned previously for his role in The Thousand and One Nights, to execute the unfortunate Ja’far. Ja’far’s father Yahya and his brother Fadl were imprisoned for the rest of their lives. The reason for Harun’s betrayal of his once closest friend is one of the great mysteries of Islamic history. Even at the time, theories abounded. The most common is that Harun, who had become caliph at a very young age (probably twenty-one), and who therefore had to rely heavily on Yahya’s guidance, was chomping at the bit to get out from under Yahya’s shadow (shades of the relationship between the sultan Malik-shah and his vizier Nizam al-Mulk three centuries later). But there’s another theory: Harun lost it upon discovering that the sham marriage between Ja’far and Abbasa was not, in fact, a sham.
In any case, Ja’far’s reaction when Masrur came for his head gives us yet another bit of insight into Harun ar-Rashid’s habits. Ja’far was certain that when the order was issued, the caliph had to have been drunk.
Next installment: The hardliners strike back.
|Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com|