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The True Caliph of the Arabian Nights

Hugh Kennedy examines the life of one of the most powerful men in the world in the eighth century.

Not many of the great figures of early Islamic history are widely known in the Western world today. The achievements of caliphs such as the Umayyad Abd al-Malik (r.685-705) or the second Abbasid caliph Mansur (r.754-75) in consolidating their respective holds over the Muslim world and establishing administrative systems that maintained their vast empires, are virtually unknown outside the ranks of specialists in early Islamic history. Most people are aware that Arab Muslim civilisation enjoyed a ‘golden age’ in early medieval times but the men and women who led and dominated this world are virtually forgotten.

There is, however, one exception to this, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809). A contemporary of Charlemagne, his caliphate (the title caliph comes from the Arabic khalifa meaning the deputy of God on earth) stretched from modern Tunisia, through Egypt, Syria and Iraq, to Iran and ex-Soviet Central Asia. Oman, Yemen and much of modern Pakistan were in his domains.

The vast empire the Abbasids ruled had been created by the Muslim conquests between 632 and 650. From 661 to 750 it was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty from their capital in Damascus. Considered impious and tyrannical by many Muslims, especially in Iraq, the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids and their supporters in 750. Harun inherited this empire from his shrewd grandfather Mansur and his popular father Mahdi.

The Abbasids claimed to be members of the family of the Prophet, descended from his uncle Abbas, though their claim was rejected by the Shi’ites who believed, and still do believe, that only the direct descendants of his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali can be considered true leaders of the Muslim community.

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