A cursory reading of the political history of the early Islamic and Caliphate era reveals that a failure to develop a practicable political order often led to ruinous inter-clan conflict and succession wars. These unnecessary and avoidable bloody quarrels sapped the economic and military power of the Caliphate, and led it on a path of self-destruction.
The death of Caliph Harun al-Rashid was one such occasion when his two sons, Muhammad al-Amin and Abdullah al-Mamun, were pitched against each other in a long-drawn-out war of succession. It led to a year-long destructive siege of Baghdad, virtual division of caliphate and crippling factionalism. As a consequence, the powers of the future Caliphs eroded, turning them into figureheads in the hands of powerful armed groups.
This article will recall the events of that war of succession, known as the Fourth Fitna (the earlier three being the Ali-Muwaiyah feud, Yazid’s battles with Imam Hussain and Ibn Zubair, and the Umayyad-Abbasid tussle). Anarchy prevailed from the death of Harun al-Rashid in 809 AD, through the four-year rule of al-Amin, to the success of al-Mamun in 813 AD. In the process, large parts of Baghdad were demolished and political power slipped to the Persian and Turkish groups at the expense of the Arab factions.
The chroniclers of these distant events include al-Tabari (839-923AD) in volume 31 of his 40-volume History of Prophets and Nations. Al-Masudi (888-957) wrote a 30-volume history of the world titled Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems that includes the story of this war but, except for volume 1, it is available in Arabic and French only. Another fragmentary but contemporary source is Abul Hasan al-Madaini (752-843 AD), whose history survives only as quoted in the works of later authors, particularly Tabari.
Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid Caliph, was the most magnificent of the dynasty. He assumed power in after the sudden death of his real elder brother. His son Muhammad al-Amin was born on the night that he took oath of office in Sep, 786 AD. His elder son Abdullah al-Mamun had been born six months earlier. However, al-Amin’s mother Zubaidah was the daughter of Harun’s real uncle, making al-Amin a double Hashimite, from his father’s as well as his mother’s side. Al-Mamun, on the other hand was born of a Persian slave girl who had died at childbirth. As Harun did not nominate a successor for the first five years of his rule, a number of Abbasid princes started scheming to be nominated. In December 789 – January 790, Harun decided to put an end to these contentions. However, instead of appointing the first-born al-Mamun, he appointed the second-born al-Amin as the first heir. Perhaps he had done this under the influence of his powerful and beloved queen, Zubaidah. Another pertinent reason was that al-Amin would be the first Caliph since Ali (AS) bin Abu Talib, the last of the Rashidun, to be from the Hashim tribe from his father’s as well as mother’s side, and therefore more acceptable to the two powerful Arab factions; the Sunni Abbasid clan as well as the Shia of Ali (AS). Unfortunately for the Caliphate, the events did not play out, as is observed below, according to these expectations.
Harun asked his son about the book he was reading. Al-Mamun replied that “it stimulates the mind and improves one’s social manners.”
Harun was pleased with the reply
As the two princes grew up, it became apparent to all, including Caliph Harun, that al-Amin was turning into a depraved and perfidious youth whereas al-Mamun was maturing as a prodigious and intellectual young man. Harun realized his mistake and, in 801 AD, when the princes were about fifteen years of age, tried to make amends by appointing al-Mamun as the second heir. He appointed al-Amin as the governor of the Arab regions of Iraq and Syria and al-Mamun as the governor of the much larger and richer regions of Persia, Khurasan, Sind and Turkestan. He took oath of allegiance for him in Baghdad and from the military in the garrison town of Al-Raqqa -now in northern Syria, on the banks of river Euphrates. Subsequently, he also appointed another of his sons, al-Qasim, as the third heir with responsibility for the Byzantine front as governor of the fertile Jazeira province i.e. the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
This was also the time when it became obvious that al-Amin was not quite living up to behaviour expected of him. Tabari has listed several incidents in his book for al-Amin’s sexual proclivities indicating his attraction towards the eunuchs. He was especially enamoured of one named ‘Kauther’. These reports must have been scandalous in the macho world of early Islam.
Zubayda tried to lure his son to the opposite sex by dressing slim harem girls with short haircuts as boys to excite the fancy of his son. Al-Amin was temporarily attracted to a few of the boyish-looking girls but soon directed his attention to the eunuchs. Historians have indicated that the mother, too, was disappointed with her son.
As Caliph, al-Amin had no check on his profligate behaviour. Immediately after he took power, he collected a large number of eunuchs and divided them into two groups. The one consisting of black eunuchs was called ‘The Ravens’ and the other of fair skinned ones was called ‘The Grasshoppers’
Al-Mamun, on the other hand, had shown remarkable rulership potential from a young age. He was royal in behaviour and disciplined in conduct. There is an incident in Tabari’s book where Jaffer Barmaki, a close confidant and friend of his Caliph Harun, entered the room when al-Mamun was being lashed by his teacher for poor work. On seeing the intruder, al-Mamun wiped away his tears and kept up his composure. The teacher, who had been terrified on seeing the Caliph’s friend, asked his student as to why he had not reported against him. Al-Mamun replied gracefully that even if the Caliph had come in, he wouldn’t have revealed that he had been disciplined. At another occasion, Harun asked his son about the book he was reading. Al-Mamun replied that “it stimulates the mind and improves one’s social manners.” Harun was pleased with the reply and prayed for his son. At another occasion, Harun confided in his Vizier that he wanted to nominate al-Mamun as heir whose conduct and statesmanship he approved and remove al-Amin who was extravagant and given to the influence of women and slaves. However, he added that he feared the displeasure of the Hashimites who would object to nomination of al-Mamun – who was born of a recently converted Persian slave girl.
With all the misgivings about the future of the Caliphate weighing on his mind, Harun employed an antiquated but venerated mechanism to ensure peace after his own death. During the pilgrimage that he led in 802 AD, he drew up elaborate documents and affidavits that bound al-Amin in firm guarantees to retain al-Mamun as the second heir, governor of Khorasan and commander of armies. He also stipulated, and mandated on all governors and commanders that in case al-Amin reneged on these agreements, he would automatically be replaced by al-Mamun as the Caliph. These documents, which make a wonderful reading, were attested by all the nobles present and read out to everyone present in the Holy Mosque. They were then hung in the Ka’abah as solemn trust. A reading of these Ka’abah documents clearly indicates that the Caliph had great mistrust of al-Amin and his heart went out to al-Mamun. However, he could not remove the former and appoint the later as his heir.
As Caliph, al-Amin had no check on his profligate behaviour. Immediately after he took power, he collected a large number of eunuchs and divided them into two groups. The one consisting of black eunuchs was called ‘The Ravens’ and the other of fair skinned ones was called ‘The Grasshoppers’. His association with these groups became a scandal, first in Baghdad and then, as the news travelled, throughout the caliphate.
He also gathered entertainers from many countries and kept them on regular salaries. He held his close relatives in contempt and distributed his wealth and jewels among his eunuchs, table companions and confidants. He ordered, according to Tabari, the construction of places of retreat, amusement and sport at a number of his palaces. He ordered the construction of five luxurious yachts at a great expenditure, to ply the Tigris, in the shape of a lion, an elephant, an eagle, a serpent and a horse. He built a great ship at a cost of three million dirhams.
Harun’s failure to do what he knew was correct, and persist with what was clearly a misjudgement, caused bloodshed in the royal family and brought untold miseries to the people of Medina-tul-Islam, as Baghdad was known in the days of the Caliphate. That the agreements were violated by al-Amin soon after he became caliph shows that political agreements, no matter how ironclad, are not sacred without the sincere intent of the parties.
The resulting four-year long war, including one-year long siege of Baghdad, was very destructive and had far reaching political effects, as will be narrated in a subsequent article.
(to be continued)
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org