Born on St Patricks Day, some 300 years after St. Patrick lived, Haroun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest Caliph of the Islamic world. He presided over the Abassid Caliphate in its golden age when it was the centre of learing, enlightenment, literature, arts and science.
He corresponded with rulers as far away as France, presenting Charlemagne with a clock that was so ingenious the Franks believed it to be possessed, so many and complex were the chimes it sounded. A good an generous friend he also proved a stern and powerful enemy. He brought the Byzantine empire to heel and his name was feared throughout his own empire.
His name may translate as the “orthodox” or the “right guided” and for Sunni Muslims he represented a powerful bastion of the islamic faith. So powerful indeed that the Christian world suffered the crisis of iconoclasm at this period. Seeing the success of the armies of Islam orthodox christians questioned if religious icons, images and statues were in fact idols. Heads were smashed from church altars, icons were thrown onto fires and emperors were dethroned based on their belief.
Legend has it that al-Rashid would don a beggars cloak and walk the streets of Baghdad or Raqqa and eavesdrop on the conversations of the ordinary folk to better understand how they perceived him and his rule.
In the West we know of this great Sultan because of a book. “A thousand and one nights”, or the “Arabian Nights” is a collection of tales from the Asian world, originating in Arabia, India, China and Persia. They include characters known by every Western child, The seven voyages of Sinbad the sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali-Baba and the forty thieves, magic flying carpets and many many more fantastic and magical tales.
At the heart of the tale is the evil sultan, thought to be modeled on Al-Rashid. Each night he takes a bride from his harem and after taking his pleasure has her killed. The interlocutor of the 1001 nights is Sheherazade, the wife who beguiles him with storytelling instead of pleasures of the flesh. Instead of killing her he spares her for one more night, for one more story. And so the tales unravel over the course of many years until he of course falls madly in love with her.
From this book we have a wealth of art, music, dance and not a few pantomimes. It was the inspiration for hundreds of childrens authors from E. Nesbit to J.K. Rowling. Poetry of Yeats, Longfellow, Tennyson and Archibald Macleish stories of O. Henry, James Joyce and Charles Dickens. Al-Rashid is a thread that runs trough every weave in the fabric of literature.