In the previous article, we dealt with Harun al-Rashid who is one of history’s most famous rulers in the East and the West, internal and external turmoil during his tenure, his care for his subjects, and his bequest to his three sons. We also started tackling the Barmakid dynasty that was quite renowned during Al-Rashid’s tenure.
When al-Rashid took over, he appointed Yahya bin Khalid, the Barmakid chief minister. Unto him, he entrusted the affairs of the state out of great confidence in him. Yahya had five sons, namely, Al-Fadl, Ja’far, Mussa, Khalid, and Mohammed. During al-Rashid’s tenure, they were all appointed in renowned posts.Al-Fadl was al-Rashid’s half-brother. When al-Amin was born, al-Rashid entrusted his mentorship to al-Fadl. We also mentioned beforehand that al-Rashid sent al-Fadl to Khorasan when a rebellion broke out there, and the latter overcame it. Likewise, al-Fadl made lots of conquests, after which he returned to Baghdad to help his father with the ministry.
His brother Ja’far was well-mannered, and al-Rashid did like him. When he succeeded in overcoming a rebellion in the Levant, Al-Rashid appointed him proconsul of Egypt, yet kept him close and entrusted to him the mentorship of Al-Ma’mun, his son.
Later, Yahya retired, giving up office to Al-Fadl, his eldest son. However, Al-Rashid asked Yahya to make al-Fadl give up office to Ja’far. So, Yahya wrote, “The Prince of believers-May God raise his worth-decreed that you move the ring from your right to your left.” Al-Fadl replied, “I heard what the Prince of believers ordered my brother to do. It is one and the same. Whatever is his is mine: I shall always look to him, even though I am sent away from a post or excluded from a privilege.”
Thus, Ja’far took over his father’s post. He worked for the welfare of the State, regulating its affairs and budget. He appointed men who he called “men of justice”. Their job was to monitor buying and selling. He also reorganized Baghdad police. He was so successful that al-Rashid became more confident in him. Thus, he assigned him to repay the injustices, a sovereign’s post originally. As such, the Barmakids’ renown increased. They became of great wealth and authority. Historians maintain that the Barmakid dynasty “was known for its generosity and charity, which made people love it. The people had unprecedented affection for the Barmakids, which ignited envy in the hearts of many Arab princes, especially the Rabi’s and the Shaybanis. They united and implanted schisms between al-Rashid and the Barmakids, which made al-Rashid furious at the Barmakids. So, he arrested them and confiscated their wealth!”
Al-Rashid had Ja’far arrested and put to death. On the self-same night, he had Yahya bin Khalid, his siblings and followers arrested and put in jail. Moreover, he sent to proconsuls, ordering them to confiscate the wealth and property of the Barmakids throughout the State. Historians are not unanimous regarding the reasons of this sedition. Al-Tabari writes, “There is no fixed opinion regarding the reason why Al-Rashid got angry with Ja’far and put him to death.” Among the reasons of the Barmakids’ downfall are: “Harun al-Rashid got terribly angry with Ja’far when al-Fadl bin al-Rabi’ told him that the former set Yahya the Alawite free without his permission, after which he started doubting the Barmakids’ loyalty and thinking that they preferred the Alawites’ welfare to his.”
Some historians ascribe this sedition to sheer envy and boredom. One writes, “I swear to God that they did nothing to provoke al-Rashid to commit such atrocities. Yet, he got bored…” Others assert that the Barmakids’ renown, wealth, and authority made the caliph worry about his position and that of his successors, which made him seize any opportunity to get rid of them.” The evidence that supports this is recounted as follows: “One day, Ibrahim bin al-Mahdi visited Ja’far the Barmakid in his palace. Ja’far asked him if there was anything wrong about the palace. Ibrahim answered, ‘The worst thing about this is that you spent (almost) twenty million dirhams on it, which makes me worry lest the caliph betray you!’ Ja’far answered, ‘I will say: This is but a token of caliph’s generosity toward me. He had bestowed me with lots of graces. He had actually accumulated them like a mountain. I shall say: O’ people! Behold the caliph’s graces. People hide these graces, but I declare them.”
Some historians linked the Barmakids’ origin and Zoroastrian creed to al-Rashid’s fierceness with them. They asserted that the Barmakids tried to retrieve the Zoroastrian creed and brought fire to the Kaaba that it might be worshipped there. Yet, there is nothing to support this claim.
Some Arab historians claimed (the claim was copied by Western historians) that Al-Abbassa bint al-Mahdi, al-Rashid’s sister married Ja’far (this was kept a secret to everybody save Al-Rashid), got pregnant and gave birth to a child who she sent to Mecca. When al-Rashid got to know of this, he put Ja’far to death.
Ibn Khaldun maintains, “The Barmakids’ tyranny brought about their downfall. They seized taxes and accumulated the money for themselves. When al-Rashid asked for a small sum of money, they hardly sent him any. Thus, they overwhelmed al-Rashid and shared power with him. He was helpless before them. They became quite influential, occupied the State’s offices and posts, and monopolized them, either with their affiliates or beneficiaries: they became ministers, scribes, commanders, judges and so on. Henceforth, loyalty was attributed to them. Everybody looked to them for advantages. They were showered with kings’ and princes’ gifts and jewels. Taxes were paid to them to win them over. They showered their allies with presents and gifts. So much so, that their page and friends became frustrated, and their relatives envious. They treated the subjects badly, which ignited envy so much that members of the family envied one another. It is said that Qahtaba family, Ja’far’s maternal uncles, conspired against the Barmakids.”
Yahya remained in prison until his death in 190 Hijri (805 A.D.) Three years later, al-Fadl, his son died. When al-Ma’mun became caliph, he gave the living Barmakids’ back their property and assigned them high posts. The Barmakids were quite prominent in science and literature. Yahya bin Khalid was one of eminent men of letters. He was pretty eloquent. So was Ja’far bin Yahya, that Ibn Khaldun said, “Ja’far bin Yahya was a great storyteller who entertained al-Rashid with his multitudinous stories. Critics competed to analyze these stories and find out their aesthetic features. He wrote so many stories that each was sold for one dinar.” Moreover, translation flourished in the Abbasid period, thanks to the Barmakids who were keen on translating olden sciences from Latin, Greek, Persian, and Indian into Arabic.
In his “The History of Arabic Literature in the First Abbasid Period”, Prof. Dr. Shawqy Dayf asserts, “Yahya bin Khalid asked the patriarch of Alexandria to translate an agriculture book from Latin into Arabic, and the latter did.” Moreover, the Barmakids cared for medicine. So, they established the first hospital, giving it their name. They brought physicians from India to Baghdad. They were highly adept in architecture. Al-Tabari tells us the following story… Stories never end in Beautiful Egypt…