Monday, June 3, 2013

Harun al-Rashid

The fifth Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid (786-809) achieved legendary status. His name translates out to Aaron the Righteous. In the Thousand and One Nights he is depicted as wandering about the country in search of adventure. In one of these, the Tale of the Three Apples, he says to his vizier, Ja`far:
I wish to go into the city to find out what is happening and to question the people about the conduct of my administrators, to that I may dismiss those of whom they complain and promote those they praise.
Historically, al-Rashid seems to have been not as competent or as caring as he is depicted in literature. But it is interesting to note what later people thought to have been a righteous ruler. A righteous caliph was one who knew that his administrators were not always righteous, or at least as righteous as they depicted themselves. A righteous caliph was one who knew that the common people were better judges of the administrators than the superiors the administrators might toady to. A righteous caliph was one who rooted out corruption in his administration.

It appears that at least some of the authors of the Thousand and One Nights tried show what rulers could be like rather than what they were like.