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Genealogic tree of the Abbasid family (Caliphs of Baghdad and Cairo).

Muhammad ibn Harun al-Amin (787–813) (Arabic: محمد الأمين بن هارون الرشيد), Abbasid Caliph. He succeeded his father, Harun al-Rashid in 809 and ruled until he was killed in 813. Al-Amin refused to acknowledge his brother's right to succeed, as arranged by their father and tried to appoint his own son as heir. This resulted in civil war. known as the "war between the brothers" which waged from 811 until 813, damaging the integrity and unity of the caliphate. He also had to deal with revolts elsewhere. In the end, it was his brother, al-Ma'mun, who triumphed. Al-Ma'mun's reign would be considered one of the most successful of all; he became renowned for his patronage of learning, for preserving unity, for his just rule, moderation, personal piety and generosity. Al-Amin is remembered for extravagant living, consumption of alcohol and for his disinterest in matters of faith.

Al-Amin left little by way of an enduring legacy, apart from a reputation for profligacy, his attempt to bypass his father's will and causing civil strife, bloodshed and rebellion. Compared with his brother, his legacy is an example of how a ruler should not behave. He merits a place in history because he was caliph, then one of the most powerful offices in the world of the time. Yet he did little, if anything, to distinguish himself to improve the quality of life for his subjects. He lived for his own sake, not for the sake of others. His brother, whom he tried to keep from the throne, would leave a more valuable and important legacy.


Harun al-Rashid, one of the most distinguished Abbasid caliphs, perhaps the greatest, died March 24, 809. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari records that Harun al-Rashid had on several occasions impressed on his sons they should respect each other and honor the succession, as he had arranged this. In A.H. 186, Harun had al-Amin and al-Ma'mun sign pledges during a pilgrimage to Mecca that both would respect his will.[1] Al-Amin would receive the Caliphate after Harun's death when al-Ma'mun would become governor of Khurasan in eastern Iran, where he would be granted almost complete autonomy. When al-Amin died, al-Ma'mun would become Caliph.

Hostility towards al-Mamun

Al-Ma'mun distrusted al-Amin before their father's death, suspecting that he would try to appoint his own son as his heir. Al-Ma'mun convinced Harun to take him with him on his last journey east to deal with an insurrection in Transoxania. Although Harun had instructed the Baghdad commanders of this expedition to remain with al-Ma'mun, after Harun's unexpected death from illness death they returned to Baghdad. Al-Amin sought to turn al-Ma'mun's financial agent in Rayy, an ancient Iranian city, against al-Ma'mun. He ordered al-Ma'mun to acknowledge his son, Musa as heir and return to Baghdad to pledge his allegiance. Replacing his agent in Rayy, Al-Ma'mun refused the orders. His mother was Persian and he enjoyed strong support in Iran. Khurasan was a strong center of Abbasid support; many Shi'a there were sympathetic to the Abbasids because of their relationship to Muhammad through his uncle. In addition, al-Amin was contravening their father's known will concerning the succession. Al-Amin had appealed to his mother, Zubaida, to arbitrate the succession and champion his cause as Aisha had done two centuries before. Zubaida refused to do so. She is said to have been the power behind Al-Amin's throne.

The brothers had different mothers. Al-Amin may well have been prompted to move against al-Ma'mun by meddlesome ministers, especially al Fadl ibn ar Rabi.[2] Next, Al-Amin arranged for Harun's succession documents to be brought from Mecca to Baghdad, where he destroyed them. Al-Amin sent agents east to stir opposition to al-Ma'mun. However, a careful watch at the frontier denied them entry. When al-Ma'mun asked for money and for his family to be sent, Al-Amin refused. He retained his family in Baghdad. He forbade prayers for his brother.[3]

Battle of Rayy

In March 811 Al-Amin dispatched an army under Ali ibn Isa ibn Mahan against Al-Ma'mun. Ali advanced on Rayy. However, Ma'mun's capable general Tahir bin Husain met and defeated Ali, who was killed.

Internal rebellions

Al-Amin also found himself facing unrest in Syria. He sent Abd al-Malik ibn Salih to restore order there. Fierce fighting followed in which Abd al-Malik died. Al-Amin then ordered Ahmad ibn Mazyad and Abdallah ibn Humayd east, each with an army. Tabari says each had 20,000 men.[4] However, Tahir's agents succeeded in causing dissension in the ranks which led to the two armies fighting against each other.

Next, Al-Amin faced an uprising in Baghdad led by Ali ibn Isa's son Husayn. This was quelled; Husayn was killed. Tahir took Ahwaz and gained control of Bahrayn and parts of Arabia. Basra and Kufa swore allegiance to al-Ma'mun. Tahir advanced on Baghdad and defeated a force sent against him. In Mecca, Dawud ibn Isa reminded worshipers that al-Amin had destroyed Harun ar Rashid's succession pledges and led them in swearing allegiance to al-Mamun. Dawud then went to Marv (provincial capital, Khorasan) and presented himself to al-Ma'mun. Al-Ma'mun confirmed Dawud in his governorship of Mecca and Medina.

Siege of Baghdad (812–813)

After the defeat of Caliph Al-Amins’ army at the Battle of Rayy and the death of his commander Ali ibn Isa ibn Mahan, the armies of Al-Amin were in retreat, moving west from Iran to Iraq back to their base camp at Baghdad. Al-Ma'mun's general Tahir ibn Husayn, the victor of Battle of Rayy, decided to chase the retreating army. However, reinforcements from Baghdad arrived under the able leadership of Abdal Rahman bin Jabala.[5] Abdal Rahman decided to fortify himself behind the walls and gates of Hamadan. But when Tahir ibn Husayn came closer to the city, Abdal Rahman decided to come out and meet this threat head on. Twice, Abdal Rahman was driven back into the city. Tahir ibn Husayn began a blockade of the city and Abdal Rahman’s forces began to shower arrows and throw stones from the city walls. Eventually Abdal Rahman was obliged to leave and ask for terms due to resentment of the people of Hamadan at the occupation and rapidly depleting supplies.[5]

Tahir ibn Husayn realizing that Abdal Rahman bin Jabala left the city decided not to waste further time in Hamadan and marched westward towards Baghdad. On his way, he reached a certain pass named Asadabad where his army was ambushed by Abdal Rahman bin Jabala. The surprise attack caught Tahir’s troops off guard. But because the army was well disciplined the infantry managed to hold them off until Tahir ibn Husayn’s cavalry was ready to attack. In the ensuing confusion Abdal Rahman bin Jabala who had dismounted his horse was killed and his army defeated.[5]

After the short delay, Tahir ibn Husayn began his march towards Baghdad again. The news of the defeat of first Ali ibn Isa ibn Mahan and now Abdal Rahman bin Jabala reached Caliph Al-Amin and greatly distressed him. It seemed to the people of Baghdad that Tahir ibn Husayn was unstoppable. Nevertheless, people in Al-Ahwaz under the leadership of Muhammad bin Yazid al Muhallabi put up a fierce resistance to the armies of Tahir ibn Husayn. After defeating the army of al Muhallabi, Tahir now reached the gates of Baghdad and at the right time too as his reinforcements arrived under the leadership of Harthama bin A’yan.

The Siege

The Siege has no parallel in the warfare of the time.[5] Although the city was surrounded by walls most of the population lived in suburbs which were not. The siege was therefore not an attack on a fortified perimeter but rather street fighting, house to house invasion as well as temporary improvised fortifications. It was extremely destructive especially for the civilian population. Immediately, Tahir ibn Husayn ordered the other commanders namely Zuhayr ibn al-Musayyab al-Dabbi and Harthama bin A’yan to set up camps at Qasr Raqqat Kalwadha and Nahr Bin respectively, while he set up camp at Al-Anbar Gate. They set up siege engines, Mangonels, and dug trenches. Both sides are known to have used siege weapons. At one point, a general of Al-Amin known as al-Samarqandi used boats to transport Mangonels on the river Tigris and bombard enemy positions in the suburbs of Baghdad inflicting more damage to the civilian population than to the besiegers. There were several vicious battles, such as at al-Amin's palace of Qasr Halih, at Darb al-Hijarah and al-Shammasiyyah Gate. In the later stages of the siege irregulars came to the aid of Al-Amin.

As things were getting worse and Tahir ibn Husayn pushed into the city, Al-Amin sought to negotiate safe passage out. Tahir ibn Husayn reluctantly agreed on the condition that Al-Amin turn over his scepter, seal and other signs of being Caliph. Al-Amin reluctant to do so tried to leave on a boat. Tahir ibn Husayn noticed the boat and sent his men after Al-Amin who was captured and brought to a room where he was executed. His head was placed on the Al-Anbar Gate. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari quotes Tahir's letter to the new Caliph Al-Ma'mun informing him of Al-Amin's capture and execution and the state of peace resulting in Baghdad.[6]


The end result was that Al-Ma'mun became the new Abbasid Caliph. He would not arrive in Baghdad, however, until 819 due to the destruction and continued disturbances in the city.


The fact that Al-Amin was known to be fond of eunuchs (understood here as for sexual pleasure) was seen by many at the time as a deficit in his character. Al-Tabari notes this fondness for eunuchs.[7] Mernissi says that when Al-Amin's mother "discovered his homosexual tendencies, she would dress attractive boys like Ghullam" (Turkish guards) to "cure him."[8] William Muir, based on Muslim sources, gives a long description of his failings, including:

Surrounded by eunuchs and women, he passed his time in revelry and dissipation. Songstresses and slave-girls, gathered for their beauty from all parts of the empire and arrayed in splendid jewelry, were the chief society of himself and his boon companions. For his fêtes on the Tigris he had five gondolas, in the shapes of lion, elephant, eagle, serpent, and horse. Besides the private carousals in which he made no secret of drinking wine, his festivities were of the most sumptuous kind. For one of these he had the banquet-hall decked out with gorgeous carpets, couches, and trappings; a hundred songstresses sang in unison before him, then breaking into companies of ten, and with palm-branches in their hands, each group advanced in turn and sang before him. But on this occasion his wayward fancy took the songs as of evil omen, and he had the hall dismantled and destroyed. Such revels, with music, dancing, and wine, were peculiarly obnoxious to Muslim sentiment; and our annalist (who seldom indulges in any such comment) remarks—"We find of him no good thing to say."[9]

In contrast, although critical of Al-Ma'mun imposition of a creed on his subjects, enforced with severe penalties, Muir has high praise for his legacy:

For his reign was without question a glorious one, ushering in, as it did, the palmy days of literature, science, and philosophy. He was himself addicted to poetry, and once struck a poet with amazement who, on reciting an original piece of a hundred stanzas, found the Caliph readily "capping" every verse as he went along. At his Court were munificently entertained men of science and letters, poets, physicians, and philosophers ... "[10]

All in all, Muir concluded, Al-Ma'mun reign was "brilliant and just."[10] He founded the famous House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and ushered in a Golden Age of intellectual inquiry that continued for the next several caliphates. Despite his insistence on his Mu'tazili creed, his court was tolerant of the other monotheistic faiths, whose followers participated fully in the thriving and often innovative intellectual life over which he presided. Al-Amin left little by way of an enduring legacy, apart from a reputation for profligacy, his attempt to by-pass his father's will and causing civil strife, bloodshed and rebellion.

Born: 787; Died: 813
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by:
Harun al-Rashid
Caliph of Islam
809 – 813
Succeeded by: Al-Ma'mun


  1. Tabari and Bosworth 1987, 36.
  2. Muir 1924, 488.
  3. Tabari and Bosworth 1987, 47.
  4. Tabari and Bosworth 1987, 100.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Kennedy 2001, 109.
  6. Tabari and Fishbein 1992, 197-202.
  7. Tabari and Fishbein 1992, 128.
  8. Mernissi 2001, 140.
  9. Muir 1924, 488-489.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Muir 1924, 508.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kennedy, Hugh. 2001. The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State. Warfare and History. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780415250924.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. 2001. Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. New York, NY: Washington Square Press. ISBN 9780743412421.
  • Muir, William. 1924. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall: From Orig. Sources. ] Edinburgh, UK: Grant. Retrieved February 25, 2009.
  • Muir, William. 2000. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall. Orientalism: Early Sources, v.3. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780415209014.
  • Tabarī, and Clifford Edmund Bosworth. 1987. The Reunification of the ʻAbbāsid Caliphate. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780887060588.
  • Ṭabarī, and Michael Fishbein. 1992. The War Between Brothers. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791410851.


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