Romance and intrigue provide the central plot of the novel that is woven into the broader picture of the fall of the Barmakis. Harun held his sister ‘Abbasa in great affection and loved to spend his evenings in her company. But his favorite companion was Ja‘far. It was quite unsuitable for a man from outside the family to be admitted to the company of a young woman, but Harun found a way to arrange things; he decided to marry them to each other in what the French call a “marriage blanc”. As he explained to Ja‘far “you see her only in my company, your body never approaches hers and you have no conjugal relations with her. You may thus share our evenings of pleasure without risk.” Ja‘far accepted and swore solemnly in front of witnesses never to visit his young wife, stay alone with her or even spend a minute under the same roof unless Harun was present.
But Ja‘far was handsome and ‘Abbasa’s beauty was second to none. The inevitable occurred. How and why no one is certain. There was a great political advantage for Ja‘far to unite himself with the sister of the Caliph. But did his mother who was close to both her son and ‘Abbasa prod them in that direction? Or was their deep love sufficient to consummate their marriage, as Zaidan seems to imagine? No one knows for sure and the novel does not speculate on what really happened. The only sure thing is that ‘Abbasa became pregnant and gave birth to at least one child and perhaps two as related in the novel. And when Harun learnt of the relationship, this was the beginning of the end for the Barmakis.
The close friendship between Harun and Ja‘far spawned jealousies among the Caliph’s entourage. Chief among them was the hostility that Al-Fadl ibn al-Rabi‘ had towards Ja‘far. The two men detested each other and did everything they could to destroy each other. Last but not least Zubayda, Harun’s favorite Hashemite wife also did not like Ja‘far. He had been a tutor to al-Ma'mun, the son of a Persian slave girl, her son’s rival. It was known that Harun admired Ma'mun’s gifts and was thinking of promoting him over Al-Amin in the order of succession. There is every reason to believe that Zubayda exercised her considerable influence against Ja‘far. She comes across as shrewd, skillful and willful.
Zaidan never explicitly speculates to what extent al-Rashid’s reaction was politically or emotionally motivated. The narrative and dialogue suggest a combination of those factors. Ja‘far had been disloyal to Harun and had stained the family honor: his disobedience could not go unpunished. But Harun was shrewd and feared for his power and influence – to the extent that the Barmakis might usurp the ‘Abbasid caliphate. Within this broad historical canvass, Zaidan’s fast paced narrative with its twists and turns is full of suspense. It covers only a few months of Harun al-Rashid’s reign but one that fatefully changed the course of ‘Abbasid history.
The events of this historical romantic novel take place shortly before the year 803 AD (187 AH) in Baghdad in the closing years of the reign of Harun al-Rashid, the fifth caliph of the ‘Abbasid caliphate that stretched from 750 until 1258 AD (132 to 656 AH). The period of his reign marked a notable development of culture. Harun was a generous patron of learning, poetry, and music, and his court was visited by the most eminent Muslims of the age. He is perhaps best known to the Western world as the caliph whose court is described in the Arabian Nights. In the Islamic world Harun al-Rashid’s reign represented the peak of ‘Abbasid power in a caliphate that is often seen as the golden age of Islamic civilization. And yet Jurji Zaidan in this historical novel turns his pen to a dark side of al-Rashid’s reign set against the pomp, splendor and learning of that age.
Zaidan’s adventures usually unfold against a textured backdrop of history, culture and politics, and The Caliph’s Sister is no exception. As recounted by Zaidan, Harun al-Rashid was a popular ruler who relied on the Barmakis to run the Islamic Empire. They were admirable viziers, wise administrators and filled the public treasure. It was through them that the glory of Harun-al-Rashid clanged from Morocco and Andalusia to the farthest bounds of China and Tartary. Chief among the Barmakis was his best friend and vizier, Ja‘far al-Barmaki -- a central figure in the novel. Ja‘far at the helm, ran the state with a steady hand, but there were those among the Caliph’s inner circle who were unhappy that he had so much authority and so many possessions.
This was the situation until 803 AD (187 AH) when the Barmakis fell from power beginning with Ja‘far. Their disgrace and fall has been the object of intense speculation. Many explanations have been put forward for Harun’s ungrateful behavior towards men to whom he owed so much – the whole family had served the ‘Abbasids for three generations with competence and devotion. Harun never disclosed the reasons for their chastisement. When one of his sisters asked him for the reason he is said to have replied: “If I thought my right hand knew I would cut it off”. Al-Rashid’s secrecy fuels Zaidan’s pen: he is free to imagine the details of the circumstances that led to the fall of the Barmakis relying on several clues provided by history.
Following Harun’s death there was a period of civil war between his two sons, al-Amin and al-Ma'mun. By the end of the 9th century the ‘Abbasids were unable to exercise real religious or political authority. The territories they controlled fell apart as independent states arose in regions previously under ‘Abbasid rule. Although always honored to the end of the ‘Abbasid caliphate as symbols of the unity of Sunni Islam, no claimant to the office has since achieved anything like the general recognition among the Muslims that prevailed until the reign of Harun al-Rashid.
Professor Issa J. Boullata, Ph.D. (London), a noted scholar and teacher and an experienced translator of many Arabic literary works translated this novel. He is Emeritus Professor of Arabic Literature at the Institute of Islamic Studies of McGill University in Montreal. Between 1975 and 2004, when he retired, he taught postgraduate courses at McGill University in the fields of Arabic literature, Qur’anic studies, modern Arab thought, and modern Islamic developments.
The Study Guide for students deals with a number of questions about the author, the evolution of the Arabic novel, the historical context and the events of in the novel; it also includes a list of books for further reading. Questions include the following:
1. Who was Jurji Zaidan?
2. What is a historical novel?
3. How much fiction and how much history is there in Zaidan’s historical novels?
4. What is the early history of the Arabic novel?
5. What historical period does The Caliph’s Sister cover?
6. Why did Ja‘far renege on his promise to Harun? And what motivations explain Harun’s actions?