Barmakids (Arabic: بَرمَکیان) were a family from Balkh, who gained power by getting close to the Umayyad and Abbasid rulers. In the first period of the Abbasid dynasty, during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 170/786- 193/808) and at the zenith of Abbasid power, they were involved in multiple state affairs.
The family was known by the name of their grandfather Barmak, who had a high political position. Khalid, Yahya, Ja'far, and Fadl also achieved high political positions in the caliphate.
There are divergent reports regarding the relationship between the Barmakids and the Alids, and especially Imam al-Kazim (a). According to some reports, the Barmakids helped some of the Alids who were imprisoned, but according to some other reports they were involved in the imprisonment of Imam al-Kazim (a).
In the beginning of the year 187/803, when Harun al-Rashid returned form hajj, he ordered the execution of Ja'far and imprisonment of Yahya and Fadl and the confiscation of their properties. This marked the end of the Barkmakid's political position.
Conversion to Islam
The first known Muslim of this family was Barmak the grandfather of Khalid. According to some historians, Barmak travelled to Medina after the conquest of Balkh during the caliphate of Uthman and declared his conversion to Islam. He was given the name Abd Allah by Uthman. When he returned to Balkh, he was executed by Nayzak Tarkhan, the ruler of Turkestan, because of his conversion to Islam. Barmak's wife fled, together with her young child who was also named Barmak, to Kashmir. The child began his education there and was brought up by his mother. Later, the people of Balkh brought him back to Balkh and gave him all the positions of his father.
Among the various meanings and interpretations found in historical sources for the word "Barmak," it seems more likely that Barmak was a general title given to the guards of the Buddhist temple Nawbahar in northern Afghanistan. The word derived from the Sanskrit word parmaka in the sense of a Buddhist religious leader.
The Barmakids and the Caliphal Court
Barmak entered Damascus during the reign of Abd al-Malik b. Marwan (r. 65/685-86/705) and according to another report during the reign of Hisham b. Abd al-Malik (r. 105/723-125/743) and found a high status in the Umayyad court. Barmak married a Chaghaniyan princess, who bore him three sons named Khalid, Hasan, and Umar and a girl named Umm Khalid. Barmak also had another son named Sulayman from his marriage with a girl from Bukhara.
Khalid joined the supports of the Abbasids and showed great merit in various roles and positions, such as attracting financial support for the Abbasids during the period of hidden mobilization, participation in crushing the opposition groups in 130/748 under the command of Abu Muslim in Tus, convincing the governor of Tabaristan to support the Abbasid revolution in 131/749, being in charge of the treasury, and collecting and registering the spoils of war during the battles of Qahtaba b. Shabib in Qom, Isfahan, and Khorasan in the same year. Considering his merits, al-Saffah, the first Abbasid caliph (r. 132/749-136/753) charged him with the administration of the spoils of war.
Because of Khalid's merits, he was further appointed to the supervision of tax and military finance. Although Khalid refused to be appointed as the vizier—because he thought it would bring him bad fortune—he did all works of a vizier after the murder of Abu Salama al-Khallal.
Khalid became the vizier of al-Mansur (r. 136/753-158/774) in 136/753 for more than one year until Abu Ayyub Sulayman b. Wahab al-Muriyani decided to drive Khalid away from the capital so that he himself achieves the position of vizirate. In order to do so, Abu Ayyub offered Khalid the governorship of Fars, and Khalid accepted.
In 148/765, al-Mansur appointed Khalid as the governor of Tabaristan and Mosul, a position which earned Khalid great wealth. In 163/780, Khalid and his brothers Sulayman and Hasan accompanied Harun in their battle with the Romans.
Yahya b. Khalid
Yahya was the governor of Azerbaijan in the last year of al-Mansur's caliphate. He was charged by Al-Mahdi al-'Abbasi (r. 158/774-169/785) with the task of training and educating Harun al-Rashid. In order to show his gratitude for this service, Harun al-Rashid granted Yahya his own stamp in 170/786 and made Yahya's command authoritative in all the Abbasid territories, and thus Yahya became the most powerful vizier of the entire Abbasid period.
Among the undertakings of Yahya was sending a person to India to bring Indian medications and to study Indian religions, which led to the compilation of a book on Indian religions. Afterwards, Yahya invited a number of Indian, scholars and physicians to the Abbasid court and employed them.
Ja'far b. Yahya was another prominent Barmakid figure, who was greatly favored by Harun and became immensely influential in the caliph's court.
Ja'far was likely born in 143/760 and passed away in 187/803. In 176/792, Harun appointed him to the governorship of the eastern part of his territories—that is, from the city of al-Anbar to north Africa. In addition to that, Ja'far played significant roles in the caliphate, including settling the tribal conflicts between the Syrians in 180/796, ruling over the Levant and Algeria in the same year, being the head of the caliph's special guard, being the head of the courts for violations of state officials.
By the advice of his father, Ja'far released Yahya b. Abd Allah al-Alawi from prison, but executed Abd Allah al-Aftas al-Alawi.
Fadl, another son of Yahya, was born in 147/764. An outstanding courtier, he was charged by Harun with the task of training al-Amin. In 176/792, he was appointed to the governorship of the eastern part of the Abbasid territories from Nahrawan to Turkistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The governorship of Khorasan was also given to him in 178/794, which lasted until 179/795.
Historical sources mention other Barmakids such as Mu'awiya, Hasan, and Sulayman sons of Barmak, and Muhammad b. Khalid, Ibrahim, Musa, and Muhammad, sons of Yahya. However, they did not have significant roles and thus there is not much information about them.
The Relation between the Barmakids and the Alids
There are various reports about the relation between the Barmakids and the Alids, especially Imam al-Kazim (a). According to some reports, Yahya b. Khalid asked al-Mansur not to destroy the Taq Kasra since Ali (a) had prayed there. According to another report, when Harun tasked Fadl b. Yahya with crushing the revolt of Yahya b. Abd Allah al-Alawi, Yahya advised his son not to murder the descendant of the Prophet (s) and to solve the problem peacefully. Yahya also advised his other son Ja'far to release Yahya al-Alawi from prison, and he himself gave some money to Yahya.
However, al-Shaykh al-Mufid accuses Yahya of being involved in the events that led to the imprisonment and martyrdom of Imam al-Kazim (a). However, al-Mufid further reports that when Imam al-Kazim (a) was in prison, Harun charged Fadl b. Yahya with executing the Imam (a), Fadl refused to do so, which stirred up Harun's anger and he had Fadl flogged.
The poisoning and death of Idris b. Abd Allah, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty is also attributed to Yahya.
When Harun returned from hajj in 187/803, he ordered the execution of Ja'far and the imprisonment of Yahya and Fadl and the confiscation of their properties. Ja'far was beheaded in al-Anbar by Masrur al-Khadim and his body was mutilated, and each part of his body was hung in a place in Baghdad. Yahya and Fadl were also imprisoned. Yahya died in prison in 190/806 and his body was buried in Riqqa near Euphrates, and Fadl too died in prison in 193/809. Harun gave amnesty to Muhammad b. Khalid and his sons and relatives, who were not much involved in state affairs, and to the young children of Fadl and Ja'far.
The decline of the Barmakids is one of the vague points in Islamic history, because the reason behind their fate was never explained by Harun. According to some historians, this fate was related to the story of the marriage of Ja'far and Abbasa, Harun's sister. The two were supposed to get married superficially without having any actual marital relationship. However, Abbasa began to have a covert marital life with Ja'far and bore him two children, and this stirred up the wrath of Harun. Other scholars have rejected this explanation and mentioned that the reason was Fadl's refusal to give Harun a portion of the revenues of Fars. According to others, the relation between the Barmakids and the Alids was behind this fate as the Barmakids helped the Alids and released some of their imprisoned figures. Some others, conversely, mention that Imam al-Rida's damning the Barmakids in that year was the reason behind their decline. Finally, other historians have mentioned that the reason behind the Barmakids' fall was the conspiracies of their rivals such as Ali b. Isa Yazdanirud, Mansur b. Ziyad, Ja'far b. Muhammad b. Ash'ath, and Fadl b. Sa'id.
- The material for this article is mainly taken from برمکیان in Farsi WikiShia.