al-Mahdi, the third Caliph of the Abbassid dynasty, succeeded his father, Abu Jafar al-Mansur [774 CE]. He was as prodigal as his father was avaricious, and rapidly squandered his vast inheritance.
al-Mahdi was born in 744 or 745 AD in the village of Hamimah. His mother was called Arwi. When he was ten years old, his father became the second Abbasid Caliph. When al-Mahdi was young, his father, the Caliph al-Mansur, oversaw the construction of East Baghdad, with a mosque and royal palace at its heart. It was became known as Rusafa.
When was 15-years-old, al-Mahdi was sent to defeat the uprising of Abdur Rahman bin Abdul Jabbar Azdi in Greater Khorasan. He also defeated the uprisings of Ispahbud, the governor of Tabaristan, and Astazsis, massacring more than 70,000 of his followers in Khorasan. These campaigns put Tabaristan, which was only nominally within the caliphate, firmly under Abbasid control.
In 762 AD, al-Mahdi was the governor of the Abbasid Caliphate's eastern region, based in Ray. It was here that he fell in love with al-Khayzuran and had several children, including the fourth and fifth future Caliphs, al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid. Around 770 AD (153 AH), al-Mahdi was appointed as Amir al-hajj.
al-Mansur, died on the hajj to Mecca in 775. The throne then passed to his chosen successor, his son al-Mahdi. According to Marozzi, "[it] was, by the standards of the future, blood-soaked successions of the Abbasid caliphate, a model of order and decorum."
"A certain King of Hirah had two courtiers whom he loved equally with himself. They never quitted his society night or day, in the palace or on a journey. He took no decision without consulting them, and his wishes coincided with theirs. Thus they lived together a long time; but one evening the king, having drunk to excess, drew his sword from the sheath, and, rushing upon his two friends, killed them; then he fell into a drunken slumber.
"The next morning, when told of what he had done, he cast himself upon the earth, biting it in his fury, weeping for his friends, and bewailing the loss of them. He fasted for some days, and swore that for the rest of his life he would abstain from the beverage which had deprived him of reason. Then he had them buried, and erected a shrine over their remains, to which he gave the title, 'El-Ghareiain' (The Two Effigies). He commanded, in addition, that no persons should pass this monument without prostrating themselves.
"Now, like the laws of the Medes and Persians, every custom set up by a King of Hirah could not be changed, but became a hard-and-fast tradition, handed on from generation to generation. The command, therefore, of the King was rigidly obeyed: his subjects, of low and high degree, never passed before the double tomb without prostrating themselves. This usage gradually acquired the binding force of a religious rite. The King had ordered that any one who refused to conform to it should be punished with death after expressing two wishes, which would be granted, no matter what they were.
"One day a fuller passed, bearing on his back a bundle of clothes and a mallet. The guardians of the mausoleum ordered him to kneel down. He refused. They threatened him with death. He persisted in his refusal. They brought him before the King, whom they informed of the matter. 'Why did you refuse to bow down?' asked the King.
'I did bow down,' answered the man; 'they are lying.'
'No; you are the liar!' said the King. 'Express two wishes; they shall be granted, and then you will die.'
'Nothing, then, can save me from death after those men have accused me?' asked the fuller.
'Very well,' replied the fuller, 'here is my wish: I wish to strike the King on the head with this mallet.'
'Fool!' answered the King. 'It were better worth your while to let me enrich those whom you leave behind you.'
'No,' said the fuller; 'I only wish to strike the King on the back of his head.'
"The King then addressed his ministers: 'What do you think,' he said to them, 'of the wish of this madman?'
'Your Majesty,' they answered, 'you yourself have instituted this law: your Majesty knows better than any one that the violation of law is a shame, a calamity, a crime which involves damnation. Besides, after having violated one law, you will violate a second, then a third; your successors will do the same, and all our laws will be profaned.'
The King replied: 'Get this man to ask anything he likes; provided he lets me off, I am ready to grant all his requests, even to the half of my kingdom.'
"They laid these proposals before the fuller, but in vain; he declared that he had no other wish but to strike the King. The latter, seeing that the man was thoroughly resolved, convoked a public assembly. The fuller was introduced. He took his mallet and struck the King on the back of the head so violent a blow that he fell from his throne and lay stretched on the ground unconscious. Subsequently he lay ill with fever for six months, and was so severely injured that he could only drink a drop at a time. At last he got well, recovered the use of his tongue and could eat and drink. He asked for news of the fuller. On being told that he was in prison, he summoned him and said: 'There is still a wish remaining to you: express it, so that I may order your death according to law.'
And, since it is absolutely necessary that I must die,' replied the fuller, 'I wish to strike you another blow on the head.'
At these words the King was seized with dismay and exclaimed that it was all over with him. At last he said to the fuller: 'Wretch! renounce a claim which is profitless to you. What advantage have you reaped from your first wish? Ask for something else, and whatever it is, I will grant it.'
'No,' said the man, 'I only demand my right---the right to strike you once more.'
"The King again consulted his ministers, who answered that the best thing for him was to resign himself to death, in obedience to the law. 'But,' said the King, 'if he strikes me again, I shall never be able to drink any more; I know what I have already suffered.'
'We can not help that, your Majesty,' answered the ministers.
'Finding himself in this extremity, the king said to the fuller: 'Answer, fellow! that day when you were brought hither by the guardians of the mausoleum, did not I hear you declare that you had prostrated yourself and that they had slandered you?'
'Yes, I did say so,' answered the fuller, 'but you would not believe me.'
The King jumped from his seat, embraced the fuller, and exclaimed: 'I swear that you are more truthful than these rascals, and that they have lied at your expense. I give you their place, and authorize you to inflict upon them the punishment they have deserved.'"
On hearing this story, al-Madhi laughed heartily complimented the narrator, and rewarded him generously.
One day, the Caliph al-Mahdi, who had just returned from Anbar, ar-Rabi, the chamberlain, came in, holding a piece of leather on which something written in charcoal, but attached a seal composed of clay mixed with ashes that bearing the impression of the Caliph's signet-ring. 'Commander of the Faithful,' said ar-Rabi, 'I never saw anything more extraordinary than this document; I received it from an Arab of the desert who was crying out: "This is the Commander of the Faithful's letter! Show me where to find the man who is called ar-Rabi, for it is to him that he told me to deliver it!"'
al-Mahdi took the letter and laughed; he then said: 'It is true: this is my writing and this is my seal."
Then he said: 'I went out to hunt yesterday evening when the shower was over. The next morning a thick mist overwhelmed us, and I lost sight of my companions; I then suffered such cold, hunger, and thirst as God only knows, and I lost my way besides. At that moment I prayed to God: "In the name of God," and "By the might of God! We have no power or force but in God! I fly to God for protection! I confide in God: God sufficeth me! He protecteth, sufficeth, directeth, and healeth, from fire and food, from the fall of house, and from evil death!"
And 'when I had uttered these words, I saw a light before me, and I went toward it, and lo! I found an Arab of the desert in his tent, with a fire which he had been just lighting up. "Arab of the desert," said I, "hast thou withal to treat a guest?"
"Dismount!" said he.
Then I dismounted, and he said to his wife: "Bring here that barley"; and she brought it.
"Grind it," said he; and she began to grind it.
I then said to him: "Give me a drink of water"; and he brought me a skin in which was a little milk mixed with water, and I drank thereof a drink such as I had never drunk before, it was so sweet! and he gave me one of his saddle-cloths, and I laid my head on it, and never did I sleep a sounder sleep.
And, on awaking, I saw him seize on a poor miserable sheep and kill it, when his wife said to him: "Beware, wretched man! thou hast slain thyself and thy children; our nourishment came from this sheep, and yet thou hast killed it! What then have we to live upon?"
On this I said: "Do not mind. Bring the sheep here"; and I opened it with the knife I wore in my boot, and I took out the liver, and having split it open, I placed it upon the fire and I ate thereof. I then said to him: "Dost thou want anything? I shall give thee a written order for it."
On this he brought me that piece of leather, and I wrote on it with a bit of burnt wood which I picked up at his feet---that very note. I then set this seal on it, and told him to go and ask for one ar-Rabi, to whom he was to give it.'
"This note contained an order for five hundred thousand dirhems" ar-Rabi said.
al-Mahdi exclaimed on hearing it: 'By Allah! I meant only fifty thousand."
ar-Rabi placed that skin in front of al-Mahdi, And throwing a glance on it he then said, "but since five hundred thousand are written in it, I shall not diminish the sum one single dirhem; and were there no more in the treasury, he should have it. So give him beasts of burden, and let him take it away.'
"In a very short time that Arab had numerous flocks of camels and sheep, and his dwelling became a halting-place for those who were going on the pilgrimage, and it received the name of the 'Dwelling of the host of al-Mahdi, the Commander of the Faithful.'"
On another occasion, when al-Mahdi went out hunting, his horse ran away with him until he came to the hut of an Arab. And the Caliph cried: "O Arab! hast thou wherewith to feed a guest?"
The Arab replied, "Yes," and produced for him a barley loaf, which al-Mahdi ate; then he brought some wine in a bottle, and gave him to drink. And when al-Mahdi had drunk it, he said "O brother of the Arabs, dost thou know who I am?"
"No, by Allah," he replied.
"I am one of the personal attendants of the Commander of the Faithful," said al-Mahdi. "May Allah prosper thee in thy situation!" returned the glass to the Arab.
Then he poured out a second glass, and when al-Mahdi had drunk it, he cried: "O Arab, dost thou know who I am?"
He answered: "Thou hast stated that thou art one of the personal attendants of the Commander of the Faithful."
"No," said al-Mahdi, "but I am one of the chief officers of the Commander of the Faithful."
"May thy country be enlarged and thy wishes fulfilled!" exclaimed the Arab.
Then he poured out a third glass for him, and when al-Mahdi had drained it, he said: "O Arab! dost thou know who I am?"
The man replied: "Thou hast made me believe thou art one of the chief officers of the Commander of the Faithful."
"Not so," said al-Mahdi, "but I am the Commander of the Faithful himself."
Then the Arab took the bottle and put it away and said: "By Allah! wert thou to drink the fourth, thou wouldst declare thyself to be Mohammed the Prophet of God!"
Then al-Mahdi laughed 'till he could laugh no more. And lo! the horsemen surrounded them, and the Princes and nobles dismounted before him, and the heart of the Arab stood still.
al-Mahdi's death was tragic. According to al-Tabari: Among his wives there were two for whom he seems to have entertained an equal degree of affection; but as one of them seemed to the other to have the preference in his heart, the latter, whose name was Hassanna, conceived a bitter jealousy against her rival, and determined to be avenged on her. In order to accomplish her purpose, she prepared a dish of confectionery, in which she mixed a malignant poison, and sent it as an offering to her rival.
As the damsel who was dispatched upon the errand happened to pass beneath one of the balconies of the palace, al-Mahdi, who was watching the sunset, saw her. The confectionery, which was uncovered, attracting his notice, he asked the messenger whither she was bound. She having informed him, he took and ate heartily of it, saying: "Hassanna will, I am sure, be better pleased that I should partake of her sweets than any one else."
In a few hours he was a corpse.
Not Yet Varified.
Legends of the Early Caliphs; The Book of Golden Meadows; Mines of Precious Stones by Masoudi,