We all may know the story of Aladdin and have even watched the Disney cartoon series in which there is a character named Jafar, the Sultan’s wazir (vizier/advisor). Apparently Jafar appears as a trusted advisor of the Sultan but behind the scenes is an evil man plotting to eventually one day take over his kingdom. The inspiration of the character Jafar in the Disney series comes from 1001 Arabian Nights, a series of stories collected during the Islamic golden age. The Arabian nights however does not depict him like Disney, in fact he is a wise wazir and helps solves mystery cases such as in the story of “the three apples”. This may be somewhat true about the real person Jafar ibn Yahya or Jafar ibn Barmak, of whom people know very seldom. He was the powerful wazir of renown Abbasid Caliph Harun Al Rashid. Far from what is in the stories, he belonged to Al Barmaki Family or Barmakids who were known to serve as powerful wazirs and administrators for Abbasid rulers at the height of their power from 705 to 803 CE.
Importance of Wizarat in Islamic History
Wizarah (also Wizarat) is derived either from mu'azarah "help," or from wizr "load," and Wazir is one who holds the office of wizarat. Wazir helps the person whom he supports to carry his burdens and charges. It appears in the Quran in the same sense (Al Quran 20:29). The official designation of wizarat did not exist in the early years of Rashidun Caliphate (first four successors of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ). The early Muslims emerged from Arabian desert lifestyle which did not have any royalty. Wizarat was a royal rank and developed after Islam’s leadership was succeeded by political dynasties of Umayyads, Abbasid’s, Seljuks, Mamluks. The designation of wizarat was first employed by Umayyads to assist them in managing state affairs. The wizarat in the Abbasid context was highly significant. The wazirs under Abbasids provided strength in governing the state and were also great advisors to the Caliphs. The Abbasid Caliphs were official representatives of all Muslims and Islam. The people who held the office of wizarat under Abbasids helped establish their base and maintain their legal status as Caliphs of Islam.
The significance of this role is implied in the following words of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ: “Allah never sends a prophet or gives the Caliphate to a Caliph but that he (the prophet or the Caliph) has two groups of advisors: A group advising him to do good and exhorts him to do it, and the other group advising him to do evil and exhorts him to do it. But the protected person (against such evil advisors) is the one protected by Allah.” (Riyad us Saliheen) The Quran also teaches that rulers should keep company with advisers who are trustworthy, knowledgeable and honest in their advisory role as in the case of the King of Egypt who took Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) (alaihi salaam) in his company as an advisor: (Al Quran 12:54-55) And the King said: "Bring him to me, so that I may attach him to myself." And when he had spoken with him, [the King] said: "Behold, [from] this day you shall be of high standing with us, invested with all trust! (Ameen)" [Yusuf] replied: "Place in my charge the storehouses of the land; behold, I shall be a good and knowing keeper (Hafeez un Aleem)." - This teaches that an adviser should be Ameen i.e. worthy of trust, Aleem i.e. one who has knowledge and well informed about state affairs, Hafeez i.e. guards well and does not allow encroachment what is handed as a trust. All three characteristics were carried by the personality of Yusuf (Joseph) (a.s) and his advisory was very effective to the point that he was able to ward off the great famine by helping the empire stock food which sustained them in that difficult time. In the light of this we see similar characteristics shared by the Barmaki wazirs whose advisory, knowledge and guardianship of the Abbasid empire and its resources helped to establish it in the beginning of its era and brought them on the global stage.
Barmak – The Family Ancestor
As per Encyclopedia Iranica, the term Barmak comes from the Sanskrit term Pramukha which means “chief”. Barmak, the ancestor of the family, was the high priest at the Buddhist temple of Nowbahaar, in Sanskrit Nava Vihara meaning “new monastery”. This family was originally Buddhist, serving as temple chiefs at the monastery in Balkh, Tokharistan, in the region of Khurasaan. Tokharistan was a region divided between the modern states of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The last of the Barmak, the father of Khalid who was to become a strong supporter of the Abbasid Revolution in Khurasaan, converted to Islam at the court of Umayyad Caliph Hesham ibn Abd Al Malik. He stayed at the court for many years with his son Khalid who became well educated in Islam and Arabic culture and language. Barmak was a physician and he was also known to have studied philosophy, astrology and medicine in Kashmir where he had lived for many years. This is to be noted because it was Sanskrit works of scientific knowledge along with Greek and Persian, that was part of the famous Translation Project at Dar Al Hikmah in Baghdad, the cradle of the scientific revolution in medieval age.
Relationship with the Abbasids
Barmak returned with his son Khalid back to Khurasaan where he championed the cause of Abbasids for the Islamic world’s leadership. He was instrumental in raising the revolution and assisting revolutionaries like Abu Muslim Khurasaani, who led the army against Umayyads and helped the family of the Prophet ﷺ, the Abbasids, establish their rule. The first Abbasid Caliph As-Saffah appointed Khalid the divan (ministry) of the army and the divan (ministry) of the land tax (kharaj). The registers used in the ministry were in the form of loose documents (scrolls), and Khalid was the first one to replace them with bound books (ledgers). Soon Khalid won the confidence of the caliph and became his principal adviser. Khalid’s wife breastfed Saffah’s daughter Rayta, and the caliph’s wife breastfed khalid’s daughter Omm Yahya. Khalid was highly capable of managing political, military and administrative affairs in a manner that encouraged the successor of As-Saffah, Caliph Abu Jaafar Al Mansur to nominate him as ruler of Mosul and the island of Euphrates, as well as Fars (province of Iran) and then Ray and Tabaristan (part of north Iran), and he maintained the same status in the era of Caliph Al Mahdi. Yahya inherited from his father, Khalid ibn Barmak, the skill of leadership and management, which enabled him to assume senior administrative positions. One of the highest tasks entrusted to him was the attendance of Prince Harun and overseeing the work entrusted to him by Caliph Al Mahdi. According to al Tabari, the Al Mahdi appointed his son Harun to Maghrib (north Africa), Azerbaijan and Armenia, and ordered Yahya ibn Khalid ibn Barmak to represent him. During short reign of Caliph Al Hadi (785-86) Yahya was thrown into prison because he stood firmly against Al Hadi’s attempts to remove Harun from succession to the Caliph seat. After Al Hadi’s sudden death Yahya was released and became Al Rashid’s wazir. Yahya’s wisdom and choice proved correct because Al Rashid became one of the greatest Caliphs of the Abbasid history. When Harun became a caliph (786-808 CE), he entrusted Yahya Barmaki with the ministry and gave him absolute authority. Harun used to call him “my father” and acknowledged Yahya’s mentorship that assisted him to take up rulership. Yahya Barmaki engaged his sons; Al Fadl, and Jafar in the administration of the Abbasid state. Al Fadl was the breastfeeding brother of Harun Al Rashid, he held important administrative positions. Caliph Al Rashid nominated him as ruler of Khorasan province, and entrusted him with raising his son Al Amin. It is confirmed from history that Barmaki family was so close in relation to Abbasids that they considered each other as one family.
The Scientific Aspirations of Barmakis
The Barmakis always placed very high emphasis on education because they were well-educated and influential and also patron of arts and sciences. That may be one reason why the family was famously called ahl-al-qalam, or the “people of the pen”. The generosity of the Barmakis also became proverbial, a generous host of banquets and festivals was called “Barmaki.” Due to their origin from Tokharistan region, with India on the East, Iran on the West and China on North East, and due to their influential status as Buddhist temple chiefs, they were at the center of transfer of knowledge and trade during pre-Islamic times between people of these lands. Tokharistan was under Persian rule before Islam, hence after their acceptance of Islam Barmakis played significant role in transferring knowledge to Abbasid Baghdad and also attracted a large number of Persian scholars. This explains what the Prophet ﷺ foretold about those who carry good characteristics prior to acceptance of Islam and continue to express them afterwards: "People are like gold and silver; those who were best in Jahiliyyah (Pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance) are best in Islam, if they have religious understanding; and the souls are like soldiers, they mix with those similar with them in qualities and oppose and drift away from those who do not share their qualities".
Khalid ibn Barmak held the position of wazir during Caliph Al Mansur’s reign, and was highly influential as an advisor. It was him who advised Al Mansur to build the Capital Madinat As Salaam (City of Peace), which later became known as Baghdad. It was this place that was to become center of the scientific revolution that would change the world. With their pre-Islamic connection to Buddhism and Sanskrit language, it was under Khalid that one of the first astronomical works was brought by an Indian delegation to the court of Al Mansur and he ordered the translation and editing to an Arab astrologer named Ibrahim Al Fazari. The famous astronomical book was called Sindhind and it was translated in to Zij al Sindhind Al Kabir, a major source for further studies of the subject by scientists at Baghdad. Yahya Al Barmaki, son of Khalid, was a also patron of scholars and poets, and carried love for the sciences. He was instrumental in inviting several Indian medical scientists and philosophers to Baghdad, for which he personally sent mission to India. Due to the family’s origin from Tokharistan, they also attracted Persian scholars from Marw (in Khurasaan) like Masha’Allah ibn Athari and Sahl ibn Tabari who were instrumental in translating Greek works like Euclids Elements that became basis for further progress in mathematics during Islamic Golden Age. It was under Yahya Barmak where the first hospital was built in Baghdad called bimaristan al-Baramika, at which Yahya employed Indian physicians who translated Sanskrit medical works into Arabic. Yahya was a strong patron of sciences and knowledge and his support for the foundation of the legacy of what Baghdad was going to become. When Al Rashid became the Caliph, it was under his authority that Baghdad increasingly became a hub of scholars, scientists and knowledge. The height of Barmaki power also happened under Al Rashid, Yahya and his sons Al Fadl and Jafar were involved in almost every matter of the state. Scholars have identified paper mills in Baghdad during the Abbasid era of 794–795 CE. The production of paper technology acquired by the Abbasids after Battle of Talas in 751 CE, would not become operational on a large scale till the time of Al Rashid under the advisory of Jafa ibn Yahya. Jafar was the highly trusted and experienced wazir of Al Rashid and it was at his advice that the first paper mills were built. It was paper produced at these mills that transformed the world of knowledge. In addition, several public works, such as mosques, canals and shelters that made Baghdad a great city, owe their existence to the initiative of Jafar and his brothers, whose family the Barmakis, were always known for their generosity and hospitality. The early Abbasids were able to make Baghdad the hub of scholars and scientists also due to their successful taxation policy. They had money to spend on translations and patronage of scholarship. This was also mainly due to strong governance and administration by Barmakis of the various parts of empire that Abbasid Caliphs assigned them. Their governance was crucial in helping Abbasids to strengthen the rule, establish justice and acquire wealth needed to further build empire and assist the Dar Al Hikmah project and center.
Jafar & the End of Barmakis
Just like the prophetic hadith states “……and the other group advising him (caliph) to do evil and exhorts him to do it….” Unfortunately, it was the whispers of the evil that made their way into the Caliph’s heart and instigated jealousy for the Barmaki family because of their fame and power that they unrestrictedly enjoyed, for a long time, due to their services for the state and generosity. It was them who became the center of attention as opposed to the Caliph. But Ibn Khaldun says that the instigators around the Caliph could not have succeeded had the Barmakis not become too strong that the Caliph felt helpless in many state matters. Such as the arrest of Yahya ibn Abdullah bin Hasan bin Hasan ibn Ali (a descendant of Ali), who had raised a rebellion in Daylam (part of north Iran) against the Abbasids was arrested but released by Jafar without consultation with Al Rashid, which made the latter felt helpless. They took the affairs out of Caliph’s hands and shared with him in his authority. He had no say with them in many important affairs. Their influence grew, and their fame spread. Hence, much of what Barmakis experienced at the hands of Al Rashid was natural, it was bound to result this way. Their power kept growing and the Caliph felt threatened and decided to act. All Barmakis that served at high posts were expelled, the Caliph ordered all their properties seized, and Jafar was arrested, so was his brother Al Fadl and sent to prison where they breathed their last. At this point its also important to mention about a false story that has no basis whatsoever, based on pure gossip and circulated among story tellers for centuries that Caliph had a sister with whom Jafar had affair and she became pregnant as a result of it. Unfortunately, it may be stories as such that inspired Disney’s Aladdin to portray Jafar as evil.
With the end of Barmakis, their mention also became shadowed with time except for what was read about them through stories in 1001 Arabian Nights. But their legacy under Abbasids is undeniable and cannot be ignored especially when discussing factors that made the scientific revolution at Baghdad a success story.
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