Creed of the Assassins
What was the medieval Nizari Ismaili vision of an ideal state?
The medieval Assassins have a near-legendary reputation in the minds of many casual observers, occupying a world where young initiates are whipped into a drug-fuelled frenzy, itching to plunge their knives into their leader’s enemies. Most recently, they have been portrayed in the Assassin’s Creed gaming franchise,* with gravity-defying feats of combat performed and hundreds of computed-generated foe slaughtered. All of these fanciful depictions are based on a garbled retelling of traveller’s tales, Crusader stories and propaganda against the Assassins created by their neighbouring Muslim opponents. The historian Farhad Daftary calls this a ‘Black Legend’.1
*On which my title is an admittedly poor play.
For centuries Western scholars knew little about the Assassins, actually the Nizari Ismailis, and many mistakenly took the ‘Black Legend’ at face value. Unsurprisingly, they often produced two-dimensional histories that delivered little by way of introducing a clear appraisal of the medieval Nizari Ismailis, let alone outlining what their basic beliefs were. Almost nothing was said about their vision of an ideal state. But many of the enigmas surrounding the Assassins had been unravelled by the mid-20th Century through the work of scholars like Ivanow, Marshall and, a little later, Franzius and Lewis. More recent scholars, like Daftary, have built upon this work and make concerted efforts to keep legend firmly separated from fact.
Assessing the etymology of the word assassin and deconstructing the ‘Black Legend’ is beyond the scope of this essay, as is an investigation of the Nizari Ismailis offshoot branches in the medieval Levant, the ones that the Crusader states interacted with. Instead, we shall analyse the development of Nizari Ismaili faith and its eschatology, taking careful note of how this informed the community’s concept of an ideal state. But we will start by briefly examining the difficulties posed by the shortage of primary sources from the Nizari Ismaili perspective. We shall then discuss the evolution of Ismailism, charting its rise in North Africa and listing many of its central religious beliefs, the cornerstones on which later doctrine was laid.
We will then track developments at Alamut, the Nizari Ismaili’s centre of power in northwest Persia. It was within this mountain stronghold that the major tenets of medieval Nizari Ismailism were structured, codified and first put into practise. The essay will outline the ideal state, which was the realisation of God’s Truth through Islam’s esoteric message, under the guidance of an infallible Imam. Within this, we chart a unique Islamic experience: the Resurrection as announced by Hasan II in 1164. It was an astounding proclamation for his followers, albeit providing a temporary bliss that was expunged in the face of earthly disappointment.
Through the fragments
The medieval Nizari Ismaili community that flourished from the 1080s to 1250s was obliterated by the Mongols; they smashed the community’s strongholds and threw its libraries and literature onto pyres. This has created a serious headache for modern-day scholars, who must rely on hostile sources, snippets of surviving Nizari Ismaili accounts, or clarification from today’s Nizari Ismailis, many of whom can be reluctant to assist. Enno Franzius noted this when he wrote: ‘A historian of the Assassins encounters three major difficulties: hostility of the main sources to the Assassins, mystification or concealment of facts by the Assassin sources, and reluctance of today’s Assassins to impart information.’2
The Nizari Ismaili texts that do survive are also difficult to put into proper context. Marshall Hodgson wrote in the 1950s: ‘The voluminous writings of the Alamut imams are mostly lost; what we possess, either in Arabic or Persian, is very miscellaneous and often of unknown authorship.’3 However, the Biography of Our Master, a Nizari Ismaili biographical work on the ‘founding father’ of Alamut, Hasan Sabbah, is thought to have survived well into the Ilkhanid era and was often quoted as a key source by many chroniclers.4 Also surviving, albeit in fragments, is a spiritual treatise by Hasan Sabbah called The Four Chapters, which stressed the value of submitting to the authoritative teaching of the Imam, a process called talim.
Most of our understanding of the core beliefs comes from the work of ‘the great betrayer of the sect’,5 Nasir as-Din Tusi (d.1274). Writing in the twilight years of the community at Alamut, Tusi produced a number of key works outlining Nizari Ismaili thoughts on astronomy, theology, philosophy and many other subjects.6 Although born a ‘Twelver’ Shi’a, Tusi spent over 30 years with the Nizari Ismailis and was present when Alamut was handed over to the Mongol commander Hulegu in 1256. He went on to become a member of Hulegu’s court, insisting he had been held in Alamut against his will and forcibly converted. But this seems highly unlikely, as Daftary stresses.7
Also at the fall of Alamut, but accompanying the invading forces, was the staunch anti-Ismaili chronicler Juwayni (d.1283). He was given a free hand to rummage through the stronghold’s renowned library after its surrender, taking away books he deemed acceptable or useful for his propaganda purposes.8 On the heels of Juwayni’s account came Rashid al-Din’s (d.1318) and then Kashani’s (d.1337), both of whom were Sunni and anti-Ismaili. Later chroniclers, such as Hafiz Abru (d.1430), also included sections in their texts on the Nizari Ismailis.9
Having noted the paucity of sources available, and having acquainted ourselves with the main chroniclers and their biases, we can look for answers by examining Ismailism as formulated by the Fatimids in North Africa.* It was through them that the core values held by the Nizari Ismailis were initially shaped. It is also important to note that Ismaili roots are Shi’a, with belief not only in the literal message of Muhammad but also in esoteric and hidden meanings. According to the Shi’a, Muhammad had singled out Ali and his line as the rightful heirs to his message shortly before his death in 632. Daftary writes: ‘For the Shi’a, only the sinless and infallible Alid Imams, belonging to the ahl al-bayt and possessing special religious knowledge, or ilm, were qualified to perform the spiritual functions of such guides or teachers.’10 Franzius concurs: ‘They and they alone are qualified to interpret, elucidate, and apply the profundities of the Koran.’11 Thus the Shi’a Imam was the primary conduit between the secular and the sacred, between God and his people.
*They claimed a lineage back to Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter and wife of Ali.
The office of Imamah* was normally passed to the Imam’s eldest son, although he was free to choose any other offspring if this was impractical or undesirable. The Imam usually chose his intended successor early in the life of his religious heir, extending to him his spiritual essence, nass. The decision was meant to be irreversible once made, although in times of grave crisis – i.e. the murder of an Imam and his offspring – the inheritance of the Imamah could occur spiritually. As Buckley notes, ‘spiritual lineage sometimes took precedence over blood-ties. A special power in the Imam-soul was thought to transmigrate to the Imam heir.’12 An Imam’s spirit would immediately transfer to his successor at the moment of death, which meant all of the past Imams reposed within the living Imam, effectively making him spiritually immortal.
*Frequently written as the Imamat.13
Almost one hundred years after Ali’s murder in 661, the sixth Shi’a Imam, Jafar – who was of Ali’s line via Husain – broke the conventions of transferring the Imamah. Disregarding his eldest son, Ismail, who had already received the nass, Jafar chose a younger son called Musa as his heir. Ismail was overlooked for allegedly being a drunk and in contact with extremist Shi’a groups. Whether this was true or not, Ismail’s supporters were adamant that he should inherit the Imamah, arguing that one could not simply pick and choose after the fact. Thus Ismail’s supporters broke away from the majority of the Shi’a community who backed Musa’s ascendancy.
Ismail predeceased his father, dying around 760.* His son, Muhammad, was deemed to have inherited his father’s nass and was promptly declared the Ismaili Imam on Jafar’s death in 765. However, he fell into the hands of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid and died as a captive several years later. The Ismaili imams are said to have gone into hiding after Muhammad, their message spread through word of mouth by their followers. In 893, an agent of the Ismaili Imam, a Yemeni called Abu Abdallah al-Shi’I, arrived in North Africa and rallied the Berber tribes to his cause. Following a series of stunning victories, the Ismailis came to dominate most of North Africa, including Egypt by the 960s.
*Although some accounts suggest he was still alive some five years after Jafar's death.
Having declared the Ismaili Imamate and Caliphate, the new Fatimid regime pushed their empire’s borders eastwards from their capital at Cairo. They took control of Damascus, Jerusalem and parts of Western Arabia, including Mecca and Medina, under the Imam/Caliph Muiz. The Fatimids then halted their advance in order to consolidate their position, both in the secular and spiritual realms. Further codification and clarification of the Imam’s role occurred during this period, with his being deemed to have an eternal presence14 and having a divinely-appointed duty to guide the faithful towards God and the Truth, haqiqah.15 Added to this, Franzius tells us that the Imam ‘is the earthly focus of their [the people’s] entire religious life, for only through him can they obtain a knowledge of God.’16
Mundane, daily affairs were a secondary concern for the Imam, who was a ‘beacon of light that shines amid the darkness of materiality’, according to Anthony Campbell.17 The Ismailis viewed the religious world as ‘a shell; to get at its kernel of meaning, the shell must be penetrated by ta’wil* and, in fact, broken open completely’, according to the Iran Chamber Society.18 But it was still important to mark the outward letter of the law (zahir and shari’a) when searching for God’s Truth. The Imam who brought the community to the Truth would be known as the qa’im al-qiyama, the Lord of the Resurrection.19 The Resurrection was to be the supreme moment for Ismailis and, according to Franzius, it was when ‘the soul achieves the highest wisdom [and] is assimilated by the Loftiest Wisdom of the Universe, an eternal substance of divine origin. Thereby the soul is absorbed by God, its original course.’20
*Returning to the source of deepest spiritual significance.
Thus the medieval Ismaili vision of the ideal state was this: a community at union with God’s Truth and brought to celestial heights through the spiritual guidance of the Imam. The Fatimids went on to establish great schools of learning to bolster their position, while a theological organisation known as the da’wa was charged with training Ismaili teachers, called da’i. Their job was to explain the faith and propagate the Imam’s message within the empire’s borders and without. Treading a fine tightrope when outside Fatimid territory, the teachers looked for bright youngsters to mentor and, if they proved intelligent enough, have sent to Cairo for further religious instruction.
Sunni and of Turkic origin, the Seljuks came to dominate the remaining vestiges of the decrepit Abbasid Khalifate21 during the first half of the 11th century, eventually taking control of Baghdad in 1055. While they were securing their empire, Hasan Sabbah was born in the town of Qumm circa 1050. He was the son of a ‘Twelver’ Shi’a merchant but had converted to Ismailism in his teens after a near-fatal illness. He made his way to the town of Rayy in 1072 and was introduced to the leading da’i of the region, Abd al-Malik ibn Attash, who was greatly impressed by the young man and decided to send him to Cairo.
Hasan Sabbah arrived in the Fatimid capital in 1078 after making a circuitous journey through many key Seljuk territories on what was probably an intelligence-gathering mission.22 He might have been unnerved by what he saw both before and after his arrival in Cairo: the Fatimid lands east of the Sinai had been lost to Seljuk lords, while Egypt was still recovering from fearsome droughts suffered during the late 1060s and early 1070s. Worse still, the Imam/Caliph, the long-reigning Mustansir, had become a puppet of his vizier Badr al-Jamali, an Armenian who commanded an army increasingly dominated by slave-soldiers.* He also manipulated the da’wa, which should have been under the Imam’s direct control.
*The Mamluks who would become the masters many years later.
Having studied in Egypt, Hasan Sabbah fled the country in 1081 after becoming persona non grata with al-Jamali. Several accounts note he was arrested as an undesirable but managed to make a daring escape back to his homeland. Regardless of whether this happened, he returned to Persia keen to spread the spiritual authority of the Fatimid Imam, despite being aware that the Imam/Caliph’s physical authority was haemorrhaging fast. As Daftary points out, Hasan Sabbah had gained a ‘valuable opportunity to evaluate at close hand the conditions of the Fatimid regime, becoming aware of the fact that the Persian Ismailis could no longer count on receiving any effective support from the Fatimid state.’23
It is likely that Hasan Sabbah boosted his message’s appeal by tying it to local issues. He spent much of the 1080s criss-crossing Persia working as a da’i to accomplish this, trying to dovetail his arguments with a proto-nationalist sentiment and, in doing so, found fertile ground. The Seljuk lords were viewed by many as foreign interlopers, just as the Caliphs of Baghdad were considered dissipated and corrupt. In fact, Hasan Sabbah’s updated message* represented something of a resistance movement for many Persians, particularly for those already receptive to the Shi’a message. Daftary writes: ‘Hasan’s revolt was an expression of Persian “national” sentiments, which accounts for its early popular appeal and widespread success in Persia.’24 The greatest success was achieved in the barren and mountainous region of Daylam in northwest Persia, next to the Caspian Sea. According to Bartlett, the region ‘was renowned as an area with strong independent tendencies’.25
* What has become known as the ‘New Preaching’ (al-da’wa al-jadida) rather than the Fatimids' ‘Old Preaching’ (al-da’wa al-qadima).26
It is difficult to quantify the number of people involved at this stage, other than to say the figures were probably not that large. However, many would have converted but kept their beliefs hidden, particularly those living in urban areas where the suspicious eyes of the Seljuk authorities were more focussed. Still, we can safely say that Hasan Sabbah commanded a growing community after eclipsing Abd al-Malik and becoming the leader in the 1090s. Indeed, his followers were strong enough to attack a number of Seljuk strongholds in this period. The greatest coup came in September 1090, when Ismaili followers successfully took the fortress of Alamut in the imposing mountain region of Rudbar, northwest Persia. Hasan Sabbah was now lord of a major stronghold and more would be added to his fledgling but scattered realm over the next decade.
The Seljuks were stung by their enemy’s successes and unleashed a wave of pogroms, killing Ismailis and those suspected of Ismailism. The war for Hasan Sabbah quickly become a total one, whereby everything was at stake and it says a great deal for his leadership that unity was maintained and further gains were achieved, particularly in the region of Quhistan, another area where the Shi’a message was already strong. Given the dangers they faced, and that the Seljuks vastly outnumbered them, the Persian Ismailis often resorted to targeted assassinations rather than risk annihilation through open battle. These killings were at sharp odds with the era’s notions of battlefield honour and how war should be conducted,* but the strategy was simple and, from the community's perspective, effective: kill the Seljuk head and the Seljuk body would die. They failed in this goal, but they had at least won the battle for survival by the time Hasan Sabbah died in 1124.
*See endnote 1
Away from the fragile stalemate between the community and its enemies, there had also been a decisive break with the Fatimids. The schism occurred in 1094 when Nizar, the son and designated heir of the Imam/Caliph Mustansir, was disinherited on his father’s death by the vizier al-Afdal.* He favoured Mustali, a younger son. Given that Hasan Sabbah’s community was already quasi-independent and renowned for its strict adherence to the tenets of Ismailism, it is hardly surprising they severed their ties with the Fatimids. Mustali was thought of as a false Imam. However, it is also worth considering the personal opportunities that a schism represented for Hasan Sabbah. Unlike many of the others, he was already aware of the Fatimids’ temporal decay, and was now presented with a chance to guide the community without interference until the rightful Imam could reach them. Hasan Sabbah’s followers became known as Nizari Ismailis or sometimes just the Nizaris. However, they preferred to continue calling themselves Ismailis, believing it was their community that followed the true path and rightful Imam.27
*Son of al-Jamali and the new power behind the throne.
Unfortunately, Nizar was soon captured by al-Afdal and murdered along with key members of his household. Many believed Nizar had somehow escaped or that his chosen offspring had done so. Others thought that the destruction of Nizar and his line, while heinous, was a futile act because the Imam’s spirit would instantly return to the world via a new, equally-righteous vessel. But without an Imam physically present, it was important for Hasan Sabbah to prevent disillusionment or infighting from setting in. He emphasised the importance of unreserved loyalty to his office and the strict observance of the shari’a, views that were reflected in the preserved sections of Hasan Sabbah’s The Four Chapters. In his critique of this work, Hodgson wrote: ‘We receive the psychological impression that it is finally not the rational content of the Imam’s truth that Hasan is interested in, but his sheer authority.’28
This is an assumption too far; Hasan Sabbah was most probably interested in ‘sheer authority’ because he believed it was his duty to create a state worthy of the expected Imam – either Nizar or his scion – to take control of if they reached Persia. In addition, the schism came on top of the ongoing Seljuk threat and the danger this presented. Hasan Sabbah led by example when it came to discipline, as Farhad Daftary points out: ‘[He was] highly uncompromising in his austere lifestyle. It is reported that he observed the shari’a strictly.’29 It was said Hasan Sabbah even had both of his sons executed: one for involvement in a murder (later proven innocent) and the other for drinking wine.
No other event in medieval Nizari Ismaili history has aroused as much debate and discussion as that of the Resurrection: the Qiyama, or Last Day.30 After his death, Hasan Sabbah was peacefully succeeded by his most able commander, Buzurg Umid, and the fight against the Seljuks gradually receded in intensity.* A lengthy period of religious introspection now started, culminating in the Resurrection as declared by Hasan II and clarified by his successor Muhammad II. Hasan II was the grandson of Buzurg Umid and in 1164, the second year of his reign, he called for his leading lieutenants and members of the community to gather at Alamut. This included Rashid ad-Din Sinan, the Nizari Ismaili leader in the Levant and known to the Crusaders as the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’.
*See endnote 2
On the 17th day of Ramadan, on the anniversary of Ali’s death no less, an eminent assembly congregated in front of a pulpit at the foot of the castle, their backs turned away from Mecca. The implication of this unusual arrangement was soon made clear as Hasan II approached, dressed in white robes and carrying a sword in one hand. He ascended a pulpit to deliver an important message, part of which, according to Rashid al-Din Sinan, went as follows: ‘The Imam of our time has sent you his blessing and his compassion, and has called you his special chosen servants. He has freed you from the burden of the rules of Holy Law and has brought you to the Resurrection.’31
Hasan II then announced he had received a personal message from the Imam that was read aloud in Arabic and immediately translated into Persian. It stated Hasan II was the proof of the Imam’s existence, an appointed teacher and khalifa. According to Daftary, the latter title meant Hasan II was a ‘deputy or successor with plenary authority, a higher rank yet that was not defined at the time’.32 In announcing the Resurrection, Hasan II became the Qaim, the ‘dominating figure in Ismaili eschatology’, Lewis notes.33 The message also underlined the Imam’s wish that Hasan II should be followed as if he were the Imam himself. To celebrate, Hasan II called for his followers to join him at a banquet, purposefully contravening the strictures of Ramadan.
Historians have devoted much time discussing how the Qiyama was the manifestation of isolationism and an unspoken acceptance that the revolutionary goal of destroying the Seljuk state had failed. According to Campbell the Resurrection ‘was a magnificent answer to the failure of a military undertaking’.34 But perhaps a better way to consider the Nizari Ismaili view of the Sunni world at this stage was one of indifference. This was neatly summed up by Hodgson, who simply wrote: ‘The Ismailis seemed not to care what the Sunnis did.’35 The Nizari Ismailis had probably recognised long beforehand, maybe even in the last years of Hasan Sabbah’s rule, that their effort to sweep away the Seljuks and dominate Persia had come to naught. There is another aspect to consider as well; the Nizari Ismaili leadership and the community might also have reached an unrecorded moment of spiritual crisis – one that demanded a resolution that combined high drama with a form of apotheosis.
Whatever the underlying motives, the Resurrection had been declared and, in our study of the Nizari Ismailis’ concept of ideal state, its central effect lay in two areas. Firstly, the Imam was now in contact with the community via Hasan II, which must have been exciting news given that they had been praying for the arrival of Nizar’s anonymous progeny for so long. Secondly, the Resurrection was an astounding realisation in and of itself: in one fell swoop the ideal state, the spiritual union with God through the Imam, had just been announced. And here it should be stressed that the Resurrection for the Nizari Ismailis was not the awesome event envisaged in the traditional Islamic Day of Judgement, which would be ‘a terrible summons that will usher the final retribution of God upon the sins of the human race’.36 It was, as Farhad Daftary points out, ‘[in the] esoteric sense that the Nizaris celebrated the end of earthly life.’37
The community had been informed that the Imam had unlocked the gates of Truth, haqiqa, the deepest esoteric analysis of Islam.38 Celestial time and motion had ground to a halt and the Age of the Prophets that had started with Adam had ended. The Imam had also freed his people from the shari’a, the laws that belonged to the Age of the Prophets. This explains why Hasan II arranged for his audience to have their backs turned away from Mecca and why, after they had heard his message, they willingly joined in a banquet regardless of Ramadan. Now that the Imam had returned his community to the spiritual core of God, Hasan II decreed that adherence to many aspects of shari’a would be punishable in the same manner for those who had previously transgressed the law.
Success and failure
The wider Nizari Ismaili community received Hasan II’s proclamation eagerly and the ceremony of Resurrection was re-enacted in most Nizari Ismaili strongholds, the regional leaders emphasising their roles as representatives of Hasan II. Many started to believe Hasan II was actually the Imam,* as Campbell writes: ‘Hasan does not seem to have claimed that he himself was the Imam, though he apparently did so later, or at least allowed it to be tacitly assumed.’39 According to Lewis, Hasan II was more assertive in claiming the Imamah. He is said to have ‘circulated writings in which he said that, while outwardly he was the son of Buzurgumid,+ in the esoteric reality he was the Imam of the time’.40 Lewis adds: ‘It is possible that, as some have argued, Hasan was not claiming physical descent from Nizar… but a kind of spiritual filiation.’41
*Although it is recorded that many in Alamut considered him Imam before his ascension and it may have influenced his subsequent behaviour.
+Lewis nods here as Hasan II was the grandson of Buzurg Umid.
Unfortunately for Hasan II, a minority within the community believed the declaration of Resurrection and his taking the mantle of Imam to be sacrilege. He was murdered by a dissident in 1166 and succeeded by his son, Muhammad II, whose long and relatively peaceful reign witnessed both him and his father recognised fully as Imams. The policies of the Qiyama were also codified and became part and parcel of everyday Nizari Ismaili life. Unfortunately, because there are no surviving records, we do not know what effects this had within the community or how it affected its mores and morals. In addition, this version of the ideal state came to a juddering halt only a generation later under Hasan III, Muhammad II’s son, who came to power in 1210. He ordered a religious volte-face by insisting on a return to the shari’a and a rapprochement with his Sunni neighbours.
Some view Hasan III’s actions as a punishment on the community for its failure to live up to the blessings of the Qiyama. Others, such as Farhad Daftary, argue Hasan III’s decisions stemmed from the frustration of not being able to interact with the wider world on a larger scale. Daftary wrote that Hasan III ‘wearied of the isolation of the Nizari community from the outside world; he desired to establish better relations with Sunni Muslims and their rulers’.42 Another argument presents Hasan III taking this path because his mother was a Sunni and that she had secretly swayed him into following her religious beliefs.
A few commentators assert his behaviour was driven by a complex strategy of realpolitik, whereby a shift towards Sunnism ensured the live-and-let-live status quo was preserved. Campbell pours cold water on this, stressing that Hasan III’s Sunni beliefs were more than superficial, writing: ‘It is certainly possible that Hasan was playing a complicated game, merely pretending to be a good Sunni for political reasons, but if so he was extremely thorough about it.’43
Altogether, the reign of Hasan III marked something of a torpid end for Hasan II’s Qiyama and vision of an ideal state. The Nizari Ismailis returned to marking some of the practises associated with the Resurrection after Hasan III’s death in 1221, although doing so in an almost nostalgic, half-remembered form.44 However, it is worth remembering there was little room for the community to influence religious policy because this was the Imam’s preserve. Worse still for the Nizari Ismailis, the final medieval Imams were often weak and petulant rulers, delivering little by the way of firm religious guidance or secular inspiration.
Overall, the ideal vision of the medieval Nizari Ismaili state was compromised from its inception; Hasan Sabbah and his followers had tried to dovetail core Ismaili beliefs with the practicalities of living in an imperfect and hostile world. Initially, their greatest test was to reconcile the obvious failures of the Fatimid Imam/Caliphs with the call for strict subservience to their authority. Hasan Sabbah no longer had to act as their apologist following the schism of 1094 and he was free to create of a community fit for the righteous Imam. However, the ‘disappearance’ of Nizar and his line was extremely problematic; without the Imam physically present, the community had found itself further away from unity with God through authoritative guidance. Hasan Sabbah’s stern leadership took the Nizari Ismailis past this critical phase.
Hasan II’s declaration of the Resurrection marked the end of Sabbah’s custodial state. Suddenly the Imam was in contact and the Age of Prophets had been closed, with the Nizari Ismaili community taken by the Imam into God’s Truth. It should have been an instantaneous confirmation of their core religious values. But this form of the ideal state proved unsustainable and, by the time of Hasan III’s reign, the joy of the Resurrection was clearly muted enough for the Imam/ruler, for whatever reason, to dismantle his predecessors’ vision and seek a détente with his Sunni neighbours.
The Nizari Ismailis lacked the guiding hands and skills needed to maintain unity and drive after Hasan III’s reign. Indeed, the succeeding Imams all suffered from common earthly weaknesses and eccentricities. And so it was something of a tragic irony for the community that complete submission to the authority of the Imamah, a vital component in the vision of the ideal Nizari Ismaili state, led directly towards its Götterdämmarung. As the Mongols swept into the Middle East, the last Imam of Alamut, Rukn al-Din, attempted to appease Hulagu and ordered his domains and castles to be surrendered without a fight. Having performed this task, Rukn al-Din was deemed superfluous to Mongol requirements and in 1257, less than a year after handing over Alamut, he was kicked to death by enemy soldiers. The vision of the ideal state was snuffed out with his murder.
Many acts of violence that would seem brutal to modern eyes were well understood and sometimes choreographed during this period. For example, a town was usually offered lenient terms at the start of a siege in a bid to get the city's defenders to surrender early. If they rejected the offer, and the city's defences were overcome, they could expect to be sacked, pillaged and even put to the sword. One reason the Mongol invasions of the 13th Century struck such terror into people’s hearts was the scale of their destructive powers, which went far beyond the norms of violence, entering territory that was near-genocidal in scope. The other shock, as the Nizari Ismailis were to discover, was the arbitrary behaviour of the Mongol towards neutral powers or even allies, who could be targeted regardless of their non-belligerence or levels of assistance.
Assassinations of the Nizari Ismaili community’s enemies receded with the passing of Hassan Sabbah. Often the threat of death was enough to deter a would-be enemy and the most famous example of this presents an interesting aside. In 1176, Saladin was besieging the Nizari Ismaili fortress of Masyaf in Syria. It is said he awoke one night to see a shadowy figure leaving his tent, with some accounts stating it was the local Nizari Ismaili leader, Rashid ad-Din Sinan – the same person who had witnessed Hasan II’s declaration of the Resurrection several years earlier. Next to the bed was a warning note attached to a poisoned dagger, leaving an unnerved Saladin to promptly withdraw his army. Most likely this story is another instance of Daftary’s Black Legend. Indeed, it probably stems from Saladin’s propagandists who needed a useful excuse to explain his sudden retreat from Masyaf to tackle Crusader forces that threatened his rear. In addition, Saladin would form an alliance with Rashid al-Din soon afterwards, which was hardly the behaviour of a would-be murderer and his would-be victim.
1) Daftary, Farhad, The Assassin Legends (I.B. Taurus, 1994), p.5
2) Franzius, Enno, History of the Order of Assassins (Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), p.ix
3) Hodgson, G.S., The Order of Assassins: the struggle of the early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic world (University of Chicago, 1955), p.29
4) Daftary, Farhad, Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Society (I.B. Taurus, 2005), p.123
5) Hodgson, G.S., The Order of Assassins: the struggle of the early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic world, p.30
6) Daftary, Farhad, A short history of the Ismailis (Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p148
8) Daftary, Farhad, The Assassin Legends, p.114
9) Ibid, Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Society, p.127
10) Ibid, A short history of the Ismailis, p.132
11) Franzius, Enno, History of the Order of Assassins, p.26
12) Buckley, Jorunn J., The Nizari Ismailites’ Abolishment of the Shar’ia during the ‘Great Resurrection’ of 1164 A.D./559 A.H., Studia Islamica, No.60. (1984), p.139
13) Geaves, Ron, Key Words in Islam (Continuum Books, 2006) p.47
14) Franzius, Enno, History of the Order of Assassins, p.82
15) Iran Chamber, www.iranchamber.com/history.ismailieh/ismailieh.php, (01/02/07)
16) Franzius, Enno, History of the Order of Assassins, p.83
17) Campbell, Anthony, The Assassins of Alamut,
www.iranchamber.com/ismailieh/books/the_assassins_of_alamut.pdf (06/02/07), p.68
18) Iran Chamber, www.iranchamber.com/history.ismailieh/ismailieh.php, (01/02/07)
19) Bartlett, W.B., Assassins: The story of Medieval Islam’s Secret Sect (Sutton Publishing, 2007), p.92
20) Franzius, Enno, History of the Order of Assassins, p.83
21) Ibid, p.17
22) Ibid, p.23
23) Daftary, Farhad, Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Society, p.129
24) Ibid, A short history of the Ismailis, p.131
25) Bartlett, W.B., Assassins: The story of Medieval Islam’s Secret Sect, p.49
26) Daftary, Farhad, Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Society, p.140
27) Saleh, Shakib, The use of Batini, Fida’i and Hashishi, Studia Islamica, 1995/2 (October 1982), p.37
28) Hodgson, G.S., The Order of Assassins: the struggle of the early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic world, p.59
29) Daftary, Farhad, Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Society, p.131
30) Ibid, The Assassin Legends, p.41
31) Lewis, Bernard, The Assassins (Al Saqi Books, 1985), p.72
32) Daftary, Farhad, A short history of the Ismailis, p138
33) Lewis, Bernard, The Assassins, p.74
34) Campbell, Anthony, The Assassins of Alamut, p.28
35) Hodgson, G.S., The Order of Assassins: the struggle of the early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic world, p.178
36) Geaves, Ron, Key Words in Islam (Continuum Books, 2006) p.87
37) Daftary, Farhad, A short history of the Ismailis, p.139
38) Ibid, p.142
39) Campbell, Anthony, The Assassins of Alamut, p.23
40) Lewis, Bernard, The Assassins, p.74
42) Daftary, Farhad, A short history of the Ismailis, p145
43) Campbell, Anthony, The Assassins of Alamut, p.45
44) Bartlett, W.B., Assassins: The story of Medieval Islam’s Secret Sect, p.185
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