Sunday, August 16, 2015

Legends of Assassins Part I


At various intervals for nearly a millennium the Nizarian Ismailis, more commonly referred to as the Hashshashins or simply Assassins, have captivated the imagination of the Islamic and Western world alike. However the popular conception of the Nizarians, one of which revolves around hash smoking programmed killers guided by a manipulative cult leader, is grossly distorted (to put it mildly). This is hardly surprising, though, as much of our information concerning the Order, be it Christian or Muslim, is almost universally hostile to the sect. The Nizarians' own records were largely destroyed during the Mongol invasion of the mid-thirteenth century and the continuous secrecy of the surviving sect has made it difficult for researchers to discern the actual belief system that inspired especially fanatical devotion from its followers.

In modern times this has led to a host of conspiracy theories surrounding the sect, best personified by the account of the Nizarians in Arkon Daraul's highly speculative and largely baseless A History of Secret Societies. Herein it is suggested that the OTO and possibly even the Illuminati itself were inspired by the Nizarians, via Sufism. In point of fact Sufism and the Nizarians derive from separate branches of Islam, one of many inaccuracies in such accounts.

credible?
This situation has been rectified somewhat in recent years with scholarly accounts of the sect by individuals such as Farhad Daftary and Bernard Lewis that have attempted to dispel the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the Nizarians. Unfortunately, such works have arguably gone to far in their attempts to de-mystify the sect, Efforts to depict the Nizarains as only a slightly fringe Islamic sect are unsatisfying, in no small part because such a depiction can not begin to explain the universal hostility Christian and Muslims alike expressed towards the order's doctrines.

This account will attempt to walk a middle path, dispelling the more outlandish claims concerning the Nizarains while placing the sect in a broader esoteric tradition that has flowered in the region of the world (Persia and Syria) that the Nizarains operated in long before the founding of the sect. But before addressing the Nizarains themselves, I must first give a run down of the Islamic strand from which they hailed. So let us begin with the initial schism in Islam:
"After the death of the Prophet Mohammed, the new Islamic community was ruled in succession by four of his close Companions, chosen by the people and called the Rightfully-guided Caliphs. The last of these was Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's son-in-law.
"Ali had his own ardent followers among the faithful, who came to be called Shi'a or 'adherents'. They believed that Ali should have succeeded Mohammad by right, and that after him his sons (the Prophet's grandsons) Hasan and Husayn should have ruled; and after them, their sons, and so on in a quasi-monarchial succession.
"In fact except for Ali none of them ever ruled all Islamdom. Instead they became a line of pretenders, and in effect heads of a branch of Islam called Shiism. In opposition to the orthodox (Sunni) Caliphs in Baghdad these descendants of Prophet came to be known as the Imams.
"To the Shiites an Imam is far more, far higher in rank than a Caliph. Ali ruled by right because of his spiritual greatness, which the Prophet recognized by appointing him his successor (in fact Ali is also revered by the sufis as 'founder' and prototype of the Moslem saint). Shiites differ from orthodox or Sunni Moslems in believing that this spiritual pre-eminence was transferred to Ali's descendants through Fatima, the Prophet's daughter."
(Scandal, Peter Lamborn Wilson, pgs. 35-36) 
Ali
The concept of the Imamate is one of the most compelling aspects of Shi'ite Islam. Imams are of course also present in the Sunni branch, but herein an Imam can simply be a figure who leads prayer sessions within or outside mosques. Such an individual may simply be a member of the congregation and not even an officially salaried figure of the mosque. In other cases the term Imam may be applied to a religious scholar.

In Shiism, however, the title of Imam is used far, far more sparingly. In both the Twelver and Ismaili branches, the Imam is effectively viewed as the supreme spiritual figure in all of Islam. He is endowed with possessing both an exoteric and esoteric interpretation of the Koran that he gradually passes on to his followers. In such instances the Imam may relay heavily on non-Islamic traditions.
"In early times both the doctrines and organizations of the Shi'a were subject to frequent variations. Numerous pretenders appeared, claiming, with varying plausibility, to be members or agents of the house of the Prophet and, after enriching the mythical description of the awaited redeemer with some new detail, disappeared from human eyes. Their programs varied from moderate, more or less dynastic opposition to extreme religious heterodoxy, far removed from the commonly accepted teachings of Islam. A reoccurring feature is the cult of holy men – Imams and da'is – who were believed to possess miraculous powers, and whose doctrines reflect mystical and illuminationist ideas derived from Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and various Iranian and Judaeo-Christian heresies. Among the beliefs attributed to them are those of reincarnation, the deification of the Imams and sometimes even of the da'is, and even libertinism – the abandonment of all law and restraint. In some areas – as for example among the peasants and nomads in parts of Persia and Syria – distinctive local religions emerged, resulting from the interaction of Shi'ite teachings and earlier local cults and creeds.
"The political programme of the sects was obvious: to overthrow the existing order and instal their chosen Imam. It is more difficult to identify any social or economic program, though their activities were clearly related to social and economic discontents and aspirations. Some idea of these aspirations may be inferred from the messianic traditions that were current, showing what needs the Mahdi was expected to meet. Part of his task was, in the broad sense, Islamic – to restore the true Islam, and spread the faith to the ends of the earth. More specifically, he was to bring justice – to 'fill the world with justice and equality as it is now filled with tyranny and oppression', to establish equality between the weak and the strong, and to bring peace and plenty.
"At first, the leaders to whom the Shi'a gave their allegiance based their claims on kinship with the Prophet rather than on descent from him in the direct line, through his daughter Fatima; some of them, including a few of the most active, were not descendants of Fatima – some not even of Ali, but of other branches of the Prophet's clan. But after the victory and betrayal of the Abbasids, the Shi'a concentrated their hopes on the descendants of Ali and, among these, more particularly on those who sprang from his marriage with the Prophet's daughter. Increasing stress was laid on the importance of direct descent from the Prophet, and the idea gained ground that since the Prophet's death there had in fact been a single line of legitimate Imams, who alone were the rightful heads of the Islamic community. These were Ali, his sons Hasan and Husayn, and the descendants of Husayn through his son Ali Zayn al-Abidin, the solitary survivor of the tragedy at Karbala. Apart from Husayn these Imams had in the main refrained from political activity. While other claimants spent themselves in vain attempts to overthrow the Caliphate by force, the legitimate Imams preferred to function as a sort of legal opposition to the Caliphs in power. They resided in Mecca or Medina, far from the main political centres, and, while maintaining their claims, did little to advance them. On the contrary, they sometimes gave recognition, and even help and advice to the Umayyad, and after them to the Abbasid rulers of the Empire. In the pious Shi'ite tradition, this attitude of the legitimate Imams is given a religious colouring; their passivity was an expression of their devoutness and otherworldliness, their acquiescence an application of the principle of Taqiyya."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pgs. 23-25)
Muhammad al-Mahdi, one of the most mysterious of the Shiite Imams
Taqiyya is a kind of religious lie in which a believer conceals his or her true beliefs so as to avoid unnecessary persecution. Effectively, then, it is a concept that allowed both Shi'ites and their Imams to remain in hiding until they have achieved enough advances to openly proclaim their faith, which typically faced sever persecutions from Sunnis. This contributed to the notion of "Hidden Imams" guiding the Islamic world. In recent years this notion has largely been expressed through the Shi'ite Twelver concept of the Grand Mahdi, the last of twelve Imams recognized by this branch who went into hiding during the ninth century and whose return will fulfill the mission of Islam.

In some ways the Hidden Imam, at least in the Twelver branch, is akin to notions of "Hidden Masters" or "Secret Chiefs" initially put forth by Theosophy in the late nineteenth century and later taken up by a host of Western esoteric orders. The Imams and Chiefs are spiritual teachers that guide the development of humanity from concealment until the day in which their message can be openly proclaimed. In the case of non-Twelver dominations, these Hidden Imams were flesh and blood human beings, who had achieved a higher spiritual state and in some cases claimed to have gained direct contact with Allah. The heads of various Western esoteric orders who operated in quasi-secrecy at the turn of the twentieth century likely would have seen much overlap with their modus operandi. This is but one instance in which esoteric strains of Islam have influenced Western esotericism. But moving along.


The Twelvers are not the only Shi'ite sect and were a even a minority in the early years of the movement. During this time frame the dominate faction was the Ismailis, who had their own distinct lineage of Imams. Both the Twelvers and the Ismailis emerged during the first major schism within the Shi'ite branch of Islam.
"In 765 Shiism gave birth to a new faction that, from the point of view of this history, is decisive. The Ismailis arose from the dispute over succession and the true identity of the seventh Imam. For reasons that are not clear, Jafar all-Sadiq is believed to have disinherited his eldest son, Ismail. Some historians state that Ismail had incurred his father's displeasure by his close relations with extremist groups. Ismail had become associated with Abul-Khattab, a disciple of Jafar's who zealously upheld the authority of the Imam but whose radical religious and political views cause Jafar to publicly curse him. In 756, two years after the Imam's curse, Abul-Khattab was arrested and crucified by the Abbasid authorities. Abul-Khattaab preached a kabbalistic doctrine that focused on discovering the esoteric truth behind appearances. His teachings concerning the nature of the spiritual hierarchy, the divinity of the Imam, and the need for initiated interpretation of the inner meaning of the Koran – all themes that were to infuse the later Ismaili movement.
"Other historians say that Ismail did not succeed Jafar as the seventh Imam because he died before his father. Jafar was believed to have transferred the succession to Ismail's younger half-brother Musa al-Kazim, who is recognized as the seventh Imam by most Shiites. Musa's line continue to the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who disappeared in 873 (or 878). The reappearance of the twelfth Imam at the end of the world, in triumph as the Mahdi, is still awaited by the majority of Shiites, who are known as the Twelver Shiites, or Ithna ashariyya. This more moderate branch of Shiism has been the official religion of Iran and Iraq since the sixteenth century.
"An opposing Shiite camp supported the succession of Ismail. Some claim that Jafar had announced Ismail's death merely as a ruse to protect him. Others held that after Ismail's death, Jafar recognized Ismail's son Muhammad as the seventh Imam because he understood that the nass passed from father to son, not brother to brother. Still others said that before his death, Ismail had formally passed the nass to his son, making him the true Imam. Many claim that Jafar al-Sadiq had no right to withdraw the nass succession from Ismail even if he was displeased with his politics.
"Those who supported the Imamate of Ismail and his son Muhammad became known as the Ismailis, also referred to as the Sevener Shiites, or Sabiyya. Muhammad ibn Ismail began a series of travel soon after Musa al-Kazim was generally accepted as Jafar's designated successor. He is believed to travel to Persia and then to have disappeared into a period of hiding, isolation, or occultation. A mantle of vagueness covers all further accounts of him.
"Very little is known of the history and doctrines of the Ismaili Imam's from the beginning of the Ismaili movement in 765 until the establishment of the by the Fatimid Caliphate in 909. By the time the Fatimid Imam revealed himself, however, the Ismaili doctrine he openly proclaimed for the first time was mature. The Ismaili Imams, working in relative secrecy and isolation for over a century, developed a coherent body of theological teachings that resonated with intellectual and emotional appeal. Beginning after the middle of the ninth century, they began to emerge from their obscurity with an energetic preaching. The Ismaili mission is known as the dawa, or 'summons,' to allegiance to the Imam. The dawa is represented by the dai, or 'summoner,' who spreads the teachings of the faith through his propagandizing and missionary efforts.
"Philosophically the Ismailis replace the chaotic speculation and superstitions of earlier Shiite sects with a series of distinguished philosophical doctrines. While scant early Ismaili literature survives, anonymous manuscripts were apparently circulated privately among trusted sectarians. The Ismaili teachings were synthetic, including respect for the Koran combined with an intellectual appreciation for the profundities of Greek Neoplatonic thought and Hindu mysticism. Ismailism's emphasis on the living Imam offered an opportunity for emotional fulfillment by allowing the disciple to direct an intensely spiritualized love towards his or her Master. Finally, Ismailism included a well-organized opposition movement that attracted the politically disaffected."
(The Templars and the Assassins, James Wasserman, pgs. 80-81)
a calligraphy showing the name of Ismail and his male ancestors
And there was much political dissatisfaction during this time due to the corruption the Abbasid Caliphate, the encroachment of the Turks and the continued marginalization of non-Arab Muslims. It was in this atmosphere the the idealistic Fatimid Caliphate emerged. For a time it as a shining beacon in a period of great instability.
"The Ismaili challenge to the old order was now closer and stronger, and was maintained by a great power – for a while the greatest in the Islamic world. The Fatimid Empire at its peak included Egypt, Syria, North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea coast of Africa, the Yemen and the Hijaz in Arabia, with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In addition the Fatimid Cailph controlled a vast network of da'is and commanded the allegiance of countless followers in the land still subject to the Sunni rulers of the East. In the great colleges of Cairo, scholars and teachers elaborated the doctrines of the Ismaili faith and train missionaries to preach them to the unconverted at home and abroad. One of their main areas of activity was Persian and Central Asia, from which many aspirers after the truth found their way to Cairo, and to which in due course they returned as skilled exponents of the Ismaili message. Outstanding among them was the philosopher and poet Nasir-i Khusraw. Converted during a visit to Egypt in 1046, he returned to preach Ismailism in an eastern lands, where he exercised a powerful influence."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pg. 31)
Fatimid Caliphate at its peak
Ismailism is one of the most mystical branches of Islam and its spread in Egypt, Syria, North Africa as well as its popularity in Persia and Central Asia are most interesting in light of the fact that the regions also contained the bulk of the Manichean and Gnostic sects several centuries earlier. Egypt, Syria and Persia were by the far the most important regions for Gnosticism and any number of mystical Ismaili sects would later gain sizable followings in these regions. But moving along.

The Fatimid dynasty began a rather rapid decline due in no small part due to sectarian in fighting. Soon rival sects began to emerge in opposition to Fatimid Ismailism. One of these still survives to this day and is one of the most mysterious communities of the modern day Middle East. Their origins lie with the sixth Fatimid Caliph, al-Hakim.
"... al-Hakim (r. 996-1021), a moody and eccentric leader who may have been mentally unbalanced. He took great interest, however, in the arts and sciences and in the activities of the dawa. In 1005, he founded the Dar al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, as a training center for dais... On the other hand, al-Hakim persecuted both Jews and Christians. In 1009, he ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. This ended the truce his father had negotiated with the Byzantine emperor and was contributing cause of the Crusades. His intolerance extended to the Sunnis as well. He subscribed to the Shiite practice of cursing the first three Caliphs as usurpers of Ali's rights.
"The Druze movement arose in 1017 as a dissident Ismaili group, soon to become an altogether different faith. A number of al-Hakim's dais began to preach extremist ideas concerning the physical divinity of the  Fatimid Imam. The Fatimid recognized the Imam as the divinely appointed, infallible and sinless, sole spiritual leader of mankind – but human. The Druze carried this a giant step further, thereby incurring Fatimid wrath. The Druze leader was assassinated and 1018, but the movement continued to grow, becoming an ever-threatening source of religious and political dissent. The Druze stated that al-Hakim was the Qaim, the final Imam whose reign heralded the Qiyama, the end of Islam and the abrogation of Shariah. (These potent themes of Shiite radicalism would reemerge with the Nizaris a century later...) Today there are some three hundred thousand Druzes, living mainly in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, who continue to await the return of al-Hakim."
(The Templars and the Assassins, James Wasserman, pgs. 86-87)
al-Hakim
The Fatimid Caliph went into rapid decline after the death of al-Hakim, effectively being ruled by a serious of military dictators who used the Fatimid Caliphs as puppets. It was at this point the most significant schism within Ismailism occurred.
"The Isma'ili movement was rent by a major schism in 1094, which had drastic consequences for its future. During the long reign of the Fatimid caliph-imam al-Mustansir (1036-94), the caliphate had already begun his general decline, especially after the 1050s. The dispute over al-Mustansir's succession in 1094 split the Isma'ili movement itself into two rival branches, the Nizaris and the Musta'lians.
"Al-Mustansir had designated his eldest son Abu Mansur Nizar As his successor. However, al-Afdal, who a few months before al-Mustansir's death had succeeded his own father, Badr al-Jamali, as the all-powerful vizier and military dictator of the Fatimid state, had different plans. Aiming to retain the reins of the state, al-Afdal favored the succession of al-Mustansir's youngest son Abu'l-Qasim Ahmad, who would be entirely dependent upon him. At the time, the youthful Ahmad was married to al-Afdal's sister. At any rate, in what amount to a palace coup d'├ętat, al-Afdal placed Ahmad on the Fatimid throne with the title of al-Musta'li billah, speedily obtaining the endorsement of this act from the notables of the Fatimid state and the leaders of the Isma'ili da'wa organization in Cairo.
"The dispossessed Nizar, whose succession rights were never revoked by his father, hurriedly fled to Alexandria, where he received strong local support and rose in revolt. After some initial success, however, his revolt was crushed in 1095. Nizar himself was captured and taken to Cairo where he was executed on al-Musta'li's orders. As a result of these developments, the unified Isma'ili movement of the latter decades of al-Mustansir's rule was now split into two rival factions, which were to remain bitter enemies. The imamate of al-Musta'li, who had been firmly installed to the Fatimid caliphate, was recognized by the bulk of the Isma'ilis in Egypt, by many in Syria, and by the whole Isma'ili community in Yaman and its subsidiary Indian community in Gujarat. These Isma'ilis, known as the Musta'liyya, maintained their relations with the central headquarters of the da'wa in Cairo. On the other hand, almost all the Isma'ili communities of the Muslim East, headed by the Persian Isma'ilis who were already under the leadership of Hasan Sabbah, as well as a large number in Syria, upheld Nizar's succession rights, recognizing him as the nineteenth Imam in succession to his father. These Isma'ilis, known as the Nizariyya, permanently severed their relations with the Fatimids and Cairo, which had now become the seat of the Musta'lian da'wa."
(The Assassin Legends, Farhad Daftary, pgs. 28-29)
Alexandria during the Medieval period
How fitting that the last Fatimid Caliph to uphold the independence of the dynasty would flee to Alexandria. Alexandria had of course been a stronghold of Gnosticism from the second century AD up till the fourth. It seems unlikely that its long mystical tradition would not have been lost on the Ismailis and indeed, the more serious practitioners may have preferred the climate of the fabled city to Cairo's worldly bureaucracy.

It is here that I shall wrap things up. In the next installment I shall begin to examine the Nizaris in earnest beginning with their legendary founder, Hasan Sabbah. Stay tuned.