Welcome to the second installment in my examination of the Nizari Ismailis, more commonly known as the Hashshashins or Assassins. This sect has fascinated and scandalized Western and Islamic sources for many centuries and has led to a host of incredible fabrications concerning the sect. This series attempts to walk a middle ground, dispelling many of the more outlandish claims concerning the Nizari was also addressing their genuine peculiarities.
With the first installment I gave a rundown of the various schisms in Islam that led to the Ismailis and ultimately the Nizari. As was noted there, the sect had its origins in the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt that was established by the Ismailis. An offshoot of Shi'ism, they had once been the dominate faction before being overtaken by the more orthodox Twelvers (of which modern day Iran is guided by) some years later. The Ismailis had a strong presence in regions such as Syria, Persia and Egypt that had been major centers of Gnosticism some centuries earlier and under the Fatimids universities were established in Egypt that retained traces of the ancient belief systems that had long dominated that region of the world. Indeed, for years it was suggested that these universities were organized along the lines of the ancient Mysteries or modern day secret societies such as the Freemasons, though there is no evidence for this. The institutes of learning chiefly promoted the Fatimid da'wa, or mission, though this does seem to have involved some type of initiation present.
"The organization and evolution of the Fatimid da'wa, as well as the scope and functions of the various ranks (hudud) within that complex organization, are among the most obscure aspects of Fatimid Isma'ilism. Organized hierarchically, the Fatimid da'wa evolved over time, attaining a definite shape during the reign of the Fatimid caliph-imam al-Hakim (996-1021), who established several institutions in Egypt for the training of da'is and propagation of Isma'ili doctrines. The Fatimid da'is were in general highly educated theologians who also produced the bulk of Isma'ili literature of the Fatimid period. Although nothing is known about the procedures they used for winning and educating new converts, it is certain that different methods were adopted for peoples of different religious and socio-cultural backgrounds. The da'is seem to have treated each case individually, also observing a certain degree of gradualism in the initiation and education of converts. But there is no evidence to suggest, as claimed by anti-Isma'ili sources, that there ever existed at any time a fix graded system of seven or nine degrees of initiation into Isma'ilism."
(The Assassin Legends, Farhad Daftary, pgs. 20-21)
It was from the Fatimid Caliphate that the Nizari would emerge after a dispute over the succession of the imam. The founder of the Assassins sect, Hassan-i Saban, first emerged onto the stage during these turbulent times. This installment shall focus on his extraordinary career. First, a bit about his background:
"Hasan-i-Sabah was born around 1055 in Qum, about seventy-five miles southwest of Tehran in Persia (modern Iran), to a Twelver Shiite family. When Hasan was quite young, the family traveled northeast and settled in the nearby city of Rayy, which had been a center of dai activity since the ninth century mission of Hamdan Qarmat. Hasan developed a love for religious teaching from the age of seven and kept strictly to the Twelver Shiite doctrines of his father until the age of seventeen.
"Then he met a teacher named Amira Darrab, known as a comrade, or rafiq, who introduced into the Sevener or Ismaili doctrines of the Fatimid caliphate. (The rafiq was the first level of instructor below the rank of dai.) Initially Hasan was resistant to the Ismaili teachings. He tells us, in his surviving autobiographical fragment, that he denigrated the Ismalili doctrine as 'philosophy,' that is, of far less value than the pure Islamic religious teachings of the Shia of which he was a fervent believer. In time, however, his respect for Amira Darrab caused him to probe deeper. He immersed himself in study. A severe illness was the final step in his conversion. He became fearful that he would die without attaining the truth. Upon his recovery, he continued his instruction with another Ismaili, Abu Najam Sarraj. He eventually swore the oath of allegiance to the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir through a third dai named Mumin. In May or June 1072, Abd al-Malik ibn Attash, chief of the Ismaili dawa in Western Persia and Iraq, visited Rayy and met Hasan. Impressed with the young man, he elevated him to the position of deputy dai and instructed him to travel to Egypt and present himself at the caliph's court. It took Hasan several years to fulfill this command.
(The Templars and the Assassins, James Wasserman, pgs. 97-98)
"According to the autobiographical fragment, he left Rayy in 1076 and went to Isfahan. From there he traveled northward to Azerbayjan, and thence to Mayyafariqin, where he was driven out of town by the Qadi for asserting the exclusive right of the Imam to interpret religion, and thus denying the authority of the Sunni Ulema. Continuing through Mesopotamia and Syria, he reached Damascus, where he found that the overland route to Egypt was blocked by military disturbances. He therefore turned west to the coast, and, traveling southwards from Beirut, sailed from Palestine to Egypt. He arrived in Cairo on 30 August 1078, and was greeted by high dignitaries of Fatimid court.
"Hasan-i Sabbah stayed in Egypt for about three years, first in Cairo and then in Alexandria. According to some accounts, he came into conflict with the Commander of the Armies Badr al-Jamali because of his support for Nizar, and was imprisoned and then deported from the country. The reason given for the conflict must be a later embellishment, since the dispute over the succession had not yet arisen at the time, but a collision between the ardent revolutionary and the military dictator is far from unlikely."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pgs. 40-41)
|the Fatimid Caliphate engaged militarily during its heyday|
Regardless, he seemingly received a highly metaphysically inclined education while in Egypt.
"Hasan arrived in Cairo on August 30, 1078, and remained for two to three years. He completed the required course of study and was elevated to the full rank of dai. Historian Enno Franzius describes the Ismaili doctrine to which Hasan devoted himself: 'It was at one and the same time a Shiite sect combining Islamic with pre-Islamic Greek, Persian, Syrian, and Babylonian concepts; an Alid secret society dedicated to the overthrow of the Sunni Abbasids; a revolutionary social movement pledged to improve the lot of the depressed.' The weakened and threatened condition in which Hasan would find Caliph al-Mustansir may have inspired in him a sense of his own mission in the future survival of Ismailism."
(The Templars and the Assassins, James Wasserman, pg. 99)For the next nine years Hassan would conduct his mission throughout the mountainous northern region of Iran known as Daylam. This region had long resisted the Arab Muslims and had only grudgingly converted and subjugated themselves to them. It soon became the center of the Shiite movement in Iran and maintained a high degree of independence.
|modern day Daylam|
"Throughout his revolutionary and missionary travels, Hasan was searching for an impenetrable fortress from which to conduct his resistance to the Seljuk empire. In about 1088, he finally chose the castle of Alamut, built on a narrow ridge on a high rock in the heart of the Elburz Mountains in a region known as the Rudbar. The castle dominated an enclosed cultivated valley thirty miles long and three miles across at its widest, approximately six thousand feet above sea level. Several villages dotted the valley, and their inhabitants were particularly receptive to the ascetic piety of Hasan. The castle was assessible only with the greatest difficulty through a narrow gorge of the Alamut River. It had been built by the Daylamese king Wah Sudan ibn Marzuban in about 860. The king was hunting one day and released an eagle, which then perched on a rock that rose another six hundred feet above the valley. Immediately recognizing the strategic value of the bird's choice, the king build a castle, which means 'eagle's teachings' in the Daylami language.
"Hasan employed a careful strategy to take over the castle, which have been granted to its current Shiite owner, named Mahdi, by the Seljuk sultan Malikshah. First, Hasan sent his trusted dai Husayn Qaini and two others to win converts in the neighboring villages. Next, many of the residents and soldiers of Alamut were secretly converted to Ismailism. Finally, in September 1090, Hasan himself was secretly smuggled into the castle. When Mahdi realize that Hasan had in fact quietly taken over his fortress, he left peacefully. Hasan gave him a draft for 3000 gold dinars in payment. Hasan, it is said, had offered the sum for the amount of land an ox's hide could contain. He then cut the hide into fine strips and strung them together to encompass the entire area of the Alamut rock. Hasan directed Mahdi to the home of a wealthy noble who was to pay the draft. Mahdi had little faith in the validity of the document; however, he eventually presented it to the nobleman, who, when he saw Hasan's signature, immediately kissed the paper and paid out the gold."
(The Templars and the Assassins, James Wasserman, pgs. 100-101)
|the modern day ruins of Alamut|
"Once established at Alamut, which was to remain the central headquarters of the Nizari movement until its surrender to the Mongols in 1256, Hasan Sabbah systematically renovated the old fortress, making it truly impenetrable. He also improved and extended the systems of irrigation and cultivation in the Alamut valley, where he dug water canals and planted numerous trees. It was in the same locality that, according to legendary accounts of Marco Polo, a secret 'garden of paradise' had been built by the leader of the Isma'ilis.
"Hasan seized or constructed many other mountain strongholds in northern Persia and in a few other regions, notably in southern Khurasan, known then as Kuhistan (Arabicized, Quhistan), where the Isma'ilis came to control a number of towns as well. By 1092, Hasan Sabbah's activities had already attracted so much attention that the Suljuq sultan Malikshah (1072-92) decided, probably on the advice of his vizier Nizam al-Mulk, to send armies against the Isma'ilis of northern Persia and Khurasan, initiating the first of numerous military encounters between the Persian Isma'ilis and the Saljuqs."
(The Assassin Legends, Farhad Daftary, pg. 32)
|the Khurasan region|
"Far away to the south-east lay the barren, mountainous country of Quhistan, near the present border between Persia and Afghanistan. Its population lived in a scattered and isolated group of oases surrounded on all sides by the great salt desert of the central plateau. In early Islamic times, this region had been one of the last refuges of Zoroastrianism; converted to Islam, it became a resort of Shi'ite and other religious dissidents and, later, of the Ismailis. In 1091-2 Hasan-i Sabbah sent a missionary to Quhistan, to mobilize and extend Ismaili support. His choice fell on Husayn Qa'ini, an able da'i who had played some role in the conversion of Alamut, and who was himself of Quhistani origin. His mission was immediately successful..."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pgs. 44-45)Zoroastrianism had no small influence on Gnosticism and, as was noted in part one, the Nizari Ismailis seem to have been particularly successful in regions that had featured a strong Gnostic presence several centuries earlier. This is more seeming evidence that potentially hidden practitioners of pre-Islamic faiths in this region of the world found much to embrace in the doctrine of the Nizari. But moving along.
|the Faravahar, one of the primary symbols of Zoroastrianism|
"In 1094 the Ismailis faced a major crisis. The Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir, Imam of the time and head of the faith, died in Cairo, leaving a disputed succession. The his Ismailis in Persia refused to recognize his successor on the Egyptian throne, and declared their belief that the rightful heir was his ousted elder son Nizar... Until this split, the organization in Persia, at least nominally, had been under the supreme authority of the Imam and the Chief Da'i in Cairo. Hasan-i Sabbah had been their agent, first as deputy, then as successor to Abd al-Malik ibn Attash. There was now a complete break, and henceforth the Persian Ismailis neither enjoyed the support nor endured the control of their former masters in Cairo.
"A crucial problem was the identity of the Imam – the central figure in the whole theological and political system of the Ismailis. Nizar had been the rightful Imam after al-Mustansir – but Nizar was murdered in prison in Alexandria, and his sons were said to have been killed with him. Some of the Nizaris claimed that Nizar was not really dead but in concealment and would return as Mahdi – that is to say, the line of Imams was at an end. This school did not survive. What Hasan-i Sabbah taught his followers on this point is not known, but later the doctrine was adopted that the Imamate passed to a grandson of Nizar, who was secretly brought up in Alamut. In one version it was an infant that was smuggled from Egypt to Persia; another it was a pregnant concubine of Nizar's son that was taken to Alamut, where she gave birth to the new Imam. According to Nizari beliefs, these things were strictly secret at the time, and not made known until many years later."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pg. 49)
|a coin minted during the reign of al-Mustansir|
"Meanwhile, in the absence of the Nizari imams, who remained hidden from their followers for several decades after Nizar's death in 1095, Hasan Sabbah, and then his next two successors at Alamut, were acknowledged as the supreme central leaders of the Nizari community and da'wa; they were the hujjas or chief representatives of the absent imams (similarly the central leaders of the early Isma'ili movement had originally acted as the hujjas of the hidden Mahdi, Muhammad b. Isma'il). The early Nizari Isma'ilis had also retrieved, with much greater militancy, the revolutionary and millenarian zeal of the pre-Fatimid Isma'ili movement. In both cases, the Isma'ilis represented the politically most active wing of Shi'ism and, as such, they dedicated themselves to the overthrow of the leading established dynasties of the time, notably the Abbasids and their later overlords, the Saljuqids."
(The Assassin Legends, Farhad Daftary, pg. 33)Hassan Sabbah failed in this monumental task but he none the less managed to found a quasi-political state that encompassed various isolated communities throughout the Middle East, a state that would last for almost two centuries against great odds and repeated challenges. Hassan was a truly remarkable leader in this sense, and has been unfairly maligned by later researcher who depict him as little more than a founder of a drug cult. In point of fact, Hassan's life was defined by a strict code of conduct that he passed on to the community of which he played a leading role in establishing.
"... An Arabic biographer, by no means friendly, described him as 'perspicacious, capable, learned in geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, magic, and other things.' The Ismaili biography cited by the Persian chroniclers stresses his asceticism and abstinence – 'during the 35 years that he dwelled in Alamut nobody drank wine openly or put it in jars.' His severity was not confined to his opponents. One of his sons was executed for drinking wine; another was put to death on a charge, subsequently proved false, of having procured the murder of the da'i Husayn Qa'ini. 'And he used to point to the execution of both his sons as a reason against anyone's imagining that he had conducted propaganda on their behalf and had had that object in mind.'
"Hasan-i Sabbah was a thinker and writer as well as a man of action. Sunni authors have preserved two citations from his works– a fragment of an autobiography, and an abridgment of a theological treastie. Among later Ismailis, he was revered as the prime mover in the da'wa jadida – new preaching – the reformed Ismaili doctrine which was promulgated after the break with Cairo, and which was preserved and elaborated among the Nizari Ismailis. Later Nizari works contain a number of passages which may be quotations or summaries of his own teachings. Hasan never claimed to be an Imam – only a representative of the Imam. After the disappearance of the Imam he was the Hujja, the proof – the source of knowledge of the hidden Imam of his time, the living link between the lines of manifest Imams of the past and the future, and the leader of the da'wa. Ismaili doctrine is basically authoritarian. The believer has no right of choice, but must follow the ta'lim, the authorized teaching. The ultimate source of guidance was the Imam; the immediate source was his accredited representative. Men cannot choose their Imam, as the Sunnis said, nor exercise judgment in determining the truth in matters of theology and law. God appointed the Imam, and the Imam was the repository of the truth. Only Imam could validate both revelation and reason; only the Ismaili Imam, by the nature of his office and teaching, could in fact do this, and he alone therefore was the true Imam. His rivals were usurpers, their followers sinners, their teachings falsehood.
"This doctrine, with its stress on loyalty and obedience, and its rejection of the world as it was, became a powerful weapon in the hands of the secret, revolutionary opposition. The painful realities of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt had become an embarrassment to Ismaili claims. The break with Cairo, and the transfer of allegiance to a mysterious hidden Imam, released the pent-up forces of Ismaili passion and devotion; it was the achievement of Hasan-i Sabbah to arouse and direct them."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pgs. 61-63)
It was during May of 1124 that Hassan-i Sabbah became ill and died shortly thereafter. He had ruled Alamut for thirty-five years and in the time frame had never once left the mountain fortress. In fact, he had only left the house in which he resided twice during the thirty-five year period, both times to go atop of the roof of his house to pray. The rest of the time he preoccupied himself with committing the words of the da'wa to writing and administering the affairs of his realm when he was not otherwise engaged in studying. His life has been described as "ascetic, abstemious and pious."
This is certainly in stark contrast to the typical depictions of the "Old Man of the Mountain" (a title conferred on a Nizari chief, but not Hassan, as is commonly claimed). How then did Hassan and the Nizari achieve their infamous reputation in both the Islamic and Western world? In the next installment I shall begin considering how these developments unfolded. Stay tuned.