Welcome to the third installment in my examination the infamous Nizari, an Ismaili sect more commonly referred to as the Assassins or Hashshashins. With the first part of this series I gave a brief run down of the history of the Ismaili branch of Shiaism with a special emphasis on their rule during the legendary Fatimid Caliphate. The second installment began to examine the Nizari in earnest with an account of the legendary dai and founder of the Assassin order, Hasan-i Sabbah.
As was noted there, many of the more sensational accounts of Hasan had little to no basis in reality. By all accounts, he was a brilliant tactician and scholar who lived a pious life that inspired the sect he founded. While possessing a esoteric doctrine, credible evidence of widespread libertinism amongst the Assassins during Hasan's era is none existent. The same can not be said for some of his successors, however.
"Buzurgumid was one of Hasan's most trusted general; he had commanded the castle of Lammassar, the second most important Assassin fortress, for over two decades. During the last months of his fatal illness, Hasan summoned Buzurgumid to Alamut and appointed him his successor. Hassan is said to have whispered to Buzurgumid that as long as he remained worthy, Hasan's spirit would console him. Buzurgumid inherited the large Nizari Persian territories, composed of three regional centers some fifteen hundred miles apart: the first at Alamut; the second to the southeast in Girdkuh; the third in Quhistan farther to the southeast in central Persia. The fledgling Syrian branch of the Nizaris was also under his command. Confounding the expectations of his enemies, Buzurgumid was an able administrator and a courageous leader...
"The political and religious isolation of the Nizari community made their continual survival and expansion all the more unexpected. Under Buzurgumid's leadership, Alamut even operated its own mint. Buzurgumid remained a powerful force with which to be reckoned by both Sunni and Shiite powers, and he expanded the Nizari state to its ultimate territorial limits."
(The Assassins and the Templars, James Wasserman, pgs. 113-115)
|a portion of the Nizari state, i.e their castle strongholds|
"Just days before his death, Buzurgumid passed the leadership to his son Muhammad, a conservative man whose ascension to power indicated a new phase for the Nizari state. For one thing, the succession to the Master of Alamut would henceforth be passed from father to son. For another, Muhammad's overall ambition for expansion was limited. His military activity, for example, was considerably more provincial than his father's. Fourteen assassinations were recorded during his twenty-four year reign, most taking place during his first five years. No significant military operations were undertaken outside the region of Alamut and the other established Nizari centers, although some of his local campaigns were quite aggressive...
"An increasing number of Nizaris at Alamut began to feel frustrated that the fire had gone out of their movement. The limit of Muhammad's quest for territorial expansion seemed to be his mission to Afghanistan. To many it seemed that the grand vision of world conquest and domination had become trivialized into local raids and cattle theft. A nostalgia for the spiritual frenzy that had animated the community in earlier times became pronounced. People were impatient for the promised appearance of the long-awaited Imam."
(The Assassins and the Templars, James Wasserman, pgs. 115-116)
"Among them there was still some who harked back to the glorious days of Hasan-i Sabbah – to the dedication and adventure of his early struggles, and the religious faith that inspired them. They found a leader in Hasan, the son and heir apparent of the Lord of Alamut, Muhammad. His interest began early. 'When he had nearly approached the age of discretion he conceived the desire to study and examine the teachings of Hasan-i Sabbah and his own forefathers; and... he came to excel in the exposition of their creed... With... the eloquence of his words he won over the greater part of the people. Now his father being altogether lacking in that art, his son.... appeared a greater scholar beside him, and therefore... the vulgar sought to follow his lead. And not having heard the like discourses from his father they began to think that he was the Imam that had been promised by Hasan-i Sabbah. The people's attachment to him increased and they made haste to follow him as their leader.'
"Muhammad did not like this at all. A conservative in his Ismailism, 'he was rigid in his observance of the principles laid down by his father and Hasan[-i Sabbah] with regard to the conduct of propaganda on behalf of the Imam and the outward observance of Muslim practices; and he considered his son's behavior to be inconsistent with those principles. He therefore denounced roundly and having assembled the people spoke as follows: "This Hasan is my son, and I am not the Imam but one of his da'is. Whoever listens to these words and believes them is an infidel and atheist." And on these grounds he punished some who had believed in his son's Imamate with all manner of torturers and torments, and on one occasion put 250 persons to death on Alamut and then binding their corpses on the backs of 250 others condemned on the same charge he expelled these latter from the castle. And in this way they were discouraged and suppressed.' Hasan bided his time, and managed to dispel his father's suspicions. On Muhammad's death in 1162 he succeeded him without opposition. He was then about 35 years old."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pgs. 70-71)Initially Hasan II's rule was largely uneventful. But two and a half years into his reign a truly curious ceremony was held that forever changed the Nizari community.
"Ismaili accounts of what happened are preserved in the later literature of the sect and also, in somewhat modified form, in the Persian chronicles written after the fall of Alamut. They tell a curious tell. On the 17th day of the month of Ramadan, of the year 559 [8 August 1164], under the ascendancy of Virgo and when the sun was in Cancer, Hasan ordered the erection of a pulpit in the courtyard of Alamut, facing towards the west, with four great banners of four colours, white, red, yellow, and green, at the four corners. The people from the different regions, whom he had previously summoned to Alamut, were assembled in the courtyard – those from the East on the right side, those from the West on the left side, and those from the North, from Rudbar and Daylam, in front, facing the pulpit. As the pulpit faced west the congregants had their backs towards Mecca. 'Then,' says an Ismaili tract, 'towards noon, the Lord [Hasan], on his mention be peace, wearing a white garment and white turban, came down from the castle, approached the pulpit from the right side, and in the most perfect manner ascended it. Three times he uttered greetings, first to the Daylamis, then to those on the right, then to those on the left. In a moment he sat down, and then rose up again and, holding his sword, spoke in a loud voice.' Addressing himself to 'the inhabitants of the worlds, jinn, men, and angels,' he announced that a message had come to him from the hidden Imam, with new guidance. '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.' In addition, the Imam named Hasan, the son of Muhammad, the son of Buzurgumid, as 'our vicar, da'i and proof. Our party must obey and follow him both in religious and worldly matters, recognize his commands as binding, and know that his word is our word.' When he had completed his address, Hasan stepped down from the pulpit, and performed two prostrations of the festival prayer. Then, a table having being laid, he invited them to break their fast , join in a banquet, and make merry. Messengers were sent to carry the glad tidings to the east and west. In Quhistan, the chief of the fortress of Mu'minabad repeated the ceremony of Alamut, and proclaimed himself as the vicar of Hasan, from a public facing the wrong way; 'And that day on which these ignominies were divulged and these evils proclaimed in the nest of heretics, Mu'minabad, that assembly played harp and rebeck and openly drank wine upon the various steps of the pulpit and within its precincts. In Syria too the word was received, and the faithful celebrated the end of the law."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pgs. 72-73)
|Hasan II's proclamations curiously addressed djinns among other beings|
"The new dispensation brought an important change in the status of the Lord of Alamut. In the sermon in the castle courtyard, he declared to be the vicar of the Imam and the Living Proof; as the bringer of the Resurrection (qiyama), he is the Qa'im, a dominating figure in Ismaili eschatology. According to Rashid al-Din, after his public manifestation Hasan circulated writings in which he said that, while outwardly he was known as the grandson of Buzurgumid, in the esoteric reality he was the Imam of the time, and the son of the previous Imam, of the line of Nizar. It is possible that, as some have argued, Hasan was not claiming physical descent from Nizar, which in the age of the Resurrection had ceased to signify, but a kind of spiritual filiation. There are indeed precedents in early Islamic messianic movements of such claims to spiritual or adoptive descent from the house of Prophet..."
(The Assassins, Bernard Lewis, pg. 74)
"When Hasan II proclaimed the Great Resurrection, which marks the end of Time, he lifted the veil of Concealment and abrogated the religious Law. He offered communal as well as individual participates in the mystic's great adventure, perfect freedom.
"... he acted on behalf of the Imam, and did not claim to be the Imam himself. (In fact he took the title of Caliph or 'representative'.) But as the family of Ali is the same as perfect consciousness, then perfect consciousness is the same as the family of Ali. The realized mystic 'becomes' a descendant of Ali (like the Persian Salman, whom Ali adopted by covering him with his cloak, and who is much revered by the sufis, Shiites and Ismailis alike). In reality, in haqiqah, Hasan II was the Imam because, in the Ismaili phrase, he had realize the 'Imam-of-his-own-being.' The Qiyamat was thus an invitation to each of his followers to do the same, or at least to participate in the pleasures of paradise on earth.
"The legend of the paradisal garden at Alamut where the houris, cupbears, wine and hashish of paradise were enjoyed by the Assassins in the flesh, may stem from a folk memory of the Qiyamat. Or it may even be literally true. For the realized consciousness this world is no other than paradise, and it's bliss and pleasures are all permitted. The Koran describes paradise as a garden. How logical then for wealthy Alamut to become outwardly the reflection of the spiritual state of the Qiyamat."
(Scandal, Peter Lamborn Wilson, pg. 40)
|The Prince of Persia provides the mythological perception of Alamut; was this perception never meant to be a reality, biut a state of being?|
"In 1166 Hasan II was murdered after only four years of rule. His enemies were perhaps in league with conservative elements of Alamut who resented the Qiyamat, the dissolving of the old secret hierarchy (and thus their own powers as hierarchs) and who feared to live thus openly as heretics. Hasan II's son however succeeded him and established the Qiyamat firmly as Nizari doctrine.
"If the Qiyamat were accepted in its full implications however it would probably have brought about the dissolution and end of Nizari Ismailism as a separate sect. Hasan II as Qa'im or 'Lord of the Resurrection' had released the Alamutis from all struggle and all sense of legitimist urgency. Pure esotericism, after all, cannot be bound by any form.
"Hasan II's son, therefore, compromised. Apparently he decided to 'reveal' that his father was in fact and in blood a direct descendent of Nizar. The story runs that after Hasan-i Sabbah had established Alamut, a mysterious emissary delivered to him the infant grandson of Imam Nizar. The child was raised secretly at Alamut. He grew up, had a son, died. The son had a son. This baby was born on the same day as the son of the Old Man of the Mountain, the outward ruler. The infants were surreptitiously exchanged in their cradles. Not even the Old Man knew of the ruse. Another version was the hidden Imam committing adultery with the Old Man's wife, and producing as love-child the infant Hasan II.
"The Ismailis accepted these claims. Even after the fall of Alamut to the Mongol hordes the line survived, and the present leader of the sect, the Aga Khan, is known as the forty-ninth in descent from Ali (and pretender to the throne of Egypt!). The emphasis on Alid legitimacy has preserved the sect as a sect. Whether it is literally true or not, however, matters little to understanding of the Qiyamat.
"With the proclamation of the Resurrection, the teachings of Ismailism were forever expanded beyond the borders imposed on them by any historical event. The Qiyamat remains as a state of consciousness which anyone can adhere to or enter, a garden without walls, a sect without a church, a lost moment of Islamic history the refuses to be forgotten, standing outside time, a reproach or challenge to all legalism and moralism, to all the cruelty of the exoteric. An invitation to paradise."
(Scandal, Peter Lamborn Wilson, pgs. 41-42)
|a depiction of al-Qiyama|
After the death Muhammad II, Hasan II's son, there were repeated efforts to reinstitute the Shariah and bring the Nizari back in to the mainline Islamic community, with varying degrees of success. Hasan III, Muhammad II's son, would be the most successful in this regard. His successor, Muhammad III (often referred to as Aladdin) would attempt a middle ground.
"In the third and final phase of their history during the Alamut period, the Nizaris, who had become increasingly weary of their isolation within Muslim society, attempted a tactical rapprochement with the Sunni world. Immediately upon his accession in 1210, Jalal al-Din Hasan III (1210-21), the sixth Lord of Alamut, publicly repudiated the teachings associated with the declaration of the Resurrection and proclaimed his adherence to Sunni Islam, ordering his followers to observe the sacred law of Islam in its Sunni form. The Nizari community, viewing the unprecedented proclamations of their infallible imam as a reimposition of dissimulation (taqiyya), obeyed Hasan III's orders without dissent. The outside world too, accepted Hasan III's proclamations; and the Abbasid caliph al-Nasir (1180-1225), who in the aftermath of the disintegration of Saljuq rule was reviving the power and prestige of the caliph at Baghdad, issued a decree confirming the Nizari leader's new policy. Hasan III's bold accommodation to the outside world accorded the Nizari community a valuable respite from the continued Sunni persecutions. During the reign of Hasan III's son and successor, Ala al-Din Muhammad III (1221-55), however, enforcement of Sunni law was gradually relaxed and the Nizari community openly reverted to its earlier traditions.
"The long reign of Muhammad III coincided with a turbulent period in the medieval history of Persia and the Muslim East, which now experienced a foretaste of the Mongol devastations. Muhammad III attempted in vain for some time to establish friendly relations with the Mongols and to save his community from their wrath. The Mongols had already been turned against the Nizari Isma'ilis by the Sunni scholars at their court; and fresh complaints about them from the Sunni judges of Qazwin and other Persian cities flowed into the Great Khan's court in Mongolia. As a result, when the Great Khan Mongke (1251-9) decided to complete the Mongol conquest of western Asia, he assigned first priority to the destruction of the Nizari community in Persia..."
(The Assassin Legends, Farhad Daftary, pgs. 42-43)
|an image done by Marco Polo allegedly of Muhammad III (who died a year after Polo was born)|
"The Nizaris developed a new doctrinal turn in order to reconcile the Qiyama teachings with the behavior of Hasan III. It was said that Qiyama was a time of the outward revelation of the true spiritual identity of the Imam in all his glory to the community, during which direct communication with God was possible. In periods of the radiant presence of the Imam, concepts like Shariah became meaningless, if not blasphemous. On the other hand, there are also periods of occultation, when the Imam chooses to conceal his true self from the community, even when he is physically present. During these times, the outward observance of Shariah is required to maintain the purity of the Law. This phase of allegiance to the sharia was designated as Satr, the period during which the Imam hides his true spiritual status by appearing to act merely as the worldly ruler of the Nizaris, rather than as the Qaim of the Qiyama, which is the true potential of every Nizari Imam. The alternation between the open and hidden phases of the Imam, between Qiyama and Satr, takes place at his discretion. Thus, under the reign of Muhammad III, as in pre-Qiyama Alamut, there was an observance of the Shariah, although not so strictly enforced as under his father's rule."
(The Templars and the Assassins, James Wasserman, pg. 124)One suspects that the enforcement of the Shariah was very lax indeed under Muhammad III. He is generally viewed as a decadent ruler who's eccentric behavior earned him a reputation as a madman. He has also been described as a sadist as well as an alcoholic. Whatever the case, by the end of his long reign in 1255 the end was very near. His son, Khurshah, would only rule for a single year before Alamut fell to the Mongols. The rest of the Nizari state would soon follow. Khurshah, the twenty-seventh Nizari Imam, was murdered by the Mongols not long afterwards. The Nizari imamate continued amongst progeny, however, with its current head being Aga Khan IV. Today they are the second largest branch within Shiaism with an estimated fifteen million followers world wide.
Having now given a broad overview of the history of the Nizari I shall focus on some of the more fantastical claims concerning them in the next installment. Yes, hashish and the Templars will soon be discussed at length. Stay tuned dear reader.