The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam by Bernard Lewis

Image(First published 1967)

This is a rich account of the history of the rise and fall of Hashishin, or Assassins,who appeared in Persia and Syria in the 11th and 12th centuries. The book starts with a brief survey of the discovery of the Assassins and their ways in the then contemporary Western sources. Interestingly, in those accounts, the Assassins exemplify daring and devotion rather than terror and murder. There is a sense of amazement at their loyalty to their beliefs.

Later Western sources paint them as some kind of degenerate hedonists who indulged in drinking and women and sold their services of murder to the highest bidder. This is when the name Assassin, which is corruption of Hashishin, is taken to mean political murder and is still current in the English language. The author says that famous legend of the “Paradise of the Assassins” and wondrous tales associated with it are no more than a work of imagination and intrigue.

The book proceeds with a general introduction to the history of Shia-Sunni split and further Shia splits into Ithna `Asharis, Ismailis and other less significant Shia offshoots which are now extinct. At the time when the Abbasid Empire has become internally weak and disorganised, the only non-Sunni power to emerge in Islam to make its name were the Ismailis. They established Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt and ruled for circa 250 years before coming to an end at the hands of Salah al-Din ( Salahuddin or Saladin).

Isma`ilis represented a powerful and intellectual alternative to the Sunni orthodoxy which has become weak and no longer commanded confidence in the people. Isma`ilis seized that opportunity and with their systematic preaching and moral superiority over Sunnis and hence succeeded in converting a lot of people to their faith.

Then a man came and changed things: Hassan-e Sabbah.

He was a Qum born Ithna `Ashari Shi’i who was attracted by the vigour and activity of the Ismailis in Persia and so converted. He lived under taqqiyah due to Sunni threat (Persia was under Turk Seljuq Sultan who even controlled the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. The Caliph was but a mere figure head with limited authority).

Hassan-e Sabah managed to win over the castle of Alamut in Northern Persia which was to become the headquarters of the Assassins for decades to come. It was there he started to organise the new group with the new preaching; calling people toward the living Imam (in Cairo) and training them in acts of violence and sabotage with the sole purpose of bringing down the existent Sunni order which he and his coreligionists saw as corrupt and unjust.

Around this time, precisely in 1094, the famous Must`ali-Nizari split in the Ismaili line of Imamate took place. Without going into details, the New Preacher, Hassan-e Sabbah and his group refused to accept Must`al’s son as the new Imam and held on to the belief in the Imamate of Nizar who, along with his sons, was imprisoned and perhaps murdered.

It was the time of decline for Fatimid Caliphate which suffered a decisive blow due to the split at the top. Meanwhile, in Persia, Hassan-e Sabah acquired neighbouring castles by scheming or invasion and begin to train devotees for his new campaign. One that of murder and terror.

The first victim to fell to the daggers of the Assassins was that of Vizier Nizam al-Mulk in Persia. Then a pattern was established, The Assassins particularly targetted civil rulers and commanders of armies along with Sunni divines and prefects of the cities. They never murdered due to religious differences what today we call the common man.

In difficult missions, the Assassin(s) assigned to the task would perfectly disguise himself, take their target in confidence and, finding the opportunity, assassinate him. Often the Assassins made no attempt to escape and accepted the punishment which was usually execution. In that they can be likened to the suicide bombers of the middle ages. Many Assassins were lynched and killed on spot after killing their target.

While the campaign of murder got underway, the Assassins acquired new castles and safe havens in the mountainous countryside of Persia, which were difficult to invade so that the ruling powers couldn’t take them out easily. At the same time Hassan-e Sabah sent his emissaries to Syria to establish their message there. After some unsuccessful attempts they succeeded in having a foothold in Syria.

Many men of importance fell to the Assassins among them two Abbasid Caliphs, a Seljuq Sultan, and also some Christian Crusaders in Syria. But their main enemy was not Christian Crusaders but the Sunni orthodoxy. There were two attempts on the life of Salah al-Din (Saladin) but he survived. The mission continued after the death of Hassan-e Sabah in 1124.

One of his successors, who was not a blood relation of Hasasn-e Sabah, also called Hassan, abolished the observance of Law, pronounced Qiyammah (Resurrection) and lifted the rules of halal and haram from the religion. He also is said to have proclaimed himself the direct descendent of Imam Nizar and hence the rightful heir to the Imamate. The later Nizari Imams descend from that person, which in time gave birth to the Aga Khans, one of them is still holding the office of Imamate for Nizari Ismailis today.

The Nizari faith flourished in Persia as much as it did whereas the Fatimid Caliphate met its end at the hand of Salah al-Din and the faith disappeared from Egypt. It became a small fringe group in Yemen in later centuries and then its leaders migrated to India. Today in India (Gujarat), while the Imam is in occultation, they have a Da`i who heads the sect as the deputy of the Imam.

The end of the Assassins came about in the 13th century. They had suffered defeats in Syria at the hands of Mamluk emir Baybark and setbacks in Persia after the Mongol Invasion. The Assassins at first collaborated with the Khan forces of Mongols in order to survive but this strategy did not work for them. one by one, their castles were taken first by Seljuqs and then by the Mongols. Finally, Alamut, their headquarter, also fell and the Assassins became a fringe phenomenon.

But for 250 years the Assassins filled the hearts of rulers with terror. Elaborate security measures were taken by cities and their rulers to protect themselves from the wrath of the Assassins. They wore iron shirts and kept constant guard on them. Salah al-Din didn’t even let anyone who he didn’t personally recognise get near to him physically for the fear of Assassins under cover.

The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t sufficiently explains the theological underpinnings of the Assassin movement. It is clear that the Assassins were deeply motivated by their religious ideology and missionary zeal. But what exactly convinced them to take such a course is not explained in the book.

One cannot say that the Assassin phenomenon is s purely Nizari phenomenon. Because the first famous murder of the Assassins, one that of Nizam al-Mulk, had already been committed before Mustali-Nizari split occurred. So there must be some other factors at work, peculiar to Ismailism in Persia, which must have caused the sectaries there to embark on such a course.

We also cannot say that Hassan-e Sabah was directed from Cairo. At no point this was true. He already spent some time in Cairo before settling in Alamut but he was actually banished by the military commander of Fatimid forces for unknown reasons. But we know for sure that Hassan-e Sabah, his successors, and his followers were foremost in asserting the right of the deposed Nizar to Imamate. There were many Nizaris in Egypt but they seem to have dwindled into insignificance, and later extinction, after the fall of the Fatimid Caliphate.

This book particularly concentrates on the Assassins of Persia. Their brethren in Syria don’t get sufficient coverage.

So this is a useful book if you are interested in the subject. My book rating: 4/5

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