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A radical sect in Islam: 1090-1273

The Assassins
Bernard Lewis
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1967
(reissued 2001, with new preface)

Who they were and who they were not: their long lineage

Perhaps it would be best to start by saying what the Assassins were not. In his preface to the 2001 edition, Lewis states clearly:

According to a view widespread in the western world since mediaval times, the anger and the weapons of the Assassins were directed primarily against the Crusaders. This simply is not true. In the long list of their victims, there were very few Crusaders… The vast majority of their victims were Muslims and their attacks were directed not against the outsider, seen as basically irrelevant, but against the dominant elites and prevailing ideas of the Muslim world of their time.

Their Muslim opponents and potential victims responded in kind:

To kill them [preached one menaced cleric] is more lawful than rainwater. It is the duty of Sultans and kings to conquer and kill them, and cleanse the surface of the earth from their pollution. It is not right to associate or form friendships with them, nor to eat meat butchered by them, nor to enter into marriage with them. To shed the blood of a heretic is more meritorious that to kill seventy Greek infidels, [i.e., the Byzantines, their centuries-old enemies].

Lewis also rejects the tales (though current in the early 13th Century, and included in Marco Polo’s Travels) of “earthly paradises” in which drugged disciples woke to experience the promised pleasures of the world to come, after they had accomplished their suicidal mission. Furthermore, Lewis even rejects the hypothesis of a direct connexion with hashish, the effects of which were known long before the sect began its activities in Syria, where the name became attached to them, he suggests, as a term of abuse.

The religious provenance of the Assassins is a long one, and impatient readers might care to skip to the section below titled 1090: The Story Really starts.

Islam’s leadership (Caliph) problem

Then who were the Assassins? Although their first assassination took place in 1092, the Muslim sect that took this up as a matter of policy had a long lineage going back almost the origins of Islam. Muhammad, Islam’s charismatic founder, had left no intructions as to the succession, which, if he had attended to the matter, might have solved the problem that plagued almost every Muslim dynasty ever after.

Legitimists versus Opportunists: Shi’a versus Sunni

The first three Successors (caliphs), Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, were associates and early supporters of Muhammad himself. The first had deputised for the prophet during his last illness, so his position seemed a natural continuation of that status; he in turn designated Omar as his successor, while Omar, who was mortally stabbed by a Christian (he was greatly relieved it was not a Muslim) appointed six electors to decide on his. Othman’s caliphate (644-656) ended with his murder by mutineers and this was the opportunity for Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad to assert his claim by heredity. He defeated and killed two claimants but was tricked into negotiating with a third opponent and betrayed by his own advocate. Ali was murdered in 661 for a reason that seems more personal than political, and became the first Muslim martyr, to be followed by his two sons, al-Hasan, who died at the age of 45, possibly of poison (669), and al-Husayn, who was killed, together with all but one of his sons, in what was more a massacre than a battle, at Karbala (680). But the party of Ali, the Shi’atu Ali, survived as the Shi’a, and Ali left plenty of descendants. The Sunni: The Ummayad and Abbasid Caliphates

The winning side, the Sunni (the orthodox, as far as such a translation means anything) seem never to have been troubled by how the succession to the caliphate was established, accepting in a pragmatic way whatever came about. Mu’awiyah I (661-680), the first caliph to die a natural death since No 2, was proclaimed caliph on the death of Ali, with no other qualifications than that he was a competent governor and distantly related to the prophet Muhammad. As was now becoming normal, he had to eliminate some rivals.

Nominating his son Yezid as successor, he declared the succession hereditary and founded the Ummayad Caliphate (661-750). A rebellion established the Abbasids, who massacred all the Ummayads, with one exception, who fled to Spain and established a continuation of the dynasty there. The actual power of the Abbasid caliphs was brief, about a hundred years, but they continued, under Turkish control, until the caliphate was extinguished by the Mongols in 1258. It would be tedious to enumerate the caliphs, puppets or otherwise, that got murdered during this period. It is sufficient to say that there seems to have been no inhibition against it.

765: The Shi’a: The emergence of the Ismaili Sect

Meanwhile the Shi’a, also known as Alids and later Fatimids (after Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, wife of Ali), continued to survive, giving rise to some unsuccessful rebellions and splitting into two sects. They were led by Imams, descendants of Ali and Fatima, all “moderate, pliant, yet resolute – who preserved and enriched the Shi ite faith.” There were twelve of these; the last “disappeared”, Lewis says, about 873, and is still “the awaited one”. Mainstream Shi’as, from which other sects defected, are known as “Twelvers”.

The first split among the Shi’a occurred in 765, when Ismail, the eldest son of the previous Imam, was passed over in favour of a younger one, whom most Shi’a accepted. Those who did not formed a sect known as the Ismailis. For some 150 years the Ismaili Imams “remained hidden”. At the end of the ninth century, the Abbaside caliphate was falling apart, and the caliphs themselves were mere puppets, initially of a Persian Shi’ite dynasty. Their sultans decided it was easier to keep the Sunni caliphate, rather than instal a Shi’ite one.

909: The Shi’a: The establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate

This did no good to either the Sunnis or the moderate Shi’ites and left the field open to the Ismailis, who, with the establishment of a power base in the Yemen, sent missionaries all over the Muslim world, from India to North Africa. In the latter “they achieved their most spectacular success”, and there in 909 their “hidden Imam” emerged to proclaim himself caliph, founding a new dynasty, the Fatimids (909-1171). Their greatest achievement was their capture of Egypt, but they failed to conquer the Sunni heartland, and like the Abbasids, became, for their last hundred years, puppets of a military elite originally called in to prop them up.

1094: The Ismailis split: Mustalis and Nizaris

A split among the Ismailis, possibly engineered by the Fatimid military pupper master, came in 1094 on the death of the caliph. The caliph’s elder son, Nizar, was excluded in favour of a much younger one, al-Mustali, “a youth without allies and supporters, who would consequently be entirely dependent on his powerful patron” who also arranged to become his father-in-law. Nizar led a rebellion, and was killed, but his followers remained, refusing any allegiance to the Fatimid caliph. In 1130, after the murder of the caliph al-Amir, the son and successor of al-Mustali by Nizaris or the Syrian Assassins, with whom they had come to terms, the remaining Ismailis also defected from the Fatimid caliphate, claiming that a lost infant son of al-Amir, called Tayyib, was the hidden and awaited Iman. The tottering Fatimids, now nominally even confined to Egypt, were put an end to by their final patron, Saladin, in 1171, and the population restored to the Sunni fold of the Abassid caliphate.

The Seljuk Turks and the Ismaili “New Preaching”

The Ismaili split remained, but while the “Mustalis” stagnated in Islam’s backwaters, the “Nizaris” who had, for reasons not stated, been responsible for the murder of al-Amir, became the mainstream Ismaili movement and flourished. One reason why it did was the unusually chaotic state of the Middle East, into which the Seljuk Turks (luckily for Islam, Sunni converts) had been extending their Central Asian empire since the beginning of the 11th century. As the newcomers displaced the old Arab and Persian aristocracy, discontent was expressed and exploited, inevitably in a religious guise, by the Ismaili “new preaching” and by the charismatic Hassani Sabbah, initiator of assassination as political instrument and policy, whose activities began before the Ismaili split in 1094.

1090: The story really starts: Hassani Sabbah, founder of “The Assassins”

Hassani Sabbah (1050?-1124) was born in Qum, then as now a centre of Shi’a orthodoxy in Iran, experienced a traumatic conversion to the Ismaili sect and then travelled widely to propagate its doctrines, usually getting into trouble wherever he went (Lewis gives much information of these wanderings, both in his text and in his notes). Finally he found the ideal area to set up a power base, in the Elburz mountains in Northern Iran, bordering the Caspian, where the local tribe, the Daylamis, notorious for their independence, had been the last Persians to convert to Islam (peacefully, at that) and were well-infiltrated by Ismaili believers. A fortress in this region would be desirable, and there were plenty of them.

His choice finally fell on the castle of Alamut, built on a narrow ridge on the top of a high rock in the heart of the Elburz mountains and dominating an enclosed and cultivated valley about thirty miles long and three miles wide at the broadest point. More than 6000 feet above sea level, the castle was several hundred feet above the base of the rock and could be reached only by a steep and winding path. The approach to the rock was through the narrow gorge of the Alamut river, between perpendicular and sometimes overhanging cliffs.

So Alamut was impregnable other than to starvation or subversion and Hassani, in 1090, chose the latter course, by converting the inhabitants of the castle (or enough of them) using his missionaries from the surrounding countryside, and then arriving unobtrusively there himself. It was a bloodless takeover and the helpless governor was, according to one account, sent off with a draft of 3000 gold dinars in compensation. Hassani never left the castle and ruled his growing domain in the surrounding mountains and valleys from there, capturing or building castles, while like-minded Ismailis dominated the province of Quhistan, some five hundred miles away and missionaries sowed the seed in distant Syria (see below).

1092: Assassination No. 1; rationale and technique

Three important events took place in 1092. In July the Seljuk Sultan Malikshah sent an army to capture Alamut, which failed to do so On 16th October, the Sultan’s Vizier, Nizam-al-Mulk, was the victim of the first assassination by a volunteer dispatched by Hassani, and in November the Sultan died. The next Sultan was so busy (as normal) securing the succession that he made overtures to Hassani about assassinating his competitor. This just made things worse, Ismailis, sufficiently strong in numbers to make suggestive threats, infiltrated his court and everybody who was anybody went around in body-armour.

For assassinations were, it must be emphasised, carried out on particular individuals for particular reasons and also at close quarters, where the victim must be stabbed to death. The assassins could not hope to survive; indeed, if by some chance they did, this was regarded as some sort of dereliction.

When his hands were free, the Sultan set about campaigning against the Ismailis, but without success, though the next (his erst-while rival) did the Ismailis some damage. There could be little continuity in such efforts, when they ground to a halt on the death of each Sultan. During all this period assassinations went steadily on. One significant one was the murder of the Egyptian Vizier/puppet-master in 1121, which liberated the Fatimid caliph from tutelage and who invited the Nizaris to renounce their claims. However this came to nothing and negotiations with Hassani also ceased when it became apparent that he had plans to assassinate the caliph and his Vizier. The caliph was murdered anyway by the Nizaris in 1130, as recorded above, though the Syrian Assassins were also suspected.

When Hassani died, any hopes by his enemies of a normal succession crisis were dashed; his deputy, Buzurgimid, a castle-taker on his own account and appointed by Hassani to succeed him, took his place at Alamut without any dissension. He ruled from 1124 to 1138 and assassinations dropped of – “The list… is comparatively short, though not undistinguished”, as Lewis puts it. The murder of the Abbasid caliph al-Mustarshid must be regarded as a sort of bonus, caused by perhaps deliberate inattention (vigorously denied, of course) to his safekeeping by his kidnapper, the Seljuk Sultan Mas’ud.

Buzurgumid’s son, Muhammad (1138-1162) succeeded, again without trouble, so again disappointing the many enemies of the Ismailis. Fourteen assassinations, “a meagre haul compared with the great days of Hassani Sabbah” are recorded for his 24 year reign, “the great struggle to overthrow the old order… had dwindled into border squabbles and cattle-raids. The castle strongholds… had become the centres of local sectarian dynasties, of a type not uncommon in Islamic history,” especially during this period. There is some evidence that the Ismailis and the Seljuk Overlord Sultan Sanjay often went into alliance against common enemies. Some Ismailis, however, yearned for the more activist days of Hassani Sabbah, including the heir apparent, Hasan, who immersed himself in the teaching of the Founder, and, despite the suspicions and misgivings of his father, behaved with sufficient discretion to succeed, again without trouble, on his death.

1165-1210: Anti-nomianism in Islam

Hasan (1163-1166) inaugurated a very radical policy for Ismaili Islam, nothing other than the abolition of Shari’a Law. Such antinomianism (“against law”) has manifested itself several times within Christianity, justified in its case that since a sinner is saved by faith, any subsequent behaviour is irrelevant. Islamic antinomianism, which Lewis speaks of as “recurrent”, and gives an example from the early 8th Century, though its manifestations were most likely a relic of pre-Islamic practices, has different causes but much the same result.

Two and a half years after his accession, Hasan staged a dramatic ceremony in the courtyard of Alamut, to which Ismaili representative had been summoned from all over the Muslim world. It was in the middle of Ramadan, the pulpit so arranged that the audience had their backs to Mecca, that he announced the arrival of the Millennium; the “hidden” Nizari Imam had been resurrected, and he was his deputy (da’i); later he changed his mind and claimed to be his grandson. Consequent to this happening, Shari’a Law must be abandoned “because in this period of of the Resurrection [men] must turn in every sense towards God and abandon the rites of religious law and established habits of worship.” This proclamation was followed by a banquet, complete with wine, and delegates sped away with the good news, which was joyfully received in Quhistan and Syria, who put the injunctions into practice. In a total turn-around, those who adhered to the Shari a were punished as severely as those who formerly had broken it.

Although Hasan was murdered by his brother-in-law, strictly on religious grounds, his nineteen year old son Muhammad II (1166-1210) succeeded smoothly and continued with his father’s policies and elaborated his theology. However, Lewis remarks that the whole extraordinary interlude seems to have had little influence of the rest of the Islamic world – at least if contemporary Sunni historians are anything to go by. Their attention was only drawn to it after the destruction of Alamut in 1256 by the Mongols when Ismaili writings on the subject became available. Again, assassinations seem to have dropped off, though in the case of at least one anti-Ismaili cleric, intimidation seems to have been enough. However, the threat of assassination seems to have continued right to the end, with an emissary to the Mongol Khan Hulegu explaining that he had to wear a mail shirt for fear of it. When Muhammad II died his son, Jalal al-Din (1210-1221) reversed his father’s religious policy, an about-turn accepted by the wider Ismaili community, though some suspected his sincerity.

1194: The end of the Seljuk Era

The Seljuk Great Sultanate, which had conquered the Middle East in the early 11th century, was disintegrating. It was never an empire proper and though Seljuk Turks formed the aristocracy of the region, there was no cohesion among them prepared to face the challenge that was coming – the Mongols. One region that was now completely independent was Khorasm, between the Oxus and the Caspian, whose ruler, styling himself Khorasmshah, was now moving south into Persia. In the battle of Rayy, the last Seljuk Sultan was defeated and killed and the Khorasmshah assumed that he would now become the protector of the Abbasid caliph, as Sultan of Baghdad. In this he was mistaken; during the breakup of the Great Sultanate, the caliph al-Nasir (1180-1225) had achieved independence himself and was in no mood to surrender it. In fact the Abbaside Caliphate achieved a brief, and final, flowering. The Khorasmians anyway had enough to do, trying to resist the Mongols, who ultimately obliterated them; they also incurred the enmity of the Ismailis, conducting massacres, to which the Ismailis retaliated with assassinations.

The Ismaili lord of Alamut (no longer claiming the Imamate), Jalal-al-Din was succeeded by his only son, aged nine, Ala al-Din (1221-1255), who seems from quite an early age to have shown signs of madness. Business seems to have effectively carried out by his vizier and subordinates, who ensured that Alamut continued to be a center of learning, respected even by Sunni scholars. They also kept up the time-honoured tradition of assassination and intimidation, though the intricacies of feuds and alliances would take us too far from our theme. Finally Ala al-Din was murdered and though his son, Rukn al-Din was not sorry to have it happen, a severe and incapacitating illness at the time exculpated him from any direct involvement. Several probably innocent persons were put to death for the crime: no one knows who was really responsible.

1258: The last of the Alamut Ismailis

Rukn al-Din (1255-1258), the last of the Alamut Ismailis, attempted desperately to appease the Mongols. Early in 1258, they sacked Baghdad and put to death the last caliph, Mutasim (1242-1258) and all of his kin they could find, extinguishing the Abbasid Caliphate. No candidate for caliph, an obviously empty title, emerged, though the Ottoman Sultans, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century found it convenient to assume the role when dealing with the Western powers. Rukn al-Din lasted a little longer; the Mongols extracted from him all they could in the way of surrendering Ismaili strongholds, including Alamut, and then murdered him after he had travelled all the way to Karakorum, in vain, to plead to be left with something – Hulegu did not even grant him an interview.

1260: The Mongols repulsed from Syria

Hulegu’s conquests, with their usual massacres, extended into Syria, but having left an army to consolidate these, it was destroyed at the battle of Ain Jalud by the Egyptian Mameluke Kotos in 1260, and the Mongol movement westward was finally halted. However, Hulegu established a kingdom with a Persian core and though himself remaining a pagan, being buried with appropriate heathen rites (virgins strangled to accompany him &c), perforce used the Muslim elite as administrators. Half a century later, his great-grandson, now a devout Muslim, was consecrating much time and energy to the revival of the culture Hulegu had attempted to destroy. Unfortunately for Muslim unity, the population was Shi’a, and Persia/Iran has remained a Shi’a state from that day to this.

The Mongols left of the Ismailis only a remnant in the Middle East and Persia, but a mission to faraway India had been successful and their tradition asserts that a small son of Rukn al-Din survived to sire a line of Imams, whose descendant today is the Aga Khan. In Syria also the sect during all this time had flourished and to its activities there we must now turn, though they did not survive the Alamut Assassins for very long.

1100- 1273: The Assassins in Syria

Missionaries from the Assassin stronghold of Alamut established by Hassani Sabbah found the mountainous terrain of northern Syria at once suitable and familiar as a venue for a power-base, but their inhabitants less amenable for it to be used as such, partly, Lewis suggests, because the emissaries were Persians. As well as indigeous “moderate” Ismailis, there were plenty of other sects to cultivate and convert, including the Druzes, who had broken away from the orthodox Egyptian Fatimids, on the disappearance of the Caliph al-Hakim in 1021, believing, in what seems a standard Muslim convention, that he would reappear in the near or far future. The Alawites, despite their orthodox Shi’a “Twelver” beliefs, combined these with “extremist” tendencies and must have seemed suitable material.

A policy of local alliances: Aleppo 1100-1124

The Assassins (a name of Syrian origin, dating from this time, which we can now use legitimately) managed to sieze, in 1106, the fortress of Afamiya, some 150 miles south-west of Aleppo, where they had many sympathisers, including its ruler Ridwan, who was more than suspected of making use of their services. Or, as Lewis puts it: “the Assassins offered [him] the possibilty of… compensating for his military weakness among his rivals in Syria.”

It was not, however, any of these who eliminated Afamiya, but Tancred, Prince of Antioch, or more precisely, Regent for his uncle Bohemond, who was a captive of the Danishmend Turks and whose ransom, for various reasons, no one, including his nephew, was in a hurry to pay. He is the first crusader Lewis introduces, in many ways typical of the Norman variety, brave, land-hungry (Antioch should have been returned to the Byzantines) and devious, but we have no time to say anything about him here. I have relegated to an Appendix information, which the general public seems to badly need, about the Crusades and Crusaders, who became a factor in the Near East after their capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

Unable to secure an independent base, the Assassins continued to operate courtesy of the rulers of Aleppo and Damascus. They lost no time about it; in 1103 they assassinated the ruler of Homs (possibly to oblige Ridwan) and, to quote Lewis: “The history of the Syrian Ismailis, as recorded by the Syrian historians, is chiefly the history of the assassinations which they perpetrated.” Only a decade after the seizure of Alamut, and the first assassination organized from there, the Syrian Assassins were following the precepts of Hassani Sabbah.

This state of affairs couldn’t last, of course. Ridwan of Aleppo died in 1113 and relations with his son, Alp Arslan, deteriorated. Not long after his accession, the leader of the Assassins was executed and 200 of his followers punished in various ways by the commander of the town militia, who was assassinated when he fell from favour and fled the city in 1119. Finally, in 1124, the Ismailis (or at least those suspected of Assassin tendencies) were expelled from Aleppo.

The policy continued: Damascus 1124-1128

Undaunted, their leader, Bahram (a Persian, as his name suggests) moved to Damascus where he was well received by its ruler, Tughtigin, though more so by his Vizier. Tughtegin not only gave him the castle of Banyas, situated just his side of the Jordan, the boundary of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but also a building, described as palace, for his headquarters. Bahram himself was killed in a raid, where an expedition to gain converts had turned into a typical Arab feud, and was succeeded by another Persian, Ismail, who carried on his policies and activities. But just as in Aleppo, when Tughtegin died in 1128, an even fiercer reaction against the Ismailis, and their protector, the Vizier, followed. The Vizier was murdered and 6 – 20,000 Ismailis (according to which source is believed) were massacred.

1128: The Assassins have to become autonomous

Ismail fled, surrendered Banyas to the Crusaders and took refuge in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where he died in 1130. His asylum-seeking should not arouse surprise; already the Crusaders were just one of the small Levant states making or breaking alliances or at war with each other in kaleidoscopic fashion. When immigrants arrived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem eager to kill Muslims – anyMuslims – their hosts had to explain that things weren’t quite that simple: there was a truce with Them, but it was open season against Them.

Lewis is a little vague as to how the Ismailis managed to survive during the few years before they finally secured defensible territory, especially castles. All the same, they managed to continue with their assassinations, though it was from Alamut that retribution came to Toghtegin’s son, Buri, despite his wearing armour and his armed guard. In 1132, the Assassins bought the fortress of Qadmus, then acquired al-Khaf in 1136, securing Khawabi, Rusafa, Qulaya and Maniqa about the same time, and in 1140, what became their most important stronghold, Masyaf. Almost all of these are on Lewis’s map, clustered in the mountainous region of the Jebal Bahra, and on the border of the County of Tripoli, (feudal dependancy of the Kingdom of Jerusalem), with which they were usually on good terms, though for some reason they assassinated its Count, Raymond II in 1152, incidentally their first Crusader victim.

The Assassins were much less worried about the Crusaders than about their Muslim enemies, by Zangi (1100-1150) in the north and Saladin (1137-1193) in the south. Zangi, the independent governor of Mosul, founded a dynasty (1127-1262) which in absorbing the minor Syrian states, such as Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, inevitably came into collision with the Assassins. Two governors, or emirs, of Mosul had already been assassinated, in 1113 and in 1126, obviously in anticipation of such a western move. The behaviour of the Zangids towards the Ismailis in general and the Assassins in particular fully justified their fear of them.

The threat from Saladin, “protector” of the Fatimid caliphs arose from the alliance of the Ismailis with the Nizaris, their theological differences either ignored or forgotten. The Assassins seem to have neutralised Saladin to some extent by two serious and nearly successful attempts on his life in 1176 and later by demonstrating there were plenty of Assassins among his entourage. Perhaps he was also reminded that, before he was born the man responsible for the disinheriting of Nizar was assassinated (in 1121) and, in 1130, the Fatimid caliph himself, quite probably by the Assassins.

Another account by a later historian gives a sounder reason for the Assassins’ hostility. A raid from anti-Shi’a Iraqis had massacred some 13,000 Ismailis – it must be remembered that most Ismailis lived peaceful lives as far as it was possible; only what might be termed the activists kept to their castles, from where they organized any necessary fighting and assassinations. Saladin had taken advantage of this raid to conduct some massacres of Ismailis himself, winding up besieging Masyaf, the Assassins’ main stronghold. Somehow (the facts are obscure) a non-aggression pact was negotiated and neither side troubled the other for some time after. Otherwise, it is difficult not to assume that the Assassins could have eliminated Saladin had they really decided to do so. For by this time (see below) the Assassins had been organized into an efficient menace to those who aroused their hostility.

1162: Sinan, “The Old Man of the Mountain” takes charge.

Sinan ibn Salman ibn Muhammad, also known as Rashid al-Din (1133-1193), the only Assassin that anyone in the West seems ever to have heard of, came from Basra, with, so he claimed, credentials from Alamut, having been brought up with the two sons of Muhammad II, Hasan (who succeeded him) and Husayn. That may have been so, and certainly it is unlikely that he could have attained his position without such credentials, probably from Hasan, but he emancipated himself so successfully from obedience to Alamut, that the “Chief Missionary,” writes an Arab historian, “sent emissaries from Alamut a number of times to kill him, fearing usurpation of the headship, and Sinan used to kill them. Some of them he deceived and dissuaded from carrying out their orders.” It is to him that most myths and legends of Assassin practices have been attached. Indeed, one Christian visitor testified to one of these being demonstrated in his presence, when a number of his disciples, at his command, unhesitating leapt to their deaths from the walls into the depths below.

Sinan turned out to be as charismatic as the Assassins’ founder Hassani Sabbah, and as efficent an organizer. The same historian quoted above summed up his achievements and status:

He built fortresses in Syria for the sect. Some were new and some were old ones which he had obtained by stratagems and fortified and made inaccessible. Time spared him and kings took care not to attack his possessions for fear of the murderous attacks of his henchmen. He ruled Syria for thirty-odd years.

Although their main enemies remained Moslems, the Assassins had to turn some of their attention to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem which with the Principality of Antioch controlled the Levantine coastline from Cilicia to Egypt. Their major assassination coup, in 1192, was that of the claimant-King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, who had saved its remnants from disintegration after the capitulation of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187. Even so, it may actually have been a personal matter. Runciman, who goes into the matter in his The Kingdom of Acre (volume 3 of his History of the Crusades) in more depth that does Lewis, says Conrad refused to give compensation for a ship of Sinan’s he had captured. The survivor of the two assassins (contrary to Lewis, who says both assassins were siezed alive, Runciman states that only one was killed), under torture, failed to implicate anyone else. In realistic terms the Assassins had nothing to gain by the consolidation of Muslim power into a single state, stretching from Egypt to Iraq, as witnessed by their extirpation when this actually happened.

Though the Assassins’ suicide missions invariably targeted (or blackmailed) specific powerful or influential people – caliphs, sultans, viziers, governors, distinguished visitors and the occasional hostile cleric, for whom intimidation was usually enough, one category of leader was left untouched, the Masters of the celibate Military Orders, the Templars, Hospitallers and the Knights of St. John. It was a waste of resources to assassinate these, for they would be replaced by men just as tough and dedicated to their vocation. In fact, like all the other powers, in the area, local, territorial or institutional, the Orders came to terms with the Assassins, either paying or receiving “protection money”, for immunity for pilgrims or caravans as the situation fluctuated. Under these circumstances, assassinations were unnecessary – the threat was enough. If anything, the Assassins leaned towards the Christian powers, who, they knew, would have to be physically ejected before a unified Muslim state could be established in the area.

1193-1273: The last years and end of the Syrian Assassins

Sinan died in 1193 and the succession passed to another eastern Ismaili, Nasr, a Persian. Full relations with Alamut were restored after Sinan’s de facto independance. In fact, despite this, the strange antinomian episode (1165-1210) initiated by Hasan who had succeeded his father in the year of Sinan’s accession (probably no coincidence) and continued by Muhammad II, had caught on, though Sinan moderated its excesses, and its ending was without incident.

There is little more to say about the Assassins before recounting the events leading to their extinction, except that they seem to have maintained the status quo established by Sinan even after the wiping out of the Alamut regime in 1258, following the Mongols’ thorough extermination of the Abbasid Caliphate, with which, during its brief independence, the Assassins had been on good terms. The onslaught of the Mongols on Syria was now impending. Fortunately for the Muslim world, it was ready – just in time.

1250 – 1811: The Mamelukes of Egypt

When Saladin died in 1193, the same year as Sinan, the usual squabbles over the sucession took place, but a satisfactory candidate emerged and the dynasty survived. Its last sultan, a benign one by contemporary accounts, Malik al-Salih, beat off the Last Crusade by St. Louis at Damietta in Egypt (where he was visited by St Francis on a personal peace mission). More importantly for the future, he bought large numbers of male slaves, mainly from the Caucasus, to be trained as soldiers, who became known as Mamelukes, derived from an Arabic word for slave.

1260-1277: Baybars the Mameluke

When Malik al-Shah died, leaving only a baby boy, a Mameluke took over after the usual murder and mayhem. After he was murdered, another, Kotos took over. He was responsible for the great victory of Ain Jalud in 1060 over the Mongols – they never returned – but was in turn murdered by his lieutenent Baybars, who maintained his position for the rest of his life, terminated by his dying in agony in 1277 from poison he had prepared for a victim who craftily switched the drinks.

Baybars received the submission of the Assassins a few years after he came to power and “their skilled services seem to have been, for a short time at his disposal” as Lewis puts it, though the missions had declined from purely the suicidal to high-risk ones, with payment attached: “If the murderer escapes,” the famous traveller Ibn Battuta explained, “the money is his; if he is caught, his children get it. Sometimes their plots fail, and they themselves are killed.” The sometimes is significant. Prince Edward, the future King of England Edward I, a sort of gap-year Crusader in 1272, almost fell a victim; his death might well have changed the history of the British Isles.

1173: The end of the Assassins

But Baybars, whose life-work was the liberation of the Muslim Near East from the double threat of the Christian Franks [a general term in use for all Western Europeans, and not confined to those of French origin] and the heathen Mongols, could not be expected to tolerate the continued independence of a dangerous pocket of heretics and murderers in the very heart of Syria

Nor could they be trusted, there were enough of them devoted to the old ways to arouse suspicion, justified by a certain amount of evidence that a mission was being organized to assassinate Baybars himself. The last leaders of the Assassins, who after the fall of Alamut in 1158, had been appointed by Baybars, were exiled to Egypt and the remaining castles surrendered. The end came not with a bang but a whimper.

Cultural contrasts between Islam and the West, then and now

Although Western Europe, from Scandinavia to the Atlantic could be regarded as Christianized by 1000AD and Christian beliefs and practices regarded as the social pattern to be aspired if not always adhered to, two fundamental customs, which are not given any biblical sanction, became firmly established. The first was a total ban, for any reason, on suicide. The other, of slower growth, was succession by primogeniture. It might be noted that Orthodox, Byzantine Christianity, to which the Russians converted, supported a suicide ban, but in the period we are dealing with, dynastic succession was less firmly rooted than in the West.

Suicide, permissible and impermissible

The taboo against suicide meant, of course, that there could be no Christian equivalent to the Assassins, or the modern suicide bomber. This taboo was rigorously enforced by the Church (a single unit in Western Europe until the Reformation in the sixteenth century – which made no difference) which equated it with murder and consigned the dead criminal to hell-fire, since he or she had obviously died unrepentant, while the corpse was denied burial in consecrated ground. Whether the doctors of the Church, or the university schoolmen debated the prohibition of suicide is strictly irrelevant: it was fact of life. The Jewish position is probably the same, but this I am not certain of. The only suicides I can think of in the Old Testament are of King Saul and his armour-bearer and Achitophel, whose counsel was rejected by King David. These are recounted with neither approval or disapproval.

The Christian prohibition against suicide survives very strongly even in largely secularised Western societies. Abolition of the law against it has only been achieved in the last few decades and “assisted suicide” is still a controversial matter, far more than abortion. In all other major religions – Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian and Shinto – suicide is a part, a small part admittedly, of the political culture. The Islamic has been demonstrated by the Assassins in the past and the modern suicide bomber in the present, Tamils Tigers are the Hindu element, if we exclude suttee, Buddhists immolate themselves, the Chinese regard (or regarded) suicide as a preferable alternative to public shame and everyone knows about the kamikazis of Japan. Western and Eastern Christian and post-Christians societies denied its legality under any circumstances for almost all of their existence, and they appear to be unique.

Although we can perhaps learn little of use for ourselves from the techniques of the Assassins, perhaps we should remember that they targeted key individuals, and should be aware that the modern Islamic terrorists have not forgotten this and know that it is far from certain that the modern political, democratically elected leader will be replaced, as would have been the Commanders of the military religious orders, with another as tough and dedicated to the work in hand as he was.

Primogeniture: succession made plain

The convention that a man’s estate should pass whole to his eldest son and then to that son’s eldest son, regardless of other male relatives, who might be older, stronger or wiser, was almost certainly the result of the feudal system, a series of hierarchies, based on land holdings, with the knight the bottom unit, sufficiently supported by his land income to afford armour, horse and retinue, owing direct allegiance to a superior, perhaps a baron, who in turn owed his to an earl, who owed his to the King. It was a system that may have sacrificed a certain degree of military efficiency to certainty of status. Any disputes could be settled by litigation, which tended to strengthen the system, the influence of which may even have worked its way upward, so that Kings, instead of dividing up their possessions to parcel them out among their sons (as William the Conqueror and Henry II did with theirs in England and France), saw the merit of a system that sanctioned their being transmitted in a single package.

It hardly needs pointing out that this system was infinitely preferable to the Islamic one, which entailed a free-for-all amongst those who thought they had a chance of replacing the defunct leader, usually but not always, his sons. The three great Islamic dynasties, the Abbasid, the Mughal and the Ottoman all displayed this in their days of greatness, while the eventual Ottoman solution was almost worse than the disease – to keep the Sultan-in-waiting, together with any potential competitors, sequestered until his accession, so that his ignorance of outside affairs made him unfit to rule. Oddly enough the only exception to the “usual methods” employed in the area to decide on the succession were the Assassins, where the transmission of power seems to have been almost invariably smooth.

An appendix on the Crusades and Crusaders

The era of “apologies” is on us and the late Pope was ignorant enough to apologize to the Muslim world for the Crusades. It would have been more relevant for him to have apologized, if at all, for the contemporary Christian reconquest of Spain (a success) than to have done so for the Crusades (a failure). The Crusades, if properly managed, could have kept the boundary of Christendom fixed as far as the Taurus in Asia Minor, or even the Caucasus. Think how convenient that would have been to the bureaucrats in Brussels, with their headache of negotiating an EU extension to the same boundary! Instead, the Crusaders opened up to the Turks a means of destruction of the Byzantine Empire and conquest almost as far as the gates of Vienna. For this the Papacy does bear a heavy responsibility.

To put the matter briefly, the Crusades should, perhaps could, have been a rescue mission, badly needed by the Byzantines, who wanted a large contingent of fighting men to act under their orders. The Empire had suffered a crushing defeat at Manzikert, near their eastern border, in 1071 by a part of the Turkish invaders who were otherwise busy subduing the (Arab) Middle East, aggression beside which any effort by the Crusaders pales into insignificance. But they became Muslims, so that’s all right, isn’t it? Unfortunately, rather like the Muslims, the Byzantines tended to solve their succession problems in the same way, though not so brutally, and it wasn’t until 1081 that the winner, the Emperor Alexius was firmly on the throne. Relations between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Churches were even worse than usual and it was not until 1095 that he was able to call for help to clear Asia Minor and establish the old boundaries.

Instead of what he wanted (after a rabble of pilgrims had been safely deposited on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, to be slaughtered by the Turks) what arrived at Constantinople was, for its time, a well-organized army, intent, for those with a religious agenda, on “liberating” Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulche, and for those with a more secular one, to sieze land to rule completely independently. Both these objectives were achieved, but what should have been their priority was not. Asia Minor was by-passed and lost and, in due course, the Ottoman Turks, with it as their base, ensured that South Eastern Europe was lost as well for many centuries.

8 comments to A radical sect in Islam: 1090-1273

  • Whew! Now I don’t have to buy the book!

  • veryretired

    Fabulous post. Thank you very much for the time and effort.

    I would suggest that two of the factors involved in the prohibition of suicide in Christianity, and, I believe, also in Judaism, are the tradition of Job, i.e., that even extreme suffering must be endured as God’s will; and, in the philosophical area, the rejection of reincarnation, which is a foundational tenet in the eastern religions mentioned, although not Islam.

    There are, of course, multiple avenues for exploring this question, but that is enough for this moment.

    Thanks again for the great review.

  • Sark

    I’m with Petronius… whew! What a review! Thanks Findlay! But I might actually buy the damn thing now!

  • J

    Very interesting, and explains the lyrics to the Hawkwind song ‘Hassani Sabbah’ into the bargain.

    Job is one of the more bizarre and gratuitous bits of the bible, but it may indeed play a part in the Christian anti-suicide thing.

  • Julian Morrison

    This sort of stuff is why I love Samizdata.

  • dearieme

    “According to a view widespread in the western world since medieaval times”; I do tend to wonder about such windy claims, even from such a fine scholar as Lewis. My schooling did cover the assassins: we were told that they attacked fellow Muslims – no mention of any supposed attacks on crusaders. Was I near-uniquely lucky, or is the windy claim misleading? Is it in the category of Columbus’s contemporaries believing the world to be flat i.e. bogus?

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Dear dearieme

    We seem to be alone, now that the compliments have dried up (sob), so I’ll wind the blog up before it drops off – unless you want to.

    You are, of course, right to be skeptical of the sweeping claims of the quote, but as someone said, one must never underestimate the ignorance/gullibilty of the public. Most of it believes that both Kennedy and Diana were murdered as a result of some conspiracy.

    Years ago I remember a fifties politician, Lord Boothby – never got anywhere, possibly because he’d seduced Harold Macmillan’s wife – on an “Any Questions?” panel (if you’re not British and over 50, you won’t know any of this) saying that Galileo was burnt by the Inquisition because he said the world was round – and nobody on the panel (or in the audience) corrected him!

    Bernard Lewis was (he’s 85 now) an academic who must have been in contact with many students – to say nothing of academics in other disciplines – and so his observations may be based on their a priori assumptions. His reading of past literature – fact or fiction – must not be discounted.

    Many, perhaps most people (including the late Pope) with a superficial knowledge of the Middle Ages – may think that the Crusaders were confronting a monolithic Muslim world, when in fact they were intruding into a very fragmented one – partly the reason for their initial success. The Assassins, therefore, by this reasoning, would be just an activist branch who had no other enemies than the Crusaders.

    It is interesting that the period when the Assassins existed (1090-1273) almost coincided with the period of the Crusades and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1095-1291). This wouldn’t help, of course: Crusaders leave; assassinations stop (though it was the other way round).

  • To elaborate on Jewish attitudes towards suicide:

    My understanding is that it is generally equivalent with murder. Moreover, in its most common form it implies a total abandonment of hope, ergo belief in the infinite power of God to benefit his creations.

    On the other hand, there are rare situations in which suicide is condoned, or even encouraged. King Saul is one example; had he been captured by the Phillistines it would have been a terrible blow to Israel. A famous case in the Talmud was that of a ship to Rome containing several hundred attractive youths enslaved during the fall of Jerusalem. When they realized that they would be used as sex slaves, first the girls and then the boys jumped overboard and drowned. The Talmud regards their action favorably.