Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The First Terrorists - The Assassins

This is the summary of a study I made of a religious sect, Nizari Isma'ilis, who are often pointed to as the first terrorist group in history. I will from time to time post various sections of this study.

The Nizari Isma'ilis (The Assassins): The Truth and Dare
© 2005

An Overview:
The story of the Shi'a Nizari Isma'ili (popularly known as the Assassins[1]) is one of a group of people who represent an internal religio-political resistance movement who, soon after the death of the Prophet Mohamed, took three hundred years to develop (wherein their true story lies), saw the height of manifestation for approximately two hundred years and then fell into a silent existence through to modern times. They have captured the minds of the Western world since the time of the Crusades because of some of the tactics they employed at the pinnacle of their strength against perceived political adversaries as well as the seemingly ritualistic secrecy surrounding their most ardent followers. However, it should be noted that their movement was always grounded in seemingly rational political objectives, namely, the undermining of the ruling Sunni Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad and the restoration of the glory of Isma'ili Shi'a rule as per the heyday of the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt.

The Nizari Isma'ilis emerged at the end of the 11th Century in Persia, Syria and Iraq. They are a sub-group of the Isma'ili Shi'a who themselves represent 10% of the Shi'a sect of Islam. The Shi'a, in turn, represent about 10 to 15% of the total approximate 1.2 billion Moslems worldwide. The Nizari Isma'ili are still today a sizable group extending from the frontiers of Russia to Iran to India and are led by their holy imam, the Aga Khan IV[2]. Isma'ilism emerged from a schism within Shi'a Islam in the 9th Century which led to the emergence of the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa. Eventually the Fatimids gained control of Egypt and reigned over North Africa and parts of southern Europe until the 12th Century[3]. As in the case of most of the schisms which occurred in Islam after the death of the Prophet Mohammed (570 - 632 AD), Nizari Isma'ilism emerged as a result of internal dissent concerning succession of the leadership of the faithful. In this case, upon the death of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir (1036 - 1094 AD) in Egypt, his younger son Al-Musa'li was catapulted to the caliphate by the powerful vizier al-Afdal, who was also his father-in-law. This angered many in the wider Isma'ili community who believed that the older son Nizar, was the one entitled to the caliphate, thus leading to a break-off Isma'ili group known as the Nizari Isma'ilis led by one Hassan Sabbah. The bastion of this group was Alamut in the northern region of Persia and south of the Caspian Sea with a secondary center of influence established later in Syria near Aleppo.

Isma'ili Shi'ism is based on the concept of the batini, or the hidden meaning, leading many chroniclers to call them Batinis especially during the time of the Crusades[4]. The belief is that the Quran and all its stories are actually allegories for inner meanings and that the truly faithful should not base their beliefs on literal or apparent (the zahir) readings of the holy book. Unlike the egalitarian principles of the majority Sunni tradition, essential to Shi'ism in general, but Isma'ilism in particular, is the concept of ranked clergy where at the top sits the imam, or spiritual leader, who was elevated to a near divine-level. As noted, many schisms occurred in Islam especially among the Shi'a, often times resulting in violent break-away groups. The Isma'ilis also suffered from many waves of persecution, which underscored another element of their tradition, namely, the concept of taqiya, or caution and precaution, which allowed for the faithful to dissimilate from their belief. This, when applied, is a special dispensation from observing religious tradition so as to avoid identification and/or persecution.

Taken in their totality, these concepts of batini, imam and taqiya, in addition to others, laid the ground for the development of a group who were able to interpret and adapt Islam to their political objectives and social reality, believe in the absolute supremacy of their leader, while maintaining an aura of complete secrecy. Such were the elements of this religio-political group which led to the fascination of the West with the 'Assassins' and the total disdain of other contemporary Moslems for the Nizari Isma'ilis.

The Nizari Isma'ilis emerged as a group in 1094 AD with the death of their self-appointed imam Nizar, who an element of the Isma'ili faithful felt had been cheated of his divine right to succeed his recently deceased father, the Fatimid Caliph Mustansir. Hassan Sabbah established a stronghold in Alamut in Persia from which emerged a Nizari Isma'ili state whose influence extended to Syria and beyond. The heyday of their political impact was brought to a screeching halt in 1256 AD with the devastation brought by Hulegu Khan and the Mongol conquering of Persia and much of the Asian Arab lands. The final nail in the Assassins coffin was struck by the Egyptian Mamluk Baybars who first ruled then eradicated the Syrian wing of the Nizari Isma'ili political structure. Thus ended in 1275 AD nearly two hundred years of the Nizari Isma'ili state and led to the legend of the Assassins. This is their story

[1] This essay relies heavily on the work of Bernard Lewis, Marshall G. S. Hodgson, Philip K. Hitti, Amin Maalouf and Edward Burman.
[2] For more on contemporary Nizari Ismailism and their global community, see The Institute of Ismaili Studies at
[3] For a complete overview of Arab history from the rise of Islam to modern times see Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, and Bernard Lewis "A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. For a history of the Middle East during the Crusades, see Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes and Francesco Gabrieli's Arab Historians of the Crusades.
[4] See Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.



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