On October 14, 1092, a murderer disguised as an old Sufi stabbed to death the vizier of Baghdad, Nizam-ul-Muluk.
Not surprisingly, this shook the ruling Seljuq Sultanate in Baghdad. And the bloody history of conflict in the politics of Islam continued. The Abbasid Caliphate supported by the Seljuq dynasty from Turkey wanted to wipe out the Ismaili, and Nizam-ul-Muluk, the mastermind of this plan, had to be killed.
Around midday, the great vizier was in his litter heading towards his leisure quarters when a Sufi approached shouting, “Justice, Your Majesty, justice!” Nizam heard him. He ordered his guards not to prevent the old man from approaching. He was tricked; the old Sufi carrying a petition was actually Abu Tahir Ariani, a young man aged around 20. When close enough, Abu Tahir stabbed his dagger into Nizam’s heart. The murderer was quickly caught. His body was cut to pieces.
Tahir was a fidai’in, a loyal follower of Hassan-i-Sabbah, the leader of the Ismaili who hid in the Alamut hills, and a figure of rebellion who was undefeated until his death.
From the Fortress of Alamut—in the province of southern Caspia in the Rudbar area of Iran—Hassan would every now and then send out a fidai in disguise, to murder his political enemies. Effective and efficient executioners: from close quarters and prepared to die themselves. They were the renowned ‘assassins’ in the history of Islam.
The stories of the assassins’ daring and fanaticism became legend as it was passed from mouth to mouth.
It is interesting to quote the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who was in Persia in 1273. In his story about Hassan-i-Sabbah, ‘the Old Man of the Mountain’, Marco Polo writes that he built “the largest and most beautiful [garden] that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold.’
It seems that Hassan-i-Sabbah wanted to give the impression that this was Paradise. He recruited a number of young men aged between 12 and 20 who wanted to be soldiers, trained them in the use of weapons, in disguise and in foreign languages. Six of them at a time were permitted to enter the park of Paradise, after being given a taste of hashish to make them sleep. The idea was that when they awoke, they would see the beauty and enjoy their surroundings—the luxury that they would feel forever if they were prepared to kill anyone the Master of Heaven wished…
It seems that Marco Polo took this story from someone else’s imagining. Ali Mohammad Rajput, in Hasan-i-Sabbah: His Life and Thought (2013), portrays a completely different picture. Hassan-i-Sabbah was a wise and strict man. He did not allow his followers to enjoy themselves. He even sentenced his own son to death for drinking wine.
Through imposing such discipline, he managed to form troops who were obedient and resilient in battle when attacked by the Abbasid army. This, together with his renown as the figure who declared his beliefs as the purest form of Islam, allowed him to prepare a group of fanatic fidai, skilled in murder, and prepared to die—to reach Paradise.
But history records that Hassan-i-Sabbah never managed to grasp leadership of the Caliphate for the Ismaili. It is true that he was never defeated, the Alamat Fortress was not breached, and Hassan himself died of old age. His life story is one of resolute and total opposition towards the Seljuq sultans and the entire Sunni leadership, but he only ever achieved a series of small victories. Ismaili territory comprised scattered and limited locations, even though the influence of their beliefs was widespread and at one time even reached India. The divisions of the Islamic umat—basically contestation over who had the right to the caliphate—could never be resolved.
The more acute the splits became, the more forcefully the parties declared themselves to be the true heirs of the tradition, and concurrently, the more the universal power of its reach lessened. The different ‘sects’ became increasingly isolated. This was evident between 1255 and 1265 when the Mongolian army, led by Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, came and wiped out Sunni and Syiah power in the entire region.
The Alamut Fortress fell. Hassan’s old enemies and those who hated the Ismaili rejoiced at its fall. But two years later, Hulagu thrashed those rejoicers at the very centre of the caliphate, the city of Baghdad. The Caliph was captured, rolled in a blanket, and trampled to death. Around 800,000 people were slaughtered. But another terrible loss was the tradition of science, philosophy and literature that was almost totally wiped out.
Perhaps this trauma was also the beginning of the loss of sources of openness of thought and creativity in the Islamic world—of achievements that had contributed to Europe’s advancement. What people recall today, and what is perpetuated by some Muslims, is only fidai-type conviction: defensive, strict, narrow and feeling threatened in long paranoia. In some corners, new Alamuts are standing once again.