The Legend of Paradise

Examining a critical and analytical approach of the sources, it is almost possible to clarify that the fortress of Alamut was situated in rocky and infertile region, and its physical condition during occupation was very much rough and coarse. It was embosomed with swamps and muddy tracts, accounting unhealthy atmosphere. Hasan bin Sabbah immediately embarked on the task of renovating the castle, which was in great need of repairs, improving its fortifications, storage facilities and water supply sources. He also improved and extended the system of irrigation and cultivation of crops in the Alamut, where many trees were planted. Thus, a fertile spot emerged out, tending an eye-catching scene in the barren ranges of Elburz mountain. The fertile tracts of the valley radically began to appear as if an oasis in the desert.

Whenever, the Alamut was threatened, the enemies had to come from Ispahan to Rudhbar after passing through the tedious and barren regions, and pitched their camps at the pastures of Alamut. While retreating, the frustrated forces took their revenge by mutilating and cutting down the luxuriant crops and devastated the smiling fields in order to quench the thirst of hatred and passion. Their temper was also crystallized into romantic stories. Firstly, it was rumoured that the valley of Alamut had been transformed into the gardens of paradise, but it proved an ineffectual among the local people. Instead, the enemies contrived another florid story that so called paradise existed inside the fortress. Since it was difficult to ascertain the story by the local people, it received a less credence in some quarters, whose bits and shreds were sorted out by the later writers to embellish a tale in exaggeration. Thus, the failure to eliminate the Ismailis, begot in its turn the idea of myths and tales. Round a trafling thing has thus grown up a crop of fables, making it a curious hodgepodge. According to "Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics" (London, 1958, 2nd vol., p. 140), "Hasan bin Sabbah caused the land surrounding his fortress to be carefully cultivated, and this may have led to the legend of paradise." It was the Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254-1324) to have heard from the villagers and narrated in his book. He was accompanied by his father and uncle and embarked on his journey to the court of Kubilai Khan (1260-1294). Macro Polo started from Acre in 1271, and passed through Iran in 1272, about 15 years after the reduction of Alamut when it was almost a heap of ruins. He committed his itinerary to writing through a scribe in 1298 and related what he had heard in Iran concerning the tale of paradise in Alamut. His ridiculous account however cannot be credible. It is inferred that he would have never crossed near the ruins of Alamut, and the description of the castle in Marco Polo's book was either the stronghold of Girdkuh near Damghan, which was finally surrendered to the Mongols in 1270, about two years before he crossed Khorasan into northern Afghanistan; or, more probably, some fortress in eastern Kohistan. There he evidently had seen a ruined castle of the Ismailis. His itinerary however did not take him to Alamut, which appears to be the castle alluded to in his account. He had heard from some local informants, which he admits in the beginning, and therefore, his account is admittedly not based on personal observation. It also cannot be denied that Marco Polo's account bears a distinctly occidental imprint, reflecting the influences of different reports which are ultimately traceable to Burchard of Strassburg, Arnold of Lubeck and James of Vitry. It is therefore possible that Marco Polo had knowingly conflated the information he had acquired some 30 years earlier in Iran, with the legends then prevalent in Europe for the Ismailis of Syria. All this sounds to the conclusion that Marco Polo could not have heard his account in its entirety from his informants in Iran.

Marco Polo applied the term Ashishin (or Assassin) for the Ismailis. It has been asserted that the term Assassin had originally acquired currency in Crusader circles in reference to the Ismailis of Syria, and it was neither originated or prevalent in Iran, and therefore, Marco Polo could not have heard the term Assassins from his informants in Iran. His curious application of the title of Old Man of the Mountain (Vetus de Mountain, or Viel de la Montaigne) to the ruler of Alamut; also suggests a doubtful description. This title has been coined by the Crusaders for the chief of the Ismailis of Syria, and it was never in usage among the Ismailis of Iran. It is therefore, safe to infer that Marco Polo would have never heard the title of Old Man of the Mountain in Iran, but he used in the light of the then informations prevalent in Europe for the Syrian Ismailis. It will be interesting on this juncture to quote the description of Marco Polo about the secret garden of paradise. He narrates:-

"So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahomet gave of his paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates..He kept at his court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about paradise, just as Mahomet had be wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahomet.. The prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahomet had described it in the law."

It is important to bear in mind that it was the tendency of the occidental sources to propagate that the Holy Koran was not a heavenly revealed book, but it was designed by the Prophet Muhammad, and whatever the misconception of Islam was popular in Europe at that time, is evidently echoing in the narration of Marco Polo. It gives further gravity to the conclusion that Marco Polo could not have heard such tendency from his Iranian informants. Peter de Venerable (1094-1156) had the Holy Koran translated for the first time from Arabic into Latin. Peter de Cluny (d. 551/1156) and Robert of Ketton also produced the Latin translation of Holy Koran in 538/1143, and it was followed by the translation of Mark of Toledo (1190-1200) under the title of "Alcorani Machomati Liber." Joinville and Pedro de Alfonso and other followed them in the 12th century, had dwelled polemically on the hedonistic delights of the Islamic garden of paradise.Pedro de Alfonso's account became much popular, and was treated, according to "Islam and the West" (Edinburg, 1960, p. 148) by Norman Daniel, "the standard mediaeval version of the Quran's promised paradise, that is, a garden of delights, the flowing waters, the mild air in which neither heat nor cold could afflict, the shady trees, the fruits, the many-coloured silken clothing and the palaces of precious stones and metals, the milk and wine served in gold and silver vessels by angels, saying, `eat and drink in joy'; and beautiful virgins, `untouched by men or demons'." Norman Daniel also adds, "In spite of the enormous influence of the "Liber Scalae", it must be said that the Quran itself was the chief source of the picture of the Islamic paradise familiar to so many mediaeval writers." (Ibid.)

The most famous writers in Europe who produced a colourful tale of the Islamic garden of paradise were Pedro de Alfonso, San Pedro, Marino Sanudo, Varagine, Higden, Simon Simeon, Ricoldo da Monte Croce, William of Tripoli, John Mandeville, Jacques de Vitry, Alan of Lille, Sigebert, Guido, etc. In time, the European conceptions of the Islamic paradise, based on the Koranic description in a literal sense, were incorporated into the alleged paradise of Alamut, culminating in Marco Polo's detailed account to this effect. Norman Daniel further writes, "It must be said that it was usual for Christians to allow themselves a rather purple rendering of the gardens and precious metals of paradise, though usually not of the virgins so beloved of later romanticism." (Ibid.) Farhad Daftary also writes in "The Assassin Legends" (London, 1994, p. 116) that, "And this garden, not found in any earlier European source before Marco Polo, was essentially modelled on the Quranic description of paradise then available."

Thus, Marco Polo enhanced a further lease of life to the anti-Ismaili propaganda in Europe. Later on, the account of Friar Odoric of Pordenous (d. 731/1331), who visited China during 1323-27, is perhaps the earliest occidental account of the Ismailis, based entirely on Marco Polo, on his homeland journey to Italy in 1328. Odoric passed through the Caspian coast land in northern Iran, and heard there about the Ismailis, but his description almost resembles the account of Marco Polo. Charles E. Nowell writes in "The Old Man of the Mountain" (cf. Speculum, Mass., October, 1947, vol., 12, no. 4, pp. 517-8) that, "It is easy to understand how some parts of the Marco-Odoric legend were started. Various eastern historians say that the original Old Man, Hasan Sabbah, for purely economic and strategic reasons, had conduits built and encouraged planting around Alamut. This give rise to the stories of the garden and the fountains of wine, milk and honey."

Mirza Muhammad Saeed Dehlvi writes in "Mazhab aur Batini Talim" (Lahore, 1935, pp.296-7) that, "Whenever, the villagers looked the view of the beautiful gardens, green fields and heaths from the surrounding walls of Alamut, they thought it a model of a paradise of the Nizari Ismailis on the ranges of mountain. It is possible that the legend of paradise must have been originated by the illiterate and narrow-minded villagers from whom Marco Polo had heard and recorded it during his journey." It is also a striking feature that not a single Muslim source, notably Ata Malik Juvaini had ever mentioned about the legend of paradise, who was very aggressive in his narratives and was in search of such stories against the Ismailis. Marshall Hodgson writes in the "The Order of the Assassins" (Netherland, 1955, p.135) that, "Juvaini, when investigating the history of Alamut on the spot after its fall did not look for such a garden as Polo heard tell of." Farhad Daftary also writes in "The Assassin Legends" (London, 1994, pp. 114-5) that, "The watchful Juwayni, who visited Alamut in 1256 shortly before that fortress was partially demolished by the Mongols, did not find any sign of Marco Polo's garden there; nor is the existence of any such Ismaili garden in Persia attested by Rashid al-Din or any other Muslim source. However, Juwayni was greatly impressed by the water conduits, cisterns and storage facilities which he did find at Alamut."

The modern scholars express great doubts as to the historicity of the stories of paradise narrated by Marco Polo. Carl Brockelmann writes in "History of the Islamic Peoples" (London, 1959, p. 179) that, "What the Venetian world traveller Marco Polo reported, who some two hundred years later (1271 or 1272) passed through the territory of Alamut, may be mere a legend." Dr. Abbas Hamadani writes in "The Fatimids" (Karachi 1962, pp. 50-51) that, "A myth was circulated in much later times to the effect that Hasan used to give hashish, an intoxicating drug, to his followers, and in their state of unconsciousness they were transferred to a false paradise. The legend of paradise was circulated by the European traveller Marco Polo, and it is obviously false." Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi writes in "Iran - Royalty, Religion and Revolution" (Canberra, 1980, p. 72) that, "The romantic stories of the order of assassins and of the Old Man of the Mountain are familiar to Western readers through the pages of Marco Polo, but the legends surrounding events in Alamut, although fascinating, are far from truth." According to "The Arabs" (by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, New York, 1978, p. 94) that, "Stories of the terrorists' use of hashish before setting out to commit murder and face martyrdom are doubtful, and there is no Ismaili source to confirm tales of an artificial paradise into which drugged members were taken as a foretaste of eternal bliss." Duncan Forbes also writes in "The Heart of Iran" (London, 1963, p. 29) that, "It is difficult to believe that the Alamut valley, austere and rocky as it is today, ever contained the delicate gardens described in the Middle Ages." Lastly, in falsifying the tale of paradise, William Marsdon writes in "The Travels of Marco Polo" (London, 1818, p. 117) that, "We may affect to smile at his (Macro Polo's) credulity."

It must be borne in mind that a less informed Ismaili historian, called Dehkhoda Abdul Malik bin Ali, who was appointed the commander of the fortress, later on became known as the Maimundiz in Rabi I, 520/April, 1126; gives few important details under the year 536/1142, as cited by Rashiduddin's "Jamiut Tawarikh" (ed. B. Karimi, Tehran, 1959, pp. 149-163), and Abul Kassim Kashani's "Zubdat al-Tawarikh" (ed. M.T. Danishpazhuh, 1964, pp. 171-4) that the Khurramiya, a sect of the Kaysania, had greatly borrowed the teachings of the Mazdakites and Zoroastrians. To sum up, by Khurramiya one means the whole wide movement which operated through out Iran, with a possible focus in Azerbaijan and Tabaristan. The very meaning of Khurramiya appears uncertain to the authors dealing with it. It is usually related to the meaning of the Iranian term khurram (joyful, delightful or pleasing), so as to stigmatise the movement as "licentious" and justify its dependence on Mazdakism, which was considered as too tolerant from the point of view of ethics. This dependence, however, was occasionally related to Mazdak's wife, Khurrama, held to have given her name to Mazdak's followers after his death. There is also a geographical explanation of the name from a village, called khurram, which is the least likely interpretation.

It appears that most of the followers of Khurramiya espoused Ismailism in Jabal al-Badain at Azerbaijan, and asserted that: "this is the true faith, we accept it." Hasan bin Sabbah deputed Dehkhoda Kaykhosrow, who had formerly belonged to them; to teach them the true Ismaili doctrines. When the latter died in Muharram, 513/May, 1119, his sons Abul Ala and Yousuf took his place as their dais. Both were greedy of wealth and power, and in pursuit, they neglected their newly faith of Ismailism. Hasan bin Sabbah exhorted and warned them, but to no avail. After Hasan bin Sabbah's death in 518/1124, a weaver named Budayl arose among them, and renounced Ismaili faith. He taught his followers that: "The law of the Shariah is only for those adhering to the exterior of religion. There is no reality to what is declared lawful or forbidden in religion. Prayers and fasting must therefore be abandoned." Curiously, Budayl also taught them that: "Women were the water of the house. Dowry and marriage contract had no meaning. Daughters were lawful for their fathers and brothers."Hence, they thought all forbidden things licit, and believed that the paradise and hell were on earth and that every one who recognizes the divinity of Abul Ala and Yousuf would return to earth in human shape, while those failing to do so would return in the form of wild beasts. In sum, these were the people whose doctrines consisted in rolling up the carpet of obligations of the Shariah, so as to render men free to follow all their pleasures and passions in permitting freedom of sextual relations and declaring as permitted all sorts of things prohibited by the religious laws.

When these became erroneously known publicly as the teachings of Hasan bin Sabbah, the Ismailis seized some of the heretics. Abul Ala and Yousuf then were apprehended on 9th Rabi II, 537/October 31, 1142 during the period of Imam al-Mohtadi, and were scourged to death. Within a year, the rest of the heretics were searched and executed.

It would be therefore, absurd to believe that the doctrines of the Khurramiya sect, whose one group embraced Ismailism and then reverted to their former cults; may be attributed to the teachings of Hasan bin Sabbah. It is a landmark point worth consideration that the aggressive sources have blindly mixed up the doctrines of the Khurrarmiya sect with the teachings of the Ismailis and their baseless and capricious narratives were used to discredit the Ismailis.

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