By PETER LAMBORN WILSON
material on the Ismaili sect and on Hassan i
Sabbah... the only spiritual leader who has anything
significant to say in the Space Age."
- William S. Burroughs, in
a review of Peter Lamborn-Wilson's Scandal:
Essays in Islamic Heresy.
the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the new Islamic
community was ruled in succession by four of his
close Companions, chosen by the people and called the
Rightfully-guided Caliphs. The last of these was Ali
ibn Abu Talib; the Prophet's son-in-law.
his own ardent followers among the faithful, who came
to be called Shi'a or "adherents". They
believed that Ali should have succeeded Mohammad by
right, and that after him his sons (the Prophet's
grandsons) Hasan and Husayn should have ruled; and
after them, their sons, and so on in quasi-monarchial
except for Ali none of them ever ruled all Islamdom.
Instead they became a line of pretenders, and in
effect heads of a branch of Islam called Shiism. In
opposition to the orthodox (Sunni) Caliphs in Baghdad
these descendants of the Prophet came to be known as
Shiites an Imam is far more, far higher in rank than
a Caliph. Ali ruled by right because of his spiritual
greatness, which the Prophet recognized by appointing
him his successor (in fact Ali is also revered by the
sufis as "founder" and prototype of the
Moslem saint). Shiites differ from orthodox or Sunni
Moslems in believing that this spiritual pre-eminence
was transferred to Ali's descendants through Fatima,
the Prophet's daughter.
sixth Shiite Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, had two sons. The
elder, Ismail, was chosen as successor. But he died
before his father. Jafar then declared his own
younger son Musa the new successor instead.
Ismail had already given birth to a son - Mohammad
ibn Ismail - and proclaimed him the next Imam.
Ismail's followers split with Jafar over this
question and followed Ismail's son instead of Musa.
Thus they came to be known as Ismailis.
descendants ruled "orthodox" Shiism. A few
generations later, the Twelfth Imam of this line
vanished without trace from the material world. He
still lives on the spiritual plane, whence he will
return at the end of this cycle of time. He is the
"Hidden Imam", the Mahdi foretold by the
Prophet. "Twelver" Shiism is the religion
of Iran today.
Ismaili Imams languished in concealment, heads of an
underground movement which attracted the extreme
mystics and revolutionaries of Shiism. Eventually
they emerged as a powerful force at the head of an
army, conquered Egypt and established the Fatimid
dynasty, the so-called anti-Caliphate of Cairo.
early Fatimids ruled in an enlightened manner, and
Cairo became the most cultured and open city of
Islam. They never succeeded in converting the rest of
the Islamic world however; in fact, even most
Egyptians failed to embrace Ismailism. The highly
evolved mysticism of the sect was at once its special
attraction and its major limitation.
a brilliant young Persian convert arrived in Cairo to
be inducted into the higher initiatic (and political)
ranks of Ismailism. But Hasan-i Sabbah soon found
himself embroiled in a struggle for power. The Caliph
Mustansir had appointed his eldest son Nizar as
successor. But a younger son, al-Mustali, was
intriguing to supplant him. When Mustansir died,
Nizar - the rightful heir - was imprisoned and
Sabbah had intrigued for Nizar, and now was forced to
flee Egypt. He eventually turned up in Persia again,
head of a revolutionary Nizari movement. By some
clever ruse he acquired command of the impregnable
mountain fortress of Alamut ("Eagle's
Nest") near Qazvin in Northwest Iran.
Sabbah's daring vision, ruthless and romantic, has
become a legend in the Islamic world. With his
followers he set out to recreate in miniature the
glories of Cairo in this barren multichrome forsaken
to protect Alamut and its tiny but intense
civilization Hasan-i Sabbah relied on assassination.
Any ruler or politician or religious leader who
threatened the Nizaris went in danger of a fanatic's
dagger. In fact Hasan's first major publicity coup
was the murder of the Prime Minister of Persia,
perhaps the most powerful man of the era (and
according to legend, a childhood friend of Sabbah's).
their fearful reputation was secure, the mere threat
of being on the eso-terrorist hit-list was enough to
deter most people from acting against the hated
heretics. One theologian was first threatened with a
knife (left by his pillow as he slept), then bribed
with gold. When his disciples asked him why he had
ceased to fulminate against Alamut from his pulpit he
answered that Ismaili arguments were "both
pointed and weighty".
the great library of Alamut was eventually burned,
little is known of Hasan-i Sabbah's actual teachings.
Apparently he formed an initiatic hierarchy of seven
circles based on that in Cairo, with assassins at the
bottom and learned mystics at the top.
mysticism is based on the concept of ta'wil, or
"spiritual hermeneutics". Ta'wil actually
means "to take something back to its source or
deepest significance". The Shiites had always
practised this exegesis on the Koran itself, reading
certain verses as veiled or symbolic allusions to Ali
and the Imams. The Ismailis extended ta'wil much more
radically. The whole structure of Islam appeared to
them as a shell; to get at its kernel of meaning the
shell must be penetrated by ta'wil, and in fact
broken open completely.
structure of Islam, even more than most religions, is
based on a dichotomy between exoteric and esoteric.
On the one hand there is Divine Law (shariah), on the
other hand the Spiritual Path (tariqah). Usually the
Path is seen as the esoteric kernel and the Law as
the exoteric shell. But to Ismailism the two together
present a totality which in its turn becomes a symbol
to be penetrated by ta'wil. Behind Law and Path is
ultimate Reality (haqiqah), God Himself in
theological terms - Absolute Being in metaphysical
Reality is not something outside human scope; in fact
if it exists at all then it must manifest itself
completely on the level of consciousness. Thus it
must appear as a man, the Perfect Man - the Imam.
Knowledge of the Imam is direct perception of Reality
itself. For Shiites the Family of Ali is the same as
Imam is realized, the levels of Law and Path fall
away naturally like split husks. Knowledge of inner
meaning frees one from adherence to outer form: the
ultimate victory of the esoteric over the exoteric.
"abrogation of the Law" however was
considered open heresy in Islam. For their own
protection Shiites had always been allowed to
practise taqqiya, "permissable
dissimulation" or Concealment, and pretend to be
orthodox to escape death or punishment. Ismailis
could pretend to be Shiite or Sunni, whichever was
Nizaris, to practise Concealment was to practise the
Law; in other words, pretending to be orthodox meant
obeying the Islamic Law. Hasan-i Sabbah imposed
Concealment on all but the highest ranks at Alamut,
because in the absence of the Imam the veil of
illusion must naturally conceal the esoteric truth of
who was the Imam? As far as history was concerned,
Nizar and his son died imprisoned and intestate.
Hasan-i Sabbah was therefore a legitimist supp-orting
a non-existent pret-ender! He never claimed to be the
Imam himself, nor did his successor as "old Man
of the Mountain," nor did his successor. And yet
they all preached "in the name of Nizar".
Presumably the answer to this mystery was revealed in
the seventh circle of initiation.
third Old Man of the Mountain had a son named Hasan,
a youth who was learned, generous, eloquent and
loveable. Moreover he was a mystic, an enthusiast for
the deepest teachings of Ismailism and sufism. Even
during his father's lifetime some Alamutis began to
whisper that young Hasan was the true Imam; the
father heard of these rumors and denied them. I am
not the Imam, he said, so how could my son be the
the father died and Hasan (call him Hasan II to
distinguish him from Hasan-i Sabbah) became ruler of
Alamut. Two years later, on the seventeenth of
Ramazan (August 8) in 1164, he proclaimed the
Qiyamat, or Great Resurrection. In the middle of the
month of Fasting, Alamut broke its fast forever and
proclaimed perpetual holiday.
resurrection of the dead in their bodies at the
"end of time" is one of the most difficult
doctrines of Islam (and Christianity as well). Taken
literally it is absurd. Taken symbolically however it
encapsulates the experience of the mystic. He
"dies before death" when he comes to
realize the separative and alienated aspects of the
self, the ego-as-programmed-illusion. He is
"reborn" in consciousness but he is reborn
in the body, as an individual, the
Hasan II proclaimed the Great Resurrection which
marks the end of Time, he lifted the veil of
concealment and abrogated the religious Law. He
offered communal as well as individual participation
in the mystic's great adventure, perfect freedom.
on behalf of the Imam, and did not claim to be the
Imam himself. (In fact he took the title of Caliph or
"representative".) But if the family of Ali
is the same as perfect consciousness, then perfect
consciousness is the same as the family of Ali. The
realized mystic "becomes" a descendant of
Ali (like the Persian Salman whom Ali adopted by
covering him with his cloak, and who is much revered
by sufis, Shiites and Ismailis alike).
Reality, in haqiqah, Hasan II was the Imam because in
the Ismaili phrase, he had realised the
"Imam-of-his-own-being." The Qiyamat was
thus an invitation to each of his followers to do the
same, or at least to participate in the pleasures of
paradise on earth.
legend of the paradisal garden at Alamut where the
houris, cupbearers, wine and hashish of paradise were
enjoyed by the Assassins in the flesh, may stem from
a folk memory of the Qiyamat. Or it may even be
literally true. For the realized consciousness this
world is no other than paradise, and its bliss and
pleasures are all permitted. The Koran describes
paradise as a garden. How logical then for wealthy
Alamut to become outwardly the reflection of the
spiritual state of the Qiyamat.
Hasan II was murdered after only four years of rule.
His enemies were perhaps in league with conservative
elements at Alamut who resented the Qiyamat, the
dissolving of the old secret hierarchy (and thus
their own power as hierarchs) and who feared to live
thus openly as heretics. Hasan II's son however
succeeded him and established the Qiyamat firmly as
Qiyamat were accepted in its full implications
however it would probably have brought about the
dissolution and end of Nizari Ismailism as a separate
sect. Hasan II as Qa'im or "Lord of the
Resurrection" had released the Alamutis from all
struggle and all sense of legitimist urgency. Pure
esotericism, after all, cannot be bound by any form.
II's son, therefore, compromised. Apparently he
decided to "reveal" that his father was in
fact and in blood a direct descendant of Nizar. The
story runs that after Hasan-i Sabbah had established
Alamut, a mysterious emissary delivered to him the
infant grandson of Imam Nizar. The child was raised
secretly at Alamut. He grew up, had a son, died. The
son had a son. This baby was born on the same day as
the son of the Old Man of the Mountain, the outward
ruler. The infants were surreptitiously exchanged in
their cradles. Not even the Old Man knew of the ruse.
Another version has the hidden Imam committing
adultery with the Old Man's wife, and producing as
love-child the infant Hasan II.
Ismailis accepted these claims. Even after the fall
of Alamut to the Mongol hordes the line survived and
the present leader of the sect, the Aga Khan, is
known as the forty-ninth in descent from Ali (and
pretender to the throne of Egypt!). The emphasis on
Alid legitimacy has preserved the sect as a sect.
Whether it is literally true or not, however, matters
little to an understanding of the Qiyamat.
proclamation of the Resurrection, the teachings of
Ismailism were forever expanded beyond the borders
imposed on them by any historical event. The Qiyamat
remains as a state of consciousness which anyone can
adhere to or enter, a garden without walls, a sect
without a church, a lost moment of Islamic history
that refuses to be forgotten, standing outside time,
a reproach or challenge to all legalism and moralism,
to all the cruelty of the exoteric. An invitation to