The Assassin Legends: Myths of The Isma'ilis
The Assassin Legends: Myths of The Isma`ilis.

Popular myths and legends have surround the Nizari Isma`ilis, a secretive Shi'ite sect that developed an alluring aesthetics of assassination in Fatimid Cairo during the eleventh century. The veil of mystery and secrecy, behind which the sect operated to provide protection from detractors and enemies, gave rise to a host of tales that either discredit or idolize the Isma`ilis and their leaders, Hassan I. Sabbah in northern Persia and Sinan in Syria. Farhad Daftary's book The Assassin Legends points out the unreliability of most of the tales and seeks to disentangle fact from legend.

Hassan I. Sabbah appears in the novels of the contemporary American novelist William S. Burroughs. The character, who makes random appearances here and there throughout Burroughs's oeuvre, seems to represent the subversive potential within any political order. HIS (as Hassan I. Sabbah is often denoted) represents the nomadic, smooth -- as opposed to striated -- space, a line of flight by which new cultural forms can emerge. Here, for example, is a characteristic reference to HIS in Burroughs's Western Lands: The modern operative, then, is doing something very different from the messengers of HIS. Modern agents are protecting and expanding political aggregates. HIS was training individuals for space conditions, for existence without the physical body. This is the logical evolutionary step. The physical body is not designed for space conditions in present form. Too heavy, since it is encumbered with a skeleton to maintain upright position in a gravity field. Political structures are increasingly incompatible with space conditions. They are inexorably cutting our lifelines to space, by imposing a uniformity of environment that precludes evolutionary mutations.

Marshall Hodgson in The Order of Assassins and Bernard Lewis in The Assassins depict Hassan I. Sabbah as a historical figure. For Burroughs, Sabbah is more fictional than historical. In the character's imaginative form resides more power than would reside in an accurate representation of the figure.

Daftary's main purpose in The Assassin Legends is to disentangle legend from fact and purge Isma`ili historiography of the slanders of partisan detractors in the East and the infidelities of ill informed Western observers. In light of recent historical work, he examines legends of the Nizari Isma`ilis as they circulated in the Western world, particularly after Crusader contact with the Middle East.

The first chapter, "The Isma`ilis in History and in Medieval Muslim Writings," focuses on the history of the Isma`ilis during the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, a time during which Hassan I. Sabbah emerged as a leader, establishing Alamut, perched in northern Iran, as the center of his operations in 1090. This remained an Isma`ili haven until Mongols routed and destroyed the fortress in 1256. Much of the historical material here is familiar, available in Hodgson as well as in Daftary's own The Isma`ilis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge, 1990). Daftary, however, is keen o n presenting afresh the struggle between the Nizaris and the dominant Sunnis. "The armed revolt of the Nizaris," he writes, "with the spectacular assassinations attributed to them, posed a mounting threat to the Sunni establishment and speedily qualified the Nizaris as a new Isma`ili target for persecution and refutation by the Muslim majority." In response to this perceived threat, large numbers of Nizaris were thus massacred, and their properties confiscated, in great cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Qazwin and Isfahan, the main Saljuq capital in Persia, as well in the towns of southern Khurasan and elsewhere (p.35).

Daftary corrects the image of the Nizari as radical insurgents, drawing attention to the group's broader based culture -- its libraries, its developed socio-economic system, its theology. Unfortunately, Daftary admits, much of the evidence of this culture has been lost or destroyed by conquerors. Daftary's main argument here is that "the Nizaris were definitely not an `order of assassins' bent on destroying Islam" (p.38).

The Nizaris had to contend not only with a powerful Sunni majority, but with invading Crusaders, as discussed in the second chapter, "Medieval European Perceptions of Islam and the Isma`ilis." The period of the Crusades -- from Pope Urban II's appeal to reclaim the Holy Land in 1095, to Saladin's recapture of Jerusalem in 1187 and the fall of Acre in 1291 -- coincides with the time of greatest activity among the Nizaris, both in Persia and Syria. Daftary maps out encounters between Crusaders and Nizaris during this period, stressing that Europeans understood Islam very imperfectly and were generally incapable of (or uninterested in) making distinctions between one sect or branch of Islam and another. "Proximity to the Syrian Nizaris [during the Crusader period]," Daftary writes "did not result in more accurate perceptions of the Nizari beliefs and practices" (pp. 76-77).

The most interesting chapter of Daftary's book is the third and final chapter, "Origins and Early Formation of the Legends," which identifies and challenges the validity of accounts of the "Assassins" written by occidentals during and after the Crusades: the likes of Burchard of Strassburg who visited Syria in 1175; William of Tyre who spent three decades in the Levant in the latter half of the twelfth century; Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish rabbi who traveled in Syria in 1167; James of Vitry, who wrote at the beginning of the thirteenth century; and the German writer Arnold of Lübeck. From these accounts arose, variously, notions of an almost omnipotent Old Man of the Mountain (Sinan), disciples who would execute any order from their master (including the legendary "death leap"), abandonment of all moral codes, and the depiction of a lush and enticing paradise -- either on earth or as a reward and promise for the Fida'is (disciples) when they die in the service of their cause. "Westerners themselves," Daftary notes. were responsible for fabricating the Assassin legends in their popular forms, and putting them into circulation in the Latin East as well as in Europe. These legends, rooted essentially in the `imaginative ignorance' of the Medieval Europeans, did nevertheless draw on some important bits and pieces of information or disinformation as well as misunderstood rumors, hostile allegations and exaggerated half- truths which were picked up locally and orally (p.93-4).

Of these accounts, Marco Polo's is the most lavish and fanciful. Polo describes the Nizari enclave as containing "the most beautiful houses and the most beautiful palaces that were ever seen." There were also "plenty of garments, couches, food, and all things which can be desired. No sad thing was spoken of there, nor was it lawful to have time for anything but play, love, and pleasure." An opium drink was used by the Old Man to cast a spell on initiates. "And when the Old Man wished to have any lord or any other man killed he took some of these his Assassins and sent them where he wished, and told them that he wished to send them carried by his angels to Paradise, and that they go to kill such a man, and if they should die that they will go immediately to Paradise" (p.112).

Marco Polo's remarks on the Assassins come as a digression in his description of a trip taken after the Mongol invasion which crushed the Isma`ilis at Alamut; polo's itinerary did not even take him to Alamut, the old stronghold of Hassan I. Sabbah. There can be no mistake that his description is pure fabrication which was meant to amuse his readers, not to give them a historically accurate picture of the Isma`ilis.

The legends, the author claims in the introduction, have been "rooted in the hostility of the Muslims toward the Isma`il's and the Europeans' own fanciful impressions of the orient" (p.2). While this may, in fact, have been true some years ago, this is far from the image presented in recent scholarship. Hodgson, for example, writes: In the Twentieth Century the Nizaris have begun to be treated no longer either as an incident in the Crusade, or as a horrible example with which to frighten radicals; but rather as a people in their own right. The new interest of the latter-day Nizaris themselves in their history accounts for this in part; much of the recent work has been carried out in India (p.28).

Hodgson's study, still a classic, seeks to situate the Isma`ili group within a historical context and, like Daftary's, sees their actions as a natural part of the struggles of a religious minority in the Middle East.

There is no doubt that the Isma`ilis -- like so many other minority Muslim groups in the Middle East, including the Alawis and Druze - - have suffered due to the hegemonic thrust of Sunni Islam and an unwillingness to recognize differences within Islam, as articulated so forcefully by Adonis in Arabic Poetics. There is much to be applauded, thus, in attempts to write histories of resistance. History is usually written from the point of view of the victor, and certain versions of history are often appropriated by contemporary political regimes in order to legitimize their power. As Dipesh Chakrabarty, editor of Subaltern Studies, has pointed out recently, "all these other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called `the history of Europe.'"

Throughout his study, Daftary is keen on correcting the impression of the Nizari as drug-crazed and murderous. In his introduction, he writes that the sect is "generally depicted in European sources as a sinister order of drugged and murderous assassins" (p.5). A great deal is at stake for Daftary in the very use of the term "assassin." He raises serious objections to the use of the word "assassins" by Lewis and Hodgson in their books, and he tries to dislodge the word from certain associations and dubious etymologies. The first use of the term "Hashishiyya" (hashish, from which evolved the term assassin) was by rival Musta'ilian Isma'ilis in Egypt, after they had executed Nizar in Cairo and caused a shift of Nizari power to Syria (p.30). While most agree that the English word "assassin" is derived from the reference to the Nizari sect well known for its use of assassination to further its political aims, the association between "hashish" and "assassin" is still, it seems, highly speculative -- despite Silvestre de Sacy's masterful attempt to prove the connection in his "Memoir on the Dynasty of the Assassins, and the Etymology of their Name" (an original translation of which is included as an appendix to Daftary' s book). While we might expunge negative connotations from the term "assassin," given its long use it is not likely the term will easily dissolve or be substituted by "Nizari."

In the end, the title of Daftary's book promises more than it delivers. In a rather stiff style, he traces the Assassin legends up to the nineteenth century (de Sacy) where he drops the narrative. Not only does he seem unaware of Burroughs's use of Hassan I. Sabbah -- which is radically different from that employed by Orientalists -- but he seems also to be unacquainted with Amin Maalouf's Samarkand (published in French in 1989; in English in 1992), a historical novel revolving around the intriguing connections between Omar Khayyam, the Saljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk and Hassan Sabbah -- a story, told in brief, which opens Daftary's book!

Maalouf, like Daftary, dismisses Orientalist claims that Hassan's assassins were drugged. "How otherwise could it be explained that they went to their deaths with a smile?" Maalouf concludes that we must go by the evidence, in spite of the tenacity and allure of tradition: the Assassins had no drug other than straightforward faith, which was constantly reinforced by the intense instruction, the most efficient organization and the strictest apportionment of tasks (p.118).

Daftary, however, does not seem aware of an important clue that Maalouf picked up. Maalouf suggests that mistaken etymology could have led to misunderstandings and myths, and he claims that the word Hassan used to describe his disciples, Assassiyun, meant "people who are faithful to the Assass, the `Foundation' of the faith," not, as was assumed hashishiyun, or `hashish-smokers'" (p.118). Such a simple and credible explanation! How could it have escaped such erudite philologists as Silvestre de Sacy and Farhad Daftary?

Maalouf also goes beyond Daftary in (perhaps a bit imaginatively) laying out the organization of the Nizari, the echelons and cadres of the sect, rigorous training mastery of disguise and dissimulation.

Perhaps what is most apparently absent in Daftary's study is an appreciation or explanation of the extent to which the Nizaris (or Assassins) have captured the imagination -- in the East and West -- since Crusader times. Certainly one element owing to the group's imaginative appeal is its highly secretive, clandestine means of operation. Furthermore, the sect of the Assassins serves as a fascinating, almost romantic example of effective resistance to overwhelming structures of power. In short, the Nizaris' guerrilla like tactics are analogous to those employed by other contemporary liberation groups (e.g., the PPK and Palestinian organizations) fighting against great odds to preserve their very integrity, if not just to survive.

Despite Daftary's attempts to dispel and disprove the myths and legends which have grown up around the Nizaris, it is unlikely, given their imaginative potential, that they will disappear. The world would be so much smaller and duller without myths such as these. No one, it seems, understood the power of such legends more than Hassan I. Sabbah himself. Notes 1.Burroughs, William S. (1988). The Western Lands. New York: Penguin, p.192. 2.See Hodgson, Marshall G.S. (1955). The Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Isma'ilis Against the Islamic World. `s-Gravenhage: Mounton & Co. and Lewis, Bernard. (1980). The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. New York: Octagon Books. 3.Chakrabarty, Dipesh. (Winter 1992). Postcoloniality and the artifice of history: Who speaks for `Indian' pasts?" Representations 37, p.1. 4.Amin Maalouf, (1992). Samarkand. Trans. Russell Harris. London: Quartet, p.118.