COMMENT & ANALYSIS: 'Assassins' legend concocted by Ismaili Muslims' enemies

Financial Times, Oct 19, 2001 From Dr Azim Nanji and Dr Farhad Daftary.

Sir, It is very unfortunate that the search for historical connections in the aftermath of the terrible events of September 11 has indeed made historical truth itself a casualty. Tom Scott's article "Grim lessons from a legendary Muslim" (FT Weekend October 6-7) attempts to draw parallels between the ancient history of the Ismaili Muslims and the actions of these terrorists. In the past 25 years, scholarship, Muslim and western, based on authentic primary sources, has shown this legend about the Assassins to be a fabrication concocted by contemporary enemies of the Ismailis and transmitted through accounts picked up by the likes of Marco Polo. Historians now recognise that Marco Polo's writings contain as much hearsay as they do fact and that his travels do not appear to substantiate all his writings.

The Nizari branch of Ismaili Muslims flourished for almost two centuries in Iran and Syria, as a place of learning, scholarship and international influence. In addition to the hostility prevailing in political and military spheres, the Ismailis also became the object of theological and intellectual attacks, because of their openness to diverse, intellectual views and scholarship, which attracted many scholars and scientists to their libraries and observatories. This climate of threat was accentuated by direct military attempts to destroy their centres and communities.

It is in this context that their attempts at self-defence need to be understood. These were directed at political and military figures and never against the general populace, a fact recognised by their enemies. In their studies of the Ismailis both Bernard Lewis and the late Marshall Hodgson provide the context for the way this invention was unthinkingly picked up by European scholars. We can learn much from history about the rich intellectual and cultural interactions among Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.

By forging fictive brittle historical assumptions and shoddy misreadings of history, we compromise these opportunities for mutual understanding and do no service to peaceful and law-abiding Muslim communities, whose intellectual, social and economic contributions to the societies in which they live (including Britain) are well known. Azim Nanji, Professor and Director Farhad Daftary, Head, Dept of Academic Research and Publications The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 42-44 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0EB Copyright: The Financial Times Limited