We all have heard of Hassan Sabbah, the supreme leader of Nizari Ismailis order of eleventh century Persia, but only few know about the true history of this controversial branch of Shiite Islam and its leaders.
In 765 Shiism gave birth to a new branch, which arose from a dispute over succession of its 6th Imam. Today’s dominant and the main stream of Twelver-Shiites believe that their 6th Imam, Jafar Al-Sadigh, instead of choosing Ismail (his first and oldest son) nominated Ismail’s younger half-brother, Musa Al-Kazim as the 7th Imam. Jafar’s decision was not endorsed by all his followers, and those who supported the Imamate of Ismail and his son Muhammad after him became known as Ismailis, which also were referred to as Qarmatis or Sevener-Shiites.
Ismailis’ philosophical doctrine embodies discovering the esoteric truth behind the appearances, the nature of the spiritual hierarchy, the divinity of the Imam, and the need for initiated interpretation of the inner meaning of the Koran. Their teachings include a respect for Koran combined with an intellectual appreciation for the profundities of Greek Neo-Platonism, Cabalistic teachings and even Hindu mysticism. However, just like any other system of belief and religion this doctrine had not evolved over night and was subject to change, schism and reinvention.
Ismailis were able to achieve immense intellectual and philosophical accomplishments due to patronage of the Fatimid dynasty, an Islamic Shiite dynasty, which ruled Northern Africa and parts of Middle East and Egypt for more than 250 years with their capital in Cairo.
Hassan Sabbah came to picture on the last important Ismailis schism, and towards the end of the Fatimid reign. The Ismailis spiritual leadership or Imamate of Fatimid ruler Al-Mustali was challenged by Nizar who fled to Alexandria, and Hassan led the Nizari Ismailis separation from the main stream in Persia. He helped to develop and promulgate the doctrine of the Nizari succession under the New Preaching, and even tried and somehow succeeded to end the Fatimid Imamate of Ismailis by sending an assassin to kill the successor to the throne. The Fatimid domination however was not completely eradicated until Salah-Al Din Al-Auybbi, known as Saladin to the western world, restored the Sunni faith in Egypt by invading and defeating the last Fatimid caliph in Cairo.
Hassan Sabbah was born to a family of Twelver-Shiite in 1050 in the city of Qom in Persia! He eventually moved to Ray near Tehran, which was an important center of Ismailis preaching and was exposed to its doctrine. Their mission was known as Dawa or “summons” and that’s an attempt and invitation to swear allegiance to the Ismailis order with its three levels of Altruist or Fidaei, Comrade or Rafigh and Missionary or Daei. The last and highest level is the Supreme Leader or Imam himself. Ismailis just like Twelver-Shiites believe in Mahdi or the hidden Imam.
Hassan was 17 when he converted to Ismailis faith under the leadership or Imamate of Fatimid caliphs. He traveled to Azerbaijan, Turkey, Syria and finally Egypt to first study and later preach his faith. This ambitious young man managed to become an influential Ismailis figure in Cairo but later was put in jail and got deported out of Egypt and back to Persia.
After traveling around Persia to gather followers, he finally settled in Alamut, which is a citadel located in Alborz Mountains in north of Iran. He knew the Koran by heart and had an extensive knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and architecture, but what distinguished him from others was his charisma. He also possessed great leadership qualities. But just like any other commander, a dark cloud of demeaning characteristics lurked around his personality and his desire for power surely made him many enemies.
Hassan’s main adversary was Nizam Al-Mulk, the eminent vizier of famous king Malik Shah of Seljuk Dynasty who ruled Persia for 20 years. Another well-known Persian scholar contemporary to Hassan was Omar Khayyam of Nishapour, the great poet and astronomer. There are stories about these three and how their paths crossed. They might have even worked together under Malik Shah’s patronage, but somehow their ways separated and a serious split of idea and religious belief caused animosity between Nizam Al-Mulk and Hassan Sabbah. Their enmity ended by the death of 78-year-old Nizam Al-Mulk in the hands of one of Hassan’s assassins, who disguised himself as a dervish and approached the great vizier.
Some believe that Hassan Sabbah turned assassination into an art by maximizing the political benefit while minimizing the loss of his followers life and avoiding unnecessary bloodshed and suffering of the traditional battlefield. In total 75 people were assassinated by Hassan and his two successors, but assassination became less frequent after the first decades of Ismaili struggle. For the devoted Fidaie, the act of the murder was a genuine religious sacrament. The Fidaie did not evade capture and only used a handheld dagger.
The assassins were known as Hashishiyon. The name was a reference to legend of assassin chiefs administrating a hallucinating drug to disciples during their sojourn in the Garden of Pleasure. Vladimir Bartol has a novel named “Alamut” based on this fictitious story, but there is no historical evidence that any Fidaie was ever given drugs or intoxicants and even the anti-Ismaili contemporary Islamic writers, both Sunni and Shiite, nowhere accuse the sect of drug use.
Nizari Ismailis remained active after Hassan Sabbah. Seven successors led the Ismailis during the next 132 years. Their last main Imam Khurshah was killed by Mongols. The Modern scholars today could find the surviving medieval Persian language Ismaili literature because a Nizari community had developed in the remote upper Oxus region that remained unaffected by the Mongol invasion. That community flourished and coexisted with other religions in the area but never rejoiced its glorious past. Nizari Ismailis still exist today with their main Imamate establishment in India and their followers scattered around the world.
Alamut’s ruins remain to this day and is a major tourist attraction near Tehran. It is built on a narrow ridge on a high rock in the heart of the Alborz Mountains in a region known as Rudbar. The castle dominates an enclosed cultivated valley thirty miles long and three miles across at its widest, and is only accessible with the greatest difficulty through a narrow gorge of the Alamut River.
The legend says that one of the Daylami kings on his hunting day released an eagle, which then perched on the rock that rose way above the valley. The king ordered to build a castle on the rock and named it Aluh-Amut, which means Eagle’s Teaching in the Daylami language. The word then changed to Alamut and the citadel marked the foundation of the Nizari state and the proclamation of their open revolt against the Sunni Seljuk empire.
Alamut was the first and the most important Ismaili center but later on tens of castles were established in different parts of Persia. Alamut was attacked several times but never captured by Seljuks. It was actually the Mongol king Huelgu Khan who put an end to the long history of this citadel.