Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/juliamaudlin/16040685160/ (CC BY 2.0)

Book Synopsis: The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis ~ IIS

Preface

The book is comprised of an introduction, three interconnected chapters, and an Appendix. After a brief introduction to the aims and ambitions of the book, Dr. Daftary’s second chapter provides a concise history of the Ismailis. This chapter sets the historical stage upon which the Assassin Legends were formed. Chapter 3 builds upon the historical survey in chapter 2 and focuses in particular on the interactions between the Europeans and the Ismailis commencing with the Crusaders. It is not until the 4th chapter, after having provided the necessary background and insights, that Dr. Daftary comes to the main subject matter of his book, the Assassin Legends. Outlining the various legends and detailing when and how each first appeared, this chapter demonstrates the legends as “fabricated and put into circulation by Europeans,” rather than factual accounts of Ismaili practices (p. 7).

The Appendix, the final section of the book, is the first English translation of the, “Memoire sur la dynastie des Assassins, et sur l’etymologie de leur Nom” by Silvestre de Sacy, an important 19th century study of the Ismailis. According to Daftary, de Sacy’s piece finally solved the mystery of the term ‘Assassin’ — a label that had been accepted as synonymous with Ismailis for centuries — and in doing so, made a significant contribution to the renunciation of the Assassin Legends.

Guiding Questions

  1. Why did the Ismailis of the medieval period contribute so minimally to the refutation of the Assassin Legends?
  2. For what reasons did the occidental travellers prefer to exaggerate, and in most instances fabricate, their accounts of the Ismailis rather than attempt a genuine portrayal?
  3. Why is an understanding of the historical circumstances under which the Assassin Legends were formed and disseminated of such importance?
  4. What are the implications of modern scholarship revising much of what was previously accepted as fact?
  5. How significant a role does history play in the construction of communal identity?

The Ismailis in History and in Medieval Muslim Writings

As is clearly articulated in Daftary’s work, A Short History of the Ismailis, the Ismailis are a community whose history is fraught with schisms. However, for a multitude of reasons — including geography and deliberate secrecy — many of these divisions were unknown to the Sunni, and larger Shi’a communities from whom the Ismailis found themselves separated in the mid-8th century. The fact that other Muslim communities were unaware of the subdivisions within the Ismailiyya, resulted in their categorising the various Ismaili communities as one; this classification had serious and long-term implications. In particular, the Qarmatis, who split from the Ismailis in 899 CE, went on to commit sacrilegious acts — including the stealing of the black stone from the Ka’ba –which were then attributed to the Ismailis. This act was not only considered profane, but it caused the Abbasids public embarrassment and ultimately resulted in the first Sunni polemics against the Ismailis.

A century later, still associating the Ismailis with the Qarmati transgression, the Sunni Abbasids responded to the emergence of the Fatimid Empire in 909 CE, with heightened polemical activity. Most notably, the Sunni polemicists created the “Black Legend”, a tale stating that the Ismaili Imams did not truly descend from Imam ‘Ali, but rather that Ismailism was a conspiracy founded to destroy Islam from within (p. 25). This was the first legend to emerge about the Ismailis and the only one intentionally created by other Muslims.

As well, great scholars were commissioned by the Abbasid and Seljuk rulers, such as al-Ghazali (d.1111 CE), to write treatises using intellectual arguments, rather than crude accusations, to denounce the Ismailis. In response to these polemics, the Ismailis produced their own treatises which both discussed their distinction from the Qarmatis and provided the details of their beliefs so as to prove the Black Legend fictitious. However, the sensational appeal of the Abbasid accounts coupled with the loss of the Fatimid Ismaili texts in 1171 CE, allowed for the vast proliferation of these polemical claims.

In 1256 CE the Mongols massacred the Ismaili community of the Alamut period, damaged their forts, burnt their library and with it destroyed all evidence countering Ismaili polemics; thereafter, fearing for their safety, the Ismailis adopted taqiyya until the 19th century.

This situation was to worsen still after 1094 CE with the Nizari-Must’ali schism within the Ismailiyya; this split not only produced internal polemics but ultimately led to the appearance of the Nizari Ismailis (the focus of this work) in Egypt to Iran and Syria. In Iran, to protect themselves from the powerful Seljuks, the Ismailis adopted a “policy of assassination”; a survival strategy where trained Ismailis would eliminate particular religious, political and military adversaries (p. 34).These assassinations inevitably aggravated the ruling Seljuks, as many of the targets were their own men and they responded with further anti-Ismaili compositions.

However, during this period the Ismailis, confined to the mountains, were struggling to survive; thus, commissioning responses to these polemics was not their priority. In 1164 CE, with the announcement of the Qiyama, the misunderstanding of Ismaili identity held by most of the Muslim world was strengthened once again. Understood as the abolishment of shar’ia for the Ismailis, the Qiyama was clear proof for other Muslim communities that Ismailis were an “arch-heresy carefully designed to destroy Islam from within” (p. 5).

Less than a century after the declaration of the Qiyama, the Mongols arrived in Persia; entering into an environment hostile to the Ismailis, the Mongols unsurprisingly adopted the biases of the visible Muslim majorities. In 1256 CE the Mongols massacred the Ismaili community of the Alamut period, damaged their forts, burnt their library and with it destroyed all evidence countering Ismaili polemics; thereafter, fearing for their safety, the Ismailis adopted taqiyya until the 19th century.

Medieval European Perceptions of Islam and the Ismailis

During the medieval period, while the Ismaili minority were subject to slander at the hands of the Muslim majority groups, the Christian West began their verbal and physical crusade against Islam. Prior to the Crusades, and perhaps integral to their commencement, the European view of Muslims was one of disdain; they believed that Muslim expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate into Spain, and Muslim presence in the holy land (of Palestine) was an encroachment onto Christian territory. Moreover, for many Christian scholars, “Muhammad was the Anti-Christ and the rise of Islam heralded the imminent end of the world” (p. 51). Thus the initial rationale behind the Crusades was to reclaim Christian lands from a people they had identified as synonymous with their Biblical enemies, the “Saracens”.

It was the tales created by the Muslim majority to depict the Ismailis as immoral and the various events and fabrications in support of the Black Legend that the Christian West adopted.

Prior to the Crusades, the Christians were unfamiliar with the various divisions of Islam. However, by the end of the first Crusade (1096-1099 CE) and with the creation of Frankish states in Outremer, what could previously have been ascribed to naivety became strategic ignorance.

During the 12th and early 13th centuries, those who lived in the Frankish states, amidst various groups of Muslims, began to have economic and social relations with the so-called “Saracens”, including Salahuddin Ayyubi and the Ismaili da’i Rashid al-Din Sinan. Through these interactions, the Crusaders and various occidental scholars, began to see the Muslims as several distinct communities and most importantly, as communities that were civilised adherents to a monotheistic faith.

However, as Dr. Daftary says of the occidental chronicler William of Tyre:

“[His] main objective was to show that the Crusade was a holy war against the Saracen infidels, and that its triumphs were, therefore Gesta Dei per Francos, divine deeds done through the Franks” (p. 56).

Thus, William of Tyre, like most other chroniclers of the Crusades, was not concerned with producing an accurate account of the Muslims and their religion; rather these individuals wished to show the Crusades as necessary wars against infidels. In essence, these scholars had to ensure that those at home in the Christian West continued to pledge support to the Crusades and did so by continuing to spread and even exaggerate, stories which they had learnt to be false. Once these accounts reached 13th century Europe, which had entered a period of “great imaginative development”, they took on a life of their own in which “Muslims were idolaters worshipping a false trinity and Muhammad was a magician” (p. 57).

In part due to the fact that the Crusaders hoped to defeat Islam, they felt no need to truly understand the religion; only when it became of political benefit to them did they take heed of the various Muslim communities.

Although by the 12th century the Crusaders were aware of the division of Sunni and Shi’a within Islam, they knew almost nothing of the Ismailis. What they did know was acquired through first hand encounters with Sinan and their observations of the fida’is (who they referred to using variants of heisessini and assissini). The first occidental report of the Ismailis was produced by Benjamin of Tudela who wrote of the Ismailis as a community “…who do not believe in the religion of Islam, but follow one of their own folk, whom they regard as their prophet, and all that he tells them to do they carry out” (69).

According to Dr. Daftary, rather than write on his own experiences, Polo was likely to have adopted the various legends that had gained currency in the West and synthesised them into an elaborate account depicting Sinan as a deceitful magician who tricks the fida’is into obedience.

Later accounts would go on to elaborate upon this prophet as Sinan — who would, in later accounts would be termed, “the old man of the mountain” — and the obedience of these assassins to him. Thus the Ismailis, in 12th century accounts, were not designated as Muslims but rather as highly skilled and obedient assassins living in mountains. However, it was not until the third Crusade and the murder of Conrad of Montferrat in 1192 CE, arguably committed by two fida’is, that the Ismailis began to gain real and lasting attention.

Prior to what they understood as a direct attack on one of their men, the Crusaders did not care to understand the faith of these assassins, but shortly after, in the early 13th century, visits to the Ismaili castles in the mountains of Syria became common.

However, as they had done with the Muslims of Levant, rather than attempt to understand this community, the Crusaders sensationalised the activities of the fida’is and the personality of Sinan. Certain occidental chroniclers claimed to have visited Sinan in the Syrian mountains, including Friar Yves, who reported that the Ismailis “Did not believe in Mahomet, but followed the religion of Aly who was… the uncle of the Mahomet” and further claimed that the Qiyama was a proclamation that Sinan wished to be Christian (pp. 80-81). Thus, by the mid-13th century, the Christian West had designated the Ismailis a non-Muslim community, obedient to the religiously schizophrenic Sinan and had found in them a scapegoat for the murders of many “magnates and Catholic princes” (p. 76).

Origins and Early Formation of the Legends

Thus, during the medieval period not only had the Muslim majorities created a heretical identity for the Ismailis and proliferated that image through various treatises, but the Christian West had begun to compose their own polemical works identifying the Ismailis as an exclusive community of trained assassins. And, in the mid-13th century, these two anti-Ismaili perspectives merged, both deliberately and inadvertently, to formulate the infamous Assassin Legends.

William of Tyre, like most other chroniclers of the Crusades, was not concerned with producing an accurate account of the Muslims and their religion; rather these individuals wished to show the Crusades as necessary wars against infidels.

As the occidental chroniclers began to access Sunni and Shi’a tracts against the Ismailis, they soon realised that the assassins of Syria were in fact a community of Muslims with counterparts in Persia. However, this was the extent of the accurate information they gained. It was the tales created by the Muslim majority to depict the Ismailis as immoral and the various events and fabrications in support of the Black Legend that the Christian West adopted. In addition to deliberately adding these Muslim accounts to their already sensationalised understanding of the Ismailis, the Crusaders also misread certain Sunni tracts ultimately creating their own legends. Most notably, in several of their treatises the Sunni authors utilised the term “Hashishiyya” in reference to the Ismailis to denote their “low social and moral status” (p. 91). The effects of the drug hashish “impaired all [of one’s] faculties but in particular those moral and character qualities that determine the individual’s standing in society”, and thus rendered its users morally degraded social outcasts (p. 91). In other words, the term was designated metaphorically to reference the Ismailis as immoral.

While an insulting label, these Sunni works were not accusing the Ismailis of taking drugs; unfortunately, however, Western readers took the use of this term literally. For the Christian West, the obedience of the fida’is was unheard of and the willingness with which these assassins sacrificed their lives at the command of the Old Man required an explanation. Whereas Muslim communities understood martyrology, Western observers were new to the notion and on their search for a rationale found their answer in the label Hashishiyya; the assassins were obedient because they were drugged by their leader (p. 93). However, as Dr. Daftary points out, the fida’is had to execute their tasks discretely and with precision and thus their use of hashish — a mind altering substance — would have been counter-productive.

In addition to deliberately adding these Muslim accounts to their already sensationalised understanding of the Ismailis, the Crusaders also misread certain Sunni tracts ultimately creating their own legends.

Despite the use of hashish by the fida’is as impractical, the stories of their drug use quickly spread and developed throughout the Western world; before long a flock of individuals, who travelled to the Orient and encountered the Ismailis, began to produce works further sensationalising the beliefs held about the Ismailis. Legends created and accepted as truths include the “Training Legend” which claimed that fida’is were “recruited in childhood and then trained by special teachers in complete isolation until they were ready to be dispatched on their missions”, and the “Death Leap Legend” where the assassins would jump to their death at Sinan’s command (pp. 97, 104).

While, these legends built upon the Hashish Legend, demonstrating the fida’is’ unwavering obedience to Sinan, the “Paradise Legend” granted a further reason for the compliance of the assassins, the promise of “secret and delightful places” (p. 99). First hinted at by James of Vitry in the early 13th century, the idea of a sensual paradise that awaits martyrs would be replicated numerous times over the next century, culminating with Marco Polo.

With the Ismailis adopting a policy of taqiyya after the Mongol attacks, direct contact between the Europeans and the Ismailis came to a complete halt; however, rather than put an end to the Assassin Legends, the likes of Marco Polo gave these stories based in “imaginative ignorance” a new life (p. 108). Polo, who we now know never encountered the Old Man or the fida’is, claimed in his writings, to have studied this community in depth.

According to Dr. Daftary, rather than write on his own experiences, Polo was likely to have adopted the various legends that had gained currency in the West and synthesised them into an elaborate account depicting Sinan as a deceitful magician who tricks the fida’is into obedience. He writes of the fida’is being put to sleep with opium and then taken to a “secret garden bearing a close resemblance to the Paradise described in the Qur’an and promised by the Prophet Muhammad to the pious believers”, when they awaken in this garden they are treated to “a variety of carnal delights” and made to believe that they are experiencing a glimpse of paradise, and finally they are put to sleep a second time, removed from the garden and placed in a damp place to reinforce the beauty that awaits them if they obey the Old Man (p. 113). This elaborate legend gained currency in the West and until the 18th century was accepted as a factual account of the Ismailis.

De Sacy’s Memoir Revisited

Because the Ismailis remained in taqiyya for several centuries and could not defend themselves, these legends continued to developed unchecked. However, from the 17th century onwards, when genuine attempts to understand the Orient began to surface, attempts at revising the Assassin Legends began. Several attempts were made to decipher the etymology of the term “Assassin” and also to answer the questions, when and why did the term first appear? According to Dr. Daftary, it was not until 1818, with Silvestre de Sacy that we find the answer to the Assassin question.

De Sacy’s “Memoir of the Dynasty of the Assassins and on the Etymology of their Name”, was the first comprehensive investigation into Nizari Ismaili history. Due to his extensive study of the Druze, de Sacy was much more informed on the division within the Ismailis than scholars that preceded him. He understood that the Qarmatis were a separate community than the Ismailis who founded the Fatimid Empire, and thus he exposed — though he does not acknowledge — the earliest attacks on the Ismailis by the Abbasids as misplaced. Moreover, he includes in his Memoir a fairly accurate history of the Ismailis, from their formation to the invasion of the Mongols, based on Sunni tracts and Crusader sources. He makes two significant revelations in this historical survey: firstly, he confirms that the Persian and Syrian Ismailis were one community, and secondly, clarifies that not all Ismailis were fida’is, that fida’is were in fact a specific contingent of the community who were given the responsibility of assassinating enemies.

In addition to composing one of the earliest documents on the Ismaili past, de Sacy provides the first accurate etymology of the term Assassin. To his credit, de Sacy examined all of the sources that were available to him from the accounts of Crusaders, occidental chroniclers and the various Arabic sources; he does not assume, as he accuses scholars before him of doing, but rather carefully examines all of the evidence before concluding. He commences by addressing the conclusions of the scholars that preceded him including Falconet who suggests that the term assassin is a corrupted form of sikkin, the Arabic word for dagger, and Assemani who suggests that assassin is derived from ‘asas or night watch. De Sacy refutes these and several other etymological explanations, by arguing that these scholars had weak language skills which led them to misunderstand the roots and plural forms in Arabic. After demonstrating previous scholars as having made assumptions, he traces the etymology of assassin, himself.

Evidently a master of Arabic and a thorough investigator, de Sacy’s Memoir culminates with proving that, “the word hashish, plural hashishin, is the origin of the corruption of heisessini, assassin, and assissini” (p. 160). This conclusion is in line with Dr. Daftary’s own assertion in this book.

However, as Dr. Daftary points out, the fida’is had to execute their tasks discretely and with precision and thus their use of hashish — a mind altering substance — would have been counter-productive.

Unfortunately however, because Ismaili sources were not available to him, de Sacy’s account, though thorough, does not question the validity of the Assassin legends. After revealing the term assassin as a corruption of the word hashish, de Sacy moves into a discussion on the historical use of the drug and concludes, along with the likes of Marco Polo, that the Ismailis were in fact given hashish by the Old Man to keep them obedient. Thus, despite uncovering the etymology of the term assassin, de Sacy accepts the myths that were created around it. Dr. Daftary states:

“That an eminent savant of the calibre of Silvestre de Sacy should so readily have fallen victim to the twin influences of the anti-Ismaili campaign of the Sunni polemicists and the ‘Assassin’ fantasies of the Crusaders is once again a reminder of how the Ismailis had been studied, until recent times, almost exclusively on the basis of evidence collected or fabricated by their enemies and by ignorant observers.” (p. 134)

With polemical sources at his disposal, and no insights into the Ismaili community, the fact that de Sacy falls victim to Marco Polo’s account is unsurprising. It must be remembered that de Sacy had no counter claims to work with; the Ismailis produced few historical tracts after the burning of their sources in the 13th century and those that were produced were inaccessible. Thus based on available source material de Sacy had no grounds to reject the Assassin Legends. In sum, de Sacy was “obliged to approach the subject from the narrow and fanciful viewpoint of the medieval Crusaders and the travesties of hostile Muslim authors” (p. 6).

Despite the use of hashish by the fida’is as impractical, the stories of their drug use quickly spread and developed throughout the Western world; before long a flock of individuals, who travelled to the Orient and encountered the Ismailis, began to produce works further sensationalising the beliefs held about the Ismailis.

Despite the fact that de Sacy accepted, at least partially, the Assassin legends as accurate accounts of the Ismailis, his work proved to be a landmark in Nizari Ismaili studies and his writing paved the way for the likes of Dr. Daftary himself.

It is upon de Sacy’s Memoir, which demonstrates the term assassin as the combined creation of Muslim polemicists and occidental chroniclers, that Dr. Daftary builds his own argument that “…the Assassin Legends [themselves] were generated as a result of an extraordinary type of tactical cooperation between the Christians and the Muslims during the Crusader times” (p. 125). In essence, Dr. Daftary completes the study de Sacy began.

Dr. Farhad Daftary’s Contribution

Farhad Daftary’s The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis, is today what de Sacy’s work was to 19th century scholars of the Orient — groundbreaking.

Dr. Daftary, who draws from a multitude of sources including previously un-translated Ismaili works, brilliantly demonstrates the Assassin Legends as absurdities based in “imaginative ignorance” (p. 108).

A specialist in Ismaili history, Dr. Daftary discusses the activities of the Ismailis during the creation of these polemics, including their periods of taqiyya and the burning of their counter-claims, so as to provide his reader with a complete picture; scholars previously — including de Sacy — lacked access to this information.

Moreover, Dr. Daftary traces the historical trends that were occurring alongside the formation of these legends, such as the policy of assassination:

“The Nizaris of the Alamut period were not the inventors of the policy of assassinating religo-political adversaries in Muslim society; nor were they the last group to resort to such a policy; but they did assign a major political role to the policy of assassination…As a result almost any assassination of any religious, political, or military significance during the Alamut period was attributed to them.” (p. 34)

Demonstrating that this policy was not unique to the Ismailis, but rather a common tactic, is important for dispelling the idea that the Ismailis were an anomaly.

In Iran, to protect themselves from the powerful Seljuks, the Ismailis adopted a “policy of assassination”; a survival strategy where trained Ismailis would eliminate particular religious, political and military adversaries.

This example, and others provided in the book, reveal that the Ismailis adopted the same political strategies as other communities of the medieval period. It is through Dr. Daftary’s mastery of Islamic and in particular Ismaili history that the aforementioned fact, and others, could be exposed.

Ultimately, Dr. Daftary’s thorough historical survey of the events surrounding the creation of the Assassin Legends has resulted in a revisiting of the assumptions made about the Ismailis and ultimately a discrediting of the Assassin Legends.

Dr. Daftary concludes his work by giving credit to Wladimir Ivanow, Marshall G.S. Hodgson and Bernard Lewis for their contribution in rectifying Ismaili identity: he states that due to these scholars, “the Nizaris of the Alamut period who patronised learning and spiritualised their mission can no longer be judged as an order of drugged Assassins trained for senseless murder and mischief”(p.124).

Credits

Article: Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/juliamaudlin/16040685160/ (CC BY 2.0)

Further reading
  • Daftary, Farhad. A Short History of the Isma‘ilis: Traditions of a Muslim Community. Edinburg University Press, 1998.
  • Daftary, Farhad. The Isma‘ilis: Their History and Doctrine (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Daftary, F. and Hirji, Z.The Ismailis: An Illustrated History. Azimuth Editions in Association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008.
  • Jamal, Nadia Eboo. Surviving the Mongols: The Continuity of the Ismaili Tradition in Persia. I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2002.
  • Willey, Peter.The Eagles’ Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria. I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2005.

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