Book Review: The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967) by Bernard Lewis
The fourth Caliph, Ali, was assassinated during a civil war that his supporters, Shi’atu Ali (Followers of Ali), lost to the Umayyads, who thereafter moved the capital to Damascus. The Shi’a maintained that the Caliphate should have been kept in the Prophet’s family; over time this faction evolved into a sect unto themselves, which largely functioned as an official opposition, maintaining its claim to the Caliphate, but doing little about it. Several ghulat (extremist) Shi’a movements emerged that did challenge the Caliphate. One of them was the Ismailis. Calling themselves the Fatimids, the Ismailis managed to set up a rival Caliphate in Cairo from the mid-tenth century until the early twelfth century that covered most of North Africa and western Syria. A radical splinter of the Ismailis, the Nizaris, broke with the Fatimids in the late eleventh century and for the next century-and-a-half waged a campaign of terror against the Sunni order from bases in Persia and then Syria. In the late thirteenth century the Nizaris were overwhelmed by the Mongols in Persia and by the Egyptian Mameluke dynasty which halted the Mongol invasion in Syria. The Syrian-based branch of the Nizaris became known as the Assassins, and attained legendary status in the West after they murdered several Crusader officials in the Levant. Attention has often turned back to the Assassins in the West when terrorist groups from the Middle East are in the news, but in the contemporary case of the Islamic State (ISIS) the lessons the Nizaris can provide are limited.
By the time Prophet Muhammad died in June 632, the Islamic Empire stretched over most of the southern Arabian Peninsula. During the time of the four Rashidun (Rightly-guided) Caliphs that followed Muhammad, the Empire expanded quickly, conquering Egypt and a large chunk of eastern Libya; Jordan, Iraq, Syria, south-east Turkey, the Caucasus, and Iran; and parts of eastern Afghanistan and most of Turkmenistan (Khorasan).
The Empire was riven with conflict, however. Three of the four Rashidun were murdered, and the fourth, Ali, was struck down in 661, during a civil war and the Caliphate passed to Muawiya and the House of Umayyad, who moved the capital to Damascus.
After Ali’s death, Shi’atu Ali (Followers of Ali) contended that the Caliphate should have remained in the Prophet’s family. Two events hardened this faction into a sect of their own, the Shi’a.
First, in 680, an insurrection by Hussein, the son of Ali and the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, was defeated at Karbala by the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I.
The Shi’a had maintained a line of Imams whom they maintained were the true claimants to the Caliphate—Hussein being the third; Ali the first and Hussein’s older brother, Hassan, the second. Hussein’s son, Ali ibn Hussein Zayn al-Abidin, the sole survivor at Karbala, was the fourth, appointed instead of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah, a son of Ali’s.
During Ali ibn Hussein’s time as Imam, 680-713, the Shi’a would take the form they would maintain for the next 150 years or so: an official opposition, based in Mecca and Medina, far from the centres of political power, maintaining their formal claim, while doing little to challenge the Caliph—sometimes giving allegiance and even advice to the Umayyads and later the Abbasids. Unsurprisingly, there were Shi’ites who organized to press this claim by force.
Second, in 685, the wave of anguish that overcame the Shi’a after Hussein’s death boiled over into a revolt, led by Mukhtar al-Thaqafi in the name of al-Hanafiyyah. Al-Thaqafi was killed and his revolt crushed in March 687, but his movement survived. When al-Hanafiyyah died in 700 there were claims the Imamate had passed to his son; others said al-Hanafiyyah was not really dead and would, in god’s good time, return to triumph over His enemies.
This concept of the Mahdi, one who will return to establish a reign of justice, recurred in various Islamic messianic movements. The movements would always have the leader, the Imam, who was sometimes also the Mahdi, and the da’i, the summoner, who preaches and recruits, and then leads the followers to victory or martyrdom.
Because of the way Islam spread—the Arab elite ruling over newly assimilated Christian converts and Iranians—it left a lot of room for strife, and because of the nature of Islamic rule, political dissent often took on a religious character.
The first half of the eighth century was a period of major agitation by the ghulat Shi’a sects, especially in the mixed populations of Iraq and the coast of the Arabian Gulf.
In 750, the Abbasids, a branch of the family to which the Prophet and Ali belonged, overthrew the Umayyads with a lot of Shi’a support and a vague pledge to restore ahl al-bayt (the Prophet’s family) to the throne. But in their moment of triumph the Abbasids pulled back and chose continuity; they renounced the sect and the da’is who brought them to power and aligned increasingly stridently with the Sunni ulema. The Arab supremacy of the Umayyad polity would be softened, and with the capital moved to Baghdad in 762 the Abbasids changed the Islamic Empire from a Levantine power to an Asian one. But these changes were not enough for the pious and the frustration led to another wave of extremist and messianic movements.
The decisive split between the extremist and moderate Shi’a occurred upon the death of the Sixth Imam, Ja’afar as-Sadiq, in 765. Ja’afar’s eldest son, Ismail, had been disinherited some time before—probably because of his extremist agitation—and the Imamate went to Ismail’s younger brother, Musa al-Kazim, who became the Seventh Imam, and through him the line of “official” Shi’ism continued until the Twelfth Imam. But Ismail had supporters and they broke away, cultivating a sect in secret, which evolved into the Ismailis or Seveners. (An earlier disagreement of this kind after the death of the Fourth Imam led to a schism that formed the Zaydis or Fivers.)
In 873, the Twelfth Imam, the four-year-old Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared. For seventy-two years contact was supposedly maintained through four mediators. This was the “Minor Occultation”. After the last of these four deputies died in 941, the “Major Occultation” began and continues to the present.
Having cultivated their sect in the shadows since 765, the Ismailis emerged in public in 899 when a branch—the Carmathians, whose relationship to the main body of Ismailism is uncertain—formed a millenarian republic, covering part of eastern Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. In 903, the Carmathians tried to invade Syria; they were defeated but their attempt revealed significant local support for the Ismailis even at this early date. The Carmathians’ most (in)famous act is the sacking of Mecca, led by Abu Tahir al-Jannabi, in 930, after taking Kufa in 927 and threatening Baghdad in 928. The Carmathian challenge was contained by the Abbasids in 976; Bahrain broke away in 1058; and a Seljuk army besieged the State in 1067 and overran it in 1074. But for more than a century, the Carmathian State served as a base of propaganda and military agitation against the Abbasid Caliphate.
The major Ismaili challenge to the Sunni order came in 909. Having dispatched missionaries to North Africa, Yemen, India, and beyond, and gained enough converts, the Ismailis were powerful enough to unveil their Imam, Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah, who proclaimed himself Caliph and Mahdi. Calling themselves the Fatimids, in reference to the Prophet’s daughter and Ali’s wife, the Ismailis established a polity in North Africa, with their capital in Tunisia, holding essentially everything west of that (except for Morocco, held by a Zaydi dynasty, and Iberia) plus Sicily.
The Ismailis were hell-bent on expansion east into the heartlands of Islam, and Egypt fell to the Fatimids in 969. The Nile Valley, Sinai, Palestine, and southern Syria were soon in Fatimid hands. At its height the Fatimids held the Red Sea coast, Yemen, and the Hijaz, including Mecca and Medina.
The Fatimid Caliphate posed not only a military threat but an ideological one to the Sunni world. The Buyids, a Persian Shi’a dynasty, took Baghdad in 946, but, like the Abbasids, chose to maintain Sunnism and the system already in place—including the Caliph as their front-man. The populations could see what had happened. The Caliph had been a puppet of his Praetorians for a century and this heaped further discredit on the institution. With this final humiliation the Caliphate had seemed on the brink of collapse and fragmentation. Intellectually, the Abbasid Caliphate had become stale. The economic changes of the eighth and ninth centuries had created a dislocated society and inequalities that were the source of much resentment. The “dry legalism and remote transcendentalism of the orthodox faith … offered little comfort to the dispossessed,” Lewis writes. The new and vibrant Fatimid faith gained many supporters and agents in the Sunni lands, especially Persia and Central Asia.
The Fatimids’ success was also the cause of their biggest problems: the Ismailis never quite came to terms with being a State, and from the first there were splits between the “conservatives” and those who wanted a permanent revolution. This led to some armed rebellions and schisms, the most serious occurring in the early 970s, during the reign of the fourth Fatimid Caliph, al-Muizz li-Din Allah. As the Fatimids swept across Syria they encountered the Carmathians, who turned on the Fatimids. The Fatimids put down this revolt. Another schism was formalized in 1021 after the sixth Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah was murdered in mysterious circumstances and a group of Ismailis said al-Hakim was not dead and had gone into occultation, thus they refused to recognize his successor. This faction became the Druze.
The Fatimid Caliphate died long before it was formally abolished. 934 to 1055 is what Fouad Ajami calls the “Shi’a century,” and it was as that period closed out that the Fatimid Caliph was becoming a puppet of the military, a process completed in 1074, when the eighth Fatimid Caliph, al-Mustansir, “invited” Badr al-Jamali, the military governor of Acre, into Cairo. Al-Jamali took on the three titles of Commander of the Armies, Chief of the Missionaries, and vizier—signifying his total control over the military, religious, and civilian wings of the government. This aroused considerable unrest among the Ismailis, especially their adherents in Persia, but it was in January 1094 that the Persian Ismailis would completely break with Cairo.
Almost simultaneously, al-Jamali and al-Mustansir died. Al-Jamali was replaced by his son, al-Afdal. Al-Afdal split the Ismaili world entirely when he chose to ignore al-Mustansir’s designated heir, Nizar, his eldest son, an adult with all the connections of his father’s court, and to instead appoint al-Mustansir’s younger son, al-Mustali, a youth without allies who was thus totally dependent on his military patron. The Persian Ismailis flatly refused to accept this, insisting that Nizar was the rightful Imam, hence being called “Nizaris,” and severed all connection with Cairo. In Egypt itself, there were revolts, and Nizar personally fought on until 1097 when he was killed in prison in Alexandria.
The Nizaris would form a statelet in Persia, and then in Syria, from which they would wage a terrorist war against the Sunni order and the Fatimid Caliphate.