Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 3

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 19, 2015

This is the third of a six-part series. Read parts one and two.

Masyaf fortress, eastern Hama, the headquarters of the Assassins (1141-1270)

Masyaf fortress, eastern Hama, the headquarters of the Assassins (1141-1270)

The death of Hassan-i Sabbah and The Resurrection

Rashid ad-Din Sinan

Rashid ad-Din Sinan

Hassan-i Sabbah, the Nizaris’ first and most successful leader, died in May 1124. Hassan-i Sabbah was a fanatic who sternly imposed the Holy Law—even executing one of his own sons for drinking wine and another son (mistakenly) for an unauthorized assassination. An extreme ascetic and recluse, Hassan-i Sabbah left his house twice in the thirty-five years after taking Alamut. Hassan-i Sabbah’s great skill was in weaponizing the discontents of the dispossessed and refining the doctrine of al-dawa jadida (the new preaching).

Hassan-i Sabbah never claimed to be the Imam, merely the only one who knew what the Imam wanted. Hassan-i Sabbah confirmed the Ismaili doctrine as essentially authoritarian, where the believer must follow an Imam, the only source of truth, who has been appointed by god (unlike the Sunni view where the believer can choose an Imam).

The Nizaris’ history divides into essentially four parts after this:

  • 1124-1164: Buzurgumid, commander for twenty years at the Lamsar fortress, close to Alamut and nearly as important, took over from Hassan-i Sabbah. Under Buzurgumid, his son Muhammad, and the first eighteen months of the rule of his son, Hasan, the Nizaris in Persia evolve toward being merely one principality among many, with normal relations, including alliances, with their neighbours.
  • 1164-1210: Under the leadership of Hasan and his son Muhammad II, the Resurrection is proclaimed, ending the Holy Law and revealing esoteric truths to the faithful, inaugurating Paradise on earth.
  • 1210-1221: The leadership of Jalal ad-Din Hasan, Muhammad II’s son, turns the Nizaris to a form of quasi-Sunnism, with the shari’a reimposed sternly, and the Nizaris even receive the blessing—and the alliance—of the Caliph of Baghdad.
  • 1221-1270s: In the final phase, Jalal ad-Din’s son, Ala ad-Din, and his son RuknuddeenKhurshah returned the Nizaris to a form of “orthodox” Ismailism.

These changes were all felt in Syria, where agents of Alamut were in control of the Nizaris.


In Persia, Sanjar, by now Supreme Seljuk Sultan in Isfahan, sent an army to capitalize on the Nizaris’ change of leadership—which in the Seljuk realms invariably commenced a power-struggle and instability—and attacked Alamut and Quhistan in 1126, with orders to treat the Nizaris as infidels, slaughtering and enslaving them; showing how entrenched the Nizaris had become, this ended in fiasco. The Nizaris increased the size of their statelet and added a new and powerful fortress in Rudbar at Maymundiz during the war. A Seljuk vizier was assassinated in March 1127, and by 1129, Sanjar sued for peace.

In August 1135, the Nizaris achieved their greatest ever coup. In June of that year, the Baghdad Sultan Mas’ud, who had taken the throne against the Caliph’s wishes in a struggle that continued after his accession, had captured the Caliph, al-Mustarshid. The Nizaris managed to get into the prison camp at Maragha, and struck down the Caliph, the titular head of Sunni Islam. There were seven days and seven nights of celebration at Alamut. In June 1138, the Nizaris followed this up by killing al-Rashid, the son and successor of al-Mustarshid. Al-Rashid had been deposed by Mas’ud and fled to Mosul with Imad az-Zangi; on a trip to Isfahan the Nizaris intercepted al-Rashid.

In August 1164, the Lord of Alamut, Hasan II, announced, from a pulpit arranged so the audience had its back to Mecca, that he had received a message from the Hidden Imam revealing his secrets. Hasan was the Imam, whose commandments were binding on the believers, and al-Yawm al-Qiyama (The Day of Resurrection) was here, a spiritual event, not a physical one. The Imam’s knowledge of the mystery of creation revealed, and the fact there would be no reckoning in the next world but that Paradise could be had right then on earth, which Islam says is impossible, meant the shari’a had served its purposes and was abolished. A banquet was then held in the midst of what was usually a fast, this being Ramadan. A Sunni chronicler records that the “nest of heretics … openly drank wine upon the very steps of that pulpit”.

Those among the Nizaris who resisted the abolition of the Holy Law and stuck to the old ways were executed. A brother-in-law of Hasan’s murdered him in January 1166 accusing him of heresy, but Hasan’s son, Muhammad II, took over at Alamut and continued the Resurrection. The latter decades of the twelfth century, however, were politically uneventful for the Persian Nizaris; very little is recorded of them in that time. But this was just the period when the Syrian-based Nizaris were at their most active, performing the deeds that would later pass into legend.

In Syria, in 1162, Sinan ibn Salman ibn Muhammad, better known as Rashid ad-Din Sinan, a protégé of Hasan’s, was revealed to the Nizari faithful as their leader. In the West, Sinan would become known from his Arabic honourific, Shaykh al-Jabal, “The Old Man of the Mountain”. Sinan would implement the Resurrection in Syria.

There were some public excesses, which one Sunni chronicler gleefully exaggerated as follows:

The people of Jabal al-Summaq gave way to iniquity and debauchery, and calling themselves “The Pure”. Men and women mingled in drinking sessions, no man abstained from his sister or daughter, the women wore men’s clothes, and one of them declared that Sinan was God

The ruler of Aleppo sent an army against this depraved enclave, but Sinan convinced him to withdraw, and Sinan himself destroyed this runaway enclave.

The statelet of the Nizaris or Assassins, based on their castles and the surrounding populace

The statelet of the Nizaris or Assassins, based on their castles and the surrounding populace

There is an interesting contrast between the way the Resurrection played out in Persia and in Syria. In Persia, the Resurrection was faithfully recorded by the Nizaris and wholly missed by the Sunni world, only recorded later from the documents captured after the fall of Alamut. In Syria, the Nizaris seem to have forgotten the Resurrection while the Sunnis did not, writing with relish and horror of the goings-on among the Nizaris after the end of the law.

Conrad of Montferrat

Conrad of Montferrat

There is a minor ambiguity about whether Sinan at all points took orders from Alamut; there is some indication Sinan claimed divinity personally at a certain point. In either case, Alamut’s control over the Assassins was restored for certain after Sinan’s death.

It is during Sinan’s leadership, specifically the 1170s to 1190s, amid the Resurrection and the fastest pace of assassinations, that the Nizaris became best-known to the West, which is no doubt the reason for some of the lurid stories about the Assassins. While the Assassins had murdered a Crusader before—Raymond II of Antioch in 1152—it was the slaying of Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, the King of Jerusalem, in Tyre, in April 1192, which would garner the most attention in Europe.

The Assassins’ Struggle Against the Sunni Unifiers: Nooradeen az-Zangi and Saladin

In June 1149, a Kurdish Assassin leader, Ali Ibn Wafa, emerged, in collaboration with Raymond of Antioch, to attack Nooradeen az-Zangi, who had extended his writ from Mosul to Aleppo in 1128 and abolished the Shi’ite call to prayer in Aleppo in December 1148, a virtual declaration of war against the Nizari Ismailis. This was among the few recorded events of the Assassins since they were uprooted from Damascus in 1129.

From the mid-1140s, Nooradeen had embarked on a project to unify the Sunni world, which meant imposing a strict orthodoxy and expelling the Crusaders. This made Nooradeen the primary antagonist of the Assassins. When Nooradeen died in 1174, he had brought Damascus and Aleppo under his direct rule, with his son ruling Mosul in his name, and a Kurdish deputy, Saladin, ruling Egypt, ostensibly under his authority.

The Nizaris helped push the Fatimid Caliphate—jointly with the Sunni order the Nizaris’ main foe—into its grave. In December 1121, Nizari agents from Aleppo had struck down the Fatimid vizier (de facto ruler) al-Afdal, the man chiefly responsible for denying Nizar the Caliphate, and in 1130 Nizaris had killed the tenth Fatimid Caliph, al-Amir, after which not even the Mustalis recognized the Fatimid Caliph as their Imam. There were four more Fatimid Caliphs, but it was a strictly local dynasty, which increasingly lost its independence after Nooradeen dispatched Saladin to Egypt in 1164 to fend off a Crusader attack. When the fourteenth Fatimid Caliph died in September 1171, and Saladin had the bidding-prayer read out in the name of the Abbasid Caliph, Egypt was returned—after two centuries—to the Sunni fold, amid the near-total indifference of its population, which heaped the Ismaili books onto bonfires.

As ever, a power-struggle followed Nooradeen’s death, and the upshot was that by November 1174, Saladin, who was now the claimant to the Sunni hopes of unity and holy war and cleansing the Fertile Crescent of foreign infidels and local heretics, was in control of Damascus and was marching on Aleppo. On his way to Aleppo, Saladin took the chance to raid the Nizari centres at Sarmin, Maarat Masrin, and Jabal al-Summaq, killing most of their inhabitants, after they had been destabilized by a terrible massacre from the Nubuwiyya, an anti-Shi’a Iraq-based Sunni organization. Thus, the Assassins saw in Saladin a mortal threat, ideologically and practically, and began to look more kindly on their old nemesis: the Zangids.

When the Aleppine ruler, Gumushtigin (ostensibly subordinate to the Zangid boy-king as-Salih), appealed for help from the Assassins—the Crusaders having let Gumushtigin down—they had reasons of their own to respond and accept the logistical and financial help of Gumushtigin against Saladin.

In January 1175 and then again in May 1176, the Assassins tried to kill Saladin. Between the attempts, Saladin had won a famous victory in April 1175 over the combined forces of Mosul and Aleppo in Aleppo, leaving as-Salih humbled but in control of Aleppo and only Mosul in active opposition to him. In the first attempt, the Assassins easily penetrated Saladin’s camp around Aleppo but were recognized and, though they killed several people, Saladin was unharmed. The second attempt, during Saladin’s siege of Azaz, saw the Assassins attack Saladin with knives. Saladin was saved by his body armour; several of his emirs were not.

Saladin now took elaborate security precautions—sleeping in a specially constructed tower and refusing to allow anyone he did not personally know to approach him—and, enraged, marched on Masyaf, the Assassins’ most important fortress, closing a siege around it in August 1176. For reasons not wholly clear, Saladin called in his uncle, the emir of Hama, as a mediator and lifted the siege before the Assassins were defeated.

In one telling, Saladin was called away from Masyaf by a Frankish attack in the Bekaa; in the Nizari telling, Saladin was awed by the magical powers of Sinan, and Saladin and Sinan became the best of friends after this. Removing the layers of propaganda and delusion, it is clear enough that some kind of modus vivendi was reached between Saladin and Sinan at this point: there are no further attacks on one-another and even signs of working in tandem.

Historian Kamal ad-Din suggests a reason for this policy change. Sinan sent a messenger to Saladin, and the messenger would not give his message before an audience. Saladin cleared his lower officials from the room, then his senior officials, then finally:

Saladin emptied the assembly of all save two Mamelukes [Turkish slave soldiers], and then said: “Give your message.”

[Sinan’s representative] replied: “I have been ordered only to deliver it in private.”

Saladin said: “These two do not leave me. If you wish, deliver your message, and if not, return.”

He said: “Why do you not send away these two as you sent away the others?”

Saladin replied: “I regard these as my own sons, and they and I are as one.”

Then the messenger turned to the two Mamelukes and said: “If I ordered you in the name of my master to kill this Sultan, would you do so?”

They answered yes, and drew their swords, saying: “Command us as you wish.”

Sultan Saladin … was astounded, and the messenger left, taking [the Mamelukes] with him. And thereupon Saladin … inclined to make peace with [Sinan] and enter into friendly relations with him.

Only two further definite events are recorded by the Assassins in Syria: an assassination and a fire.

Shihab ad-Din ibn al-Ajmi, the vizier of the Aleppine boy-king as-Salih and the former vizier of Nooradeen, is struck down in August 1177 and, under torture, the Assassins confessed that they had been sent by Gumushtigin, formally as-Salih’s military leader but in reality the main power-wielder in Aleppo. However, according to James Waterson, it is “likely that the Assassins were told by Sinan that Gumushtigin was their ’employer’ but Saladin was in fact the paymaster.” It is certainly true that Gumushtigin had little to gain from this murder—indeed Gumushtigin’s enemies used it to bring about his downfall—but Saladin profited from the increased distrust within the House of Zangi. What this shows is that penetration and provocation were features of terrorism from the get-go.

In early 1180, Aleppo’s forces seized al-Hajira from the Assassins. When Sinan’s protests produced no results, the Assassins burned down Aleppo’s market place, causing considerable damage. That none of the arsonists were caught suggests the Assassins could still draw on a degree of Shi’a/Ismaili sympathy in the city.

Sinan died in 1192, not long after his agents cut down Conrad of Montferrat before he could be crowned King of Jerusalem.

Saladin died in March 1193, having added Aleppo and Mosul to his realm of Egypt and Damascus, and had legendarily driven the Crusaders from Jerusalem in September 1187, sparking the Third Crusade in 1189. But by the time Richard I (“Lionheart”) departed back to England from Acre in October 1192, Jerusalem had been restored to Christendom, and soon Saladin’s unified polity would unravel, just as Tutush’s and Nooradeen’s had before.

Saladin's Empire, c. 1182, after capturing Mosul but before taking Jerusalem

Saladin’s Empire, c. 1182, after capturing Mosul but before taking Jerusalem

This post has been updated

Read parts fourfive, and six, or read the whole essay.

6 thoughts on “Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 4 | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 5 | The Syrian Intifada

  3. Pingback: Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 6 | The Syrian Intifada

  4. Pingback: Islam’s First Terrorists | The Syrian Intifada

  5. Pingback: Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 1 | The Syrian Intifada

  6. Pingback: Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 2 | The Syrian Intifada

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