Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 4

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 20, 2015

This is the fourth of a six-part series. Read parts one, two, and three.

Girdkuh fortress, northern Iran

Girdkuh fortress, northern Iran

The Nizaris’ Turn to Sunnism

In Persia, a new power was rising in the east: Tekish, the Shah of Khorazm. In 1194, the Caliph, al-Nasir, was hard-pressed by the Seljuk Sultan of Isfahan, Tughrul II, and appealed to Khorazmshah Tekish for help, providing the excuse for the Khorazmshah to extend into western Iran. Tughrul II was soon killed, taking the Seljuk Empire with him.

The Seljuks had been the major power in Islam for 150 years, and while their rule had ended, the pattern of rule they brought—Turkish colonization, Turkish annexation of local ruling systems, and a stern orthodoxy—remained and was expanded. The Khorazmshah himself was a product of this: the office was descended from a Turkish slave soldier sent to Khorazm as a governor by the Seljuk Great Sultan Malik-Shah.

The extent of the Khorazmian Empire, 1190 to 1220, after the Khorazmshah conquered the Great Seljuk Empire centred in Isfahan.

The extent of the Khorazmian Empire, 1194 to 1220, after the Khorazmshah conquered the Great Seljuk Empire centred in Isfahan.

The Khorazmshah demanded that the Caliph, whose main enemy he had just taken out, recognize the Khorazmshah as Sultan and protector of the Caliph. But al-Nasir had a different script in mind.

Since becoming Caliph in 1180, al-Nasir had led a revival of the Abbasid Caliphate, rescuing some actual power for the Caliphs. With Seljuk power waning, Caliph al-Nasir looked to seize the opportunity for two things:

  1. To reunify the world of Islam under the moral authority of the Caliph, relieving the battered image of that office.
  2. Set up a principality—a sort of Vatican City—in Iraq under the effective control of the Caliph, free from outside control or influence.

In service of the second objective, which very much was secondary, the Caliph orchestrated political and military action against Tughrul and later Tekish. Toward his primary objective, the Caliph reached out to the Twelver Shi’ites and Ismailis, and had a surprising amount of success with the Ismailis.

When Jalal ad-Din Hasan became the Lord of Alamut in 1210, he did so after having written letters to the Caliph in Baghdad, Muhammad Khorazmshah (who succeeded Tekish in 1200), and the maliks and emirs of Iraq and beyond to notify them of his intentions to institute orthodoxy upon taking power. Thus, when Jalal ad-Din took over at Alamut and announced that he was a Muslim, the ground had been prepared for him to be believed, and because of the predicament, the Caliph in Baghdad was especially willing to listen.

A decree was issued in Baghdad by the Caliph confirming that the new Lord of Alamut was a part of the House of Islam—”Neo-Muslims,” Hasan and his followers were called. Hasan invited the Caliph to send a delegation to Alamut to remove books from the library that were contrary to Islam. The Caliph’s agents removed the works of Hassan-i Sabbah and of course of Hasan’s own father and grandfather, who had led the Resurrection period.

Jalal ad-Din does not seem to have faced any resistance. The strength of Jalal ad-Din’s position can be seen in his ordering the re-imposition of the Holy Law and being obeyed throughout all of Iran and Syria.

The earlier, pre-Resurrection pattern, of the Nizaris in Persia becoming just one sectarian dynasty among many, reasserted itself with a vengeance. Jalal ad-Din received the Caliph’s sanction to marry into Sunni ruling Houses. Jalal ad-Din left the Alamut fortress, as none of his predecessors had done, and even stayed away for eighteen months without mishap.

Lewis writes:

Instead of dispatching murderers to kill officers and divines, [Jalal ad-Din] sent armies to conquer provinces and cities, and by building mosques and bathhouses in the villages completed the transformation of his domain from a lair of assassins to a respectable kingdom, linked by ties of matrimonial alliance to his neighbours.

Having become a traditional ruler, Jalal ad-Din took up the traditional ruler’s prerogative of changeable alliances. Jalal ad-Din seems to have first favoured Khorazmshah, even having the bidding-prayer read out in his name in Rudbar, but the Lord of Alamut soon transferred his allegiance to the Caliph. Jalal ad-Din had very friendly relations with the rulers of Arran and Azerbaijan against their common foe—the Khorazmshah in Western Iran—and this alliance was blessed by the Caliph.  In service of his alliance with the Caliph, Jalal ad-Din had an emir who defected to the Khorazmshah and a Sharif in Mecca murdered. Later, Jalal ad-Din would seek to ingratiate himself to the new and terrible rising power in the east—the Mongols.

The Nizaris Return to “Orthodox” Ismailism

When Jalal ad-Din died in November 1221, his nine-year-old son, Ala ad-Din, became the official Imam, though Jalal ad-Din’s vizier was the effective ruler for some time. Ala ad-Din would turn away from the neo-Sunnism of his father and back to an “orthodox” Ismailism. The changes demanded an explanation.

The Nizari Ismailis did not just believe themselves to be a local principality—still less a mere band of murders. The Ismailis believed themselves to be the holders of a cosmic mission. In trying to explain what had happened—the abandonment of the law, the imposition of Islamic orthodoxy, and the return to Ismailism bound by law—the Ismailis fell back on two principles: taqiyya (dissimulation) and the alternating periods of manifestation and occultation.

The case for dissimulation was easy enough to make: in a time of peril the Ismailis had hidden their beliefs to survive in the world—and god well understood this. In short, Jalal ad-Din’s orthodoxy was written-off as a show needed to help the Nizaris make their way in the world. (In reality, Jalal ad-Din does seem to have been a sincere believer.)

The restoration of the Holy Law by Ala ad-Din was explained by Ala ad-Din’s period being one of occultation: the Resurrection had been manifestation and pre-Resurrection was occultation. The difference with this new time of occultation was that it was not the Imams who were hidden, since the Lord of Alamut now was the Imam, but the true Ismaili mission.

Even amid spiralling disorder at Alamut, caused in no small part by Ala ad-Din’s “erratic” behaviour, the Nizaris managed to capture the city of Damghan, near the fortress of Girdkuh, and apparently tried to capture Rayy, in 1222, as the Khorazmian Empire reeled. In response the final Khorazmshah, Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, orchestrated a massacre of Nizaris, and in reply to that the Nizaris struck down a Khorazmian officer, Orkhan, near Isfahan in 1227.

The Alamut representative, Badr ad-Din, was en route to the Sultan when Orkhan was killed, intending to improve relations with the Khorazmshah, and naturally wondered whether he would now be welcome at the Khorazmian court. The vizier, Sharaf al-Mulk, having seen the fate of Orkhan, was only too pleased to have a senior Nizari representative in his company and tried to ingratiate himself to Badr ad-Din.

A slight hiccup was provided when, in a “moment of abandon at a drinking session,” Badr ad-Din revealed to al-Mulk the extent of the Nizaris’ penetration of Khorazmian ranks:

“Badr al-Din said: ‘Even here in your own army we have our fida’is, who are well-established and pass as your own men—some in your stables, some in the service of the Sultan’s chief pursuivant.’

Sharaf al-Mulk insisted on seeing them, and gave him his kerchief as a token of safe-conduct. Badr al-Din thereupon summoned five fida’is … [O]ne of them, an insolent Indian, said to Sharaf al-Mulk: ‘I would have been able to kill you … I did not do so because I had not yet received orders to deal with you.’

When Sharaf al-Mulk heard these words he cast off his cloak and sat before them in his shirt and said: ‘What is the cause of this? What does Ala al-Din want of me? For what sin or shortcoming on my part does he thirst for my blood? I am his slave as I am the Sultan’s slave, and here I am before you. Do with me as you will!’

Word of this reached the Sultan, who was infuriated at Sharaf al-Mulk’s abjectness and at once sent orders to him to burn the five fida’is alive. The vizier pleaded for mercy for them, but in vain … A great fire was kindled at the entrance to [al-Mulk’s] tent, and the five men thrown into it. As they were burning they cried out: ‘We are sacrifices for our Lord Ala al-Din’.” …

“[A]n envoy called Salah al-Din came to [al-Mulk] from Alamut and said: ‘You have burnt five of our fida’is. If you value your safety, you must pay a bloodwit of 10,000 dinars for each of them’.”

Al-Mulk paid.

As with the earlier examples of Mahmud II of Baghdad and Saladin’s Mamelukes, it shows how skilled at espionage and infiltration the Nizaris were.

The Nizaris’ relations with the Khorazmians did not come to much: the Nizaris maintained relations with the Khorazmians’ two main enemies—the Caliph in the west and the Mongols in the east—and in 1231 the Sultan Jalal ad-Din would be killed and with him the Khorazmian Empire as the Mongols advanced deep into the world of Islam.

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

6 thoughts on “Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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