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Islam’s First Terrorists

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 24, 20151. The Assassins (book)

Book Review: The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967) by Bernard Lewis

This review can be read in six parts: one, two, three, fourfive, and six.

Abstract

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. Continue reading

Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 6

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 22, 2015

This is the final part of a six-part series. Read parts one, two, three, four, and five, or read the whole essay.

Masyaf fortress, the headquarters of the Nizari Ismailis (The Assassins) in Syria

Masyaf fortress, the headquarters of the Nizari Ismailis (The Assassins) in Syria

Conclusion

The Nizari Ismailis did not invent assassination, of course; only lent it their name. The Ismailis were “part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginnings of Islam … of popular and emotional cults in sharp contrast with the learned and legal religion of the established order.” Still, the Nizaris did rely on the Holy Law. The ideal of Islamic governance might be authoritarian, but it is not arbitrary; if a ruler crosses the shari’a it becomes a duty to resist. This element became gradually more marginal as the religion formed into a State and Empire, but it was there and many other sects had called on it in their opposition to the prevailing regimes. The Nizaris were the first to call up this tradition of righteous rebellion and combine it with an effective opposition organization.

In their use of conspiracy, assassination, and even the ceremonial nature of the murders and the weapon-cult, the Assassins were hardly unique. But they might well be the first terrorists: those who, at an overwhelming disadvantage in conventional terms, used unconventional means in a planned, long-term campaign of targeted violence as a political weapon with the intention of overturning the established order. Continue reading

Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 2

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 18, 2015

This is the second of a six-part series. For part one, see here

2. Alamut

Alamut fortress, northern Iran, the headquarters of the Nizaris

The Origins of the Nizaris in Persia

Hassan-i Sabbah would lead the Nizaris in Persia. Recruited in Rayy, near Tehran, by the chief dawa (missionary) of the Fatimids in 1072, Hassan-i Sabbah went to Egypt between 1078 and 1081, before returning to Iran to proselytize. In 1090, Hassan-i Sabbah won control of the fortress of Alamut in north-west Iran, which would become the headquarters of the Nizaris. Throughout the 1090s, the Nizaris gained control of further castles in Daylam, specifically the Rudbar area; in the southwest of Iran between Khuzestan and Fars; and in the east in Quhistan. Most impressive was the capture of the fortress at Shahdiz, near Isfahan, in 1096-7.

The Daylamis were a notoriously rebellious and hardy people; one of the last to convert to Islam, they were then among the first to assert their independence within it, first politically by forming a separate dynasty and then religiously by converting to Shi’ism. Continue reading