Sunday, March 24, 2013


Comparative Essay of Hodgson's The Order of the Assassins and Daftary's The Ismai'lis

After the death of the Prophet, Muhammad, the religion of Islam split over whom his successor will be and what type of leader he should be.  The two major groups are the Sunnis and the Shi’is, the latter of which contains a subgroup called the Isma’ilis.  The history of the Isma’ilis is far from being simple.  In the beginning of Isma’ilism, they were a small sect, but they would eventually rise to become a major player in Islam during the Fatimid period.  The Isma’ilis would have an internal conflict over the succession of an imam and would split into two groups.  One movement was the Musta’lian Isma’ilis following al-Musta’li, the other followed Nizar.  The group backing Nizar, would become infamous.  The Nizari Isma’ili movement was on the extreme side.  This particular group became known as ‘the assassins’.  Of course, every story has two sides, and the Isma’ilis are no exception.  It is important to understand the perspective of both sides, before coming to a conclusion about them.  The book, The Ismal’ilis: their history and doctrines, by Farhad Daftary, looks at the Isma’ilis from a broad, outside- looking- in view, while the book, The Order of Assassins; the struggle of the early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic world, by Marshall G. S. Hodgson, focuses on the assassin group and really tries to look at the situation from their perspective when possible.
            Before the Isma’ilis became known as assassins, they had to begin somewhere.  As mentioned above, the Isma’ilis were part of the Shi’is.  They believed that after Muhammad’s death the succession went through ‘Ali, who married Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima.  Then the current imam appoints his successor.  The Isma’ilis did not break from the Shi’is until the year 765 when Abu ‘Abd Allah Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq died.[1]  The Isma’ilis separated from the Shi’is over his succession.  It is important to note that there is uncertainty over early Isma’ilism, though more knowledge is being gained in modern times.[2]  Most of the sources we have agree that Ja’far al-Sadiq named his son Isma’il as his successor.  A problem occurred however, when Isma’il died before Ja’far al-Sadiq did.  This caused a division among Shi’is who then split from one another, with various beliefs of who to follow after that.  Daftary’s book identifies two groups of pro-Isma’il Shi’is.  One group believed that Isma’il never died and that he would come back as the Mahdi[3] (the one who would come back at the end of the world).  They backed up their belief by pointing out that Ja’far al-Sadiq did not name anyone else after the death of Isma’il, and as the “true imam” Ja’far al-Sadiq had to remain truthful,[4] so they believed they had no reason to deny that Isma’il was still alive and going to come back.  This group is called the “pure Isma’iliyya” by several heresiographers since they believe Isma’il is both the imam and the Mahdi.  The other group believes that Isma’il did die, but Ja’far al-Sadiq named Muhammad b. Isma’il the next imam when Isma’il died.[5]  When Ja’far al-Sadiq died the majority of Isma’il’s followers swing to support Muhammad b. Isma’il and claim him as the rightful imam.[6]  For this to happen, they claimed Isma’il was imam and he received it when Ja’far al-Sadiq was still living.  Then, Muhammad b. Isma’il succeeded him.  Thus Isma’ilism began.
            The Isma’ilis call their movement “al-da’wa,” meaning literally, “the mission.”[7]  The Isma’ilis reached their peak during the Fatimid period.  This “golden age” of Isma’ilism began in 909 and lasted 185 years.[8]  It is referred to as the “golden age” because the literature, as well as ideas of the Isma’ilis peaked.  Isma’ilism was also the state religion of this empire that, at its greatest mark, included the Hijaz area (the cities of Mecca and Medina), Syria, Palestine, Yaman, Egypt, North Africa, the coast of Africa along the Red Sea, and Sicily.[9]  In the end however, inner conflict coupled with rivals such as the Saljuqs, would lead to the end of the Fatimid Caliphate.
            In 1094 the death of al-Mustansir, made a division in Isma’ilism.[10]  One group was the Musta’lian Isma’ilis.  They took al-Musta’li, the son of al-Mustansir, as the next imam, followed by al-Mustansir’s grandson, al-Amir.[11]  The second group is the Nizari Isma’ilis.  Nizar had a powerful claim to succession in Egypt, after al-Mustansir died.  Unfortunately for him, Musta’li was named successor.  So Nizar went to Alexandria, but was defeated, then jailed in Cairo.[12]  However, all the events that transpired showed that the Isma’ilis in Iran seemed to be more independent.  There seemed to be a strong dislike for the power of the military and other activities that happen in Egypt by Badr al-Jamali.  Hasan-i Sabbah, according to Nizari tradition, starts a new era of growth for the Nizaris.[13]  The Nizaris orchestrated their own da’wa.  Their rivals were the Saljuqs (who were Sunni) and the Musta’lis in Egypt and surrounding areas.  Hasan-i Sabbah began travelling in Saljuq areas, and later in both Egypt and Syria, he won over a big population and they became Nizaris.[14]  One of the Nizaris early goals was to take Alamut.  Hasan believed Alamut was the perfect stronghold to get and then launch a revolt.[15]  In 1090, the Nizaris had possession of Alamut, and further began their campaign.[16]
            The Nizaris, though they have a vast history, came to stand out in one particular area of expertise: the use of assassination as a huge political method.[17]  The fida’is (fid’ai is literally “devotee”) are the Nizaris who were tasked to assassinate when called upon to do so.[18]  More than likely, starting off, a fid’ai could have been any Nizari.  Nizaris were not the only sect of Islam that used assassination.  There are recordings that Muhammad actually said, on certain circumstances, that an enemy could not live because their life was not worthy to.[19]  Working as a fid’ai seemed to be suicide; typically they were tasked with assassinating men who had armed guards.  However, being one of these assassins brought pride to their families.  For example, when a mother heard that all the assassins had been killed, she was filled with joy, because she believed her son was killed on this trip.  However, she mourned when her son returned.[20]  Also, the Nizaris believed that they were purifying their souls when they were killed in action.[21]  They became so vicious and skilled that groups like the Sunnis were afraid of them.  The Nizaris scared other sects of Islam, because they wanted a whole hearted conversion of people.[22]  This was their policy. The Isma’ilis did not assassinate common people for the most part.  They focused on the higher ranking individuals in the hierarchy of faith.  They believed that the common people, who make up the majority of the population, just had ignorant prejudice, and therefore impartial to their cause.[23]  The Isma’ilis believed assassination to be “just and humane.”[24]  In general, surprise murder terrified Muslims, as it does almost all people today.
            Hodgson was faced with the task of explaining Nizari assassins and also attempting to explain why they believed what they did.  It is easy to see the side of anti-Nizari and to classify them as an insane group of people.  He tried to explain from their perspective what was happening and why it made sense in their minds.  Hodgson focuses his book on the Nizaris and particularly on the group of assassins that formed.  Since it was published in 1955, he did not have access to sources that Daftary did when constructing his work.  More sources have been found over the years.  While Hodgson’s book focuses on the Nizaris, Daftary’s book is comprehensive of all Isma’ili sects and is a detailed history.  It cites a variety of primary sources and also the works of historians.  It does include more detail, since it was published in 1990.  Both books do try to show the lasting impacts the Isma’ilis had on history, and both explain well the causes and effects of events in Isma’ili history.  Hodgson and Daftary both make efforts to examine the Isma’ili perspective and give them a voice.  Making that task difficult is the fact that most sources from this time are from anti-Isma’ili sources.
            The Isma’ilis history was marked with controversy and, as with other sects in Islam, it began from a dispute over succession.  The Isma’ilis further divided over a different succession argument.  Despite the latter dispute, the Isma’ilis grew to make a lasting impact, especially during the Fatimid period.  This is when Isma’ili literature and ideas began to really flourish, as Isma’ilism was the official religion of the empire.  After the collapse of the Fatimids, Isma’ilis remained, although they were despised by many Islamic sects.  Then, the Isma’ilis would have an internal split, to which one group, the Nizaris, would become known as assassins.  The Nizaris created a legacy of their own.  They had a specialty of being ‘on cue’ assassins.  They struck fear in the hearts of their enemies for years to come.  Both Hodgson and Daftary covered the various angles of Isma’lism and looked at the impact they had on both sides.

[1] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ilis: their history and doctrines (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 90.
[2] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 92-93.
[3] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 95.
[4] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 95.
[5] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 96.
[6] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 96.
[7] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 93
[8] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 144.
[9] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 144.
[10] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 255.
[11] Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 256.
[12] Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Order of Assassins; The struggle of the early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic world(Mouton & Company: University of Chicago, 1955), 63.
[13] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 64.
[14] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 69-70.
[15] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 48.
[16] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 73.
[17] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 82.
[18] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 82.
[19] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 82.
[20] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 83.
[21] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 83.
[22] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 84.
[23] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 84
[24] Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, 84.

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