Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 5

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 21, 2015

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

Lamsar fortress, the Nizaris' second castle near their Alamut headquarters in northern Iran

Lamsar fortress, the Nizaris’ second castle near their Alamut headquarters in northern Iran

The End of the Nizaris

In 1218, the Mongols reached the Jaxartes River, becoming immediate neighbours of the Khorazmshah. By 1219, Genghis Khan had crossed the river and entered the Islamic world. By 1240 the Mongols had overrun Iran and were invading Georgia, Armenia, and northern Mesopotamia.

In this period, the Nizaris—who never forgot their mission—had dispatched envoys from Alamut to convert the Ismailis of the Gujerati coast from the “old preaching” to the “new preaching”. In time, India would become a main centre of Ismailism.

There is one final documented episode—albeit hazily—from the Nizaris in Syria around this time. The stories of the Assassins’ attempts to kill France’s King (now Saint) Louis IX as an infant can, like all stories of the Assassins operating on European soil, be dismissed as invention. But after King Louis arrived in Palestine in June 1249, there is every indication that he reached a compact with the Assassins, which involved paying them tribute.

The Nizaris were, by the mid-thirteenth century, very much part of the patchwork of Levantine politics, but they maintained the additional lever of power—extracting tribute under threat of assassination—over their neighbours and even, it seems, temporary visitors.

In December 1255, the Lord of Alamut, Ala ad-Din, by this time quite, quite mad, was murdered in his bed. A conspiracy was already underway by Ala ad-Din’s son, Ruknuddeen Khurshah, to reach out to the Mongol Khan to try for terms since the demented Ala ad-Din had taken no precautions, but the scheme—which almost certainly would have ended in a coup to remove Ala ad-Din—became unnecessary.

Ruknuddeen squared matters within the world of Islam—demanding that his subordinates throughout Persia behave as Muslims and keep the roads clear—and then turned to the Mongols to try to surrender on the best possible terms, a decision pushed by the philosopher Nasir ad-Din Tusi, who no doubt thought he could move to a new career under Mongol auspices.

The Mongol Empire

A Mongol army, under the authority of Möngke, the fourth Great Khan based in Peking and led by Hulegu, had already attacked the Nizari bases in Rudbar and Quhistan, though with limited success, by the time Rukhnuddeen’s emissaries reached Hulegu with the Nizaris’ promise of surrender in May 1256. In July, the Mongols reached Alamut, and in November, after several delaying tactics, Ruknuddeen submitted himself, his family, and his treasure to Hulegu. What little treasure the Nizari Imam had was distributed among Hulegu’s troops.

Hulegu indulged Ruknuddeen to a quite surprising extent, providing him camels for breeding and fighting, and, more strikingly, allowing Ruknuddeen to marry a Mongol girl.

Hulegu’s interest in Ruknuddeen was clear: Ruknuddeen could—and did—call on the Nizari castles to surrender without the need for a protracted and sanguinary conflict to subdue them. All-but two of the Nizari fortresses—Lamsar and Girdkuh—capitulated. Alamut had initially resisted, but a few days into the siege in December 1256 its remaining commander changed his mind and surrendered.

Disobedience to the Imam was a grave offence but the Nizari Ismailis might well—and not unreasonably—have believed the Imam was acting under duress and thus his order was taqiyya. Indeed, when Ruknuddeen was taken to Girdkuh in March 1257, he ostensibly called (again) on the fortress to surrender, but it was suspected that he had told them secretly to continue resistance.

Later in 1257, with the surrender of most of the Nizari fortresses and Ruknuddeen having shown he had no further influence on the rest, the Mongols murdered Ruknuddeen. Hulegu had allowed Ruknuddeen to travel to the Mongol capital of Karakorum to meet Möngke, who refused to meet Ruknuddeen and sent word asking what Hulegu was playing at leaving Ruknuddeen alive. At the side of a road, on the edge of the Khangay range, on the way back to Persia, Ruknuddeen was beaten unmercifully, and then put to the sword with his kin.

Lamsar finally surrendered in 1258, and this would be remembered to the Ismailis as the year of their fall. Girdkuh, which had been first besieged in 1253, held out until 1270. The Nizaris briefly recaptured Alamut in 1275, but within a year they were dislodged by the Mongol rulers of Persia.

The Ismailis were obliterated in Rudbar and in Quhistan. The Ismailis survived in minor enclaves in eastern Persia, Afghanistan, former Soviet Central Asia, and India. Some of the Nizari leadership fled to Azerbaijan.

In Syria, it was the Bahri dynasty, which had deposed Saladin’s Ayyubids in Cairo in 1250, that put an end to the Nizaris.

Persian tapestry depicting the 1258 sack of Baghdad (c. 1430)

Persian tapestry depicting the 1258 sack of Baghdad (c. 1430)

The Mongols sacked Baghdad and murdered the Caliph in February 1258—destroying the Abbasid Caliphate, the titular leaders of Sunni Islam for half-a-millennium—and continued to sweep west. Baybars, the fourth Bahri Sultan, had inflicted the first major defeat on the Mongols in September 1260, halting their advance in Palestine. Over the next decade, Baybars drove the Mongols out of much of Syria and consolidated it under his rule. Baybars, a descendent of the Mamelukes, restored—in name—the Abbasid Caliphate from Cairo in June 1261. In this effort against the Mongols, Baybars had aligned with the Assassins.

Once the Mongol tide had been turned back, Baybars could hardly accept a lethal nest of heretics within his realm. Already in 1265, Baybars had been in a position to demand “taxes”—a cut of the gifts that the Crusaders paid to the Assassins to prevent attacks on the Latin States. Disheartened by the fall of Alamut, the Assassins had meekly accepted. In February 1270, Baybars took direct control of the Assassins’ most important fortress at Masyaf.

The Assassin chief, the aged Najm ad-Din Ismail, was deposed by Baybars and a direct puppet, Najm ad-Din’s son-in-law, Sarim ad-Din Mubarak, the Assassin governor of Ulayqa, was appointed leader but excluded from Masyaf. Sarim ad-Din managed to gain control of Masyaf via a trick, but Baybars restored control before the end of the year and sent Sarim ad-Din as a prisoner to Cairo, where he died, probably of poisoning. Najm ad-Din was restored as Assassin chief by Baybars, to rule conjointly with his son, Shams ad-Din Muhammad, on condition that the Assassins paid tribute to Baybars.

In February/March 1271, Sultan Baybars charged that the two Assassins had gone from Ulayqa to Tripoli to meet with Bohemond VI, the Prince of Antioch and Count of Tripoli, to plan the Sultan’s assassination. Shams ad-Din, was soon arrested on the same charge. Najm ad-Din interceded with Baybars to plead his son’s innocence. Baybars agreed to release Shams ad-Din and the other two Assassins on condition that the Assassins surrender their castles and their leaders join Baybars’ court in Cairo; they agreed. Najm ad-Din went to Cairo; Shams ad-Din was allowed to go to Khaf “to settle its affairs,” but immediately began organizing resistance. It was in vain.

In May/June 1271, Baybars seized Ulayqa and Rusafa, and in October, realizing his cause was hopeless, Shams ad-Din surrendered to Baybars, and was initially well-treated. When Baybars learned of a plot being organized by the Assassins against some of the Mameluke emirs, he sent Shams ad-Din and his inner circle to Cairo. Baybars blockade of the Assassins’ castles continued.

Interestingly, Baybars seems to have annexed the Assassins for a time. The attempted assassination of Edward II of England in 1272 was executed by the Assassins but ordered by Baybars, and the same is perhaps true of the murder of Phillip of Montford in Tyre on August 17, 1270. Baybars is reported to have threatened the Count of Tripoli, Bohemond VI, in April 1271, with assassination—this at the same time Baybars was besieging Tripoli and had just accused the Assassins of plotting with the Count to kill him. But all reports of Nizari assassinations after the thirteenth century are myths.

By 1273, all of the Assassins’ castles were in Baybars’ hands. This was the end of the Nizaris as a challenge to the Sunni order.

The Aftermath of the Nizaris’ Defeat

Unlike in Persia, the Nizaris in Syria were allowed to survive as a semi-autonomous community. For a long time the Nizaris concentrated in Tartus Province, around the old stronghold of Kahf/al-Qadmus. Al-Qadmus fortress was destroyed in 1830 by the invading forces of Egypt’s ruler, Muhammad Ali. In the 1840s, the Ismaili chief of al-Qadmus successfully lobbied the Ottoman Empire to allow Ismaili resettlement of the abandoned town of Salamiya. Pressure from the Alawis against the Ismailis hastened their departure from Baniyas to Salamiya, where the Ismailis still live.

Interestingly, while many minorities have clung to the Assad dictatorship, especially as the Syrian rebellion has taken on an increasingly Islamist colour, Salamiya has been a centre of peaceful opposition. Salamiya is an unwelcome reality to Assad, who presents himself as a shield for the minorities, and groups like Jabhat an-Nusra that also need this stark sectarian faultline between a Sunni rebellion and a godless tyranny.

In the fourteenth century the Nizaris of Syria and Persia split over the claimants to the Imamate, and ended all contact with one-another thereafter. The Ismailis reappear in history in the sixteenth century, after the Ottoman conquest of Syria, when the census-makers record al-qila al-dawa (the castles of the mission). The only distinguishing feature of the Ismailis after that is their payment of a special tax.

In the early nineteenth century, interest in the Assassins—and the Crusades—revived. One reason was Napoleon’s brief occupation of Egypt (1798-1801), which made numerous records available. Rousseau, the French consul-general in Aleppo, and the English traveller J.B. Fraser were among those in this period who confirmed the survival of the Ismailis in Syria and gathered information from local informants. Oddly, there was much less interest in Persia, even though the castle of Alamut still stood. Perhaps the major spur to reinterest in the Assassins was the French Revolution, which the reactionaries like Joseph von Hammer were sure had been orchestrated by a secret cabal of anti-religious nihilists—the Illuminati or the Freemasons—and this suggested to them a parallel with the Assassins.

It was the European historiographers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who created the legend of the Assassins—drugged cultists who killed the Crusaders—that remains popular in the West to this day. This legend annexed and expanded the Sunni myth of narcotics-driven killers warring against the true religion so as to allow comparisons with the supposed cabals behind the French Revolution, and put a false emphasis on the Crusaders in the Assassins’ story, when in fact, as demonstrated, the Crusaders were wholly incidental to the Nizaris’ objectives.

The most significant return to history for the Ismailis was in the mid-nineteenth century. The Khojas, a Muslim sect of mainly traders around Bombay, had refused in 1827 to make their customary payments to the head of their sect, Hasan Ali Shah, the son of the Persian Shah, Fath-Ali Shah Qajar. The Shah had appointed Hasan Ali as governor of Mahallat and Qom in 1818, giving him the title of Aga Khan. The Aga Khan dispatched emissaries to Bombay and most secessionists relented.

Having led an unsuccessful revolt against the Shah and then offered some help to the British in the closing stages of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1841-2), the Aga Khan went to Bombay and set himself up as the effective head of the Khoja community.

In April 1866, a group of secessionists filed suit in the High Court of Bombay asking that the Aga Khan have an injunction levied against him to stop him “interfering in the management of the trust property and affairs of the Khoja community.”

Judgment was rendered in November 1866: the Khojas were Ismailis, who had been converted four-hundred years previously by a Persian missionary, and were “still bound by ties of spiritual allegiance to the hereditary Imams of the Ismailis,” descended from the Lords of Alamut, the Fatimid Caliphs, and ultimately the Prophet Muhammad.

This led to the discovery of other Ismaili populations in southern Arabia, Russia, and Afghanistan.

Read part six, or read the whole essay.

6 thoughts on “Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 5

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

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