In 1534, shortly after the onset of the Protestant Reformation, a radical sect from this new movement, the Anabaptists, seized the city of Munster in Germany and governed it for sixteen months as a millenarian cult in a manner so alarming it managed to bring together Catholic and Lutheran forces to put it down. The experience had a profound influence not on the development of Anabaptism thereafter, but on the manner in which the Reformation more generally unfolded. Continue reading
Book Review: The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967) by Bernard Lewis
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
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