April 22, 2013

Henry Corbin On Alamut And The Order of The Assassins


Under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah, Alamut became the site of intense activity for the Shi'a Nizari Ismai'li, along with a smaller subgroup known as the Assassins, between 1090 and 1256 AD. During the medieval period, the castle functioned as the major stronghold of the Nizari Ismaili state. In 1256, Ismaili control of the fortress was lost to the invading Mongols and its famous library holdings were destroyed when the castle’s library was condemned to be burned by Ata-Malik Juvayni, a servant of the Mongol court. Sources on the history and thought of the Ismailis in this period are therefore lacking and the majority extant are written by their detractors.
After creating the Order, Sabbah searched for a location that would be fit for a sturdy headquarters and decided on the fortress at Alamut in what is now northwestern Iran. It is still disputed whether Sabbah built the fortress himself or if it was already built at the time of his arrival. In either case, Sabbah adapted the fortress to suit his needs of not only defense from hostile forces, but also indoctrination of his followers. After laying claim to the fortress at Alamut, Sabbah began expanding his influence outward to nearby towns and districts, using his agents to gain political favour and intimidate the local populations.

Spending most of his days at Alamut working on religious works and doctrines for his Order, Sabbah was never to leave his fortress again in his lifetime. He had established a secret society of deadly assassins, which was built in a hierarchical format. Below Sabbah, the Grand Headmaster of the Order, were those known as "Greater Propagandists", followed by the normal "Propagandists", the Rafiqs ("Companions"), and the Lasiqs ("Adherents"). It was the Lasiqs who were trained to become some of the most feared assassins, or as they were called, "Fida'i" (self-sacrificing agent), in the known world.
Psychological warfare, and attacking the enemy's psyche was another often employed tactics of the hashashins, who would sometimes attempt to draw their opponent to submission than risking to kill it. Saladin himself managed to survive two assassination attempts. Although surviving these assassinations, it put him in a state of paranoia fear of another attempt on his life. During a night in his conquest on Masyaf, Saladin woke-up from his sleep to find a figure leaving his tent. He then saw that the lamps were displaced and beside his bed laid hot scones of the shape peculiar to the hashashins with a note at the top pinned by a poisoned dagger. The note threatened that he would be killed if he didn't withdraw from his assault. He later accuses a hashashin to be the figure. Saladin later told his guards to settle a truce with the hashashins.
From, "Index to the History of Alamut," by Paul Perry:
People often ask me about the name of this site. When they do, I inevitably tell them the story of a mountain fortress situated in the barren wilderness of northwestern Persia and the community that lived there from the end of the 11th century to the middle of the 13th century (from 1090 AD to 1256 AD--a total of 166 years). The name of the fortress was Alamut. The community that lived there had embraced a school of philosophy that was thought by the rest of the world (at that time) as heretical and dangerous. Alamut posed a threat and many attempts were made to destroy it.

The special thing about Alamut, or so I tell people, was that it was able to maintain its culture and autonomy and hold off its powerful enemies by its clever use of 'information'. You could say that Alamut practiced a medieval form of 'information warfare'. The community developed a reputation of being able to secretly place its agents anywhere in the world. An agent of Alamut might become a trusted servant or friend of the Caliph or one of his ministers. The agent would be perfectly 'concealed' and happy for years. Until the order to strike arrived.

I've always liked this story as an example of one of the ways a small culture could maintain its autonomy and defend itself. Information alone does the trick, it does not matter whether or not it is true.

Below is an excerpt from Henry Corbin's book, "History of Islamic Philosophy." 1993. Kegan Paul International: London. Pg. 94-96.
"There was, on the other hand, the powerful personality of al-Hasan ibn al-Sabbah (d. 518/1124), knowledge of which must be acquired through the Ismaili texts themselves, since it has been so distorted elsewhere. He played a leading part in the organization of the Ismaili 'commands' in Iran. We are not attempting here to resolve the question as to whether or not some devoted disciples succeeded in leading the Imam Nizar's grandson to safety in the fortress of Alamut (in the mountains south-west of the Caspian Sea). For whatever may have occurred, one fact remains, and it is of great spiritual significance.

This all-important fact was the initiative taken by the Imam Hasan 'ala dhikrihi al-salam (distinguished by having this greeting after his name), the new grand master (khudavand) of Alamut (b. 520/1126, grand master in 557/1162, d. 561/1166). On the 17th day of Ramadan in 559/8th August 1164, the Imam proclaimed the Great Resurrection (qiyamat al-qiyamat) before all the initiates assembled on the high terrace of Alamut. The protocol of the occasion has been preserved. What the proclamation implied was nothing less than the coming of a pure spiritual Islam, freed from all spirit of legalism and of all enslavement to the Law, a personal religion of the Resurrection which is spiritual birth, in that it makes possible the discovery and the living realization of the spiritual meaning of the prophetic Revelations.

The fortress of Alamut, like the other Ismaili command-posts in Iran, was destroyed by the Mongols in 654/1256. In no sense did this event mark the end of the reformed Ismailism of Alamut, which simply retreated into hiding by donning the mantle (the khirqah) of Sufism. Its effect on Sufism and on Iranian spirituality in general presupposes some fundamental affinities which throw new light on the problem of the meaning and even the origins of Sufism. Furthermore, the Ismailis regard a good number of Sufi masters as their own, beginning with al-Sanai (d. ca. 545/1151) and Attar (d. ca. 627/1230); Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (d. 672/1273), in relation to whom Shams al-Din al-Tabrizi assumed the role of hujjah; 'Aziz al-Nasafi (seventh/twelfth century), Qasim al-AnWari (d. 837/1434), and so on. One hesitates at times in deciding whether a text is written by a Sufi steeped in Ismailism, or by an Ismaili steeped in Sufism. Even this is not going far enough, for the famous Persian poem by Mahmud Shabistari (d. 720/1320), the 'Rosary of Mystery' (gulshan-i raz), the vade-mecum of Iranian Sufism, was commentated and expanded by Ismaili teaching.

The questions thus propounded are very recent, and are a consequence of the bringing to light, thanks mainly to the labours of W. Ivanow, of what has survived of Alamuti literature, all of which is in Persian. (We know that Alamut's library was completely destroyed by the Mongols.) We should, however, add to this literature the Arabic literature of the Ismailis of Syria, who under the powerful personality of their head, Rashid al-Din Sinan (1140-92 AD), had a direct link with Alamut. (We also know that a tragic misunderstanding on the part of the Templars wrecked an agreement that had already been concluded between these 'Templars of Islam' and the King of Jerusalem.) Of the Persian works of Alamut, mention should principally be made of the great book of the Tasawwurat, attributed to Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 672/1273)---an attribution which there is no good reason to contest; the fifteenth-and sixteenth-century works by Sayyid Suhrab Wali al-Badakhshani, Abu Ishaq al-Quhistani, and the prolific author Khayr-Khwah al-Hirati. All of them have preserved much older fragments, most notably the 'Four Chapters' by al-Hasan ibn al-Sabbah himself. Equally, they testify to a renaissance of Ismaili thought, concomitant to the renaissance of Shiite thought in general and possibly one of its contributing factors. Indeed, it was during the same period that Twelver Shiism (principally with Haydar Amuli and Ibn Abi Jumhur), having assimilated the work of Ibn al-Arabi, was induced to 'rethink' its relation to Sufism and thus to Ismailism also."