Exchange of Letters Between Sultan Malik Shah and Hasan-i-Sabbah

ADAPTED FROM A RESEARCH PAPER

By Ali Mohammad Rajput

Persian text of the letters exchanged between Sultan Malik Shah and dai Hasan-i-Sabbah in a 1962 work. Link to PDF file provided below. Photo: A.M. Rajput archives

Introduction: It is reported that an exchange of letters took place between the Seljuk Sultan, Malik Shah, who ruled from 1072-1092, and Hasan-i-Sabbah.  The texts of these letters, in slightly variant forms, were published by Mehmed Serefuddin (Yaltkaya) in Darulfumun Ilahiyat Fukultesi Mecmuast (Istanbul), vii/4 (1926), 38-44, and again independently, by Nasrullah Falsafi in Ittila at-i-Mahana (Tehran) 3/27 (1950), pp. 12-16 (reprinted in idem, Falsafi Hasht Maqala, (Tehran), 1963, pp. 415-25) edited from two anonymous Mss. (of majmu’ah):  (1)  Collection of Mahdi Bayani and (2)  Collection of Mu’ayyad Sabiti.  Translations Arabic, Falsafi, in Arba rasail  tarikhiyah (Lebanon University) 1965, pp.  270-302.

There is a dispute over the  authenticity of the documents.  The letters are considered authentic by both editors and, more cautiously, by Ostnan Turan (Seleuklular tarihi ve Turk-Islam medeniyeti, Ankara 1965, pp.  227-30) but their authen­ticity is rejected by Kafesoglu (Sultan Meliksah…, pp.  134-5, nn).

The text of the letter was reproduced in Persian by Abdur Rehman Saif Azad in his book Khulafa-i-Fatimiya, Tehran 1962, (pp.  178-184) and again in Persian by Karim Kashawarz in his book Hasan-i-Sabbah, Tehran, 1965, (pp.  153-163). I consider the correspondence to be genuine, and the text I have translated below is from the Persian. It appears in my Master’s thesis on the great Ismaili dai, Hasan-i-Sabbah.

Contrary to most historical reports, Hasan-i-Sabbah, in his letter to the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah, states that his father was a Shafii. [1] The long and informative letter also asserts the following two points which are discredited by some historians: (1) while he was in Rayy he fell foul of the authorities and incurred the enmity of Nizam-ul-Mulk. (2) In Egypt he came into conflict with the vizier Badr-al-Jamali who was turned against Hasan by the Abbasid agents.

Relevant comments and observations are to be found in the foot­notes of the text. The most likely date of these letters is 1091 CE, as it was in 1090 that Hasan occupied the castle of Alamut and it had taken him at least one year to acquire those fortresses in Tabaristan, Quhistan and other mountains to which Hasan makes reference towards the end of his letter. However, it would appear that these particular letters should be dated earlier than 1092, the year of the first Seljuk assault and certainly before the assassination of Nizam-ul-Mulk and Malik Shah who both died in the latter part of 1092 CE.

Sultan Malik Shah’s Letter to Hasan-i-Sabbah

O, you Hasan-bin-Sabbah, you have invented a new religion and faith and have enticed people into it by various means. You have been a traitor to the rulers of the land.  You have beguiled many simple minded hill dwellers and having gathered them around you and have trained them to kill innocent people who have become the targets of their daggers.  You make accusations against the Abbasid Caliphs who are the (rightful) Caliphs of Islam and who are responsible for the maintenance of peace and order and are the protectors of the faith of Islam.  You are urged to desist from following this erroneous path and become a true Muslim; otherwise our military might is in readiness to strike. We will, however, wait until you present yourself in person, or an immediate reply to our letter is received.

Consider well and have mercy on your self and on your followers and do not unnecessarily precipitate them towards disaster.  Do not be deceived by the defences of your castle and accept the realities of the situation. Indeed, even if your castle ‘Alamut’was a fortress of heaven, I would level it to the ground by the grace of Allah.

 Reply of Hasan-i-Sabbah to Sultan Malik Shah Suljuki’s Letter

When the chief minister (Sadar-i-Kabir) Zia-ud-di`n Khakan arrived here and delivered the Sultan’s letter, I welcomed him and was greatly honoured by the Sultan’s favours. Since the Sultan has so graciously remembered me I feel greatly flattered and uplifted.

Now, I will elaborate and explain all those facts regarding our activities and our beliefs. We hope that the Sultan will place these facts before his court for discussion and deliberation. I wish, however, to make a petition regarding these consultations, namely that the Sultan should avoid those courtiers whose malice towards me is well known to him, in particular Nizam-ul-Mulk. Afterwards whatever shall be the Sultan’s judgement in the light of my comments and explanations, it shall be completely binding upon me. If then, I (Hasan) find that judgement unacceptable then it shall mean that I have betrayed Islam and have disobeyed God Almighty and His Prophet. But if however the Sultan listens to the slander­ous talk of my enemies regarding myself and my activities, then I shall have a full right to defend my views. I have some formidable enemies in the court of the Sultan who never desist from their attempts to make truth appear false and falsity appear as truth, and have frequently been successful in achieving their objectives. I personally have been victimised by these people and probably this is no secret to the Sultan.

I have some formidable enemies in the court of the Sultan who never desist from their attempts to make truth appear false and falsity appear as truth, and have frequently been successful in achieving their objectives

Now allow me to detail my early career. My father was a true Muslim belonging to the shafii school of thought. At the age of four my father sent me to school where I occupied myself in the acquisition of knowledge. I diligently pursued my studies from the fourth into the fourteenth year [2] of my life mastering many branches of knowledge, in particular Qur’anic exegesis and the Apostolical traditions. Since then, I have developed a particular interest in religion. During studying the works of Imam Shafii, I found numerous references regarding the exalted qualities of the descendants of the Prophet and their claim to the Imamat.

I was so profoundly impressed that I started, in all seriousness, my continued search for the Imam of the Age. However, repression and tyranny of the circumstances forced me to consider my worldly affairs. I began losing interest in my religious research devoting myself wholeheartedly towards the affairs of this world and its people thereby forsaking my duty to the Creator of this world. My behaviour did not meet with God’s approval and consequently He set up enemies against me who attempted to drive me from my work. Forced to flee, I wandered through towns and deserts where I encountered a great many hardships and difficulties. The Sultan must be aware of the dispute and subsequent estrangement between me and Nizam-ul-Mulk.

The grace of God Almighty delivered me from this whirlpool of life and thus I was convinced that all those calamities, which beset me, were the direct consequence of my preference for the affairs of this world at the expense of those of my Creator. Thus I resolved manfully to devote my energies to the service of the faith and to work diligently for the world to come. 

Hasan-i-Sabbah led the Ismaili dawa from the castle of Alamut, which was built on top of an unassailable granite rock. Photo by A.M. Rajput

I left Rayy for Baghdad where I remained for sometime, and there became acquainted with the affairs of the people in general, and the Caliphs in particular. It became apparent to me that the activities of these Abbasid Caliphs, the so-called pontiffs of the Islamic faith, were far removed from the Islamic ideals of justice and truth. I became convinced that if the foundations of the edif­ice of Islam and its faith were those embodied in these Caliphs and Imams, then heresy and atheism would be superior to such a faith. I then left Baghdad for Egypt, the Caliph there being Imam Al-Mustansir. I investigated his affairs and found that his right­ful Caliphate was superior to that of the Abbasids and his Imamat superior to that of the Abbasids. The Abbasid Caliph came to know of my conviction and a directive was issued authorising my arrest. Once again God Almighty saved me from this whirlpool and I reached Egypt safely. Following this incident, the Abbasid Caliph sent three mules laden with gold and other precious gifts to the Commander of the Egyptian Forces (Bader-al Jamali), so that Hasan is arrested and delivered dead or alive. As the blessing of the rightful Caliph and the permanent (mustaqar) Imam Al-Mustansir were in my favour, I escaped from this whirlpool unscathed.

I left Rayy for Baghdad where I remained for sometime…It became apparent to me that the activities of these Abbasid Caliphs, the so-called pontiffs of the Islamic faith, were far removed from the Islamic ideals of justice and truth….If the foundations of the edif­ice of Islam and its faith were those embodied in these Caliphs and Imams, then heresy and atheism would be superior to such a faith.

However as the Abbasid Caliph had incited the Commander in Chief against me [Bader-al Jamali], the latter appointed me to work among the Frankish Infidels. When this information reached the ears of the rightful Imam, he took me under [4] His protection and subsequently gave me a document to the effect that I should pursue that work of bringing Muslims to the right path, and in so doing I was free to adopt any such method that seemed appropriate to the undertaking. My instructions were to acquaint the people with the legitimacy and the divine nature of the Imamat of the Caliphs of Egypt. If the Sultan has the good fortune to obey the Qur’anic injunction, “Obey Allah, the Messenger and the people in authority among you (ul-il-amr)”, [5] then he cannot refute what I say. In the same way that Sultan Mahmud Gazi Sabuk-tagin was ready to crush them (the Abbasids), so similarly he should rise up in order to save the Muslims from the evildoers, lest a time comes when another effects this work and reaps all the benefit for it.

As for the second point concerning the Sultan’s accusation of my originating a new faith and religion, May a curse fall upon Hasan if this be true. The faith to which I have always adhered is that same faith which the Companions of the Prophet followed in the time of the Prophet, and which will remain the true faith until the Day of Judgement. At this present time my faith is the faith of a Muslim, namely, “I testify that there is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” [6] I have no attachment to this world and its concerns. The work that I have undertaken and the arguments that I am presenting are all in the interest of the promotion of the true faith. It is my sincere belief that the children of the Prophet have a more legitimate claim to the Caliphate as the successors of the Prophet than the children of Abbas. You, Sultan Malik Shah, after encountering trials and tribulations, have acquired your empire which extends from the West to the East and from the North Pole to the bounds of India. Should these lands now fall into the hands of the children of Harun and your own children be hunted down, where ever they are found, would you then consider their Caliphate to be justified? Indeed, the children of Abbas are a people in whom I have witnessed an evil so extensive that it would not be tolerated by any faith or religion.

It is my sincere belief that the children of the Prophet have a more legitimate claim to the Caliphate as the successors of the Prophet than the children of Abbas

There is however some people who in their ignorance of the facts still believe their (the Abbasid’s) actions to be just­ified. Such people believe that the Caliphate is their unquestionable right. However, being acquainted with the work and deeds of the Abbasids I cannot believe this to be so. If Hazarat Sultan now becomes aware of their true nature and does not take immediate action to eradicate their evil, how then will he answer and hope for salvation on the Day of Judgement? In the past, my faith has been constant and it will always remain so until my last breath. I have not invented a new faith but have followed that same faith and religion which existed before. The religion that I adhere to is that same religion which was followed by the companions of the Prophet in their time. [7] This has always been and will continue to be the true and correct religion until the Day of Judgement.

As regard to your inquiry as to why my followers and I criticize and oppose the Abbasids, I maintain that whoever is a true Muslim and is conscious of his faith and sincerity, cannot but criticize those people whose career is and shall always remain, from beginning to the end, full of deceit and treachery. In short, their affairs are exposed to the whole world but let me yet narrate a few instances.

In order that the Sultan remains in no shadow of doubt. Let us consider the life of Abu-Muslim. [8] Until such time as he had eradicated the high handedness and tyranny of the Bani-Marwan [9] and brought peace and justice to the world of Islam, they [Abbasids] used the curse, they so richly deserved themselves, for the people of the household of the Prophet, when they gathered several thousand descendants of the children of the Prophet and put them to death. They habitually indulged in wine-drinking, and their [other] evil acts reached unlimited extents.

Secondly a punishment amounting to a hundred lashes was pronounced [by the 2nd Abbasid Caliph Mansoor] against a great and respected man namely Abu Hanifa [10] who is considered as a pillar of Islam.

Similarly they crucified a saint like Mansur Hallaj. [11] If I should start to enumerate their actions, even a lifetime would not be sufficient. These were your rightful Caliphs and the pillars of Islam who were the pivot of the so called Islamic state and religion. If I or anybody else adopt a critical attitude and in consequence of this attitude appear disobedient would not that disobedience be justified?

The faith to which I have always adhered is that same faith which the Companions of the Prophet followed in the time of the Prophet, and which will remain the true faith until the Day of Judgement.

As to the charge against me that I have been inciting simple hearted people to kill and raid.  It is clear to any fair minded and impartial person that one’s own life is the most precious human possession. In the light of this fact it would appear unreasonable that any person would risk his own life at the bidding of a poor man like me, and why on earth should I issue such a command? In Khurasan and around it, the employees and administrators of the government have abandoned the correct path which was followed in the past by the Muslims. Some have indulged in dishonouring the Muslim women and wives of the pious people. When a complaint is lodged with government officials, it is usually turned down and not infreque­ntly the plaintiff himself carries the entire blame. Nizam-ul-Mulk, the chief administrator of the government, under the pretext of mis-appropriating the government funds killed Khawja Abu Nasr Kunduri [12], who was extremely capable and honest minister. No King in any country either at present or in the past had the good fortune of having such a capable person as his administrator.

At this present time Nizam-ul-Mulk has joined forces with other government officials to the extent that if Khawja Abu Nasr collected ten dirhems in government taxes and faithfully deposited them in the treasury, Nizam-ul-Mulk collects fifty dirhems of which not even half a dirhem is spent on the Sultan’s behalf. After paying an insignificant amount to his assistants and collaborators, the rest is spent entirely on his own sons, daughters and sons-in-law. He squanders public funds erecting worthless buildings of brick and sand throughout the kingdom, a fact which is abundantly clear to every observer. Where were the sons and daughters of Khawja Abu Nasr and on which day did he spend even one dinar on clay and timber? At this present time, people are in such a state of helplessness and despair that they feel they are without any hope of salvation. It is no wonder that people in this plight put their own lives at risk in order to destroy the forces of evil and, if in this process they are themselves killed, they feel complete justification in their personal sacrifice. Why should Hasan-i-Sabbah interfere in these matters and why should he incite anyone in this respect? Every event happens at a particular moment in time and in a particular manner as pre-destined by the Heavens.

As far as your warning that I should give up my activities or risk incurring your punishment and the destruction of my castle, God forbid! I, Hasan, could never be guilty of any act which would displease the Sultan. There is, however, a clique at the Sultan’s court which is so bent upon misrepresenting and persistently pursuing me that I have acquired this retreat in order to be beyond their reach. My followers are, however, willing to render any service to the Sultan. After I have dealt with my opponents, I shall personally present myself in the court of the Sultan and like many others enter the service of the King. I will then devote myself to the best of my ability to the improvement of the material as well as the spiritual welfare of the Sultan. If after this, I am found guilty of any action contrary to my promises and I fail to carry out the orders of the Sultan, then I should doubtless deserve punishment in this world and should invite the curses of the people from far and near who would say that I had revolted against the established authority of the time and that I had disobeyed the Qur’anic injunction, “Obey Allah, His Messenger and whoever is in authority from among you.” This would no doubt greatly increase and strengthen the case of my enemies and advance their cause. This would then enable them to concoct all sorts of spurious stories about me, of which I would remain unaware. Irrespec­tive of whatever I do in the service of my faith and Dawa, they would distort the facts and brand my actions as evil, so dishonouring my good name.

The Sultan has said that even if this fortress [Alamut] is a fortress of Heaven, he will level it to the ground.  With regard to this statement, the inhabitants of this fortress have complete faith in the people of the truth of the time (Imam)

If, instead, I present myself now in the court of the Sultan and offer my services to the King, while my sworn enemy Nizam-ul-Mulk is in office and who has in fact done me great wrong in the past and at the present time, there are other factors which require my consider­ation. Even were I able to keep my heart at peace, free from the fear of Nizam-ul-Mulk, there is yet one formidable enemy who cannot be ignored. The Sultan is obliged to carry out the orders of the Abbasid Caliph and the Sultan also knows full well their attitude towards me. To recapitulate, was it not so that the agents of the Abbasid Caliph attempted to arrest me?  After their failure to arrest me during my travels they sent many precious gifts to the commander in chief of the Egyptian armed forces in order to secure my arrest.

If I had not enjoyed the protection of the true Caliph Al-Mustansir, I would never have been extricated from these difficulties. Nevertheless the commander in chief succeeded in sending me amongst the Franks on a sea voyage with the instruction that I should preach the faith amongst Frankish Infidels in their country. By the grace of God Almighty, I came out even from this whirlpool successfully. After a considerable suffering and hardship endured over several years, I ultimately reached Iraq where they (the Abbasids) yet persisted in my pursuit. Having reached this stage I now maintain Dawa on behalf of the Alid Caliphs, and I have acquired certian strongholds in Tabaristan, Quhistan and in the mountains, where I am surrounded by many comrades and friends and the Partisans of the Alids.

It is on this account that the Abbasids fear me. They try their utmost to poison the Sultan’s ears against me and they never cease to desist in the pursuit of my life. It is quite possible that they would make demands on the Sultan to secure my arrest. Under such circumstances it is impossible to foresee how the matter could be resolved. Which­ever way the situation was dealt with, it would be open to criticism. If the Sultan accepts their imperative, he will never be able to execute it which would be considered a slur on his manliness. On the other hand if he does not meet their request, those ill-informed amongst the people will be critical of his actions, saying that his decision was “just like walking on foot when there was a horse avail­able to ride.” They would doubtless ask, why was not Hasan-i-Sabbah simply handed over instead? It is quite probable that the conflict between the two parties would be aggravated and it would remain unclear as to how best the conflict could be resolved.

The Sultan has said that even if this fortress is a fortress of Heaven, he will level it to the ground.  With regard to this statement, the inhabitants of this fortress have complete faith in the people of the truth of the time (Imam), and believe that this fortress will remain secure for a long time, its safety resting upon the grace of God. Now, having found refuge in this place I am carrying out all my duties as charged.

I seek help from God and His messenger that the Sultan and his courtiers may come to the right path and that God Almighty may show them the true path, and that the oppression, tyranny and evil of the Abbasids may disappear from the face of the Earth. If the Sultan is destined to achieve peace in faith as well as in worldly affairs, then he must rise against the Abbasids in the same way as the Sultan of Islam, Mahmud Gazi ‘God’s Blessings on him’ who similarly tried to eradicate their evil when he called Sayyid Ala-al-Mulk from Tirmadh and entrusted the caliphate to him. The Sultan must also support this great cause so that their evil may be abated amongst the people of God Almighty, otherwise another just King will rise up one day and accomplish this task and save the Muslims from this tyranny.

Lastly I pray that God may guide those who follow the right path.

Date article posted on Simerg: February 18, 2011

Copyright: A. M. Rajput

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Most historians including Juvaini and Rashiduddin report that Hasan’s father was an Ithnasheri (twelver). This statement seems to be taqiyya on the part of Hasan.

[2] Juvaini and Rashiduddin both report that by the testimony of Sarguzasht Hasan studied up to the age of 17 years.

[3] This reference is made to Badr-al-Jamali who was the grand vazir, commander in chief of the armed forces and head of the Ismaili Dawa in the time of Al-Mustansir, the 8th Fatimid Caliph of Egypt. Badr was Armanian by origin and was the previous Fatimid Military Governor of Palestine.

[4] Hasan is probably refering to the Document of the Mandate of Ismaili Dawa e.g., making Hasan as Hujjat or ‘Chief Dai’.

[5] Qur’an IV:59.

[6] First article of Muslim Faith.

[7] Reference is to Ashara-mubashara Ten Companions whom the Prophet gave the tidings of Paradise.

[8] Abu Muslim Khurasani defeated the last Umayyad Caliph Marwan II and installed the first Abbasid Caliph Abul-Abbas in Baghdad, (132/750).

[9] Bani-Marwan = Bani-Ummayya. Harun al-Rashid the famous Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad.

[10] Imam Abu Hanifa Al-Numan bin Sabat (80-150/699-767) is one of the four Imams of ahal-i-Sunat wa Jamat and is the founder of the Hanifia School in Sunni Islam. The other three Sunni Imams are Imam Shafii, Imam Malik and Imam Ahmed bin Hambal. See Encyclopaedia Islam, for details.

Imam Abu Hanifa had refused to accept the Abbasid caliph’s offers of becoming the chief qadi and later accept the position as head of the justice division. The respected scholar of Sunni jurisprudence was thus punished by the Abbasids.

[11] Hussain bin Mansur Hallaj (244-309/858-922) was a famous Sufi who was crucified in Baghdad by the orders of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadar.

[12] Amid al-Mulk Abu Nasr Kunduri was the famous vazir to Sultan Toghril Seljuk uncle of Sultan Alp Arsalan. After Toghhril’s death Alp-Arsalan became the Sultan with Nizam-ul-Mulk as his grand vazir. At Nizam-ul-Mulk’s orders Kunduri was put to death in 1063.

~~~~~~~~

Editor’s notes: Notwithstanding disputes about its authenticity, the letter should be seen against the background of verbal and physical attacks made against the Ismailis during the Fatimid and Alamut periods. Sabbah’s response is measured and balanced, offering conciliation but remaining firm on the position of the Ismailis in their belief in the Imamat. One typical example of the verbal assault against the Ismailis, of which traces can be found in Sultan Malik’s letter to Sabbah and which has been used throughout history was the Abbasid manifesto or protocol issued during the reign of the Fatimid Imam al-Hakim. The manifesto ascribed scornful titles to the Fatimids and repudiated their claims of being the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) through Hazrat Ali (AS) and Bibi Fatima (AS).

Please click Exchange of letters for the seven page Persian text produced in Khulafa-i-Fatimiya which is mentioned  in the author’s introductory piece.

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A most recent portrait of 87 year old, Dr. A. M. Rajput

About the author: Since retiring from University teaching in Birmingham as Professor of Mathematical Statistics, Dr. Ali Rajput has devoted his life to a better understanding of his faith and serving the Ismaili community. In 1991, the current 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, asked him to visit his headquarters in Aiglemont, where Dr. Rajput was assigned to go on a mission to Tajikistan in March, 1991. Ever since that time he has been in the service of the people of Badakhshan, where he spends his summer working as Professor Emeritus at the University of Khorog. He spends the remainder time in Birmingham, England.

Links to Dr. Rajput’s other articles on this Web site:

My Climb to ‘Sacred’ Alamut, Where Every Stone Tells a Story

An Audience with the 48th Ismaili Imam, Aga Khan III

A Unique Moment in the Life of the Punjab Jamat (as part of I Wish I’d Been There series; it includes Dr. Rajput’s detailed profile).

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6 thoughts on “Exchange of Letters Between Sultan Malik Shah and Hasan-i-Sabbah

  1. I bumped on to this marvelous work of Dr. Aly Muhammad Rajput. I have no words to pay my homage to him for his research based on authentic and genuine resources. Mwula bless you with happiness and strength to carry on your khidmat.

  2. We certainly have come a long way but there is still a long way to go before we Ismailis receive full recognition.

  3. It’s so nice to read such letters between Malik-Shah And Hasan-i Sabbah. So many thanks to Dr. Rajput on this contribution.

  4. My compliments to Dr. Rajput for this informative, enlightening piece of history which has not been correctly conveyed in the past. Hasan Sabbah’s response also belies the utterances of Marco Polo which again are biased and distorted. Simerg, thanks for sharing this.
    Mansur

  5. This is a brilliant piece, Dr Rajput. I am glad you are sharing this precious knowledge you have with us, not gifted with so much you store in your Allah’s given gift to you of wisdom and intellect.

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