Introduction: With the death of the Fatimid Imam-Caliph Mustansir Billah, the Ismaili world was plunged into a serious controversy over the succession to the throne of Imamat. It saw the emergence of a brilliant Ismaili statesman, Hasan-i-Sabbah, who in anticipating the crisis had taken the necessary steps to ensure that the Ismaili communities outside the confines of Egypt would remain true to the nass of Imam Mustansir Billah - that Imam Nizar was to succeed him. The genius of Hasan led to the establishment of the Ismaili State of Alamut that lasted over 150 years. Simerg’s series on “Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures” continues with Jalaledin Ebrahim’s gratitude to Hasan-i-Sabbah and two of his contemporaries, Amira Dharrab and Abu Najm Sarraj.
By Jalaledin Ebrahim
According to the account by Marshall Hodgson in his classic, The Order of the Assassins – The Struggle of the Early Nizari Ismailis against the Islamic World: “The Fifth Caliph of Cairo, Mustansir, lost control even of his capital, which continued in disorder till a military captain, Badr al-Jamali, was able in 1074 to restore the Caliphal dignity – at the price of replacing Mustansir’s authority, except in name, with his own” (1955, p. 37). As we know, Imam Mustansir Billah reigned from 1036 to 1094.
If this account is to be believed, it is this loss of political control that leads to the demise of the Fatimid Caliphate, and ultimately the Nizari-Must’ali split in Shia Ismaili Islam. Hodgson asserts that Badr was an Ismaili. If this murid is singularly responsible for both the temporary arrest in the decline of the Fatimid Empire as well as its final demise, then it is another courageous murid of the Imam of the Time who can claim responsibility for restoring the authority of the Imamah to its rightful lineage. That murid is Hasan-i-Sabbah.
The Early Years
What is known about Hasan-i-Sabbah is apparently taken from his own memoirs. He is born into a Twelver Shia family in Qom, circa 1055. His father was originally from Kufa, in modern-day Iraq, the site of Hazrat Ali’s assassination. It appears that Hasan knows as early as the age of seven that he wants to be a religious scholar, although he is equally interested in the sciences and other branches of learning. He accepted the conventional beliefs, norms and forms of worship of Twelver Shi’ism until the age of seventeen when he encounters the ideas and beliefs of Amira Dharrab, an Ismaili who challenges Hasan’s theology. Hasan is outraged and asks Amira to desist from his blasphemies as they are beyond the pale. Sound familiar?
Hasan’s Embrace of the Tariqa
Hasan is reported to have confessed: “In our conversation we had arguments and disputes with each other, and he disproved and demolished my doctrine. I did not yield, but those words had their effect” (1955, p. 44). Amira says to Hasan that he would eventually realize the truth of what he was being taught. Predictably, Hasan pursues this line of enquiry until he becomes severely and dangerously ill. He thought his life was on the line. Then Hasan has the epiphany that if he does not accept the truth that has been revealed to him, he would die in a state of sin. Miraculously, he recovers from this illness and seeks out another Ismaili, Abu Najm Sarraj, “who so expounded it by explanation and analysis that I was informed of its abstruse points and its final reality” (1955, p. 45). Hasan then seeks the bayah through another murid, named Mu’min. Following this dramatic conversion, Hasan moves to Rayy (close to modern-day Tehran) which was then one of the centers of the Ismaili dawa. In 1072, he comes to the attention of Ibn Attash, the chief of the dais in Persia. He is encouraged to complete his education in Egypt but it would be another six years before he gets this opportunity.
In Pursuit of Ilm and Didar
In the meantime, Hasan spends some time in Isfahan, the center of the Ismaili mission in Persia until the time comes for him to begin his pilgrimage to further his religious instruction and obtain a glimpse of the Imam of the Time. He leaves Isfahan sometime between 1076 and 1077, taking a long circuitous route via Azerbaijan and into Syria via Mosul to Damascus. Hasan even has the distinction of getting thrown out of one of the Sunni towns on his itinerary for his passionate call to the truth of the Ismaili tariqa. Finding that his pilgrimage is blocked by the constant conflicts in Palestine between the Seljuks and the Fatimids, Hasan manages to get a boat from Caesarea to Egypt, arriving in circa 1077/1078. He was still in his early 20s.
Little is known of Hasan’s time in Egypt. He is officially welcomed by representatives of the Imam because of his referral by the chief dai of Persia. There is no evidence of an official meeting with the Imam of the Time, but there is also no evidence that he does not receive a glimpse of the Imam. But even if that is not possible to substantiate, he certainly has the opportunity to make a pragmatic and sagacious assessment of the Fatimid political system. Realizing that the state was in decline, and insufficiently powerful to challenge the Seljuks, it is quite possible that it was at this moment that he is inspired to imagine a self-reliant autonomous Ismaili state in Persia. One account suggests that he spends three years in Egypt and is forced to flee, arriving back in Isfahan in 1081.
He spends the better part of a decade traveling through the country, getting a sense of the lay of the land, and discreetly preaching the Ismaili dawa. In assessing the power centers of the Seljuks, he has the epiphany that strategically placed forts and villages for Ismailis can protect them from assault by the larger Seljuk forces. The terrain is rugged and impassable in the mountain regions. He considers how he can take advantage of the economic and social discontent of the Zaydis and other Shi’is to carve out an enclave that would become a power center and a spiritual vortex for the Ismailis. The dawa penetrates the region of Daylam, all the while focusing on the capture of the ancient fortress of Alamut which had been built in 860. Alamut, at this time, is governed by a Seljuk named Mahdi. The Ismaili movement targets the valleys and population centers surrounding the Alburz mountains. Gradually, the dawa recruits members of the garrison protecting the fortress. Hasan encourages Ismailis from other parts of Persia to migrate to the region. Then on September 4, 1090, when Hasan is in his mid-30s, he is secretly escorted into the castle of Alamut, and begins his life as Dikhuda.
When the Seljuk governor Mahdi recognizes the real identity of Dikhuda, he looks to his garrison for help. But then it dawns on him that the garrison and others living in the fortress have all been converted to the Ismaili cause. It is a bloodless coup. Mahdi is allowed to leave in peace with a signed warrant declaring that Hasan has guaranteed a payment of 3,000 gold dinars. The guarantee is honored, and Hasan-i-Sabbah takes full control of Alamut. The Ismailis now have a power base that is impervious to Seljuk attack. Before long other castles and fortresses come under Ismaili control. In 1092, The Seljuks attempt to recapture Alamut from Hasan who only has seventy men available to him, but the assault fails because of the powerful network of Ismailis in the region who come to Hasan’s defense and break through the Seljuk lines.
In 1094, Mawlana al-Mustansirbillah returns to his Source and at the age of fifty, Mawlana Nizar is appointed by nass to the Imamate in Cairo. But a palace coup thwarts the natural order of succession. Mawlana Nizar flees to Alexandria and challenges the claims of his younger brother. In the ensuing civil war, Mawlana Nizar surrenders in 1095 and is ordered killed, sending shock waves through the Ismaili world. Large numbers of Ismailis in Persia refuse to accept the new Fatimid Caliph in Egypt, creating a permanent schism in the Ismaili alam.
The Guardian of the Faith
Hasan-i-Sabbah assumes the leadership of the Nizari Ismailis and rules for another three decades, until 1124. Years later, the legitimate heir to the Imamate is finally revealed, but not without the brilliant and strategic efforts of Hasan-i-Sabbah. He was truly the Guardian of the faith. To him, we owe an eternal debt of gratitude for keeping the Ismaili tariqa alive, despite impossible odds, but we cannot forget his two RE teachers. They knew how to present their knowledge of the tariqa persuasively.
As a psychotherapist, what strikes me most about Hasan is that he does not succumb to a victim psychology. He wrestles with his own religious upbringing and overcomes his own doubts. He assesses the challenges for the survival of the Ismaili Jamat in Persia. He strategizes discreetly. He is proactive in promoting the dawa. He leads a non-violent revolution. He is super-creative in the restoration of Alamut, especially the subterranean storage rooms for food, his brilliant engineering to ensure ample access to water, providing irrigation for his agricultural projects to ensure food self-sufficiency. He builds one of the finest libraries of his time and keeps the intellectual tradition of Ismailism alive until the Mongols wreak havoc. He creates a template for the development of a military architecture of fortresses. One might say he founds a prototype of an Ismaili state. But most of all, he makes it possible for the descendants of Mawlana Nizar to return to an impregnable sanctuary. Shukrana Hasan-i-Sabbah!
Date posted: Thursday, September 27, 2012.
About the writer: Jalaledin Ebrahim is a licensed psychotherapist in the State of California. He recently obtained a Ph.D in Depth Psychology, with an emphasis in Psychotherapy. His doctoral dissertation was entitled “Towards an Integral Psychology of Islam from Al-Fatiha, The Opening,to the Gardens of Paradise.” The presentation of his dissertation defense to the dissertation Committee at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara on August 13, 2012 can be viewed by clicking http://Jalaledin.blogspot.com. He also blogs in his area of specialization, Integral Psychotherapy, at http://jalaledin-ebrahim.blogspot.com. He had earlier graduated with a degree in Counselling Psychology, and for over a decade has worked as a mental health clinician with at risk youth.
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