Al-Qaeda, IS and drawing unfortunate parallels with the “so-called Assassins” or Ismailis of the 12th and 13th centuries

Editor’s note: Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in the USA in 2001 which killed almost 3000 people in an instant, numerous articles began to appear in the media around the world that drew parallels between the actions of Al-Qaeda and the warfare activity of the Ismailis during the 12th and 13th centuries that over time grew into fantastic legendary tales. In response to one such column that appeared in the October 8 edition of Canada’s National Post newspaper, Professor Azim Nanji and Dr. Farhad Daftary of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London contributed the following letter in the newspaper:

“It is unfortunate that the search for historical connections in the aftermath of the terrible events of Sept. 11 has made historical truth itself a casualty. George Jonas’s column, Mortal Enemies Are to be Destroyed (Oct. 8) attempts to draw parallels between the ancient history of the Ismaili Muslims and the actions of these terrorists. In the last 25 years, scholarship, Muslim and Western, has shown the legend about the Assassins to be a fabrication concocted by contemporary enemies of the Ismailis. The Nizari branch of Ismaili Muslims organized a state in Iran and Syria in the 12th and 13th centuries. It flourished for almost two centuries, as a place of learning, scholarship and international influence, in spite of adverse circumstances and militant hostility from its neighbours. These Ismailis were heirs to the Fatimid dynasty that founded Cairo and established the University of Al‑Azhar, acts which represented a truly brilliant epoch in medieval Muslim history However, due to hostility prevailing in political and military spheres, the Ismailis became the object of theological and intellectual attacks, as their society attracted many scholars and scientists to their libraries and observatories. This climate of threat was accentuated by direct military attempts to destroy their centres and communities. It is in this context that their attempts at self‑defence need to be understood. These were directed at political and military figures and never against the general populace: a fact recognized by their enemies. Reporters obsessed with tracing tenuous historical links to current episodes of violence can learn much from history about the rich intellectual and cultural interactions among Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.”

Sporadic responses like the letter above, academic books by Dr. Daftary and the late Dr Peter Willey and many others as well as scholarly articles in journals do not appear to have made any impact in demystifying and debunking the myth of the assassins. Furthermore, the non-availability and non-distribution of important historical and theological works on Ismailis,  in giant brick and mortar stores like Chapters and Indigo in Canada haven’t helped the cause either. There are a number of enjoyable, accessible and easy to comprehend books, produced by the Institute of Ismaili Studies and other academic and non-academic publishers, that should be on bookstore shelves alongside numerous Sunni, Shia and general works on Islam and other religions to counter misperceptions and negative stereotyping about the Ismailis as well as to impart an understanding of the community’s religious doctrines from Ismaili sources.

The plot of the highly popular video game “Assassins’ Creed” which is now available on almost all computer platforms revolves around the legendary “assassins” of the 12th and 13th centuries. The video game, which was created in 2007, was inspired by the 1930’s novel Alamut by the Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol. New versions of the game have appeared annually since but the 2016 edition has been bypassed to prepare for a greatly enhanced 2017 version. However, a movie version of the video game is planned for release at the end of this year under the title “Assassin’s Creed: The Movie.”

Now, in response to the idea that ISIS or IS (Islamic State) is based on the Assassins, Dr. Farhad Daftary has contributed the following piece for the February 21, 2016, (USA) edition of The Conversation, which has a mission to provide readers with a reliable source of high quality, evidence based information.

Islamic State and the Assassins: reviving fanciful tales of the medieval Orient

By Farhad Daftary, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Article reproduced from The Conversation

(How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, historian Farhad Daftary debunks the idea that Islamic State is based on the so-called Assassins or hashishin, the fighting corps of the fledgling medieval Nizari Ismaili state).

Many Western commentators have tried to trace the ideological roots of Islamic State (IS) to earlier Islamic movements. Occasionally, they’ve associated them with the medieval Ismailis, a Shiʿite Muslim community made famous in Europe by returning Crusaders as the Assassins.

But any serious inquiry shows the teachings and practices of medieval Ismailis, who had a state of their own in parts of Iran from 1090 to 1256, had nothing in common with the senseless terrorist ideology and ruthless destruction of IS and its supporters.

Attacks on civilians, including women and children, and engaging in the mass destruction of property are forbidden both by Prophet Muhammad and in the tenets of Islamic law. Needless to say, the Ismailis never descended to such terrorist activities, even under highly adversarial circumstances.

Significant discordance exists between the medieval Ismailis and contemporary terrorists, who – quite inappropriately – identify themselves as members of an Islamic polity.

Fanciful Oriental tales

The Ismailis, or more specifically the Nizari Ismailis, founded a precarious state in 1090 under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah. As a minority Shi’ite Muslim community, they faced hostility from the Sunni-Abbasid establishment (the third caliphate after the death of the Prophet Muhammed) and their political overlords, the Seljuq Turks, from very early on.

Struggling to survive in their network of defensive mountain fortresses remained the primary objective of the Ismaili leadership, centred on the castle of Alamut (in the north of modern-day Iran). Their state survived against all odds until it was destroyed by the all-conquering Mongols in 1256.

During the course of the 12th century, the Ismailis were incessantly attacked by the armies of the Sunni Seljuq sultans, who were intensely anti-Shiʿite. As they couldn’t match their enemies’ superior military power, the Ismailis resorted to the warfare tactic of selectively removing Seljuq military commanders and other prominent adversaries who posed serious existential threats to them in particular localities.

An agent (fida’i) of the Ismailis (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

These daring missions were carried out by the Ismaili fidaʾis, who were deeply devoted to their community. The fidaʾis comprised the fighting corps of the Ismaili state.

But the Ismailis didn’t invent the policy of assassinating enemies. It was a practice employed by many Muslim groups at the time, as well as by the Crusaders and many others throughout history.

Unfortunately, almost all assassinations of any significance occurring in the central lands of Islam became automatically attributed to the Ismaili fidaʾis. And a series of fanciful tales were fabricated around their recruitment and training.

These tales, rooted in the “imaginative ignorance” of the Crusaders, were concocted and put into circulation by them and their occidental observers; they’re not found in contemporary Muslim sources.

The so-called Assassin legends, which culminated in Marco Polo’s synthesis, were meant to provide satisfactory explanations for the fearless behaviour of the fidaʾis, which seemed otherwise irrational to medieval Europeans.

The very term Assassin, which appears in medieval European literature in a variety of forms, such as Assassini, was based on variants of the Arabic word hashish (plural, hashishin) and applied to the Nizari Ismailis of Syria and Iran by other Muslims.

In all the Muslim sources where the Ismailis are referred to as hashishis, the term is used in its pejorative sense of “people of lax morality”. There’s no suggestion that they were actually using hashish. There’s no evidence that hashish, or any other drug, was administered to the fida’is, as alleged by Marco Polo.

The literal interpretation of the term for the Ismailis as an “order of crazed hashish-using Assassins” is rooted entirely in the fantasies of medieval Europeans.

Modern scholarship in Ismaili studies, based on the recovery and study of numerous Ismaili textual sources, has now begun to dispel many misconceptions regarding the Ismailis, including the myths surrounding their cadre of fidaʾis.

And the medieval Assassin legends, arising from the hostility of the Sunni Muslims to the Shiʿite Ismailis as well as the medieval Europeans’ fanciful impressions of the Orient, have been recounted and deconstructed.

A culture of learning and tolerance

Living in adverse circumstances, the Ismailis of Iran and Syria were heirs to the Fatimid dynasty that founded the city of Cairo and established al-Azhar, perhaps the earliest university of the world. Although preoccupied with survival, the Ismailis of the Alamut period maintained a sophisticated outlook and a literary tradition, elaborating their teachings within a Shiʿite theological framework.

An entirely fictional illustration from The Travels of Marco Polo showing the Nizari imam Alâ al Dîn Muhammad (1221-1255) drugging his disciples. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Their leader, Hasan-i Sabbah, was a learned theologian. And the Ismaili fortresses of the period, displaying magnificent military architecture and irrigation skills, were equipped with libraries holding significant collections of manuscripts, documents and scientific instruments.

The Ismailis also extended their patronage of learning to outside scholars, including Sunnis, and even non-Muslims. They were very tolerant towards other religious communities.

In the last decades of their state, in the 13th century, even waves of Sunni Muslims found refuge in the Ismaili fortress communities of eastern Iran. These refugees were running from the Mongol hordes who were then establishing their hegemony over Central Asia.

All this stands in sharp contrast to the destructive policies of IS, which persecutes religious and ethnic minorities and enslaves women.

The medieval Ismailis embodied qualities of piety, learning and community life in line with established Islamic teachings. These traditions continue in the modern-day Ismaili ethos. And the present-day global Ismaili community represents one of the most progressive and enlightened communities of the Muslim world.

The Ismailis have never had anything in common with the terrorists of IS, who murder innocent civilians at random and en masse, and destroy monuments of humankind’s shared cultural heritage.

Global terrorism in any form under the banner of Islam is a new phenomenon without historical antecedents in either classical Islamic or any other tradition. IS’s ideology reflects a crude version of the intolerant Wahhabi theology expounded by the Sunni religious establishment of Saudi Arabia, which is itself a narrow perspective that fails to recognise any pluralism or diversity of interpretations in Islam.

Date posted on Simerg: Monday, February 29, 2016.
Last updated: March 1, 2016 (12:50 EST).


This is the fifth article in The Conversation website’s series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days on The Conversation website.

This article by Dr. Farhad Daftary was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Ismaili History: The Marco Polo Myth of the Assassins


Major excavation activities have been underway for the past few years resulting in interesting archaeological discoveries. Here we see the legendary water basin which filled itself up by collecting rainwater and melting snow from channels and canals on the mountains. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.


“The Nizari [Ismailis] excelled in the fields of theology, philosophy, architecture and science, but their opponents demonized them as bloodthirsty extremist religious murderers…The returning Crusaders brought back the legend of the pothead assassins, partly because they loved to believe imaginative romantic tales of the East…In 1256, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu, destroyed the Nizali mountain castles, one at a time. Their political and military power was permanently broken (although today, some several million Nizalis still survive in some 25 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America).


Timeline by Dr. Ali M. Rajput, Birmingham, England.

“In 1273, Marco Polo visited Alamut, and brought back the story of how hashish was used to attract potential killers…After, Dante was the first to use the word “assassin” in the 19th Canto of The Inferno in his Divine Comedy. The word “assassin” remained in various European languages, right through to Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code, who mentions the Assassins in his book, Angels and Demons. But there are a few reasons why the hashish-assassin myth is almost certainly wrong….If hashish is given in a large enough dose to cause unconsciousness, it will first cause nausea and hallucinations – which are usually very scary and unpleasant to the unsuspecting user.” — Excerpts from  Dr. Karl  S. Kruszelnicki’s “Hashish Assassin – Pulling Back the Silk Curtain”, broadcast on ABC Science Australia. Dr. Karl is Julius Sumner Miller Fellow, School of Physics, University of Sydney. 


Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.



Nevertheless, the most acceptable etymology of the word assassin is the simple one: it comes from Hassan (Hassan ibn al-Sabbah) and his followers, and so had it been for centuries. The noise around the hashish version was invented in 1809, in Paris, by the French orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy, whom on July the 7th of that year, presented a lecture at the Academy of Inscriptions and Fine Letters (Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres) – part of the Institute of France – in which he retook the Marco Polo chronicle concerning drugs and this sect of murderers, and associated it with the word. Curiously his theory had great success and apparently still has…Jacques Boudet, in Les mots de l’histoire, Ed. Larousse-Bordas, Paris, 1998



[…] their contemporaries in the Muslim world would call them hash-ishiyun, “hashish-smokers”; some Orientalists thought that this was the origin of the word “assassin,” which in many European languages was more terrifying yet….the truth is different. According to texts Hassan-i Sabbah liked to call his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asās, meaning “foundation” of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travelers, that seemed similar to “hashish” — Amin Maalouf, in Samarkand, Interlink Publishing Group, New York, 1998


Editor’s note: The following piece by Valerie Gonzalez has been adapted from her review of the book Eagle’s Nest – Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria by the late Professor Peter Peter Wiley, who had spent nearly a lifetime discovering and investigating the Ismaili castles of Iran and Syria. Professor Wiley passed away on April 23, 2009, at the age 86. Valerie’s copyright piece originally appeared in REMMM (Issue 123|July 2008)  and was reproduced on this blog in full (see link below) with the kind permission of Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée.


The Rock of Alamut.

The Castle of Alamut, nested on the top of the colossal mass of granite rock, became the centre of Nizari Ismaili activity after the fall of the Fatimid Empire. It is not until you come to the foot of this colossal mass of stone that you realize the immensity and impregnability of the fortress at its summit. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright. Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

By Valerie Gonzalez

Old myths are very difficult to deconstruct, even when historical evidence reveals the absurdity of their foundations. The infamous “assassin” legend that from the Middle Ages soils the memory of the Nizari Ismaili community is an example of this incorrigible defect of the collective consciousnesses. The image presented by both Christian and Muslim chroniclers of the Ismailis as unscrupulous terrorists is unfortunate if their sole fault lay in surviving as a distinct political and religious community within a hostile and troubled environment. The Crusaders, Sunnis and Seldjuk Turks naturally saw in this Shi’ite minority a threat to their establishment and expended great efforts in eliminating the Ismaili State from Iran and Syria. In addition to the pressures exerted by the great powers holding sway over the Middle East, in the 13th century, the Ismailis had to confront the Mongol threat which finally overwhelmed them. It is not wonder that in such a context they deployed the most efficient means of defense available to maintain not only the network of their strongholds and basis of their State, but also their faith and culture, the very sense of existence. In practice however, they were no more immoral or cruel than their contemporaries. They simply proved tremendously clever and obstinate in facing adversity and in struggling against forces vastly more powerful than their own. And it is probably for this reason that the Nizari Ismaili community were subject to demonization.


Attaining the summit at Alamut is a breath-taking and exhilarating experience. The fortress complex, one soon discovers, sits astride a dangerously narrow ledge of rock resembling the handle and blade of a knife. The above is an open passage through the mountain. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Much scholarship was required to unravel the dark mystery of the medieval Ismaili community. Numerous historical essays and archeological reports, among them Fahrad Daftari’s extensive works, have provided an accurate view of the Ismailis within the Islamic tradition. But assuredly the latest release on the subject, Peter Willey’s book Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, brings invaluable new insights by accurately portraying the environment in which the life and struggles of the Ismaili faithful took place. There is no question but that this book offers a convincing tool for the deconstruction of the false myths which surround the cult of the Assassins.

Far from being the addicts of hashish (the word assassin is believed widely, but incorrectly, to derive from the word hashishin) and a band of murderous brigands, the Ismailis were highly intelligent and devout Muslims serving their own Imam or spiritual leader (the present Imam is the Aga Khan) and attempting to build a new and vigorous Islamic state independent of the Seljuqs who had conquered Iran in 1038 – Peter Willey, Geographical Magazine, UK, February 1998

More than a mere treatise on the archaeology of the Ismaili castles in Iran and Syria, Willey’s book shows multiple qualities. As an academic work, it fulfills its main objective which is to present the results of a meticulous description and observation of these fortified sites. The considerable amount of information contained in the volume reflects a near life-time of research devoted to the subject. Not a single pile of stones or rubble has escaped Willey’s acute attention, or skillful restoration in clear prose of the forbidding grandeur of the Ismaili military architecture. Each remaining element of structure is analyzed and appropriately re-situated in the initial order both of the architectural organization of the building itself and of its broader setting within the coherent chain of fortresses spread over Ismaili territories. The material and documentation at the author’s disposal, including building scale, purpose, population levels and strategic importance have been patiently collected in order to present a reliable picture of the complex network of Ismaili strongholds. Maps, ground plans, photographs and even artists’ impressions and drawings complete the written work together with four appendices which include the castles’ inventory, a list of Willey’s expeditions and two catalogues of the ceramic and coin artifacts dating from the Alamut Period found at the site.

As seen on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day and the National Geographic News a meteor's streak and the arc of the Milky Way hang over the imposing mountain fortress of Alamut in this starry scene. Photo: Babak Tafreshi/ . Copyright.

As seen on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day and the National Geographic News, a meteor’s streak and the arc of the Milky Way hang over the imposing mountain fortress of Alamut in this starry scene. Photo: Babak Tafreshi/ . Copyright.

Beyond the high quality scientific report based on the archaeological record, Eagle’s Nest offers a brilliant reconstitution of Ismaili material culture from an historical, intellectual and sociological point of view, from the 11th century through the Mongol destructions of the mid 13th century. Willey restitutes the very meaning of the architecture he studies through the history of its builders and inhabitants, pointing out the most significant events of their lifetimes and portraying the great spiritual and political leaders of the Ismaili community. Methodically and surely, Willey describes the intricate historical background of the Ismaili State in which multiple powers confronted or fought each other, including Seljuk Turks, ambitious Sunni and Shii’a rulers, Crusaders on the Mediterranean coast, to propose his own interpretation of the historical evidence. Where evidence lacks or where persistent misconceptions require redress, the author proposes and defends critical hypotheses. The historical and cultural dimension of Willey’ archaeological investigation is particularly enhanced by the presentation of certain situations and events as literary narratives, as he does in the beginning of chapter 2, “Hasan Sabbah and the Ismailis of Iran”. The passage in question relates the capture without bloodshed of the Alamut fortress under Seljuk authority and begins thus: “It was nearly noon on a hot day in the early summer of 1090. Mahdi, the lord of the castle of Alamut, was beginning to sweat a little” (p. 21). In this way, the author makes us relive the extraordinary event in a human atmosphere that is quite uncommon in scholarly works.


A tribute to the great Ismaili dai, Hasan bin Sabbah who was responsible for establishing the Alamut state after the divisions in the Fatimid Empire led to its eventual demise. Hasan maintained that Imam Nizar and not Musteali was the rightful heir to Imam Mustansir billah, the 8th Fatimid Caliph. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

Willey’s sensitivity to humanistic values is perceptible throughout the book, not only through the telling of the past but also in the lively narration of the research trips themselves. First, he pays considerable attention to the actual environment of the castles he visits, their awesome natural frame and the rural or urban settings of the surroundings that are presented with delight and consideration. Although most of the time the Ismaili vestiges are ghost constructions in remote, isolated regions, they are not at all presented by Willey as still life portraits. Rather, each fortress is an element in a busy, human landscape. As an example, where appropriate Willey writes about agriculture and local conditions in the surrounding villages for fortresses located in rural areas. Also, the local population and individuals involved in Willey’s expeditions frequently are mentioned as actors in the archaeological narrative. In this way, Willey underscores the support of both his team and the local community in contributing to the success of his research. Particularly moving is his attitude toward the people who help him visit inaccessible locations under difficult conditions and various orders, especially his work partner Adrianne Woodfine. More broadly, the practical aspects of each journey, the general organization and unexpected situations and encounters are meticulously recounted so that the book offers the live texture of a human adventure together with its purely scholarly content.

It is often difficult to describe to friends the problems which the investigation of Ismaili castles present. They are built on the top of high mountains, covering the entire summit, and are normally surrounded by three defensive walls with numerous outworks. Most of the castles were destroyed by the Mongols and the ruins are dangerous and infested with snakes and scorpions on or under the stones or in the cracks of walls. The steep scree and sharp rocks are formidable, especially in the intense heat and altitude of over 2000 metres – Peter Willey, Geographical Magazine, UK, February 1998

Chapters 7 through 12 cover the various areas of the Iranian Ismaili strongholds. Willey naturally begins with the fortresses in the famous Alamut Valley of the Alborz Mountains, the fortress in which the infamous legend of the “Assassins” took place. Alamut fortress constituted the very heart of the Nizari State in Iran and was the seat of Hasan Sabbah. Alamut and its sister fortresses represented the epitome of Ismaili military science. Willey presents it with a rigorous method of sketching, measuring and enumeration of the construction’s features and structures, topography, architectural configuration, water equipment, cisterns, underground storage, garrison quarters and so on.

Alamut Potter Kilns

The pottery kilns in the valley of Andij in the Alamut valley. Some 15 kilns were discovered including good examples of contemporary ceramics. Photo:

The Alamut castle like many of the Ismaili strongholds contained facilities for religious activities and higher learning such as libraries. To support his observations, Willey quotes several times the Mongol historian, Juwayni, who witnessed the surrender of the Alamut fortress among other similar events. Although this chronicler was hostile to the Ismailis, his detailed reports offer an invaluable source of information. In particular he inspected the Alamut fortress’ interior prior to destruction and mentions, not without admiration, its remarkable facilities (p.100). Indeed, the sophistication of their architecture allowed the Ismailis to resist the fiercest attacks while ultimately succumbing to the formidable Mongol war machinery. Willey relates with great empathy for the desperate inhabitants the dramatic capture and systematic destruction of Alamut and other Ismaili strongholds. After Alamut, Willey investigates the other Iranian Ismaili castles of the regions of Qumes, Khorassan, Qohistan and in the surroundings of the Seldjuk capital Isfahan.

Willey terminates his book with a moving epilogue in which he shares a few of the thoughts, feelings and questions raised in his heart and mind by the exceptional fate of the Ismailis. He naturally mentions the remarkable endeavor of the Aga Khan’s organization for the development of both Ismaili and Islamic culture in continuation with the educational tradition of the community since the Middle Ages.


Nevin Harji stands by an official road sign when she visited Alamut with husband Muslim. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

If, through such personal treatment, Willey hoped to clarify the historical issues surrounding Ismaili culture through the ages, he most assuredly succeeded. Eagle’s Nest unveils the extraordinary reality and humanity of the medieval Ismaili civilization, often hidden behind romantic images of remote ruins and the dark secrets contained behind crumbling walls. Finally, that Willey should communicate his deep affection for the countries he explored, particularly Iran, and the Ismaili themselves, is not the least quality of this book.

Date posted: December 14, 2015.


Credits and notes:

1. The book review originally appeared in REMMM (Issue 123|July 2008) and was reproduced on this web site with the kind permission of Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée under the title Voices: Unravelling the Dark History of the Medieval Ismaili Community

2. Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, by Peter Willey, published by I.B. Tauris, 2005, London – New York, 321 pages, hard back. Approximate prices in Canada, USA and the UK (at $45.00 – $61.00; at $37.00 – $58.00; new at $58.00, at Pounds 9.95 – 21.25, note price range based on used – new book)

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Great Epics: Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The Epic of the Kings), With Two Magnificent Illustrations from the Aga Khan Museum

Written a thousand years ago, Ferdowsi’s Shahnama or The Epic of the Kings tells the story of the Iranian people from the time of the world’s creation. National epic, landmark in world literature and a profound expression of the Iranian soul, Ferdowsi’s masterpiece is still read and recited throughout Iran.


The statue of Ferdowsi in Ferdowsi Square in Tehran. Photo: Wikipedia.

The statue of Ferdowsi in Ferdowsi Square in Tehran. Photo: Wikipedia.

By Nahal Tadjadod

In a square in Teheran, the capital of Iran, there is a statue of Ferdowsi [or Firdawsi, Firdausi etc, Ed.) where the poet holds his Epic of the Kings (Shahnama or Shahnameh, Ed.) in his hand and gazes at the peaks of the Alborz mountains. When I was young, my parents often took me to this place and while they looked on attentively I recited these lines by Ferdowsi:

“I have toiled painfully these thirty years. I have restored Iran to life by my verse. Henceforth I cannot die; for I live, having broadcast the seeds of my verses.”

These words were engraved in the memory of the child I was then and I know that they have shaped my innermost identity. There is nothing astonishing in that. For a thousand years Ferdowsi’s poem has been read, recited and copied in Iran. Even today it is recited in the cafés. Early on it became our national epic.

Why has it always been so popular? Not because of the originality of its subject the history of ancient Iran from the time of its first mythical king to the last sovereign of the Sassanid dynasty in the seventh century AD nor because of the novelty of its content. “What I will say, all have already told,” Ferdowsi claimed. The poet transmitted; he invented nothing. He drew on old oral traditions and on ancient texts such as the Avesta, a holy book of the eighth century BC, or reworked somewhat earlier tales on the same theme.

The First Masterpiece of Persian Literature

This illustration is from Shah Tahmasp I’s Shahnameh, one of the most remarkable Persian manuscripts, which was started when Shah Tahmasp returned to Tabriz from Herat in 1522. This illustration shows Firdausi, the author of the written version of the Shahnameh, with the three poets of the court of Mahmud, the sultan of Ghazna, a city which is now in modern-day Afghanistan. Firdausi left Tus, his native city, in northeast Iran, to seek out the patronage of the sultan for his Shahnameh. Before meeting with the sultan, he was confronted by three poets of the court who cornered him before finally acknowledging his superior talent. In this miniature painting a small black servant roasts a bird on a spit while young fine-faced boys bring wine and delicacies to the three Ghazna poets, seated, in the centre of the picture, on the grassy bank of a stream of water. Firdausi’s isolation is emphasized by his position to the extreme left of the main group, just where the composition spills over into the margin. Photo and caption credit: Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. Copyright.

This illustration is from Shah Tahmasp I’s Shahnameh, one of the most remarkable Persian manuscripts, which was started when Shah Tahmasp returned to Tabriz from Herat in 1522. This illustration shows Firdausi, the author of the written version of the Shahnameh, with the three poets of the court of Mahmud, the sultan of Ghazna, a city which is now in modern-day Afghanistan. Firdausi left Tus, his native city, in northeast Iran, to seek out the patronage of the sultan for his Shahnameh. Before meeting with the sultan, he was confronted by three poets of the court who cornered him before finally acknowledging his superior talent. In this miniature painting a small black servant roasts a bird on a spit while young fine-faced boys bring wine and delicacies to the three Ghazna poets, seated, in the centre of the picture, on the grassy bank of a stream of water. Firdausi’s isolation is emphasized by his position to the extreme left of the main group, just where the composition spills over into the margin. Photo and caption credit: Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. Copyright.

This immense poem of 50,000 couplets appeared in the tenth century, at a key moment in the history of Iranian culture. Since the fall of the Sassanids, the literary language of Iran had been Arabic. Middle Persian, the main vehicle of Sassanid civilization, was disappearing. At this moment, a young literature in an Iranian idiom-Persian emerged in the east. Ferdowsi’s poem would be its first masterpiece.

The Epic of the Kings does not describe the deeds of a single hero or king nor even a long adventure. It begins with the creation of the world and relates the history of fifty reigns on three distinct planes: the mythical, the epic and the historical.

The first part relates civilizing myths. The Pishdadians, the “first created”, teach men to clothe themselves, to work metal, to master fire, to tame animals and to organize themselves in society. After ruling for 700 years, King Jamshid, succumbing to pride, has to yield his throne to a demoniac creature, the tyrant Zahhak who will rule for a thousand years. His malign power will finally be conquered by the justice-loving Faridun. These heroes, who personify the conflict between the forces of darkness and light, constitute a religious theme which is typically Iranian.

The second, longest and most truly epic part of the poem evokes the reign of the Kaianid kings. Here, in the centrepiece of the poem, light has triumphed. Rostam is the champion of all the heroes who live at the Kaianid court. Prodigiously strong, loyal to his king and faithful to his country, he is the terror of the enemy. This period is marked by interminable wars against Turan, a central Asian country whose ruler Afrasiyab is the sworn enemy of Iran.

In the final part, the poet presents a number of historical figures but in a rather fantastic light.  He gives a notable account of the conquest of Alexander the Great (Sekandar), based on the  Alexander legend of the Orient. The ending, even closer to history, tells of the exploits of the Sassanid rulers until the end of the dynasty.

Faridun and Zahhak: The Just man and the Tyrant

The story of Zahhak the tyrant, told in the first and most brilliant part of the poem, extols the  sufferings of a martyred people.

The courageous but wayward son of King Mardas, Zahhak is led astray by Eblis, the devil. After making a pact with Eblis, Zahhak usurps the throne. Revealing himself to the king in various forms, the devil extends his power further each day. One day Eblis presents himself in the guise of a cook. “The diet is not varied,” he says, “for flesh is not eaten,” and he wishes Zahhak to eat all kinds of viands, both birds and quadrupeds. When the devil, who has gained Zahhak’s confidence, embraces him, a black serpent thrusts its head out of each of the tyrant’s shoulders. Whenever he cuts them off they sprout anew like two branches of a tree. Then Eblis appears again, this time disguised as a physician, and proposes as a remedy that Zahhak should eat two human brains each day.

Thus for a thousand years the demons cause evil to reign and no one dares talk openly of good. But one night Zahhak dreams that he is laid low by a young prince who strikes him with a bullheaded mace and drags him in chains to Mount Damavand. Plunged in darkness, the world was as black as a raven’s wing. The tyrant consults the Mubads, the Zoroastrian priests, who read the stars and tell him that his vanquisher, who is not yet born, will be called Faridun. “He will hate you, for his father will die at your hand and you will also kill the cow that will serve him as nurse. To avenge the cow he will take up the bull-headed mace.”

Mad with anxiety, the king hunts everywhere for traces of Faridun. The blessed child is born at the same time as the most marvellous of cows. He is entrusted by his mother to the keeper of the park where the nurse-cow lives, and is nourished with her milk. One day Zahhak hears of the park and the cow, kills the fabulous animal and rushes to Faridun’s house. He finds no one there. Overcome with fear, Faridun’s mother has taken her son to Mount Alborz.

At the age of sixteen Faridun learns of his origins from his mother and decides to fight the tyrant. In  anguish Zahhak convokes all the elders of the land to seek their support. “I desire you to subscribe to a proclamation on my behalf that as commander in chief I have sown no seed but that of uprightness…and that I would never fail to maintain justice.” All consent except one man, Kava the Blacksmith, who rises in protest. “I am Kava, seeking for justice. Most of the wrong done to me comes from yourself. It is you who constantly thrust the lancet into my heart. Why do you inflict harm on my children? I had eighteen alive in the world, and now only one remains.”

Overcome with astonishment and fear, Zahhak restores the man’s remaining son to him and asks him in exchange to add his testimony to the proclamation. Kava reads the proclamation, tears it into pieces, and tramples them underfoot.

Kava leaves the palace and the people crowd around him. Fastening a blacksmith’s leather apron to a spearhead, he calls on the people to free themselves from the tyrant’s yoke. Followed by a multitude of the stout-hearted, Kava the liberator sets out in search of Faridun, who agrees to lead the popular rising. The people of the city and the army mass before the palace, whose guards dare not resist. Faridun rides into the palace without striking a blow and seizes the royal crown. Attacked by Zahhak, the young prince shatters Zahhak’s helmet with his bull-headed mace. At that instant the angel Sorush appears and stops Faridun killing Zahhak. “Do not strike him down,” he says. “His time has not yet come. Tie him securely inside the mountain.” Faridun then drives the tyrant into the mountains and wishes to strike off his head, but the angel Sorush appears again and tells him to leave the captive in fetters on Mount Damavand to endure an eternal agony.

Ferdowsi: A Poet of Human Grandeur

In the person of Faridun, an era of enlightenment and justice succeeds a long period of obscurity and tyranny. Here Ferdowsi returns to pre-Islamic traditions; he takes this idea of an eternal combat between good and evil from Zoroastrian eschatology. The interminable wars between Iran and Turan are the reflection of this. But Ferdowsi does not profess a naive dualism. He shows that these two principles coexist in everyone: human beings can do good as well as spread evil.

Thus, after a thousand years of tyranny, light and good seem to triumph: the new king, mandated by heaven, serves his people devotedly. But evil persists, it has not ceased to exist. This is what the angel means when he twice prevents the tyrant from being put to death. Zahhak is finally fettered on the summit of Mount Alborz as if to show by his existence that the victory of good over evil has not yet been won.

Ferdowsi bases his poem on the implacable force of destiny. This quintessentially epic theme echoes the sense of fatality which is so deeply anchored in the Iranian soul. And yet his characters are still men, torn and tortured by doubt and sensitive to the misfortunes of the age. They are to be pitied rather than condemned. Zahhak, the bloody tyrant, the symbol of cruelty, does not act freely; he has, after all, sold his soul to the devil. He is merely an instrument. As a great tragic epic poet, Ferdowsi thus creates terrible situations in which a man is led to kill his brother, or a father kills his son. Links of kinship add grandeur and resonance to the combat waged by the individual against higher forces.

The Epic of the Kings is still a living epic for Iranians because it is profoundly in tune with the Iranian soul. The Iranian peasant, even if he can neither read nor write, responds to the exploits of Rostam, the hero par excellence, and weeps to think of his sufferings when he is compelled to kill his own son to defend his country. Neither good nor ill will lastfor ever: the finest thing is to leave good deeds to be remembered by.

Ferdowsi’s voice still speaks to us across the ages.


The above piece has been adapted from the September 1989 issue of The Unesco Courier which was dedicated to “Great Epics, Heroic Tales of Man and Superman.” Please visit

Quotations from the Shahnama in this article are taken from the translation by Reuben Levy which was published as The Epic of the Kings by Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, 1967) and features in the Unesco Collection of Representative Works.



A folio from Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp depicting the story of Haftvad and the worm. Photo and caption credit: Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. Copyright.

A  folio from Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp depicting the story of Haftvad and the worm. Photo and caption credit: Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. Copyright.

Story from the website of the Aga Khan Museum

In this tale the daughter of Haftvad is spinning cotton with her female friends one day outside the village and discovers a worm in her apple. She decides to keep the worm, regarding it as a lucky charm, and places it in her spindle case for safekeeping. She asserts that the worm will help her to spin greater quantities of cotton than she ever has before, and to her friends’ amazement her boast is realized. With each day she spins greater quantities of cotton and nurtures the worm by feeding it pieces of apple. When her father, Haftvad, learns of this, he takes the worm to be a good omen and over time it grows to fill a custom-made chest, and then a stone cistern. After five years, it is as large as an elephant and has to be housed in a fortress. As the worm grows, so do Haftvad’s fortunes. When King Ardashir learns of this, he becomes jealous and suspicious and plots to kill the worm. Eventually, Ardashir succeeds in penetrating the fortress and kills the worm by pouring molten lead down its throat. The tale ends with the deaths of Haftvad and his sons, vanquished by Ardashir’s army. This painting, one of a few signed works in the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp I, is among the last added to the book. A signature, reading “Dust Muhammad painted it” (savvarahu Dust Muhammad), combined with written sources, identifies the artist as Dust Muhammad Musavvir or Dust-i Divana. Although the implications of the signature remain unclear — did he design the composition and/or execute the painting in whole or in part? — the painting is one of the strongest in Shah Tahmasp I’s Shahnameh. The vignette of Haftvad’s daughter spinning cotton at the lower left activates the pictorial narrative, but the remainder of the painting is conceived as evidence of Haftvad’s good fortune. The village, an aggregate of many finely made buildings, bustles with the activities of daily life. A muezzin makes the call to prayer as two figures sit atop a building consulting books with the tools of a scribe set down beside them. Elsewhere in the village, figures transport bundles of wood gathered from the countryside and carry sacks of goods, while a butcher serves a customer. The painting is replete with many other details of the everyday and depicts the elements of its extra-urban landscape with equal depth and complexity.

Date posted: Monday August 17, 2015.


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