The Inferno of Alamut in the year 1256

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

The recent CNN photo piece On the trail of Iran’s ‘Assassins’ in the Alborz Mountains has stirred an immense amount of interest on the subject of Alamut and the Ismaili community that for more than 150 years protected itself from its enemies by securing fortresses like Alamut in Iran and Syria.

In a high powered and moving poem penned originally for Simerg’s highly acclaimed series I Wish I’d Been There, Shariffa Keshavjee reminds all our readers about the tragedy that took place in Alamut nearly 800 years ago when the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan had declared his intention to destroy the Ismailis with the following chilling words, “None of that people should be spared, not even the babe in its cradle.”

The context of Shariffa’s poem can further be appreciated through the following 2 excerpts taken from recent non-Ismaili sources.

1. In his extraordinary historical fictional book Samarkand relating to the turbulent history of Iran from the 11th to the 20th century, which was partially inspired by Omar Khayyam’s Rubayat, the award winning French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf writes:

“He [the Mongol officer] was carrying a torch in his hand and to show [the historian – Juvayni] just how much in a hurry he was, he placed it next to a pile of dusty scrolls. The historian gave in and gathered into his hands and upto his armpits as many [manuscripts] as he could grab and when a manuscript entitled Eternal Secrets of Stars and Numbers fell to the ground, he did not bend over to pick it up again.

“Thus it was that the Assassins’ library burnt for seven days and seven nights causing the loss of innumerable works, of which there was no copy remaining, and which are supposed to contain the best guarded secrets of the universe.”

2. The online website Iran.com offers the following description:

“The Mongol leader [Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan] journeyed himself to the citadel in 1256 and ordered everything to be destroyed, including the famous library. Among the precious writings that disappeared were the works of Hasan himself and the complete history of the Assassins and their doctrines. But just before the burning he allowed his historian Juvainy (who was writing a biography of the Mongol prince) to enter the library and bring out a few of the books, enough as would fit into a small wheelbarrow. No time was allowed to consider the matter.

“Juvainy hurriedly saved a few Qurans, a chronicle of Alamut and a biography of Hasan Sabbah. Everything else perished in the flames. The vast library filled with….hundreds of thousands of manuscripts burned for seven days and seven nights bringing to an end the history of the Ismailis of Alamut. Over the years, knowledge of the Ismailis degenerated into misunderstandings, romances and other fanciful nonsenses such as those popularised by the explorer Marco Polo.”

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Inferno of Alamut

By SHARIFFA KESHAVJEE

I often go back in my mind
To a time when giant forts dwarfed
Our human form
But great minds soared
Soared about the forts of Alamut
Where great minds thought
The scribes told wonders
Of the worlds of new continent
New passages in the oceans
Of search for truth.

I often go back in my mind
To the pain of persecution
The fear of the self
Above all the anguish
The anguish of lost knowledge
Beautifully bound skillfully crafted
Books of great knowledge
Of mathematics and cartography
Of mystical passion for the divine
The deep yearning

I often go back in my mind to the
Night the books were burnt
The pages curled in fires of doom
The ink evaporates
Loving  thoughts of seers  up in smoke
Parchments and tomes flung into
Feeding the bonfire of lost knowledge
What the mind perceived
What the pen had scribed
Was gone for ever

The smoke rises over
Over the fort
The charred air rises
The effort to stop in vain
The scream of anguish
Stuck in the throat
As the gaze falls upon
The lost knowledge of Alamut
The human form dwarfed
Dwarfed

Gagged
In its inability to act.

This however is renaissance
Where time and knowledge
Laid at the feet of the Master
Not sepulchered in the fort
But given birth by the vision
No longer subjugated
Free to search  into cyberspace
Following vision without boundaries
Reaching over mountains across seas
Reaching heights

Unthought of in the sojourn in Alamut.

Date posted: February 8, 2019.

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Shariffa Keshavjee is a philanthropist and an entrepreneur with an objective to help women empower themselves. Raised in Kisumu, she considers herself a “pakaa” Kenyan. She is now based in the nation’s capital, Nairobi. She is the founding member and director of the Hawkers Market School and the Kigera Girl Guides Centre which provide educational opportunities for destitute girls in the country’s slums. Her Hawkers Market Girls Centre has been the recipient of the World Bank Development Marketplace Award in 2004 in which the centre was given $85,000. In addition, she is also the founding member of FONA (Friends of the Nairobi Arboretum) which is dedicated to preserving Kenya’s forest and preserved arboreta. Her other interest is in visual arts where she delights in painting on wood, silk and porcelain using water colours, oils and acrylics. She also likes writing, especially for children, and bird watching.

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Alamut’s Registration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Limbo

[Numerous reports in the Iranian media in November 2014 announced that Iran was planning to offer the castle of Alamut to UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The historical significance of the fortress dates back to 1090 A.C. when the Ismaili dai Hassan Sabbah chose the Alamut region as the headquarters of Ismailis following the Nizari-Musteali split in Fatimid Egypt. But four years after the announcement, Iran Daily reports that numerous factors have prevented the registration of Alamut as a World Heritage Site site.]

Alamut Photo by ALIREZA JAVAHERI WIKIPEDIA 800

A winter view of the unassailable rock of Alamut and the famous castle of Alamut nesting on top of this huge mountain of granite stone. This was the Capital of a Confederation of the Ismaili State founded in 1090 AC, by a great genius of all times, Hasan-i Sabbah which lasted for 171 years against formidable enemies and ultimately surrendered before the Mongols in 1256 AC. The Ismaili State was defended by a string of castles, over one hundred in number and Alamut being the capital of the State. This photo of was taken on December 31, 2011 by Alireza Javaheri. Photo credit: Wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

By CULTURAL HERITAGE DESK, IRAN DAILY

Alamut located in the northwestern province of Qazvin as an untapped and historical region deserves to be registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List but various factors have prevented the goal from being reached.

Director General of Qazvin Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Department Mohammad Ali Hazrati said that a limited number of foreigners travel to Qazvin Province because it doesn’t have any registered site on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

He added efforts are underway to send the dossier of Alamut natural and historical site to UNESCO for world registration.

Hazrati said Alamut with beautiful natural landscape has several ancient structures including Hassan Sabbah Castle and Pich Bon Caravanserai.

A number of regulations should be observed for registration of any site on UNESCO’s List.

“Illegal construction of buildings within the boundary of the historical structures, including Hassan Sabbah Castle, is among the problems faced by Alamut in this respect”, he said.

The Rock of Alamut.

A fall view of the Castle of Alamut, which is nested on the top of the colossal mass of granite rock. It 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: © Copyright. Muslim Harji.

The steep trek to Alamut Castle. Photo: Copyright © Muslim Harji.

He added that a decree was issued for destruction of structures located in Alamut historical texture, but the resistance of local officials as well as some social considerations prevented it from being enforced.

Hazrati said the registration of Alamut on UNESCO’s World Heritage List would help the ancient site to be recognized more internationally, draw a large number of the visitors to the province and boost tourism and employment in the region.

The Former head of Iranian Center for Archeological Research, Hamideh Choobak, said all ancient sites located worldwide are of high value but international recognition would help increase the governments’ responsibility to protect and maintain them.

“Specific funds will also be made available to the sites by the government and international organizations”, she added.

Choobak, who is the head of Alamut Cultural Heritage Site, noted that Alamut deserves to be registered on UNESCO’s List but it is not enough.

She stressed that a number of conditions should be provided to help realize the target.

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. Photo: Copyright © Muslim Harji.

Milky Way Over Alamut

The Milky Way extends across the sky above the mountain fortress of Alamut in this all-sky view from Iran. The light dome at the lower right is from the capital Tehran, over 100 kilometers away to the southwest. The light on the upper right is from Qazvin, the closest major city to Alamut. Photo: Copyright. Babak Tafreshi/Dreamview.net.

The official said Hassan Sabbah Castle has been registered on the National Heritage List in the year to March 2002, adding some organizations failed to perform their responsibility toward the structure.

She reiterated that related organizations should raise the local people’s awareness about the benefits of the site’s registration on UNESCO’s List and encourage them to cooperate with officials in this respect.

Date posted: February 4, 2019.

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This piece, excluding the photos, was originally published in IRAN DAILYlicensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Please also see our previous post CNN Travel: On the trail of Iran’s ‘Assassins’ in the Alborz Mountains

The Life of Jehangir Merchant: Ismaili missionary who rendered long and dedicated services to the Jamat and the Imam-of-the-Time

PLEASE CLICK: “Life of Jehangir” – includes historical photographs of Mawlana Hazar Imam

Please click on image for “Life of Jehangir” in photos.

Date posted: September 11, 2018.

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Nasir Khusraw, a giant in Ismaili history, who showed that “knowledge is a shield against the blows of time”

To commemorate the Diamond Jubilee visit to Canada, the Jamat of Canada presented Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, a very rare version of a manuscript of Nasir Khusraw’s Divan. The presentation was made on behalf of the Jamat by Karima Karmali, the Vice President of the Aga Khan Council for Canada, on May 11, 2018 during the final Mulaqat in Calgary.

In response, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that the gift of the manuscript was a “beautifully wise” choice. It is therefore befitting that we celebrate the extraordinary life of Nasir Khusraw through this special tribute prepared by Sujjawal Ahmad of Pakistan.

An Introduction and Tribute to Nasir Khusraw

By SUJJAWAL AHMAD

Nasir Khusrau Portrait_n

A depiction of  Nasir Khusraw. Photo: AkimArt

A Persian poet, philosopher, Ismaili scholar, theologian, traveler and one of the greatest writers in Persian literature, Nasir Khusraw has befittingly been called a Ruby.  He was a jewel, a jewel that has to pass through many tribulations until it is able to give its own light to others.  My admiration for Nasir Khusraw started when I was a teen at a high school, and I began reading about his life and teachings.

I was most impressed by his story which has left an indelible mark on me. It tells of a life that was transformed from that of worldly possessions and luxury to an exemplary life of ethic, self-discipline, courage and dedication in the path of faith. Nasir Khusraw epitomises the Prophet’s saying: ‘Seek knowledge even unto China’ by setting off on a journey of seven years which he calls a ‘Journey to the Seventh Sphere’.

The Safarnama, an account of his travels, and his other works like the Divan enable one to get a picture of  key events that  led to the development of his thoughts that finally made him embrace the Ismaili faith.

A brief  article such as the one I have attempted here cannot do justice to the incredible life of Nasir Khusraw, and I hope this endeavour captures the salient points of his life and will also inspire readers to learn more about the sage from recent new works that have been published.

Early Life

Nāsir Khusraw was born in Qabodiyon, Khorasan (present day Tajikistan) in the year 1004 AC. He belonged to a family of government officials in Qabadiyan and spent his early years travelling and studying. Following family tradition, he joined government  service where he earned a reputation of a high achiever. He demonstrated remarkable ability in all pursuits of knowledge of religion, philosophy, literature, science and mathematics. Nasir Khusraw was a prolific writer on a wide variety of subjects, including a book on mathematics Gahra’ib al-hisab which has now been lost. 

Turning Point

One night while he was on an official trip outside the city of Marv, he had a dream that was to change course of his life. In his vision a wise man appeared before him, calling him to forsake the life of drunkenness. In reply he told the wise man there was no better thing than wine to lessen his sorrow. The wise man told him to seek out what increased reason and wisdom instead of seeking that which lessened wisdom. ‘Where can I find such a thing?’ he asked.

Pointing towards the Qibla, the wise man said: ‘Search and ye shall find’.

On awakening, with the vision still vivid in his mind, he lamented to himself: ‘I have woken up from last night’s dream. But now I must awaken from a dream that has lasted forty years’.

He was determined to change his life accordingly, interpreting the dream as a sign from God. A month later, on December 19th, 1045, Nasir Khusraw went to mosque, fell to his knees and bowed his forehead to the ground, asking help from God in guiding him to accomplish what he had to do in his life.

He took leave from his job, and announced that he was going for a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Thus, began his seven year journey of a wayfarer in search of true spiritual wealth,

Nasir Khusraw in Cairo

He travelled westward through northern Iran passing Nishapur, Tabriz, Aleppo, and then across the Mediterranean coast until he reached Jerusalem. During his three months stay here, he visited the holy shrines in Jerusalem and then set out for his first pilgrimage to Mecca. From Mecca by the way of Damascus to Jerusalem, he proceeded by land to Egypt. The oracle in his dream had pointed him in the direction of the Qibla, which was also the direction of Cairo, the capital of the Fatimid Caliphate, which was then under the reign of Imam  al-Mustansir billah.

In July, 1047 AC standing in the city of Cairo, his face full of radiance and grace, and heart enlightened, he was now voicing his thanks to the Divine, saying:

“Praise to the Lord that nothing burdens my back. Thanks to the generosity of His favor and grace, that I have come to know the truth of the true Imam, his certainty and justice of his cause; that he is that matchless king whose domain of all the earth is free of devilery. O Lord help me to spend days and nights in devotion to him to string together from time to time a few pious verses based on his knowledge and wisdom.”

This was the city that was blessed with the presence of Imam of Time, as he rightfully said: “to which the heavenly bodies and spheres themselves were subservient”. Upon his arrival in the city he felt a voice instructing him, “Go no further! Seek here what you need.”

He had arrived to embrace his dream! He had reached the true House of Knowledge of which the Prophet had said, Ali was the gate. Now he would spend days and nights benefiting as much as he could from that sacred House. His soul was illuminated with the radiance of the light of Imam of Time. So profound was the effulgence of Imam’s Glory to him that he extolled every sign of his gratitude, praise and admiration. 

“Wherever I may be, so long as I live, time and again,
My pen, ink pot and parchment will speak
my gratitude to you (O Imam of Time).”

Nasir Khusraw and the grand Ismaili missionary al-Shirazi

He had started his journey from his hometown with a burning desire to seek answers to the questions of existence and purpose in the world; and now he had to stay for the  next two to three years, in the companionship of the great Ismaili intellectuals. In Cairo he met with many Ismaili dais including Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi, who later became his mentor and teacher. Nasir’s conversation with al-Shirazi  struck him with amazement. Upon his first meeting, he told al-Shirazi about his soul’s grief and frailty and al-Shirazi gazed intently upon his face for a while and then said, “Fear not, for your mine has now transformed into gems.” These words were no less than but of a soothsayer to him that served to fortify his hopes and confidence. Al-Shirazi expounded on Nāsir’s questions in terms he neither had read nor heard before. He spoke with Nasir with such a knowledge and fluency that the sweetness of his discourse finally impelled Nasir to accept him as his teacher and call him ‘Ridwan’ — the one who is Warden of Paradise.

During his stay in the Fatimid capital he engaged in deep study of all branches of religion such as theology, philosophy, metaphysics and ethics.

Nasir Khusraw’s Departure from Cairo

Nasir Khusraw

A statue of the Ismaili dai, philosopher, poet and seasoned traveller Nasir Khusraw in Badakhshan.

Sparkling with light and enthusiasm, he was now ready to start the next part of his journey  back to his home with a spirit full of courage and determination. From the moment he left Cairo, he was now heading his mission as a Hujjat, the supreme office in Dawa, for the spread of his new Ismaili faith to new territories, including Khurasan and Badakhshan.  His life was now to be committed with ceaseless activity, promoting Ismaili teachings to all people.

Nasir Khusraw returned to Persia in the year 1052 AC, and stayed at Balkh, his hometown, and started preaching his new faith in the surrounding areas. Envious of Nasir Khusraw’s influence, the exoteric clerics of his town tried to poison the minds of the already hostile Seljuq authorities resulting in attacks that caused great distress to him.  He had to flee from his hometown to the high mountains of Yumgan, living in a period of exile in the last years of his life. Throughout this period of exile, he continued to struggle conversing with the wise and learned on themes and topics that occupied their minds. He breathed his last in the mountains of Yumgan in the upper reaches of Oxus river. His body lies under the earth, but his spirit lives on, in hearts of his people calling:

“That strength of youth that heavenly face —
O mindless body of mine, why did you ever leave them behind?
When your body was beautiful, you acted pretty ugly,
Now that you are ugly, you  should beautify your actions.
Time has made your torso feeble:
Yesterday a peacock, today a porcupine.”

Nasir Khusraw’s Teachings

Nasir Khusraw along with other Ismaili preachers of his time, offer such an understanding of religion where intellectual investigation of faith is the supreme virtue of a believer. He never promoted dogmatic attitudes of thought and belief. The path that he calls for considers intellect (aql ) as the primary tool in the soul’s endeavor to cleanse itself and for its salvation. Intellect is always predominant, as an essential criterion, for individual’s search for truth. He gives us an intellectual and logical understanding of spirituality. There exists, at microcosmic level, for each individual being, a spiritual dimension of existence which is the most fundamental and the most important aspect of his reality. While physical bodies reside at the material world of zahir, the soul exists at spiritual world of batin. Ultimate journey is the journey of the batin, that is, of soul, so that it may find the presence in higher spheres of the world of ‘Amr’. He tells us how to elevate our souls so as to make them receptive to the Divine emanations:

“Kindle the candle of intellect in thy heart and hasten with it to the world of brightness.”

His views conceives of man to be essentially a rational being, superior to the physical creation, possessing a ‘rational soul’. God provides man with tools such as consciousness, discursive reasoning, and the power of intellect. From his perspective, intellect is the most crucial gift bestowed from God to mankind, that enables man to gain wisdom (hikmat), true understanding of God’s plan and will.

It is only through a conscious and repeated use of reason and intelligence that man can achieve that wisdom. Food for man to achieve this is knowledge. But man’s knowledge is incomplete like his intellect, so there must be a person always present on earth, with Perfect Knowledge and Intellect, whom people can approach to seek guidance. Pearl of knowledge, he says, is Intellect, and pearl of Intellect, he says, is God’s Command, Be!

God’s gift for mankind through his Divine Will  thus includes wellsprings of Divine guidance, that are Prophets and Imams. They are the true House of Knowledge.  But it is incumbent upon man to search for his Imam of Age. His whole story revolves around his quest to identify such a pinnacle of Divine Guidance. His quest is fulfilled when he finds this pinnacle in the person of Imam Mustansir-i billah in Cairo.

One distinguishing character that makes him unique is that Nasir Khusraw was not a sage. He never aspired to seek monastic withdrawal from the world. The path that he preached never lead one away from the worldly life. Even though he warns against being seduced by the attractions of this world,  he also exhorts his readers to actively engage with the world and make use of it for their own perfection and become the best human beings they can. For him, the physical world holds clues to the next world as well as tools to make the journey possible.

Nasir Khusraw’s Poetry and Works

Nasir Khusraw remains one of the most fascinating figures in Islamic history. Despite diverse themes and styles of his writings, one finds them imbued with his primary and consistent concern for Ismaili faith. His poetry not only reflects his inspiration and expression but also, as a paragon of distinctive style and eloquence, it combines philosophy and theology to the mould of Persian literary tradition and attracts a passionate attention of any aspiring reader. He often makes use of poetic imagery and the basic ingredients of rhyme and rhythm in order to illustrate his practical wisdom of a virtuous life, as in the following example:

Have you heard? A squash vine grew beneath a towering tree.
In only twenty days it grew and spread and put forth fruit.
Of the tree it asked: ‘How old are you? How many years?’
Replied the tree: ‘Two hundred it would be, and surely more.’
The squash laughed and said: ‘Look, in twenty days, I’ve done more than
you; tell me, why are you so slow?’
The tree responded: ‘O little squash, today is not the day of reckoning
between the two of us.’
‘Tomorrow, when winds of autumn howl down on you and me, then shall it be
known for sure which one of us is the real man!’

He is known not only for his prose and poetry but also in his unique capacity as the only eminent philosopher of his era to have composed all his works in Persian.

He has several works to his credit, revealing the exemplary perfection of his intellectual personality. It would be no exaggeration to say that his works are invaluable to the philosophical curriculum of medieval Muslim thought. Most of his writings range from responses to the personal requests of his followers or correspondents to profound elaborations, elucidations and interpretations of Ismaili theology and philosophy. These include Jami‘ al-hikmatayn, Gushayish va Rahayish, Zad al-Musafirin (or Travelling Provisions of Pilgrims), Wajh-i-Din (or The Face of Religion), and many others.

A series of excellent teachings of his philosophy are found in his Jami‘ al-hikmatayn and Gushayish va Rahayish. It is here that he addresses and expounds a wide range of various questions: How did we come to be? What is Soul? What is meant by time and space? and so on. It is also here that he applies rational tools to explain and expound his theology, allowing us to capture and understand not only the significance of his own thought, but also the beliefs of his age.

Today as I pause, his life and his story renders me to reflect on how his journey that started with a dream led him to the highest rank in the Ismaili Dawa among Ismaili intellectuals of his time. We may conclude by reading his story from his own writings that the foundation of his life and journey was to learn enough to be worthy of teaching to others. He never considered it either sufficient or ethical to acquire knowledge first and then hold that knowledge to his own self. He considered it imperative to disseminate the knowledge that he acquired to others, and to call others to the truth that he had found in the Ismaili faith.

Aga Khan at opening of Ismaili Centre Dushanbe

Tajikistan’s President Rahmon and Mawlana Hazar Imam, pause in the library of the new Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe during its opening on October 12, 2009. They engage over a book about renowned poet and Ismaili philosopher, Nasir Khusraw, who lived over a thousand years ago in the region that is modern Tajikistan.

Nasir Khusraw shines, today, in the learned world like a lamp of knowledge, and his voice of  wisdom shimmers the minds of the world’s most wise. To me, his message seems perfectly compatible with modern ethos of intellectual change. I conclude my article with following remarks of Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al-Hussaini, made on 30th August 2003 during the foundation ceremony of the Dushanbe Ismaili Centre:

The passage of a millennium has not diminished Nasir Khusraw’s relevance nor dulled the lustre of his poetry. It continues to uplift and inspire, reminding us that we are the authors of our own destiny. As he has said, we can be like a poplar tree which chooses to remain barren, or we can let our path be lit by the candle of wisdom, for only “with intellect, we can seek out all the hows and whys. Without it, we are but trees without fruit.” Another lesson that we learn from this great philosopher is that, in the ebb and flow of history, “knowledge is a shield against the blows of time.” It dispels “the torment of ignorance” and nourishes “peace to blossom forth in the soul.”

Date posted: June 16, 2018.

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All Nasir Khusraw quotations are from Nasir Khusraw: The Ruby of Badakhshan by Alice C. Hunsberger.

Sujjawal Ahmad smallSujjawal Ahmad holds a Masters degree in Molecular Biology from Quaid-i Azam University, Pakistan, where his work and research focused on targeted molecular therapeutics. He has a passion for philosophy, and has written several articles on classical philosophy and comparative religions.

 

Selected readings on Nasir Khusraw:

Some English translations of Nasir Khusraw's writings

Some of the works of Nasir-i Khusraw now available in English.

 

Short readings to build your knowledge on Ismaili theology, esoterics and history

“THE ISMAILI IMAMAT REPRESENTS THE SUCCESSION OF IMAMS SINCE THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD” — HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN, 2014

Aga Khan Golden Jubilee Visit to Canada Vancouver

INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES

Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan (pictured above), in direct lineal descent from the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) through Hazrat Ali (a.s.) and Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s), is the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. From the time of the first Imam Ali, who was designated and appointed as such by the Holy Prophet, the Imams of the Ismaili Muslims have ruled over territories and peoples in various areas of the world at different periods of history in accordance with the Islamic precepts and ethics of unity, brotherhood, justice, tolerance and goodwill. The Ismaili Imam is therefore not only concerned with the material advancement and the improvement of the quality of life of his Ismaili followers, but also that of other Muslim communities and societies at large in which they live.

In accordance with historical and theological works and the teachings of their Imams, the Ismailis believe that each Imam is the bearer of the Light of Imamat (or Nur). This (spiritual) Light is with the Ahl al-bayt (i.e. the Imams from the Prophet Muhammad’s family). This Nur was with the first Shia Imam Ali and, for Shia Ismailis, is now with their present 49th Imam. Every Imam guides his followers during his time through the Nur of Imamat.

The Nur of Imamat is always there to guide through the physical presence of the Imam. The Imam holds his followers hands and leads and protects them in both difficult and good times. He shows them how they should live in a particular time and place. Just as the water of a river continues to flow, the Hereditary line of Imamat from Hazrat Ali never stops. That is, the Imam is always physically present and manifest on this earth. According to Shia tradition, the Imam is the threshold through which God and the creatures communicate. He is thus a cosmic necessity, the key and the center of the universal economy of the sacred: “The earth cannot be devoid of an Imam; without him, it could not last an hour. If there were only two men left in the world, one of them would be the Imam.”

One of the goals of each Ismaili is to strive to come closer to the spiritual light of the Imam. One can do so by fulfilling one’s material and spiritual responsibilities to the best of one’s ability. Praying regularly, living by the ethics of Islam, following the Imam’s guidance strengthens the Ismailis’ spiritual bond with their Imam, and through his Light, brings them closer to Allah.

In the coming days, weeks and months Simerg will endeavour to provide different perspectives on the Imamat and Ismaili contributions to Islamic culture and thought from various literary works on Ismaili philosophy, theology and history.

Beatific Vision of the Imam

The [Imam’s] beatific vision is of two kinds: one a physical meeting with the Imam and the other a spiritual recognition of his essence [Nur], through which God is recognized.

Speaking of the second of these, Pir Sadr al-Din, in his ginan [religious hymn] “Sakhi māhā pad keri vāt koek jānere”, writes:

Friend! None but a few know of the exalted station. Indeed, they alone recognize it who have found the true guide.

Friend! Within the heart, at the confluence of the three spiritual rivers, there is an imperishable light. There – a shimmering effulgence, pearls are showered.

Friend! I completely lost consciousness of my physical self when my meditation mounted the empyrean, bursting forth.

Friend! I beheld the place of the lofty throne, I saw the seven islands, the nine continents.

Friend! The religious scriptures and books cannot fathom this, for there is neither day there, nor night, neither sun, nor shade.

Friend! My Lord is not such that He can be spoken of. He is to be seen – for He is indescribable, and nameless.

Friend! How sweet is that Lord, indescribable, nameless. Says Pir Sadr al-Din, truly, with my own eyes, I have seen Him!

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Dazzled by the Light of Imamat

When Ismaili missionary al-Mu’ayyad-din Shirazi had left Shiraz in Persia for Fatimid Egypt, he was very hopeful that he would get the opportunity to see the Imam-Caliph Mustansir-bi-Allah, but at the same time he had also feared the intrigues of the ministers who did not permit any man of learning to see the Imam personally, unless he complied with their dictates and acknowledged their superiority.

On reaching Egypt he experienced all that he had feared. He was lodged in a small house and his visits to the court were short and limited to prevent him from seeing the Imam.

Disappointed, he finally decided to leave Egypt and wrote as follows to Tastari, one of the most powerful persons in the Fatimid State:

“I have not come to Egypt to seek wealth or gain any position. The promptings of my faith have brought me here. I have come to visit the Imam and not the Vaziers and their officials. Unfortunately, these people stop me from having a look at my Imam and now I am returning disappointed.”

The sudden death of Tastari gave al-Mu’ayyad another opportunity to renew his efforts to get some time to be in the holy presence of the Imam and with some help was finally able to pay respects to the Imam. Describing his experience, he writes:

I was taken near the place where from I saw the bright Light of the Prophethood. My eyes were dazzled by the Light. I shed tears of joy and felt as if I was looking at the face of the Prophet of Allah and of the Commander of the Faithful, Hazrat Ali. I prostrated myself before the one who is the fittest person to bow to. I wanted to say something, but I was awe-struck.

I tried to speak but my tongue refused to move. People asked me to say what I wished to say. I could say nothing. The Imam said, ‘Leave him. Let his fear and awe subside’.

After this, I rose. I took the holy hand of the Imam, placed it on my eyes and on my chest and then kissed it. I left the place with immense joy.

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Imam Mu’izz’s Arrival in Cairo

In 969 CE, Imam al-Mu‘izz, “an excellent planner, an efficient organiser and a statesman amply talented in diplomacy,” with the help of his general Jawhar Siqilli, acquired Egypt peacefully.

During this time the building of the new city of Cairo began and in 970 CE the foundation for the al-Azhar mosque was laid. The Imam himself arrived in Cairo in 973 CE in a very touching ceremony. His sons, brothers and uncles, and other descendants of Imam al-Mahdi, the first Fatimid caliph, made their entrance with him. Imam Mu’izz brought with him the coffins of his ancestors Imams al-Mahdi, al-Qa‘im and al-Mansur.

Stanley Lane-Poole’s description of Imam al-Mu‘izz may aid one to understand his successful reign:

He was a born statesman, able to grasp the conditions of success and to take advantage of every point in his favour. He was also highly educated, and not only wrote Arabic poetry and delighted in its literature, but studied Greek, mastered Berber and Sudani dialects, and is even said to have taught himself Salvonic … His eloquence was such as to move his audience to tears. To prudent statesmanship he added a large generosity, and his love of justice was among his noble qualities.

Cairo’s location between Africa and the Mediterranean ensured that it became a large, thriving commercial centre.

The greatness of the Fatimid Capital is described in the following words by Al-Muqaddassi, a notable medieval Arab geographer who lived in the tenth century.

Know that Baghdad was great in the past, but is now falling in ruins. It is full of troubles, and its glory is gone. I neither approve it nor admire it, and if I praise it, it is a mere convention. Fustat (today, part of old Cairo) is today where Baghdad was in the past, and I do not know of any greater city in all of Islam.

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Imams are our Spiritual Parents

In the Shia tradition, the teaching of the Imam (also referred to as the Ta’lim of the Imam) lights his follower’s path to spiritual enlightenment and vision.

The spiritual enlightenment or the elevation of the soul gained by following the Imam’s guidance is described in many works by Shia theologians, and is particularly evident in the Ginans, Qasidas and narrative accounts written by Ismaili Pirs and missionaries.

The following excerpt is from a work by the Ismaili missionary, Muayyad-din-Shirazi:

Look at the trouble your parents have taken from the days of your childhood in the growth of your bodies and in the improvement of your physical life on earth. But for the interest they took in you, you would not have been what you are.

Your souls are thousand times more important than your bodies. The Imams are your spiritual parents.

Avail yourselves of a few days of life which are at your disposal here and look after your spiritual elevation under the care of your spiritual parents.

Once you miss this opportunity, you will repent forever. You will not be given a second chance to set things right.

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Imam’s Favours Cannot be Counted

From a work by renowned Fatimid scholar and jurist, Qadi Numan. 

Let us make a short survey of their favours on us. We were ignorant of everything and were spiritually dead. They brought us back to life and showed us the path of wisdom. We were blind, they gave us the eyes to see for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.

We were groping in the dark, they showed us the light. We had lost the track, they showed us the way to salvation. We were lacking in knowledge, they gave us knowledge. We were falling in hell-fire, they picked us up and put us in the middle of righteous.

In short, they have done us the favours which we cannot count.

They have given us all that is good in this world and the world to come.  

Date posted: May 1, 2017.

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The material for this post was compiled and adapted from the following sources:

  1.  Preamble Of  the Ismaili Constitution;
  2. The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation by Shafique N. Virani, Hardcover – May 3, 2007;
  3. Life and Lectures of Al Muayyad fid-din al Shirazi, edited by late Jawad Muscati and A.M. Moulvi, Ismailia Assocciation for Pakistan, 1950;
  4. The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism by Mohamad Ali Amir-Moezzi, published by the State University of New York;
  5. Code of Conduct for the Followers of Imam by Qazi Noaman, translated by Prof. Jawad Muscati; and
  6. Ta’lim curriculum prepared for Ismaili children, published by Islamic Publications, London.

Note: Simerg has launched a sister website totally dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan. Please visit Barakah: “His Highness the Aga Khan A Visual and Textual Celebration”. Facebook page facebook.com/1000fold.

Irish Times: Medieval Philosophers Don’t Get Much Attention but Avicenna – the Islamic Thinker Who Proved God Exists – Deserves It, Says Prof Adamson

Peter Adamson, Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at King’s College London, highlights in his latest book Philosophy in the Islamic World just how influential certain theologians and mystics from this milieu have been. Asked to single out one thinker, he names the Persian polymath Avicenna (980-1037) who invented “probably the most influential and interesting medieval attempt to show that God exists”…. Read More

PLEASE CLICK : Unthinkable — The Islamic Thinker Who ‘Proved’ God Exists

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples.

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples. Please click on image for article in Irish Times.

Date posted: February 3, 2017.

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Articles related to Avicenna on this website:

The Meaning of Sinan, the Name of the Second Prince Welcomed by Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa Aga Khan

 

Report compiled by Abdulmalik Merchant
Poem by Shariffa Keshavjee

In a special talika (written message) read out in Ismaili jamatkhanas on Friday, January 13, 2017, Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, informed his world-wide community that Princess Salwa gave birth to a baby boy named Sinan in London, England, on January 2, 2017. The Princess is married to Prince Rahim Aga Khan, the 49th Ismaili Imam’s oldest son. The couple was married in a nikah ceremony in September 2013, and their first child Prince Irfan was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on 11 April, 2015.

Prince Rahim has an older sister, Princess Zahra, and two brothers younger than him, Prince Hussain and Prince Aly Muhammad.

Mawlana Hazar Imam, Prince Rahim with Prince Irfan, and Princess Salwa at the 80th birthday celebration. Photo: The Ismaili/Zahur Ramji.

Princess Salwa and Prince Rahim, who is holding Prince Irfan, pictured recently during the 80th birthday celebration of His Highness the Aga Khan (right) held in Aiglemont. Photo: The Ismaili/Zahur Ramji.

“Prince Sinan’s birth has brought immense joy to our family,” wrote Mawlana Hazar Imam in the talika, and added that “We are most touched by your kind thoughts and prayers over the period leading to Sinan’s birth.” In the talika, he conveyed his affectionate loving blessings to his followers, whom he addresses as his spiritual children.

Hello magazine reported the birth of Prince Sinan as the world’s first royal baby of 2017!

We rejoice with our thousands of readers around the world on the wonderful news of the birth of Prince Sinan, and join with jamats around the world to congratulate Mawlana Hazar Imam, Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa as well as their son Prince Irfan, and all the members of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s and Princess Salwa’s families.

We sincerely hope and pray that the birth of Prince Sinan may bring immense barakah to jamats worldwide. We also pray for Prince Sinan’s long life and wellbeing.

The Meaning of Sinan

Sinan is an Arabic name for boys meaning spearhead. It is derived from the root word S-N-N which is used in the Qur’an. Sinan is pronounced [(SI)mple] + [(NA)p + (N)ew] with emphasis on the second syllable. Wikipedia mentions that the name might also be related to the Ancient Greek name Sinon.

In Ismaili history, the name Sinan is associated with the revered personality of Rashid al-din Sinan, one of the greatest and most valiant of the Syrian Isma’ili da’is of the thirteenth century A.C.

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A Child

By Shariffa Keshavjee

A miracle, a gift today a child that comes to us
Our bending is of gladness in the archers hand to us
He loves the arrow that flies, the bow so stable for us
The archer sees the mark upon the path for us
Bends it with his might, the arrow goes far for us

The name of Sinan brings the memory of
Aleppo and Masyaf to us
His philosophy as dai forever imprinted on us
The balance of the zahir and batin as it come to us
A reciprocal social relationship of balance within us
Weaving a tapestry of din-dunia

In this our Diamond Jubilee year, your birth bring to us
Great tidings of gladness and joy within us
Our many faceted diamond is aglow for us.

Date posted: Saturday, January 14, 2017.

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We welcome readers’ feedback. Please click Comment. If you run into difficulties submitting your feedback, please email it to simerg@aol.com.

This compiled piece contains material from the following sources:

[1] http://quranicnames.com/meaning-of-sinan-arabic-name//
[2] http://www.theismaili.org
[3] http://www.wikipedia.org

See also:

German Scientists Unearth Text of Avicenna’s 11th Century Supernova SN 1006 Surveillance

An important note to our readers: The website is undergoing maintenance and format changes over the next few days. The pages may look different each time you visit Simerg, and we ask you to bear with us during this temporary phase.

Chandra's image of SN 1006 shows X-rays from multimillion degree gas (red/green) and high-energy electrons (blue). In the year 1006 a "new star" appeared in the sky and in just a few days it became brighter than the planet Venus. We now know that the event heralded not the appearance of a new star, but the cataclysmic death of an old one. It was likely a white dwarf star that had been pulling matter off an orbiting companion star. When the white dwarf mass exceeded the stability limit (known as the Chandrasekhar limit), it exploded. Material ejected in the supernova produced tremendous shock waves that heated gas to millions of degrees and accelerated electrons to extremely high energies.

Chandra’s image of SN 1006 shows X-rays from multimillion degree gas (red/green) and high-energy electrons (blue). In the year 1006 a “new star” appeared in the sky and in just a few days it became brighter than the planet Venus. We now know that the event heralded not the appearance of a new star, but the cataclysmic death of an old one. It was likely a white dwarf star that had been pulling matter off an orbiting companion star. When the white dwarf mass exceeded the stability limit (known as the Chandrasekhar limit), it exploded. Material ejected in the supernova produced tremendous shock waves that heated gas to millions of degrees and accelerated electrons to extremely high energies. Photo and caption: Wikipedia.

Editor’s note: Just over a thousand years ago, the stellar explosion known as Supernova SN 1006 was observed and recorded by Fatimid astronomer Ibn Ridwan (see Aliza Moledina’s piece Ibn Ridwan and Supernova 1006). Scientists have now studied a text by Avicenna which describes the explosion in his Kitab al-Shifa (Book of Healing), a masterpiece written in several volumes that tackles Earth sciences, logic, philosophy, physics, mathematics, astronomy, music, psychology and theology. The report on the findings that appears below is taken from the April 24th, 2016, issue of the popular Russian science magazine http://www.sputniknews.com. The explanation of the findings by German scientists in Avicenna’s Book of Healing may be read at the Astronomical Notes Journal by clicking on http://arxiv.org/pdf/1604.03798v1.pdf.

For the first time, scientists have studied a text by noted tenth century polymath Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Latin), in which the scholar described observations of a supernova in the year 397 of the Islamic Hijri calendar, calculated as 1,006 AD.

Ibn Sina (980-1037 AD) was a Persian physician and philosopher who is regarded as the most famous and influential of the medieval Islamic world’s philosopher-scientists.

The German scientists who studied Ibn Sina’s account believe it was written when he was in present-day Iran, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, most probably the latter. They translate his description of the supernova’s form, direction and appearance.

Ibn Sina wrote that the object was “tailless,” which distinguished it from the more common transient objects, comets with tails.

The new star was “getting fainter and fainter until it disappeared,” and that it “became fainter and disappeared,” he wrote.

“At the beginning it was towards a darkness and greenness, then it began to throw out sparks and then it became more and more whitish.”

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980.  Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples.

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples. Photo: UNESCO/N. Burke. Copyright.

His Arabic-language report is one of several historical observations of supernovas that have helped scientists in their understanding of these celestial events, and adds to previous information about the supernova in 1006 AD from observers in Yemen, Morocco, China and Japan.

Contemporary scientists have also provided today’s astronomers with information about supernova sightings in 1054 (from Eastern Asia and Arabia), 1181 (Eastern Asia), 1572 and 1604 AD (the latter two sighted in Eastern Asia and Europe).

“Historic reports can deliver the date of the observation (hence, the age of the supernova remnant and, if existing, of the neutron star) together with a light curve (hence, possibly the supernova type), sometimes the color and its evolution, and the position of the supernova,” the scientists explained in their paper, which can be viewed by clicking http://arxiv.org/pdf/1604.03798v1.pdf.

Date posted: May 1, 2016.

Please also read Aliza Moledina’s Ibn Ridwan and Supernova 1006 

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On Legal Debates, Ismaili Hermeneutics and the Etiquette of Borrowing in the Fatimid Empire: An Interview with Devin Stewart on al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān

“…In the Ismaili tradition, al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān is the most famous author…He debated this Ḥanafī jurist about ijtihād and thought that he’d won, and then he heard afterwards that the man had written a fascicle still arguing his point against al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān. So then he thought: I really need to write a serious refutation to put an end to this…” — Professor Stewart, Emory College, Atlanta, USA.

PLEASE CLICK: An Interview with Dr. Devin Stewart of Emory College on Translating the Fatimid Ismaili Jurist al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān

Qadi Numan's Disagreements of the Jurists by Devin StewartM. Lynx Qualey, an Arabic literature blogger based in Egypt, conducted an interview with Professor Devin Stewart of Emory College on the Fatimid jurist Qadi al-Nu’mān, who served four Ismaili Imams for more than sixty years. The interview is based on Disagreements of the Jurists, one of the foundational legal texts of Ismaili Islam, which was translated recently by Dr. Stewart. Among other interesting matters, Qualey asks Professor Stewart about why al-Nu’mān’s book is important in understanding Islamic legal traditions and the Fatimid Empire, why medieval scholars thought it was classier not to cite their sources, and why a minority tradition would feel the need to conform to the shape of the majority….Read the interview.

Date posted: March 26, 2016.

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).

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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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