Hasan bin Sabbah: The Mastermind of the Assassins
Hasan bin Sabbah was a Persian Ismaili leader who founded the Nizari state and the order of the Assassins in the 11th century. He was a brilliant strategist, a charismatic preacher, and a ruthless warrior who challenged the Seljuk Turks and the Abbasid Caliphate for control of Iran and Iraq. He is also known for his legendary fortress of Alamut, where he trained his loyal followers to carry out daring missions and assassinations against his enemies.
Hasan bin Sabbah was born in Qom, Iran, around 1034 CE. He belonged to a Twelver Shia family, but he was influenced by Ismaili teachings at an early age. He traveled to various cities in search of knowledge and met many prominent scholars and leaders of the Ismaili movement. He became a close disciple of Fatimid Imam al-Mustansir and his chief missionary al-Darazi. He also befriended Nizar, the eldest son of al-Mustansir, who was designated as his successor.
However, in 1094 CE, al-Mustansir died and his younger son al-Musta’li usurped the throne with the help of the powerful vizier al-Afdal. Nizar was imprisoned and killed, and his supporters were persecuted. Hasan bin Sabbah refused to accept al-Musta’li as the legitimate Imam and declared his allegiance to Nizar’s son al-Hadi. He also denounced al-Darazi, who had switched sides to al-Musta’li. He became the leader of the Nizari branch of Ismailism, which rejected the Fatimid authority and claimed to follow the true line of Imams descended from Nizar.
Hasan bin Sabbah decided to establish an independent state for the Nizaris in Iran, where they faced oppression from the Sunni Seljuk Turks. He secretly sent his agents to infiltrate various regions and recruit followers. In 1090 CE, he seized the fortress of Alamut in the Elburz Mountains by bribing its governor. He made Alamut his headquarters and fortified it with weapons, supplies, and libraries. He also acquired several other castles and strongholds in Iran and Syria, creating a network of bases that defied the Seljuk rule.
Hasan bin Sabbah developed a unique system of governance and education for his followers. He divided them into different ranks and assigned them different duties and privileges. He also taught them various sciences, arts, and esoteric doctrines. He claimed to have direct contact with the hidden Imam al-Hadi, who guided him through revelations and visions. He also claimed to have access to a secret book called Kitab al-Jafr, which contained the secrets of creation and prophecy.
One of the most notorious aspects of Hasan bin Sabbah’s rule was his use of assassination as a political tool. He trained a special group of loyalists called fidai (devotees), who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause. He sent them on dangerous missions to kill his enemies, such as Seljuk sultans, Abbasid caliphs, Crusader leaders, and rival Ismaili sects. He also used propaganda and psychological warfare to spread fear and confusion among his foes. He earned the nickname “The Old Man of the Mountain” and his followers were called “Hashshashin” (users of hashish), which later became “Assassins” in European languages.
Hasan bin Sabbah died in 1124 CE at Alamut. He was succeeded by his son Kiya Buzurg-Ummid, who continued his legacy. The Nizari state survived for more than a century until it was destroyed by the Mongols in 1256 CE. However, the Nizari Ismailis still exist today as a minority community in various countries, especially in India and Pakistan. They are led by Aga Khan IV, who claims to be a direct descendant of Nizar.
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