Nizari Ismaili State

The Alamut state was founded in 1090AD by Hassan-i Sabbah in the Daylam area of Persia. The Alamut state was also referred to as the Nizari Ismaili state because the official state religion of the state was Nizari Ismailism which was initially promulgated by Hassan-i Sabbah after he rejected the imamate of Abu al-Qasim Ahmad ibn al-Mustansir thus breaking the Ismaili community into two denominations.

One denomination pledged allegiance to al-Mustansir after he ascended to the throne of the Fatimid caliphate under the regnal name, al-Mustali Billah; and this denomination became the Mustali Ismaili. The other denomination led by Sabbah considered Nizar ibn al-Mustansir – the elder brother of al-Mustali Billah – as the legitimate imam, and they became the Nizari Ismaili. With the newfound freedom from the Fatimid Caliphate, the revolutionary Sabbah was committed to establishing a new political state for his community. This political state is the Alamut state, named after the Alamut castle that was located in Qazvin, Iran.

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Remains of Alamut Castle. CREDIT: Wikimedia.

The Alamut state existed during the period known as Qiyama, as the rulers were well conversant with Ismaili theology and jurisprudence. The primary source used to explore the Alamut state in this post is the Sar Guzasht-i Sayyidna. The Sar Guzasht-i Sayyidna is the autobiography of Hassan-i Sabbah, and its translation into English renders it as Incidents in the Lifetime of our Leader.

Hassan-i Sabbah

In this autobiography, Hassan-i Sabbah documents his conversion to Ismailism at the age of 35 years, and his quest to learn Ismaili doctrines which took him to Egypt where he met the royalties of the Fatimid dynasty. In Egypt, he was acquainted with the act of leadership according to the theology of Ismailism as passed down to the Fatimid royalties by Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah.

Ismailism is one of the three main branches of Shia Islam, with the other two being Zaydi Shia and the Ithna’ashari Shi’i (also called the Twelver Shiites). Presently, Ismailis are the second largest Shia community after the Ithna’ashari Shi’i.

Ismailism values the intellect. For this reason, it valued and promoted education and the study of philosophy – particularly the philosophy of Plato and the Neo-Platonist school of thought that was established by the Egyptian duo of the autodidact Ammonius Saccas and his student, Plotinus.

Hassan-i Sabbah learned Ismailia theology, along with logic and philosophy in Egypt. During the leadership wrangles that occasioned the transition of power following the death of the then Fatimid Caliph, Imam al-Mustansir Billah, Hassan-i Sabbah fled Egypt after the person he supported to the throne, al-Nizar bin al- Mustansir, was defeated along with his Alexandrian army, by the rival claimant to the throne, Abdul Qasim Ahmad al-Mustālī billāh. Hassan-I Sabbah acknowledged that the rightful imam of all the Ismailis is Nizar, hence the designation of his strand of Ismailism as Nizari Ismailism. This conflict marked the split of the Ismaili community into the two afore-described branches.

Subsequent to the internal dissension among the Ismailia community in Egypt, Hassan-i Sabbah fled and went to Persia which was then ruled by Abdul Malik bin Attash. Malik bin Attash permitted Hassan-i Sabbah to conduct proselytization missions across the lands of Iran (the alternative name of Persia). In 1088AD, Hassan-i Sabbah settled in the Alamut mountains where he resided in a castle, which also served as the base of his political and religious operations.

He conducted successful proselytization among the inhabitants of the valley of Alamut. This allowed him to gain a significant following among the local people. In 1090AD, he took full control of the Alamut Mountains and its fortress and castles. This event marked the beginning of a self-governing state now known as the Nizari Ismaili state.

Modern scholars have used this autobiography of Hassan-i Sabbah as the foundation of their exploration and analysis of the Alamut state.

Theological Foundations

The Alamut state was ruled according to the theological principles of the Nizari strand of Ismailism. The ruler acknowledged the Quran as the supreme foundation of religion and the law of the land, with the leadership requiring all the inhabitants of the state to practice monotheism as outlined in the Quran. Likewise, Quranic hermeneutics and elements of Greek rationalism were used to guide the study and practice of jurisprudence and education. Hassan-i Sabbah as a learned scholar of Ismailia theology also mandated his disciples to teach the inhabitants of the state the seven pillars of the Nizari branch of Ismailia. The Alamut State benefited immensely by implanting the seven pillars of Ismailia faith into the operations of the government as this enabled the regime to acquire legitimacy as well as co-exist symbiotically with the civilians. So, what are these seven pillars?

The Seven Pillars of Nizari Ismailism

The first pillar is guardianship (or walayah) which requires both the rulers and the ruled to dedicate their lives to Allah, while the subjects were also required to show devotion and absolute loyalty to the leader. Walayah enabled Hassan-i Sabbah to centralize his powers as well as strengthen the institution of the clergy. Sar Guzasht-i Sayyidna contained numerous references where Hassan-i Sabbah expounded greatly on the need for guardianship as a cohesive force that would unite the adherents of the faith under a single ruler.

The second pillar is purity (or taharah). This Nizari state constructed public baths and drainage systems, and this helped improve sanitation as well as foster hygiene in the towns and cities. This reveals that Hassan-i Sabbah was a pragmatic ruler who used his religious knowledge to improve the physical well-being of the members of the society. By using the concept of Taharah as the basis for public sanitation, Hassan-i Sabbah was able to merge a theological concept into the daily activities of the state. This also had a political value as it served to entreat the population to accept the legitimacy of his rule as well as acknowledge the supremacy of religion over state affairs. Basically, it made Nizari theocracy a legitimate political institution built upon the organizing principle of Ismailism.

The third pillar is prayer (or salaat). The leadership of Hassan-i Sabbah ensured that all members of the Nizari Ismailia did conduct their prayers according to the maddhab (traditions) of Jafaari. The Jafaari traditions were established by Jafar al-Sadiq who is considered the sixth Imam by both the Twelver Shia and the Ismailis. These traditions ensured uniformity in prayer rituals and thus served to better unite the people as well as strengthen the authority of the clergy. In his autobiography, Hassan-i Sabbah argued that the best form of government was a theocracy that enjoyed popular support. Therefore, during his rule, he strengthened his theocratic regime by merging the pillars of Ismailism with state functions and rule. Consequently, by strengthening the clergy, Sabbah also strengthened his regime besides ensuring its longevity.

The fourth pillar is charity (or zakaah) which the leadership encourages people to give. The leadership also encourages members to volunteer their time to engage in acts of charity. Zakaah enabled the Nizari state to foster unity among its inhabitants as well as encourage a harmonious interaction between the state and its subjects. Ismailism promotes tolerance, and the Alamut State used zakaah to show non-Ismailis that the government does cater to all its subjects regardless of their religion and belief system. This was quite appreciated by the Yazidi sect who remained totally docile under the leadership of the Alamut State. Moreover, the regime used the principle of zakkah to legitimize its provision of healthcare to civilians at a subsidized cost – an example of what we call today socialized medicine.

The fifth pillar was fasting (or sawm). During the period of sawm, government functionaries were encouraged to engage in the fast with local inhabitants so as to strengthen the bond between the state and its subjects and thus lengthen the lifespan of the state.

The sixth pillar was the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) and the Alamut government used the opportunity provided by the hajj to send its disciples on proselytization missions across the Arabian Peninsula.

The seventh pillar was the holy war (or jihad). The Ismailia understanding of Jihad diverges significantly from the Sunni understanding of this concept. Jihad according to Ismailia theology prohibited armed provocation and only permitted jihad as an armed struggle for self-defense. This allowed the Nizari state to wage a jihad against the loathed Sunni Seljuks who were universally disliked across Khorosan and the Levant.

Defense and Preservation

The Alamut state was surrounded by a number of hostile Sunni states and confederacies. Their foremost foes were the Sunni Turks who aspired to expand across the Iranian plains and plateaus and thus establish a Turkish-ruled Sunni caliphate to replace the Abbasid Caliphate.

In the book Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, Peter Willey documents how Hassan-i Sabbah planned to protect his nascent state from foes and enemies alike. According to Willey, the Alamut state established a network of fortresses across its territory. It is estimated that the state had about 200 fortresses that protected its perimeter from armed incursions by the Seljuk Turks and the Arab marauders from the Levant. Willey documents that the castles used the existing geographical features to their advantage, with most of the castles positioned on top of svelte rock pillars whose bases featured a riverine environment. Thus, the castles afforded the defenders the advantage of height that enabled them to repulse armed raiders and conventional armies without suffering disabling losses.

Assassination

One of the most defining features of the Alamut State was the use of assassination as a military tactic. Hasan-i Sabbah conceptualized that killing the leader of the enemy armies would ultimately force the enemy commanders to capitulate and sue for peace because of fear of losing their lives and fortunes. The Alamut State used assassination as a self-preservation policy that coerced the rulers of rival states, kingdoms, and fiefdoms to accept the existence of the Alamut State as a fait accompli.

Assassinations were conducted by trained assassins knowns as fidai. This word served as the inspiration for the term fedayeen which was adopted by Armenian militants to refer to combat fighters who fought against the Ottoman death squads during the execution of the Armenian genocide (1915-1918).

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Painting depicting the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk by a Fidai who had infiltrated his regal service. CREDIT: Wikimedia.

Another advantage of assassination is that it can sow succession disputes that can potentially weaken the rivals. The assassination of Nizam al-Mulk – the vizier of the Seljuk Turks – in 1092AD is the first covert event in which the Alamut state killed a rival nobility so as to sow dissensions among the ranks of the nobility of rival states. This assassination was legalized and promoted by the theological leadership of the Nizari Ismailia community as a legitimate form of warfare. The viability of the policy of assassination as conducted by the Alamut state is confirmed by the fact that these assassinations enabled the state to undermine the cohesion of rival militaries, and thus protected the state from military expeditions by unstable rival governments. I do believe that the Israelis were inspired by the Nizari assassination policy when they developed their policy to assassinate key enemies of the state of Israel.

Conclusion

The Alamut state was a theocratic state founded by a follower of al-Nizar bin al- Mustansir, Hasan-i Sabbah in 1090AD. The creation of this state occurred during the sunset years of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt which was plagued with internal dissensions and civil strife. The founder of the Alamut State initially used proselytization to gain followers, and thus when the state was established, its foundation was deeply rooted in Nizari Ismailism. The State was ruled according to the theological principles of Nizari Ismailism with its seven pillars forming the core of the state’s relationship with its subjects. Additionally, the state needed to defend itself, and it adopted assassination as a form of warfare.

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