Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

A7. Murder of the Khalif

Keah Mohammed—Castles gained in Syria—Ismailite Confession of Faith—Mohammed's Son Hassan gives himself out for the promised Imam—His Followers punished—Succession of Hassan—He abolishes the Law—Pretends to be descended from the Prophet—Is murdered.

The policy of the society underwent no alteration on the accession of Mohammed. The dagger still smote its enemies, and as each victim fell, the people who maintained the rights of Ismail, and who were kept in rigid obedience to the positive precepts of the Koran, beheld nothing but the right hand of Heaven made bare for the punishment of crime and usurpation. The new mountain prince had hardly taken the reins of government into his hands when Rasheed, the successor of the late khalif, eager to avenge the murder of his father, assembled an army and marched against Alamoot. He had reached Isfahan, but there his march terminated. Four Assassins, who had entered his service for the purpose, fell upon him in his tent and stabbed him. When the news was conveyed to Alamoot great rejoicings were made, and for seven days and seven nights the trumpets and kettle-drums resounded from the towers of the fortress, proclaiming the triumph of the dagger to the surrounding country.

The Syrian dominion of the Ismailites was at this time considerably extended. They purchased from Ibn Amroo, their owner, the castles of Cadmos and Kahaf, and took by force that of Massyat from the lords of Sheiser. This castle, which was situated on the west side of Mount Legam, opposite Antaradus, became henceforth the chief seat of Ismailite power in Syria. The society had now a line of coast to the north of Tripolis, and their possessions extended inland to the verge of the Hauran.

The reign of Mohammed presents few events to illustrate the history of the Assassins. It was probably in his time that the following confession of the Ismailite faith was made to the persons whom Sultan Sanjar sent to Alamoot to inquire into it:

"This is our doctrine," said the heads of the society. "We believe in the unity of God, and acknowledge as the true wisdom and right creed only that which accords with the word of God and the commands of the Prophet. We hold these as they are delivered in the holy writ, the Koran, and believe in all that the Prophet has taught of the creation, and the last things, of rewards and punishments, of the last judgment, and the resurrection. To believe this is necessary, and no one is authorized to judge of the commands of God for himself, or to alter a single letter in them. These are the fundamental doctrines of our sect, and if the sultan does not approve of them, let him send hither one of his learned divines, that we may argue the matter with him."

To this creed no orthodox Mussulman could well make any objection. The only question was, what was the Ismailite system of interpretation, and what other doctrines did they deduce from the sacred text; and the active employment of the dagger of the Fedavee suggested in tolerably plain terms that there were others, and that something not very compatible with the peace and order of society lay behind the veil. Indeed the circumstance of the Ismailite chiefs professing themselves to be only the ministers and representatives of the invisible imam was in itself highly suspicious; for what was to prevent their enjoining any atrocity which might be for their interest, in the name of their viewless master? They are ignorant indeed of human nature who suppose that a prompt obedience would not be yielded to all such commands by the ignorant and bigoted members of the sect.

The ill leaven of the secret doctrine displayed itself before very long. Keah Mohammed, who appears to have been a weak, inefficient man, was held in little esteem by his followers. They began to attach themselves to his son Hassan, who had the reputation of being a man of prodigious knowledge, learned in tradition and the text of the Koran, versed in exposition, and well acquainted with the sciences. Hassan, either through vanity or policy, began secretly to disseminate the notion of his being himself the imam whose appearance had been promised by Hassan Ben Sabah. Filled with this idea, the more instructed members of the society vied with each other in eagerness to fulfil his commands, and Keah Mohammed, seeing his power gradually slipping from him, was at length roused to energy. Assembling the people, he reprobated in strong terms the prevailing heresy. "Hassan," said he, "is my son, and I am not the imam, but only one of his missionaries. Whoever maintains the contrary is an infidel." Then, in true Assassin fashion, he gave effect to his words by executing 250 of his son's adherents, and banishing an equal number from the fortress. Hassan himself, in order to save his life, was obliged publicly to curse those who held the new opinions, and to write dissertations condemning their tenets, and defending those of his father. By these means he succeeded in removing suspicion from the mind of the old chief; but, as he continued to drink wine in private, and violated several of the other positive precepts of the law, his adherents became only the more convinced of his being the imam, at whose coming all the precepts of the law were to cease to be of any force.

Hassan was obliged to be cautious and conceal his opinions during the lifetime of his father; for, whatever their opinion might be of the capacity and intellectual power of the head of their sect, the Assassins believed themselves to be bound to obey his orders, as proceeding from the visible representative of the sacred invisible imam; and, high as their veneration for Hassan was, his blood would have flowed on the ground the instant an order to that effect had passed the lips of his father. But no sooner was Keah Mohammed dead, after a reign of twenty-four years, and the supreme station was come to Hassan himself, than he resolved to fling away the mask at once, and not only to trample on the law himself, but to authorize and encourage all his people to do the same.

Accordingly, when the month Ramazan (the Mohammedan Lent) of the 559th year of the Hejra (A.D. 1163) was come, he ordered all the inhabitants of Roodbar to assemble on the place of prayer (Mosella), or esplanade, before the castle of Alamoot. Facing the direction of the Keblah he caused a pulpit to be erected, at whose four corners were displayed banners of the different hues familiar to Islam, namely, a white, a red, a yellow, a green, colours adverse to the black of the Abbassides.

On the 17th day of the month the people, in obedience to his commands, appeared in great numbers beneath the walls of the fortress. After a little time Hassan came forth and ascended the pulpit. All voices were hushed; expectation waited on the words of the Sheikh-al-Jebal. He commenced his discourse by perplexing the minds of his auditors by enigmatical and obscure sentences. When he had thus deluded them for some time, he informed them that an envoy of the imam (that is, the phantom of a khalif who was still sitting on the throne at Cairo) had arrived, and had brought him a letter addressed to all Ismailites, whereby the fundamental tenets of the sect were renewed and confirmed. He proceeded to assure them that, by this letter, the gates of mercy and compassion had been opened for all who would follow and obey him; that they were the true elect; that they were freed from all obligations of the law, and delivered from the burden of all commands and prohibitions; that he had now conducted them to the day of the resurrection, that is, of the revelation of the imam. He then commenced in Arabic the Khootbeh, or public prayer, which he said he had received from the imam; and an interpreter, who stood at the foot of the pulpit, translated it for them to the following effect:—

"Hassan, the son of Mohammed, the son of Buzoorg Oomeid, is our khalif (successor), dai, and hoojet (proof). All who follow our doctrine must hearken to him in affairs of faith and of the world, and regard his commands as imperative, his words as impressive. They must not transgress his prohibitions, and they must regard his commands as ours. They should know that our lord has had compassion upon them, and has conducted them to the most high God."

When this proclamation was made known Hassan came down from the pulpit, directed tables to be spread, and commanded the people to break the fast, and to give themselves up, as on festival days, to all kinds of enjoyment, with music, and various games and sports. "For this," cried he, "this is the day of the resurrection;" that is, according to the Ismailite mode of interpreting the Koran, the day of the manifestation of the imam.

What the orthodox had before only suspected was now confirmed. It was now manifest, beyond doubt, that the Ismailites were heretics who trampled under foot all the most plain and positive precepts of Islam; for, though they might pretend to justify their practice by their allegorical system of interpretation, it was clearly repugnant to common sense, and might be made the instrument of sanctioning, under the name of religion, every species of enormity. From this time the term Moolahid (impious) began to become the common and familiar appellation of the Ismailites in the mouths of the orthodox Moslems. As to the Ismailites themselves, they rejoiced in what they had done; they exalted like emancipated bondsmen in the liberty which they had acquired; and they even commenced a new era from the 17th (or, according to some authorities, the 7th) Ramazan of the 559th year, namely, the day of the manifestation of the imam. To the name of Hassan they henceforth affixed the formula "On his memory be peace;" which formula, it would appear, was employed by itself to designate him; for the historian Mirkhond assures us that he had been informed by a credible person that over the door of the library in Alamoot was the following inscription:—

"With the aid of God, the bonds

Of the law he took away,

The commander of the world,

Upon whose name be peace."

The madness of Hassan now attained its climax. He disdained to be regarded, like his predecessors, as merely the representative of the imam on earth, but asserted himself to be the true and real imam, who was now at length made manifest to the world. He sent letters to all the settlements of the society, requiring them to acknowledge him in his new capacity. He was prudent enough, however, to show a regard for the dignity and power of his different lieutenants in these letters, as appears by the following specimen, being the letter which was sent to Kuhistan, where the reis Mozaffar commanded:—

"I Hassan say unto you that I am the representative of God upon earth, and mine in Kuhistan is the reis Mozaffar, whom the men of that country are to obey, and to receive his word as mine."

The reis erected a pulpit in the castle of Moominabad, the place of his residence, and read the letter aloud to the people, the greater part of whom listened to its contents with joy. The tables were covered before the pulpit, the wine was brought forth, the drums and kettle-drums resounded, the notes of the pipe and flute inspired joy, and the day of the abolition of the positive precepts of the law was devoted to mirth and festivity. Some few, who were sincere and upright in their obedience to Islam, quitted the region which they now regarded as the abode of infidelity, and went in search of other abodes; others, of a less decided character, remained, though shocked at what they were obliged every day to behold. The obedience to the commands of the soi-disant imam was, however, tolerably general, and, according to Hammer, who can scarcely, however, be supposed to regard the system of Hassan as really more licentious than he has elsewhere described that of Mahomet, "the banner of the freest infidelity, and of the most shameless immorality, now waved on all the castles of Roodbar and Kuhistan, as the standard of the new illumination; and, instead of the name of the Egyptian khalif, resounded from all the pulpits that of Hassan as the true successor of the Prophet."

The latter point had presented some difficulty to Hassan; for, in order to satisfy the people on that head, it was necessary to prove a descent from the Prophet, and this was an honour to which it was well known the family from which he was sprung had never laid claim. He might take upon him to abolish the positive precepts of the law as he pleased, and the people, whose inclinations were thereby gratified, would not perhaps scan very narrowly the authority by which he acted; but the attempt to deprive the Fatimite khalif of the honour which he had so long enjoyed, and to assume the rank of God's viceregent on earth in his room, was likely to give too great a shock to their prejudices, if not cautiously managed.

It was necessary, therefore, that he should prove himself to be of the blood of the Fatimites. He accordingly began to drop some dark hints respecting the truth of the received opinion of his being the son of Keah Mohammed. Our readers will recollect that, when Hassan Sabah was in Egypt, a dispute had taken place respecting the succession to the throne, in which Hassan had nearly lost his life for opposing the powerful commander-in-chief (Emir-al-Jooyoosh), and Nezar, the prince for whom the khalif Mostanser had designed the succession, had been deprived of his right by the influence of that officer. The confidents of Hassan now began to give out that, in about a year after the death of the khalif Mostanser, a certain person named Aboo-'l-Zeide, who had been high in his confidence, had come to Alamoot, bearing with him a son of Nezar, whom he committed to the care of Hassan Sabah, who, grateful to the memory of the khalif and his son, had received the fugitive with great honour, and assigned a village at the foot of Alamoot for the residence of the young imam. When the youth was grown up he married and had a son, whom he named On his Memory be Peace. Just at the time when the imam's wife was confined in the village, the consort of Keah Mohammed lay in at the castle; and, in order that the descendant of Fatima might come to the temporal power which was his right, a confidential woman undertook and succeeded in the task of secretly changing the children. Others went still further, and did not hesitate to assert that the young imam had intrigued with the wife of Keah Mohammed, and that Hassan was the fruit of their adulterous intercourse. Like a true pupil of ambition, Hassan was willing to defame the memory of his mother, and acknowledge himself to be a bastard, provided he could succeed in persuading the people to believe him a descendant of the Prophet.

These pretensions of Hassan to a Fatimite pedigree gave rise to a further increase of the endless sects into which the votaries of Islam were divided. Those who acknowledged it got the name of Nezori, and by them Hassan was called the Lord of the Resurrection (Kaim-al-Kiamet), and they styled themselves the Sect of the Resurrection.

The reign of the vain, inconsiderate Hassan was but short. He had governed the society only four years when he was assassinated by his brother-in-law, Namver, a descendant, we are told, of the family of Buyah, which had governed the khalifs and their dominions before the power passed into the hands of the Turkish house of Seljook.