Hasan Bin Sabbah

“He was born on 428/1034 at Qumm. His father, Ali bin Muhammad bin Jafar bin al-Hussain bin Muhammad bin al-Sabbah al-Himyari was of Yamenite origin. From early age he acquired the rudiments of formal education from his father at home. When he was still a child, his father moved to Ray and it was there that Hasan bin Sabbah pursued his religious education.

Hasan bin Sabbah was an intelligent and proficient in geometry and astronomy. He learnt the Ismaili doctrines from a Fatimid da’i, Amir Dharrab. Convinced that Ismailism represented ultimate reality, he embraced Ismailism at the age of 35 years in 464/1071 and afterwards, he came into contact with a Fatimid da’i Abdul Malik bin Attash in Ispahan.

Hasan bin Sabbah writes in Sar Guzasht-i Sayyidna that, “In the year 464/1071 Abdul Malik bin Attash, who at that time was the da’i in Iraq, came to Ray. I met with his approval, and he made me a deputy da’i and indicated that I should go to His Majesty in Egypt, who at that time was al-Mustansir. In the year 469/1077, I went to Ispahan on my way to Egypt. I finally arrived in Egypt in the year 471/1078.” Hasan moved from Ray to Ispahan in 467/1074. Later, when al-Muayyad was the chief da’i at Cairo in 469/1077, he set out from Ispahan for Egypt. He travelled at first to northern Azerbaijan, thence to Mayyafariqin, where he held religious deliberations with the Sunni theologians and denied the right of Sunni muftis to interpret religion, that being the prerogative of the Imam. As a result, he was expelled, therefore, he proceeded to Mosul, Rahba and Damascus. He sailed through Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Acre, Caesarea and finally reached Cairo in 471/1078. Imam al-Mustansir gave him audience and honoured him. Hasan asked him as to who would be the Imam after him. Imam replied that it would be his son Nizar. He is reported to have stayed 18 months in Cairo, enjoying the patronage and favour of his master. He also learnt latest tactics of the dawa in Dar al-Hikmah. Hasan, thus profited much by his journey to Egypt. It is possible that he had a meeting also with Imam al-Nizar in Cairo. Badr al-Jamali, the Fatimid vizir however was the foremost to breed suspicion, when he knew that Hasan was the supporter of Imam al-Nizar bin al-Mustansir, therefore he got Hasan imprisoned in the fortress of Dumyat. The strong walls of the fortress collapsed one day, enabling him to escape. He boarded a vessel at Alexandria with a group of Franks for western waters, but the stormy winds tossed his vessel on the shores of Syria and he alighted at the port of Acre. He reached Ispahan in 473/1081. He spent three months in Khuzistan before proceeding to Damghan, where he stayed about three years.

There was plenty of mission activity, pervasive throughout its length and breath in Iran under the control of Abdul Malik bin Attash. In about 480/1088, Hasan bin Sabbah seems to have chosen the remote castle of Alamut in Daylam as the base of his mission. He then reached Qazwin and inspected the fort of Alamut in Rudhbar. He remained in worship within the fortress, and also converted the local people. He took possession of the fortress of Alamut in 483/1090 and established an independent Nizari Ismaili state. His immediate concerns, however, were to refortify Alamut, provide for it food and water supply, construct cisterns and store-rooms for provisions, irrigate the field in the valley, acquire adjacent castles, erect forts at strategic points, institute economic and social reforms, unite the Ismailis by bonds of fraternity, and make every Ismaili feel himself a responsible member of the community and inseparable from it.

When the news of Alamut fallen to Hasan bin Sabbah reached to the court of the Seljuq sultan Malikshah (d. 485/1092) and his vizir Nizam al-Mulk (408-485/1018-1092), they became highly perturbed, and began to hatch animosity. Malikshah sent his deputation to Alamut, insisting Hasan bin Sabbah to confess the supremacy of the Seljuqids. Hasan bin Sabbah received the deputation with consideration and when they glorified the power and pomp of Malikshah and asked him to accept their supremacy, he told to them, “We cannot obey the orders of others except our Imam. The material glory of the kings cannot impress us.” The deputation left Alamut of no avail, and at that time, Hasan bin Sabbah told to them last words, “Tell to your king to let us live at our cell in peace. We will be compelled to take arms if we are teased. The army of Malikshah has no spirit to fight with our warriors, who do not give importance to this little span of life.” Thus, Malikshah and his vizir did not dare to attack on Alamut for two years.

Soon, Alamut came to be raided by the Seljuq forces under the command of the nearest military officer, and the governor of Rudhbar district, called Turun Tash. Von Hammer (1774-1856) writes in History of the Assassins (London, 1935, p. 78) that, “No sooner had Hasan Sabbah obtained possession of the castle of Alamut, and before he had provided it with magazines, than an amir (Turun Tash) on whom the sultan had conferred the fief of the district of Rudhbar, cut off all access and supplies.” Since the stronghold could not be reduced by storm, the amir Turun Tash besieged it, devastated the fields and butchered the Ismaili converts. Within Alamut, the supplies and provisions were inadequate; its occupants were reduced to great distress, suggesting to abandon the fortress. There were some who looked upon it as a great hardship, thinking that they were being thrust into the very jaws of death. Hasan, however, persuaded the garrisons to continue resisting, declaring to have received an express and special message of Imam al-Mustansir from Cairo, who promised and portended them good fortune, and this is the cause that Alamut is also called Baldat al-Iqbal (the city of good fortune). Surrounded by a thick mist of disappointing circumstances, Hasan’s eyes could yet perceive a ray of hope. Turun Tash directed many serious raids but shortly died. The starving garrisons, however, held out and the siege was broken. This was the first inimical operation against the Ismailis.

Malikshah, on getting the news of the rout of Turun Tash’s armies completely lost his balance. In 484/1091, he visited Baghdad, which was his second visit after 479/1087, where he discussed with the Abbasids the measures of extermination of the Ismailis. He was bent upon striking the Ismailis at their very existence. His vizir Nizam al-Mulk, an ardent and ruthless enemy of the Ismailis, infused him to dispatch two big armies, one to Rudhbar, and the other to Kohistan. Thus, Malikshah made a determined effort to root out the Ismailis and launched an expedition early in 485/1092.

In the meantime, Nizam al-Mulk began to incite the people and employed the pens of theologians against Hasan bin Sabbah and his followers. He compiled Siyasat-nama, showing the strong anti-Shi’ite tendencies. Besides being what its title says, is also a valuable, though biased source for studying the history and doctrines of the Ismailis. Indeed the Shi’ite resentment was the principal cause of Nizam al-Mulk’s murder in 485/1092. “It is said” writes Ibn Khallikan in his Wafayat al-A’yan (1:415), “that the assassin was suborned against him by Malikshah, who was fatigued to see him live so long, and coveted the numerous fiefs which he held in his possession.” Ibn Khallikan also writes that, “The assassination of Nizam al-Mulk has been attributed also to Taj al-Mulk Abul Ghanaim al-Marzuban bin Khusaro Firuz, surnamed Ibn Darest; he was an enemy of the vizir and in high favour with his sovereign Malikshah, who, on the death of Nizam al-Mulk, appointed him to fill the place of vizir.”

The Rudhbar expedition, led by Arslan Tash, reached Alamut in Jumada I, 485 and had a siege for four months. At the time, Hasan bin Sabbah had with him only 70 men with little provisions, and was on the verge of being defeated; when a seasonable succour of 300 men from Qazwin enabled him to make a successful sally. It was da’i Didar Abu Ali Ardistani, who brought 300 men in Qazwin, who threw themselves into Alamut, bringing adequate supplies. The reinforced garrison routed the besiegers in a nocturnal assault on their camps at the end of Shaban, 485/October, 1092, forcing them to withdraw from Alamut. It must be known that the Seljuqs forces were well equipped with skilled veterans, while Alamut had recruited those young fidais who were not yet experts in warfare. Neither in respect of number, nor in that of strength and skill, were the Ismailis a match for their enemy. It indeed kindled the flame of enthusiasm that glowed hidden in the hearts of Hasan’s followers. The spirit of deep-rooted faith and the directions of Hasan bin Sabbah, provided them a resistible fillip before such large hosts. Thus, the designs of their enemy were frustrated. This operation against Alamut dealt on the one hand a smashing blow to the Seljuqs, while on the other, it strengthened the root of Ismailism at Alamut. It is also said that Arslan Tash continued the siege for four months and did not see any Ismaili resident of the fortress at all except one day when his army sighted on the top of the fortress a man clad in white clothes, who watched the army for a while and disappeared.

On other hand, the Kohistan expedition under Qizil Sariq had concentrated to capture the Ismaili castle of Dara. Malikshah died shortly afterwards at the end of 485/1092, about 35 days after the murder of Nizam al-Mulk; resulting the pending Seljuq plans for further expeditions abandoned. At the same time, the expedition of Kohistan, which had absolutely foiled to capture Dara, withdrew in the field.

Upon Malikshah’s death, the Seljuq empire was thrown into civil war and internal wrangles, which lasted for more than a decade, marked by disunity among Malikshah’s sons. The most prominent one was the eldest son Barkiyaruq, while Malikshah’s four years old son Mahmud had immediately been proclaimed as sultan. Barkiyaruq was taken to Ray where he was also placed on the throne. Mahmud died in 487/1095, and the Abbasids recognized the rule of Barkiyaruq, whose seat of power was in Western Iran and Iraq. He fought a series of indecisive battles with his half-brother Muhammad Tapar, who acquired much help from his brother Sanjar, the ruler of Khorasan and Turkistan since 490/1097. The intestine Seljuq quarrels gave the Ismailis a respite to make Alamut as impregnable as possible. Hasan bin Sabbah strengthened the fortifications and built up a great store of provisions. He held a number of fortresses in Daylam besides Alamut and controlled a group of towns and castles in Kohistan extending north and south over 200 miles. The Ismailis occupied the fortresses of Mansurakuh and Mihrin to the north of Damghan, and Ustavand in the district of Damawand. They also took possession of one of the most important strongholds, Girdkuh in Qumis. Girdkuh, the old Diz Gunbadan (the domed fort) and its district was very fertile, known as Mansurabad. In 489/1096, the fortress of Lamasar was conquered under the command of Kiya Buzrug Ummid.

It appears that the sons of Malikshah, with the exception of Muhammad did not like to continue fighting with the Ismailis, but were compelled to do that in order to avoid the accusation of being conciliatory to the Ismailis. When Barkiyaruq bin Malikshah ascended in 487/1095, he did not show any enthusiasm for fighting with the Ismailis. On one occasion in 493/1100, when Barkiyaruq was fighting with his brother, he is said to have recruited 5000 Ismaili warriors into his army. The mob and the theologians accused Barkiyaruq of favouring the Ismailis, therefore he purged them from his forces and at the end of his reign, he evoked harrowing persecution. In 494/1101, Barkiyaruq in Western Iran and Sanjar in Khorasan came to an agreement to regard the Ismailis as a threat to Seljuq power, and to act against them. He died in 498/1105 and Muhammad Tapar became the undisputed sultan, and Sanjar remained at Balkh as his viceroy in the east. With the advent of Muhammad, the dynastic disputes ended and the Seljuqs made greater headway against the Ismailis. He turned fiercely towards the Ismailis in 500/1107 to capture the fort of Shahdiz, lying on a mountain about 8 km. to the south of Ispahan, the capital of the Seljuq empire. In 494/1101, da’i Ahmad bin Abdul Malik bin Attash had occupied the fort of Shahdiz and converted 30,000 persons in Ispahan, and made Shahdiz as the Ismaili mission centre for Fars as Alamut was the centre in Khorasan. When the fort of Shahdiz was stormed, the Ismailis were massacred mercilessly. He held out with about 80 men in what remained standing of the largely demolished fortress Shahdiz, who fought bravely and were killed. His wife, decked in jewels leaped over the wall to death, but did not submit. Dai Ahmad bin Abdul Malik was taken prisoner and paraded through the streets of Ispahan. He was mocked, pelted with stones and flayed alive. His son was also scourged to death. Another Ismaili fort, named Khanlanjan, about 30 k.m. south of Ispahan was also razed by the Seljuqs.

In 501/1108, Sultan Muhammad sent a military expedition to Alamut under the direction of his vizir, Ahmad bin Nizam al-Mulk. The fortress of Alamut was stormed, but the attack fissiled out and could not attain its end. But sultan Muhammad continued to be inimical to Ismailis. According to Bernard Lewis in The Assassins (London, 1967, p. 56), “The capture of Alamut by direct assault was clearly impossible. The sultan therefore tried another method – a war of attrition which, it was hoped, would weaken the Ismailis to the point where they could no longer resist attack.” In 503/1109, the reduction of Alamut, therefore, was charged to Anushtagin Shirgir, the then governor of Sawa. He destroyed the crops in Rudhbar and besieged the fort of Lamasar and other castles for eight consecutive years. He also laid a siege over Alamut, inflicted a severe hardship on the Ismailis, forcing Hasan bin Sabbah and many others to send their wives and daughters to Girdkuh, where they were to earn their keep by spinning. He never saw them again, nor did he thereafter permit women to enter the castle. Hasan bin Sabbah had to ration the food among his men to a bread and three fresh walnuts for each person.

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